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John McKinlay (1819–1872)

from South Australian Register

John McKinlay, by Batchelder & O'Neill, n.d.

John McKinlay, by Batchelder & O'Neill, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H90.90/199

It is with much regret that we announce the death of Mr. John McKinlay, the South Australian explorer, which occurred at the house of his father-in-law, Mr. J. Pile, J.P., in Gawler East, on Tuesday afternoon, after one month's severe illness. The telegram conveying the unwelcome intelligence appears in another column.

Mr. McKinlay was one of the early settlers of the colony, having arrived about the year 1840. He was for many years largely interested in pastoral pursuits, and was, in fact, one of the pioneers of squatting in the North. He held the lease of a large run near the Burra before the mine there was discovered. But although thus from comparatively early times identified with the history of settlement in the North, it is only within the last 12 years that his name has come prominently before the country as one of the most successful of Australian explorers. It was in 1861 that his services were first called into requisition by the Government, and then under circumstances which showed the confidence reposed in his intrepidity and good judgment. It will be remembered that about the middle of that year the uneasiness occasioned in the public mind by the absence of the party under the leadership of those illustrious martyrs of exploration, Messrs. Burke and Wills, grew into alarm, and the several colonies emulated each other in their eagerness to send out relief Expeditions. In July authority was given by the South Australian Parliament for the equipment of a light search party, and its command was offered to and at once accepted by Mr. McKinlay, who was then in Melbourne. With characteristic promptitude he returned to Adelaide, and on the 16th of August he set out upon his toilsome and hazardous journey towards the interior, taking with him six men, four camels, 22 horses, and twelve months' provisions. His instructions admitted of his going as far as the Gulf of Carpentaria, and on his return to the settled districts within a little more than a twelvemonth of his departure he was able to announce that he actually crossed the continent from sea to sea. His discoveries, although somewhat eclipsed by the more brilliant successes of John McDouall Stuart, were far from unimportant, and he had the further satisfaction of being able to complete his trip without the loss of human life. In the course of his journey he passed large fresh water lagoons and a splendid tract of pastoral country, the existence of which had before been unknown. In October he met with traces of Burke and Wills, and came upon the remains of a body believed to be that of Mr. Charles Gray, a member of their ill-fated expedition. In the same month he came into collision with the natives, whom he succeeded in driving off without damage to any of his own men. Having satisfied himself that he had collected all the information obtainable with regard to the primary object of his mission, he proceeded to fulfil his further instructions, and made an inspection of the country about Lake Eyre and Central Mount Stuart for indications of gold. Of these, however, he failed to find any of consequence. All who have read the history of his travels in the interior are familiar with the many perils which he and his party had to encounter. At one time, as already mentioned, they were in danger from hostile blacks, at another from the sudden floods of the country occasioned by tropical rains, at another from scarcity of provisions; but the cool deliberation, prompt action, foresight, and excellent generalship of McKinlay enabled him to surmount all obstacles, and carry out most efficiently the duty entrusted to him. The Rev. J. E. T. Woods, in his work on Australian Exploration, ably summarizes the satisfactory results of this memorable trip, and the conditions and circumstances contributing thereto. Having remarked that the expedition was "as successful as any sent into the interior to search for Burke and Wills," he remarks — "The peculiar incidents met with threw an entirely new light upon the physical geography of some parts of the desert; and in acknowledging this one must add that for cool perseverance and kind consideration for his followers, for modesty, and yet for quiet daring, McKinlay was unequalled as an explorer." In recognition of his valuable services a bonus of £1,000 was granted him by the Parliament, he was entertained at dinner by the Speaker of the House of Assembly in company with a large number of members of the Legislature, and at a public banquet in White's Room, at which the Mayor of Adelaide (Mr. Thomas English) presided, colonists to the number of 300 were present. He also received a handsome silver tea and coffee service at the hands of a deputation consisting of Messrs. Geo. Hamilton, H. S. Price, J. F. Hayward, and J. T. Turnbull.

Mr. McKinlay 's conduct in the management of this his first expedition into the far interior marked him out as eminently suited for the leadership of other exploring parties; but it was not until 1865 that a second opportunity presented itself of turning to useful account his experience and skill. In September of that year he set out in the Ellen Lewis, commissioned to superintend the examination of the country in the neighbourhood of Adam Bay, the proposed site of the first Northern Territory settlement. Starting inland on the 14th January, he met with extraordinary difficulty, owing to the swampy nature of the country and the miserable condition of his stock. Early in June he found himself so completely hemmed in with the floods that it became necessary to kill and jerk such of his horses as remained, build a punt of saplings, and cover it with the hides of the slaughtered beasts and the canvas of the tents, and make for the coast along the course of the East Alligator River. Whilst the punt was being constructed the party sustained an attack from the natives, who were, however, repulsed without any serious result. The frail raft was launched on the 29th June, and on the 3rd day after the open sea was reached with immense difficulty. The passage was kept towards Adam Bay, and on the seventh day that place was safely reached. Subsequently Mr. McKinlay made a hasty survey of the country in the direction of Anson Bay, with the character of which he expressed himself highly pleased. Foiled, however, in the main object of his visit to the Territory, he embraced the earliest opportunity of returning to Adelaide, where his report of the unexpected obstacles he had met with was accepted, as an excuse for the limited success of his expedition. The experience thus gamed stood him in good stead in his next trip to the North undertaken by him about the middle of 1870 in the capacity of selecting-agent for land-order-holders. After the completion of this engagement he returned to Adelaide, and has since been living in Gawler.

A few years ago Mr. McKinlay married the daughter of Mr. J. Pile, J.P., sheep farmer, of Gawler East. He was a man possessed of stirling qualities, of ready resource, prompt and decided in action, of a genial disposition and affable manners, and of unimpeachable integrity. His loss will be deplored by a large circle of friends. No particulars have as yet reached us as to the nature of his illness, but we shall no doubt be able to supply that with other information in our next issue.

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Citation details

'McKinlay, John (1819–1872)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John McKinlay, by Batchelder & O'Neill, n.d.

John McKinlay, by Batchelder & O'Neill, n.d.

State Library of Victoria, H90.90/199

Life Summary [details]


26 August, 1819
Sandbank, Argyll, Scotland


31 December, 1872 (aged 53)
Gawler, South Australia, Australia

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