John McDouall Stuart

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John McDouall Stuart was a son of Dysart but made his name and found fame - though no great fortune - on the other side of the world.

Persistent, resourceful and incredibly driven, Stuart became the first explorer to traverse the daunting Australian continent from south to north, an awe-inspiring historic achievement.

In Australia, there were hills, roads, towns, streets named after this remarkable man.

Dysart has merely a plaque and could not sustain his museum.

We hope our story may help boost the local interest that John McDouall Stuart deserves.

John McDouall Stuart
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John McDouall Stuart

From Dysart to Darwin

John McDouall Stuart, who found fame through his exploration of inland Australia, was born in Dysart on the 7th of September 1815.  The fertile areas around the Australian coast were well mapped out and documented, but the arid interior was a mystery to the European settlers who arrived to build a new and better life.

Sea was the only feasible method of travelling from the north to the south of the country.   It was not until the advent of John McDouall Stuart that a route was found and established which eventually allowed the journey to be made overland.

McDouall Stuart’s father, Captain William Stuart, was a former soldier and Excise Officer in Dysart.   The family saw a total of nine births, but only six children reached adulthood giving John two brothers and three sisters.

All three boys were sent to be educated at Edinburgh’s Naval and Military Academy as befitted the sons of an officer and a gentleman.   The girls were educated at home as was the custom of the day.

The family was ripped apart when John was only ten years old as a result of the deaths of both parents in quick succession.   The children all went to live in Edinburgh, the boys living in Stockbridge, looked after by an old servant of their mother. The girls were enrolled into a private school in the city, but little else is known of their circumstances at that time.

The school the boys attended was established to provide grounding for those intending to follow a career in the forces. However,  John did not have the strongest of constitutions and such a career appeared to be out of the question.  He stood around 5 foot 6 inches and never weighed more than 9 stones.

Instead, John followed a career as a surveyor and that became his profession.  He eventually went to live with his brother Samuel who had become a successful businessman in Glasgow.  The eldest brother Andrew did follow the family tradition of the Army and served in Bengal for many years as a surgeon.

Very little is known of McDouall Stuart’s activities in this period but in 1838 he decided to try his luck in Australia. What prompted the decision is unknown but it is suggested that a failed romance may have been the key. He remained a bachelor but through time his siblings all married . One unexpected result of the research was that his sister Caroline married William Rennie who became  the recipient of the Victoria Cross.

John landed in the new colony of South Australia which had only been founded in 1836. The colony had a detailed plan for its establishment with the main town Adelaide being laid out, along with the surveying of plots of land to be sold for arable or pasture purposes.

This was all to be organised before the Governors, officials, and first settlers arrived. This would allow the colony to quickly become self-sufficient.   Nothing ever seems to go to plan and, due to a lack of surveyors and equipment, instead of preparing the land for crops or grazing the first settlers were almost trapped in the township.  They often lived  in tents until surveys could be completed, homes built, and the land put into use.

Imports became the only way to feed the population which immediately led to rising prices. The result was that the money the settlers had brought with them to help establish their new lives simply evaporated on food.

This desperate need for surveyors meant that John McDouall Stuart quickly found employment with the Government Survey teams. Bit by bit the surveyors went further afield from the coastline, surveying plots further inland and encroaching into unknown territory. The head of the Survey operations was a Captain Charles Sturt who had been a keen explorer before taking the post as Surveyor General.

Eventually he left this post and established an expedition with two aims.   Firstly, to find the centre of Australia – where many believed there was a vast inland sea.   Secondly, he hoped to find an overland route from south to north. The heat, the hard ground, and the continual search for water made expeditions like these both difficult and dangerous.

His 1844 expedition, although ultimately unsuccessful, reached further towards the centre of the continent than had ever been achieved before.  John McDouall Stuart was in the party and it gave him both invaluable experience and a desire to try and succeed where this expedition had failed.   The efforts had almost completely ruined Captain Sturt’s health and he returned to England.

John was unable to work for a year due to the hardships he had endured.   It was 14 long years before he could put his plans and hopes into action. 

