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Where were Burke and Wills buried?


Hi Dave,
My class is doing an assignment on Burke and Wills and I watched a documentary that was shown on TV a couple of days ago for more information and am now quite confused: did they end up finding Burke and Wills' bodies as said on the TV show, or is the computer information correct in saying that their bodies were never found?

Jazmin Cullen

Dear Jazmin,

Burke and Wills' bodies were found by Alfred Howitt and buried at Cooper Creek in 1861. Howitt went back to the Cooper in 1862 and exhumed their remains and brought them to Melbourne for burial in Melbourne General Cemetery in 1863. So we know where Burke and Wills' remains are - they are in Melbourne - but altogether there were seven Europeans and possibly one Aborigine who died on the expedition. William Patten's grave has never been found and there is uncertainty over the location of the grave of Charley Gray.

Burke and Wills' grave in Melbourne General Cemetery.
Image © Dave Phoenix 2010.

The Burial of Burke and Wills
By the middle of 1861 people in Melbourne were becoming concerned at the lack of news from Burke. He had last been heard of at the end of October 1860 when he left Torowoto Swamp for Cooper Creek. The Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria placed Alfred Howitt in charge of the Victorian Contingent Expedition and they left Melbourne at the end of June 1861 to head to Cooper Creek to find out what had happened to Burke. Howitt took the train out of Melbourne and then the Cobb & Co coach to Swan Hill. Along the way he met William Brahe who was hurrying to Melbourne with the news that Burke had left him in charge of the Dig Tree depot camp on Cooper Creek and had headed north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria. Brahe had waited at the Cooper for four months and one week, and then, as Burke had not returned, he had come down to Melbourne to report Burke missing. Howitt, Brahe and eight other men hurried to the Cooper and on 15 September 1861 they found John King, barely alive and living with the Yandruwandha Aborigines.

King told Howitt that Burke and Wills were dead and on 18 September 1861 he led them to Wills' remains at Breerily Waterhole. Wills had been dismembered by dingoes and his skull was missing. Howitt buried Wills and blazed a tree nearby. King was too weak to show Howitt where Burke's body was, so he described the location at Yidnaminkie Waterhole, and Howitt went there on 21 September 1861. Burke had also been dragged around by dingoes and his hands and feet were missing. However the loaded and capped Colt's revolver was still by the body. Howitt buried Burke under a coolabah tree.

Howitt then sent Brahe on ahead to Melbourne with the news of Burke and Wills' deaths. He sent the surveyor, Edwin Welch, on more slowly with King, who was very frail. Howitt returned to Melbourne in December 1861, where he found the Exploration Committee had decided that he should return to the Cooper, exhume Burke and Wills' remains and bring them down to Melbourne for burial.

Howitt returned to the Cooper in 1862 as leader of the Victorian Exploring Party which consisted of eleven men. On 13 April 1862, Howitt exhumed Wills' remains and in September 1862 he exhumed Burke. Howitt took the bodies first to Adelaide, and then by ship to Melbourne, arriving on 29 December 1862. Burke and Wills' remains were laid in state at the Royal Society of Victoria for two weeks and then on 21 January 1863 they were buried at Melbourne general Cemetery in Australia's first state funeral. It is estimated that 100,000 people watched the funeral procession pass through Melbourne.

Dingoes devouring Wills' remains by William Strutt

Dingoes devouring Wills' remains by William Srutt
Undated, Victoria the Golden Parliamentary Library of Victoria.

The Burial of Burke by William Strutt

The Burial of Burke, by William Strutt.
1911, Pictures Collection, H 13087, State Library of Victoria.

Deaths on the Victorian Exploring Expedition, 1861.
The men that died on the expedition were:

* Charley Gray, died Wednesday 17th April 1861 at Polygonum Swamp.
* Charles Stone, died Monday 22nd April 1861 at Koorliatto Waterhole, Bulloo River.
* William Purcell, died Tuesday 23rd April 1861 at Koorliatto Waterhole, Bulloo River.
* Dr Ludwig Becker, died Monday 29th April 1861 at Koorliatto Waterhole, Bulloo River.
* William Patten, died Wednesday 5th June 1861 at Desolation Camp, Rat Point.
* William John Wills, died end of June or early July 1861 at Breerily Waterhole, Cooper Creek.
* Robert O'Hara Burke, died end of June or early July 1861 at Yidnaminkie Waterhole, Cooper Creek.
* ‘Mr Shirt’, a Bandjigali or Karenggapa Murri, shot by William Wright, Saturday 27th April 1861, at Koorliatto Waterhole, Bulloo River.

Other links on 'DIG: The Burke and Wills Research Gateway'.
Burke’s grave at Cooper Creek:
Burial of Burke by William Strutt:
The Burial of Burke - One of the preparatory sketches for his oil painting on the subject:
Burke's death - Concept sketch for a possible oil painting:
Wills revolver that Burke had in his hand when he died:
Piece of the tree under which Burke died:
Wills’ grave at Cooper Creek:
Dingoes devouring Wills' remains by William Strutt:
News of Burke and Wills’ deaths reaches Melbourne:
Burke's last notes:
Wills' last notes:
Funeral in Melbourne: