John King, the Modest Explorer from Moy

Having grown up in Co. Tyrone during the famine, he later became the sole survivor of a 2000 mile expedition across the Australian outback

Height: 5 feet 1 inch

Hair: Brown

Complexion: Fresh

Eyes: Hazel

Next of kin: William and Samuel King (brothers, 70th regiment)

Date o f birth: December 15th 1838.

Aged fourteen years and one month, John King recorded these personal details in his regimental account book. Eight months later he joined the 70th infantry regiment in India. His remarkable adventure had begun.

John was one of four children born to Henry King, a soldier in the 95th Highlanders, and his wife Ellen, who lived in the village of Moy, County Tyrone. During his boyhood, John experienced the ravages of the potato famine as he, and his family, were forced to exist largely on a diet of ‘skilly’, and by the time he was eight, John would have witnessed the horrors of starvation, disease and death. Such experiences undoubtly shaped the man he was to become, and helped him cope with life in India and the privations he was to face in the Australian bush.

Thanks to Quaker generosity, King was educated locally, before becoming a pupil at the Royal Hibernian Military School (RHMS) in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. His Quaker education, with its emphasis on seeing something of God in everyone, and treating all men as equals, assuredly helped King deal with people and situations he would later experience.

India was peaceful when King arrived in 1853. After a few months service, and thanks to the tutor-monitor arrangement which had been a part of the educational system at RHMS, King was experienced enough to be appointed to teach literacy to army children, soldiers and native sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command). When fighting erupted in 1857, King saw action with the 70th regiment which helped subdue an Indian mutiny, with troops commanded by fellow Ulsterman, the legendary Colonel John Nicholson. Nicholson then proceeded to make an example of 40 of the mutineers by strapping them to the muzzles of field guns and detonating the charge. Such barbarity proved too much for King who suffered depression, exacerbated by the initial stages of consumption, resulting in him being sent to Karachi to convalesce. It was during this period of recovery that King met George Landells, who had been ordered to India to purchase camels for a great Australian expedition. Landells was impressed by King’s ability to speak the various dialects of the Indian camel handlers who were to accompany him back to Australia. It wasn’t long before Landells convinced King to join them. An army discharge was duly purchased, and King embarked with Landells, the Indian handlers and the camels, for Australia. King may also have been motivated by the opportunity to see his older sister, Elizabeth, who had emigrated from Moy and was now living in Melbourne’s St Kilda.

moy commemorative plaque

Commemorative Ulster History Circle plaque in Moy, County Tyrone

Amid enormous fanfare, on August 20 1860, and led by Galway man Robert O’Hara Burke, the great discovery expedition, consisting of 26 camels, 23 horses, six wagons and 19 men (including King and Landells), departed Melbourne’s Royal Park bound for the Gulf of Carpentaria. Ahead lay 1500 miles of largely unexplored, rugged, Australian outback and desert.

By the time it reached Menindee, some 466 miles north of Melbourne, the expedition was already in disarray. Of the 19 original recruits, 11 had resigned or been dismissed. One of these was Landells, whom Burke had accused of selling the expedition’s rum to settlers along the route. With Landells departure, King was put in charge of the camels, while William Wills, the expedition surveyor, was promoted to the post of deputy leader. By the time they had reached Cooper’s Creek, with the Gulf still some 400 miles away, Burke decided to split the expedition, leaving four men, under the command of William Brahe, to await their return.  King, Wills and Charley Gray, who had been recruited along the way, were chosen by Burke for the final push to the Gulf. On December 16 1860, accompanied by five camels and a horse, the intrepid four departed Cooper’s Creek for the Gulf. King was intensely proud that Burke had selected him for the final leg. Now a competent camel handler, Burke undoubtedly saw the value of this skill, as well as King’s mental toughness, discipline, and ability to get on with others, as positive factors in helping the expedition reach its intended destination.

The party arrived in the Gulf country at the worst possible time of the year. With the monsoon late, the humidity climbed and breathing became difficult. Food rotted quickly, and despite King’s cajoling, the camels became fretful and listless. On February 11 1861, their goal was finally reached. King later recalled, ‘We did not hear the sound of the sea, but we noticed the rise and fall of the tide’. After three days rest, the march back to Cooper’s Creek began.