 

Up until 1858, John McDouall Stuart continued surveying in open unchartered country and honing his bush craft and survival skills.

He had the good fortune to do work for wealthy landowners William Finke and the brothers James and John Chambers. They were established owners of vast acreages of land and Stuart would be involved in the surveying of unchartered areas which they in turn could claim and purchase.

It was these three individuals who sponsored the six expeditions which John McDouall Stuart undertook. The initial journeys were all survey related but, once that work was completed, Stuart and his team were free to explore with the longstanding aim of reaching the centre of the continent and ultimately the north coast itself.

Stuart never used wagons – he believed that success would only come from travelling light, with horses being the only method of transportation.   He used horses provided by James Chambers which were strong, rugged, and able to withstand the climate and water issues better than most.

His first  expedition in 1858 was a 1500 mile round trip accompanied by two men and 6 horses. Great hardships were endured from lack of water and food and it was only Stuart’s bush skills that saw them back to civilisation.

In 1859 he was accompanied by three men and 15 horses and travelled 90 miles further north than before

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The third journey, in late 1859 and lasting into 1860, was undertaken by five men and 12 horses. The most important find was the discovery that there was no huge inland sea, only salt encrusted plains.

A fourth journey in 1860 achieved the goal of reaching the centre of the continent. The party used springs that had been found on previous journeys to minimise potential water issues.   On Sunday, the 22nd April 1860, Stuart wrote in his journal, “today I find from my observations that I am now camped in the centre of Australia”.   On the following day Stuart, in the company of another member of  the party, climbed a nearby mountain, built a cairn of stones, raised the Union Flag, and named the mountain Mount Sturt after the leader of the 1844 attempt.

The fifth venture in 1860 -61 consisted of ten men and 49 horses.  They reached far into the north, but had 11 failed attempts to cross scrubland which would have allowed them to go further.  They were forced to abandon the quest when provisions began to run out.

However the sixth journey proved successful and, after a strenuous journey, they reached the Indian Ocean on the 25th July 1862.   The enjoyment, excitement and satisfaction of the success, would soon be tempered by  having to make the 2000 mile journey back to Adelaide!   On much of the way Stuart had to be carried on a stretcher slung between two horses – his health ruined.

The group returned to Adelaide to a heroes’ welcome, but Stuart was no longer able to work.   Many years of harsh conditions, combined with the effects of malnutrition, had ruined his health almost beyond repair.

Unable to work as a surveyor, or to tend the land which the grateful South Australian Government had awarded him, he was forced to live in modest and almost straightened circumstances.   Some of his sponsors and financial backers had passed away and, having sold his land, he returned to the United Kingdom. His intention when he left in April 1864 was to have his journals published in the hope that the sales would provide valuable financial assistance.

He visited a sister in Glasgow before travelling to London, staying in the house of his brother-in –law.   But the sands of time were running out for John McDouall Stuart and he died on the 4th June 1866.   He was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery in London where only seven people attended the service.   His sister, Mary Turnbull, was his executrix and she organised his gravestone.

Sadly, it would seem that once the adulation and coverage of his achievements died down he was left without home, family, or the ability to earn sufficient monies to sustain himself.   There was to be no life of fame or fortune – it would seem that emptiness was to be his lot.  His friends who would have been able to help had gone and it appears, in simple terms, no help was available.   It really was a sad end to a life of determination, resolution, and above all achievement.

As the years have passed his achievements have indeed come to be recognised in Australia with statues and commemorations erected to perpetuate his name.   While a major highway is named after him and the inland telegraph route follows in his footsteps – it is difficult to think other than that, in his hour of need, no one came forward.

In Kirkcaldy there is a blue plaque affixed to the house where he was born and McDouall Stuart Place is named after him. These are the most obvious local commemorations to him and, most certainly, Dysart Trust does great work in keeping both the Saut Burgh and McDouall Stuart’s story alive.

Perhaps the question needs asked if it was really necessary to close the little museum to Dysart’s famous son in 2009? He remains yet another Kirkcaldy figure allowed to be eclipsed by Adam Smith.

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