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John King, Australian Explorer 1838-72 born Moy, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland

Soldier and explorer was the first European to cross Australia north to south
Submitted by
Rebecca and Martin @ Fotafy
Addendums submitted by
Len Swindley, Melbourne, Australia
Photo as Restored by Fotafy

John King was born on 15th December 1838 in Moy, Co. Tyrone. He was the son of Henry King (d.1839) and Ellen Orn (d. Sept 1847). John youngest of 6 known siblings. He was educated at the Royal Hibernian Military School at Phoenix Park in Dublin between 1847 and 1853, before joining the 70th Regiment on 15 January 1853 at the age of 14. King was sent to Chatham and then posted to India, where the Regiment had been stationed since 1848.

King arrived in India in October 1853 and was was stationed in Cawnpore in the Northern Province. He was later stationed in Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province where he was involved in some of the principal engagements during the Indian Mutiny. He suffered a severe illness and spent sixteen months convalescing in the Rawalpindi District, probably at Murree.


King arrived in Melbourne on 8 June 1860 where he took part in the Burke and Wills expedition. The expedition left Melbourne on 20th August 1860 with a total of 19 men, 27 camels and 23 horses.  He was the only survivor of the expedition but was renowned as the first European to cross Australia from north to south. Burke and Wills died of exhaustion and starvation. The exact date of their deaths is uncertain, but has generally been accepted to be 28 June 1861.

After the expedition King was cared for by his sister, Elizabeth, at her house in St. Kilda. In 1863, he went to Tasmania to see if it would aid his recovery, arriving in Hobart on the SS Black Swan on Sunday, 1 February. King returned to Melbourne and was present at the inauguration of the Burke & Wills statue in Melbourne.

King never fully recovered from the privations suffered while on the expedition, and in 1869 his health began to deteriorate. During November and December 1871 he was so ill he was cared for at his sister's house in Carlton. He returned to St. Kilda and died prematurely of pulmonary tuberculosis on 15 January 1872 aged 33.


November 30 1861

(Source: Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle)


Portrait of John King

King, the sole survivor of the gallant party which left Cooper’s Creek, in company with Burke, and the only man now alive who has crossed the continent of Australia, is 28 years of age and was born at Moy, a small town in Tyrone, Ireland. When between 14 or 15 years of age, he joined the 70th regiment of foot, and for several years served in Hindostan. He assisted in suppressing the Indian mutiny, and was subsequently invalided. He was engaged by Mr. Landells to assist in bringing the camels from Kurrachee, and shortly his arrival in Melbourne joined the Exploring Expedition. It is somewhat remarkable that his state of health before leaving town was so delicate that Mr. Burke wished him to leave the party, and yet he managed to survive three men all of whom were, on starting in most robust health.

Our hero, who was escorted from Cooper’s Creek by Messrs. Phillips and Welch, members of Mr. Howitt’s contingent party, was very warmly received at Swan Hill, which he reached on the 21st inst., and in answer to an address presented by the inhabitants, made the following reply, which it will be seen disproves the report that Gray received a sound thrashing shortly before his death: -

“Swan Hill, Nov. 21st 1861

To the inhabitants of Swan Hill – Ladies and Gentleman – I return you my sincere thanks for the mark of respect shown me on my arrival here. It is the first public welcome I have received since my return to civilization, and one I shall never forget, and which will always be dear to me. The name of Swan Hill has often been repeated by my noble and lamented leader, MR. BURKE. Often has it been our conversation. The kind reception

The members of our party received when passing through here has never been forgotten. Charles Gray, one of the inhabitants of Swan Hill, and one of the little band that crossed the continent, was the first who suffered and the first that fell. I, as the only survivor of that little band, consider it my duty to give a true and just statement of his conduct. He proved himself a very useful man on many occasions, but it seems he is condemned for misconduct. The fact was, he had charge of the stores, and the issuing of them, and on one occasion was found thieving for which Mr. Burke chastised him by giving him several slaps on the head, and not a sound thrashing, as Mr. Wills states. I was present at the time of his being chastised, and Mr. Wills was not. I am happy however, to state that afterwards as we were returning, whilst Gray was very sick, Mr. Burke tried to cheer him up by telling him not to think of what had passed, for he forgave him all he had done. He accompanied us to within of fifteen miles of Cooper’s Creek. Several days previous we had to strap him on the camel, as he was unable to sit up. He died from exhaustion and fatigue. We remained that day to bury him, which was done in a Christian manner. He expressed a wish that Mr. Wills, or the survivor, whoever he might be, would, in the case of his death, request Mr. Foster, superintendent of police, Swan Hill, to dispose of his effects in the manner he had mentioned before his departure. I was the next to Gray to suffer from pains and weakness in the limbs, which convinced me that Gray was not shamming; and afterwards Mr. Burke suffered from the same complaint, and mentioned shortly before their death that poor Gray must have been really suffering. I have only once more to return my sincere thanks to the inhabitants of Swan Hill for their kind reception during our short stay here before our departure, and their friendly welcome to me, the only survivor, on my return. (signed) JOHN KING”

At Sandhurst and Castlemaine King received enthusiastic welcomes; and on his arrival in Melbourne, on the 25th inst., by train that reached Spencer street at 6 o’clock p.m., a most extraordinary scene occurred. Several thousand persons had assembled to greet him, and it was with the greatest difficulty that he could be conveyed to the Government offices, where he was introduced to the Governor and Mayor of Melbourne, after which he was conveyed by his sister to her residence at St. Kilda. Since then he has remained in strict seclusion as he was so much pained by the article to which we have elsewhere alluded that it was deemed advisable to keep him out of reach of any additional excitement (Bell’s Life in Victoria and Sporting Chronicle)

[Parents: Henry King & Ellen Irvine (Victorian Registry of BMDs)]

King married his cousin Mary Richmond ……. see Born Co. Tyrone; Married Australia

August 29 1871 KING-RICHMOND. Married on the 22nd inst., by special licence, by the Rev. James Bickford, Wesley Church, Melbourne, John King, sole survivor of the Burke and Wills party, to MARY RICHMOND, formerly of Tyrone, Ireland (The Argus (Melbourne) Tues Jan 16 1872)


King was buried in the Quaker Compartment in Melbourne General Cemetery

Melbourne General Cemetery, Melbourne, Australia. Source:

Transcription of Gravestone: In Memory of / JOHN KING / Sole survivor of / the BOURKE [correct spelling Burke] / and WILLS Exploration / Party left to  / Recount the / Events of that / Expedition / Deceased 15 Jan 1872 / Aged 31 years

Further Reading

John King, the Modest Explorer from Moy

John King (1838-1872)

Burke and Wills expedition

Burke and Wills

Available from the Carlton Community History Group

John King : The story of the only member of the Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia from south to north and return to Melboure alive

In the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton lie the graves of Burke, Wills and King the three explorers who successfully completed the crossing of the continent from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1861. But John King was the only one to return alive. This book tells the story of his childhood in Ireland during the famine, his career as a soldier in the Indian Mutiny, and the meeting which brought him to Melbourne and the role as assistant in the Burke and Wills Expedition. Courageous and resourceful, he survived the disagreements, disasters and privations of the journey to the Gulf, and was found in 1861 by a relief party, ragged and emaciated, living with the Yandruwandha Aborigines near Cooper's Creek. He was feted like a celebrity on his return to Melbourne, but he never recovered his health. $5