Friday, 26 February 2016

John McDouall Stuart

the little-known Scot who opened up Australia


Not a name which instantly comes to mind when someone asks about famous Scots John McDouall Stuart was a major force in the early exploration of Australia. From 1844 to 1862 he first took part in one expedition and then organised and led six further major expeditions into the interior of Australia. His final expedition (1861-1862) culminated in the party he led making an epic journey across the dry heart of the country from south to north - from Adelaide to a point near Darwin now called Point Stuart.
Photo of John McDouall Stuart with a full beard
PD Image from State Library of South Australia
(John McDouall Stuart [B 501])
There are few photographs of him in existence which is hardly surprising since practical photography wasn't developed until 1839. Those which do exist are all of his life in Australia and those I have found all show a heavily-bearded man with either a penetrating stare or a far-away look in his eyes, as if he was searching for a new route to follow.

Born in 1815 in the small Scottish fishing village of Dysart, in Fife, where his father was a customs officer, John McDouall Stuart (commonly known simply as McDouall Stuart) trained as a civil engineer before emigrating to Australia in 1839 where he found employment as a surveyor.

His colleague and immediate superior was South Australia's Surveyor-General, Captain Charles Sturt, himself a famous Australian explorer, and it was Sturt who started McDouall Stuart on the road to becoming an explorer by taking him on an 1844 expedition which discovered (amongst other things) the Simpson Desert. Despite suffering terrible hardships from thirst and scurvy McDouall Stuart had caught the exploration bug and over the coming years he organised six expeditions into Australia's fierce interior using horses as the mode of transport - an innovation which was largely responsible for the success of his expeditions.

His expeditions were not simply for the sake of pure exploration but were also searches for new farming lands and mineral deposits and for a route across Australia for the newly-introduced telegraph which would eventually connect Australia with the rest of the world - particularly Great Britain which most Australians of that era still regarded as ''home''.

Map of Australia with a red line showing McDouall Stuart's route from Adelaide to Darwin
The above map shows the route of McDouall Stuart's final 1862 expedition in which his 10-strong party succeeded in crossing Australia from south to north - a long-held dream of his. In doing so he opened up Australia to further exploration and development by discovering practical routes through difficult terrain and finding reliable water sources. John McDouall Stuart was not the only Australian explorer of the time but he is, quite rightly, regarded as one of the most important.
A headstone which marks the grave of John McDouall Stuart
Hardly surprisingly, his health was ruined by his time spent in harsh and unforgiving environments and he was lucky to survive the return journey from Darwin to Adelaide - a trip of some 3400 kilometers - but his time as an explorer was at an end. In 1864 he left Australia and sailed for England where he died on 5th June 1866 at the age of 50. He is buried in London and, apparently, only seven people attended his funeral.




McDouall Stuart's grave in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
Photograph by Deeday-UK/Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported.


Although famous and well remembered in Australia John McDouall Stuart is virtually unknown in his native Scotland. Mention his name to the average Scot and you will be greeted with a blank look. His birthplace, the east coast village of Dysart, used to have a museum dedicated to his memory. Situated in part of the building in which he was born it was a small, part-time facility and was only open for half the week. It was finally closed in 2009 (due to lack of visitors) by the Regional Council and the building is now owned by Fife Historic Buildings Trust and has been converted into a holiday apartment with the aim of encouraging visitors to the area.


The building in which John McDouall Stuart was born in Dysart, Fife. A memorial plaque can be seen on the wall
Photograph by the author

John McDouall Stuart's memorial plaque on one wall of his birthplace
It is sad to see a man who is so renowned elsewhere being somewhat overlooked in his native land but he is not entirely forgotten. The above photograph shows his birthplace in Dysart and a memorial plaque (left) can be seen on one wall. The street in which it is situated was recently renamed McDouall Stuart Place as part of the renovation of what is now an historic fishing village and an area which I know well, having spent much of my formative years growing up less than two miles from his former home!

This extraordinary and tenacious explorer was awarded the Patron's Medal and Gold Watch by the Royal Geographical Society - the highest distinction an explorer can get.


Photograph by the author.

Sources: Wikipedia; John McDouall Stuart Society

Author's note: The above plaque on the wall of McDouall Stuart's childhood home is slightly misleading. He was not the first to traverse Australia from south to north. That honour goes to the 1860 expedition of Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills who travelled from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria but did not pass through the centre of the continent - John McDouall Stuart's 6th expedition was the first to achieve that distinction.

18 comments:

  1. It's sad how many historical figures are being forgotten.

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    1. Like JMS many famous people aren't so famous in their own country!

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  2. Thank you for this informative post

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  3. Your blogs are so interesting and I'm learning so much history from them. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. I just got myself a History lesson :) thanks for sharing I did not know about any of this.

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    1. John McDouall Stuart is a big name in Australia - it's a pity he isn't better known in his own country.

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  5. I love stuff like this - interesting on its own, and encourages me to dig deeper.

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    1. I also love this kind of stuff. Knowledge of the past is sooo interesting!

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  6. I really enjoy learning about Scotland. You bring the history alive.

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    1. It's just a pity more Scots don't know about John McDouall Stuart's exploits in a far away land!

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  7. What an amazing journey for the time. Even these days, with motorised vehicles and a road, it is not a journey to undertake lightly.

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    1. Amazing indeed! His 6th expedition took nine months to reach their goal after travelling some 3400 kilometres - and then they turned around and retraced their route back to Adelaide!

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  8. Thank you for this fascinating blog. We hope that people interested in this amazing man will come and stay at the apartment...and gaze out over the seas that inspired his travels. Laura (Fife Historic Buildings Trust)

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    1. Thank you for visiting. If I did not live so close to Dysart I would certainly book a few days in his former home.

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  9. I sure admire explorers who went into unknown territory, not knowing what they might encounter. We wouldn't know much about the world without them.

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    1. They lived in interesting times. Today there is very little of our planet left completely unexplored.

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