Burke and Wills - Terra Incognita Image detail
Relief Expeditions
State Funeral
Parliamentary Inquiry


Monument (detail)

News of the expedition's failure was only days old in Melbourne when talk began of the need to erect a monument. In January 1862 the Victorian government made a grant of 4000 pounds, conditional on public contributions of 2000 pounds. Like almost every other aspect of the expedition, the monument was a source of controversy. The anti-Burke faction questioned the absence of King and Gray from some of the proposed designs, and the German community threatened to boycott the fundraising because of the poor treatment of Becker, Beckler and Brahe. The government finally funded the entire cost of the monument.

Charles Summers' sculpture

The competition for designs was won by Charles Summers (1827-78), who after a brilliant early career in London, had come to Australia for his health. Summers conceived an over-life-size group of the two explorers with Wills seated, poised over an open notebook, while Burke stood gazing to the horizon. The conversion of his model into a monument occupied Summers for two years. With no established bronze-casting workshops in Melbourne, he had to construct his own from scratch.

The completed monument was a brilliant success, originally installed at the intersection of Collins and Russell Streets. In accordance with the classical sculptural conventions of the time, the two figures bear only a distant resemblance to Burke and Wills. Summers' intention was to express a timeless spirit of heroic endeavour, not to make a three-dimensional family snapshot.

The growth of traffic led to the removal of the monument in 1886 to a reserve in Spring Street, opposite Parliament House. It was moved at least twice more before finding its present location at the corner of Swanston and Collins Streets.

Melbourne General Cemetary moment

The other monument, to mark the explorers' grave in the Melbourne General Cemetery, was in many ways an eerie echo of the expedition itself. An enormous block of granite, the largest yet quarried in Victoria, was hauled into Melbourne and created almost as much excitement as the departure of the expedition. Once it was deposited at the Melbourne General Cemetery, interest evaporated and the stone languished for several years. The money required to erect it was not immediately forthcoming from the Government, who seemed to have tired at last of writing thousand pound bank drafts for the Exploration Committee.

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