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The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Wills, William John

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Wills, William John, the ill-fated explorer, was the son of a medical man, and was born at Totnes, in Devonshire, on Jan. 5th, 1834. He emigrated to Victoria in 1852, and was at first engaged as a shepherd on the Edwards river. Subsequently he was employed as a surveyor in Melbourne. In 1858 he became assistant to Professor Neumayer at the Melbourne Observatory, and in August 1860 was selected to accompany Burke in his famous but ill-fated expedition for penetrating across the Australian continent from sea to sea. When the expedition started from Melbourne, Landells was second in command, but at Menindie, on the Darling, he became insubordinate, and Mr. Wills took his place. With his leader, Burke, the latter pushed on northwards till they reached the estuary of the sea into which falls the Flinders. Having thus accomplished the object of the expedition, Burke and Wills, with their two subordinates, King and Gray, made back for the depot at Cooper's Creek, where they arrived on April 21st, 1861, only to find that Brahe, whom they had left behind, with orders to remain, had quitted the depot with most of the stock of provisions that morning. The delay incurred in burying Gray, who had succumbed to his privations, was the occasion of this mishap, which would not have proved irretrievable had Wills's advice to follow promptly in Brahe's tracks commended itself to Burke, who, however, obstinately insisted on making for one of the nearest stations in South Australia. Exhausted with this bootless quest, they had to return to Cooper's Creek, where Wills revisited the depot again, just too late to encounter Brahe, who had been and gone for the second time. On June 29th, at the request of Wills, Burke and King went in search of natives, from whom they hoped to get succour. Burke soon succumbed, and King then returned to Cooper's Creek, only to find Wills dead. He had kept a journal to the last, and this was subsequently recovered, and bears eloquent testimony to his calm, courageous nature. In the meantime great apprehension prevailed in Melbourne, and the father of Wills besought the Exploration Committee to do something. He was anxious to conduct a search party himself, but the leadership was wisely given to Mr. Alfred Howitt, who rescued King and buried the remains of Wills in Sept Returning to Melbourne in Nov., he was sent back the following month to bring the remains of the explorers to the capital, where they were reinterred with great pomp on Jan. 21st, 1863. Mr. Wills's mother was subsequently pensioned by the Victorian Government, whilst gratuities were given to his sisters. In a despatch which Sir Henry Barkly, then Governor of Victoria, wrote to the Home Government detailing the sad fate of Burke and Wills, he thus pronounced their fitting epitaph: "So fell two as gallant spirits as ever sacrificed life for the extension of science or the cause of mankind. Both were in their prime; both sacrificed comfort and competency to embark in an enterprise by which they hoped to render their names glorious; both died without a murmur, evincing their loyalty and devotion to their country to the last." In 1863 was published in London "A Successful Exploration through the Interior of Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. From the Journals and Letters of W. J. Wills, edited by W. Wills."