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A Knowledge of the World

In 1893 and 94 Elder published in Adelaide, for private circulation, four pamphlets which describing his travelling up the Murray (1856), and through Palestine (1857), Algiers and Spain (1860). He had a lifetime practice of recording his thoughts in journals (although few of these survive), and his detailed observations and impressions are brought to life in these flimsy volumes – the only published record of Thomas Elder’s life and thoughts.

He was an energetic and adventurous traveller, and survived falls from horses, braved gunfire to reach Gibraltar, and faced down threats from Arab villagers. From his manuscript speech of 1879, he proclaimed to his audience:

… the advantages of foreign travel where one meets with occurrences new and extraordinary; - sees many curious characters and scenes, all of which have an impressing effect upon the mind, expand and open up the faculties, cultivate and mature the powers of actions, and teach a knowledge of the world so necessary to everyone who’s called upon to engage in the busy scenes of active life.

In visiting new countries, seeing strange places, and meeting with strange people, the interest being awakened by so many mixed emotions, curiosity, wonder, and the feeling of novelty, is much more vivid than that which any subsequent events can excite, and the expression generally the truest for the eye takes in all at a glance.

By familiarity with a scene we individualize the objects, but our first impressions retain the prominent features and general character of the picture. Thus it is that first impressions cling to us through life, and those periods when our first impressions were formed become the data by which we recall the past history of our lives.

Notes from a Pocket Journal of a Trip Up the River Murray in 1856

By Sir Thomas Elder (Adelaide: W.K. Thomas & Co., 1893)

Two years after his first landing in South Australia Elder travelled up the River Murray with three members of the Legislative Council “to extend our knowledge of the capabilities of the river.” Beginning at Goolwa, the two-month trip took them as far as Albury, where they diverted by horseback to the Ovens Creek gold diggings before heading down to Melbourne and home by steamer to Adelaide

Captain Francis Cadell's steamer ‘Gundegai’ provided a comfortable passage with a group of companionable passengers.

“We were indeed a party of kindred spirits, pleasure seekers released from the trammels and anxieties of business, and bent for the time on thoroughly enjoying ourselves. A whist party was organised and kept up during the voyage, and we never commenced till after tea, never played for money, and invariably ceased at ten o’clock. During the day, the changing scene and constant novelty was one continual feat. When the vessel stopped to take in wood, we usually landed to pay a visit to the neighbouring settlers, or enjoy a walk in the shady glades or through the silent woods. Sometimes we obtained horses and rode across country to places where the steamer picked us up … Altogether, ship life on board … was the most enjoyable that can be conceived …

Our evenings have been delightfully diversified since Mr Scott’s family came on board, Mrs Scott having her piano placed on the upper deck, on which she and Mrs Livingstone ‘discourse sweet music to us every night …”

The expedition returned confident that the Murray was perfect for steam navigation. Thomas delighted in the “splendour and magnificence of the scenery” and the potential of the country for commercial production, ranging from logging to sheep and cattle stations. So impressed was Elder by the country, that on his return he purchased a large acreage which proved to be a risky investment.

Geographical Exploits

Let any man lay the map of Australia before him, and regard the blank upon its surface, and then let me ask if it would not be an honourable achievement to be the first to unravel the mystery that hangs over it – even though the result should be considered nothing more than a geographical exploit.

Overland Telegraph

The bridging of the desert was made possible by the construction of the overland Telegraph Line in 1872 which formed a base of operations. Elder suggested taking advantage of the equipment already in the field to push further west, offering his camel team which was assisting in the construction of the last few miles of the Telegraph. A Government supported expedition led by Ernest Giles failed to reach the Western Australian settlements from Mount Margaret, but at least cleared a track for future expeditions. A further Government/Elder effort also proved unsuccessful.

Warburton Expeditions 1872-73

Peter Warburton had visited and explored the interior regions around the great salt lakes region of South Australia while serving as Commissioner of Police, on one occasion to recall the exploring party of B.H. Babbage. He discovered the Warburton River, and traced it to near the Queensland border.

Elder and his friend, William Walter Hughes, financed Warburton to lead expeditions during 1872 – for reconnaissance - and 1873 which used 17 camels to push across Australia from Alice Springs to the Oakover River on the NW coast of Western Australia. The party suffered dreadfully from long periods of extreme heat without water and only survived through killing the camels for meat. They reached the Oakover with Warburton strapped to a camel, supported by his faithful party, and the ingenuity of his Aboriginal companion, Charley. They had conquered the Great Sandy Desert and became the first to cross the Continent from the Centre to the west. He published his exploits as Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia (London, 1875).