Rations, including water, were now severely depleted. Fatigue intensified, and on April 17 1861, Charley Grey died in suspicious circumstances. By now the party was so low in rations that they were forced to kill and eat their only horse, ‘Orange Billy’. At sundown on April 21, the exhausted and famished trio finally arrived back at Cooper’s Creek, expecting a welcome from the other members of the party left to await their return. As they approached the camp there were no signs of life. Brahe had surmised that Burke and his comrades had perished and had set out for Menindee, taking most of the supplies with him. Burke had missed them by just seven hours. Carved on a tree, Burke read the instruction, ‘Dig, 3ft. N.W.’ Beneath the sand was a trunk containing some food, a water bottle and a letter stating that Brahe had returned to Menindee. By now King’s scrawny and debilitated camels were too weak to try to catch the departed group. After a few days rest, Burke decided, against the wishes of both King and Wills, that the only hope of survival was to try to reach the settlement at Mount Hopeless, which was closer than Menindee, but still 150 miles away.

After two weeks hard slog, during which they covered a mere 54 miles, Burke decided to return to Cooper’s Creek in the hope that a search party would have been sent to rescue them. Initially, prospects for survival looked promising, thanks to the kindness of the local Yandruwandha aboriginal tribe who supplied the explorers with fish and nardoo (an aquatic fern, resembling a four-leaf clover) which was ground up to make a thin porridge. Despite their compassion, Burke did not trust ‘the blacks’, and when they again approached the Cooper’s Creek encampment, he fired a volley of shots and drove them off. The Yandruwandha melted away into the bush and all food donations ceased. By his action, Burke alienated the very people who could have helped the trio to survive. The continuing diet of nardoo, which they still collected, caused Burke and Wills to suffer stomach cramps and constipation. King was less affected, perhaps because, as a youth in Moy, he had subsisted on a somewhat similar diet of thin gruel (skilly), during the potato famine.

John King's modest grave in Melbourne Cemetery

King's modest grave in Melbourne Cemetery

Late in June 1861, both Burke and Wills died. Burke asked King to place his pistol in his right hand and then whispered, ‘I hope you will remain with me until I am quite dead --- when I am dead, it is my wish that you leave me unburied as I lie’. These were Burke’s last coherent words. In one of the two letters he wrote while awaiting death, he concluded with this tribute: ‘King has behaved nobly. I hope he will be properly cared for’. With Burke gone, King records in his narrative, ‘I was very lonely, and at night I usually slept in deserted wurleys belonging to the natives’. King’s only hope of survival was to again establish contact with the tribe who had built those shelters.

Days later, while attempting to shoot crows, King was approached by the Yandruwandha who genuinely seemed pleased to see their ‘old friend’. He was invited back to their campsite where they supplied him with food and shelter. In time, King was eventually accepted as a member of the tribe. Thanks to his Quaker upbringing King shared similar values to the peace-loving aborigines and was able to welcome them as brothers and equals.

On September 15 1861, Edwin Welsh, a member of Alfred Howlitt’s rescue party, which had been dispatched to search for Burke, discovered a scarecrow-like figure along Cooper’s Creek. Completely startled, Welsh asked, ‘Who in the name of wonder are you?’ ‘King’, was the reply, ‘the last man of the Exploring Expedition’. King was saved, and to give thanks, thereafter celebrated his birthday, believing that it was the day on which God returned life to him.

King arrived back in Melbourne on November 29 1861 to a hero’s acclaim. Flags, bunting and an adoring public welcomed him, as did the Governor of Victoria and local dignitaries. Here was someone who had faced unimaginable hardships, lived amongst ‘savages’, was the sole survivor of the ‘great expedition’, and had been snatched from the jaws of death. King was presented with an inscribed watch (now in the possession of a relative in Larne, Co Antrim) and was awarded a pension of £180/year. Unfortunately, the privations of the expedition had taken their toll on King’s health. He was shattered in mind and body and never recovered ‘a semblance of health or spirits’. He lived with his sister, Elizabeth, in St Kilda and became something of a recluse. In August 1871, he married his cousin, Mary Richmond, in the Wesley Chapel on Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. During late 1871 his health quickly deteriorated and he died of pulmonary tuberculosis on January 15 1872, aged just 34 years. Following a modest funeral, King was buried in the Quaker section of Melbourne Cemetery.

In the years after his return to Melbourne, King remained modest and stoic. He refused to become embroiled in the all the furore surrounding the alleged ‘incompetent’ leadership of the expedition, nor did he seek to profit by selling his story to the newspapers or participating in lucrative speaking tours to recount his experiences. Now largely forgotten, both in Australia and his native County Tyrone, this humble man deserves to be acclaimed and revered as being the first white man to traverse Australia from south to north and return.