Tragedy at Cooper’s Creek
Burke and Wills crossed the continent of Australia; but, writes S.H. Woolf, tragedy marked their way back.
In the town of Totnes in South Devon there stands a granite obelisk bearing this inscription:
‘In honour of William John Wills, native of Totnes, the first with Burke to cross the Australian Continent. He perished in returning, 28th June 1861.’
The monument commemorates one of the most heroic feats of British exploration, worthy to rank with Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic.
William Wills, the son of a surgeon, was born in Totnes in 1834. In 1852, when he was eighteen, the family emigrated to Australia where they settled in Ballarat, Victoria. A few years later Wills obtained a post in the Government Survey Department, and thenceforward the project of travelling across the Continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria was constantly in his mind.
The interior of Australia at that period was completely unknown, opinions being divided as to whether it consisted of a vast inland sea or an expanse of uninhabitable desert.