Gosse Expedition 1873

Warburton had hoped to be appointed to the South Australian Government expedition planned in 1872, but was thought to be too old at the age of 58 and was instead financed by Thomas Elder. The rival Government expedition appointed the surveyor, William Goss, to find an alternative route to the west. The expedition set off from Alice Springs in April 1873, also equipped with camels by Elder and accompanied by three Afghan cameleers, the two parties scrupulously avoided each other. Gosse discovered and named Ayer’s Rock but after four months decided to turn back at the Western Australian border through lack of discoverable water. The party did however describe over 155,000 square kilometres of country and Gosse’s maps prepared the way for Forrest’s later successful crossing.


Ross Expedition 1874

Ross was an experienced station manager and explorer. In 1869 while working on Elder’s station Umberatana, he drove 30,000 sheep 483 km to the Macumba River, exploring the surrounding area on the way. Elder then recommended him to Charles Todd who appointed him leader of the advance exploration party for the Overland Telegraph, establishing a trail with water and sufficient timber for telegraph poles. His party of four penetrated the Simpson Desert, discovering the Todd River, the Phillipson and Giles Creeks and the Fergusson Ranges and then forging a shorter route to Katherine. He became the second man, after Stuart, to cross the continent through the centre.

In 1874, at the age of 57, Elder engaged Ross to explore the land west of Peake and to push on to Perth. Sandhills and mulga bush hindered his progress before, at the South Australian border where, unable to find fresh water, he turned back.

Giles Expedition 1875

Ernest Giles had previously explored parts of the interior in 1872, but had been unsuccessful in finding a path to the west. In 1875 Ernest Giles achieved his cherished aim of being the third explorer to cross the desert to the west coast, after Warburton and Forrest. Equipped with camels supplied by Elder, the expedition set out from Beltana, collected supplies from Port Augusta and proceeded west to Ouldabinna. Departing on August 24, 1875, they headed south-west to Perth on a route further south than that taken by Forrest in 1874 or Warburton in 1873. From the Western Australian border, Giles risked a 502 km marathon across the Great Victoria desert without water, before reaching the Queen Victoria Springs, from where he could complete the journey to Perth in easy stages.

The intrepid Giles then returned from Perth in 1876, using the same camels, on the more northerly overland route to the Murchison and Ashburton Rivers and crossing the Gibson desert. Although Giles found little good grazing country, his expeditions added substantially to European knowledge of central Australia. He published a full account of his journeys in two volumes, Australia Twice Traversed (London, 1889).

Lewis Expeditions 1874-75

In 1866 Warburton had partially explored the region to the north-east of Lake Eyre. In 1874-75 Elder again joined with the Government to engage J.W. Lewis to complete the exploration of Warburton and to determine whether the Lake could be navigated. Using camels supplied by Elder, Lewis completed the survey of the Lake and examined a huge area of country bordering Lake Eyre and extending into Queensland, finding some good pastoral land. In his report, Lewis wrote 'It is useless in every respect and the very sight of it creates thirst in man and beast.'

Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition 1891

The last expedition financed by Elder was the 1891 Elder Scientific Exploring Expedition led by David Lindsay, under the management of the Royal Geographical Society. Lindsay and his party left Adelaide for the Peake on April 22, 1891, with 4 cameleers, 42 camels and six months provisions to traverse the unknown country of North and Western Australia between the tracks of Forrest, Giles, Gosse and Warburton.

Intended to last for 18 months, Lindsay had to turn back when four of his party rebelled against his leadership and resigned. Lindsay was later exonerated of any wrongdoing. Despite severe drought conditions, the expedition covered more than 6,800 kilometres, examined vast areas of new country, inspected a track to Dundas in Western Australia, and marked the Coolgardie mineral belt which would become the famous goldfield.

The desert was no longer a boundless and unknown waste. Its southern and western boundaries had been outlined, and Giles, Gosse and Ross had indicated the possibilities of pastoral settlement on its eastern margin. The Colonial Office recommended the establishment of towns at Alice Springs, Charlotte Waters, and the Peake, and their connection by a cattle route.

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