One of the remarkable outback journeys in the Northern Territory of the 20th century was endured by an intrepid, itinerant Anglican priest, William Magney Wilkinson who lived from 1854 to 1935.
Wilkinson on the stage coach at Croydon, NQ, ready for a visit to Georgetown, NQ. 1909.
Wilkinson was based at Cooktown in North Queensland when in 1913 he decided to make a pastoral journey from Laura in North Queensland via Darwin then south to Charlotte Waters in the Northern Territory.
Wilkinson’s only companions were two young Aboriginal men who managed his team of horses. This journey was to take him two years, three months and twenty-five days over a round trip of about 7500 miles, which for a man of sixty must have been a daunting prospect.
This journey began on 23 April, 1913 at Laura which is 67 miles inland from Cooktown. By this time Wilkinson was quite a well-known outback figure so it was no surprise when a photographer came from Cooktown to photograph Wilkinson and his two companions.
Weeks had been spent in preparation with pack bags containing good supplies of flour, sugar, tea, jam, beef, personal clothing, cooking utensils, blankets, mosquito nets and a tent. There were sixteen horses in the team.
Camp was always set in the later afternoon with the horses being hobbled to graze.
Every morning the travellers were up early to eat then round up the horses with their packs. For a while Wilkinson had trouble with the Aboriginal men because they were smoking opium and not tending the horses properly. Things improved when they ran out of opium and received a stern word from Wilkinson.
The first major stop was at the Mitchell River Mission where food and rest were greatly appreciated.
Wilkinson soon came to Normanton after spending two days trying to find a crossing over the delta-like channels of the Staaten River. A passing drover put the group on the right crossing.
When Wilkinson reached Burketown he was struck with malaria as well as developing an abscess.
During the course of this journey tropical fever was a constant menace to him.
For evening entertainment he showed lantern slides in Burketown which were greatly appreciated.
The Telegraph Station, Charlotte Waters NT, 1914.
The horses were inspected by the police sergeant before being allowed into the Northern Territory. It was at this stage that one of the strong pack horses became sick and weak. A day or so later the horse died causing a flood of tears from Charlie, one of the Aboriginal tenders.
A local station manager told Wilkinson that the horse had died from snake bite. He had lost a number of his own horses to the same malaise.
On the journey to Borroloola seven days travelling time was lost when horses strayed and had to be found.
It took 38 days to get from Borroloola to the Roper River Mission. On the way good water was scarce and at one stage Wilkinson had to purify a putrid waterhole so they could drink. Ashes made a good substitute for alum or Epsom salts for the purpose of purifying the water.
In October Wilkinson reached the Roper River Mission which had been founded in 1907.
Here he instructed the Aboriginal children and was quite pleased with the conduct of the mission. Fresh vegetables with the meal was a delicacy.
The party pressed on in a north easterly direction to Katherine. Buster, the other Aboriginal tender, did not like the foreign country and ran away. Luckily Wilkinson found a replacement for him.
While camping at Crescent Lagoon the new Aboriginal recruit told of a strange occurrence.
Two Aboriginal men were convicted of murdering a Chinaman and sentenced to death. The government decided to have a public hanging at Crescent Lagoon as a way of emphasising what happened if people were murdered.
Aborigines from miles around came to witness the execution. The prisoners were brought forward before a hushed crowd. Murmurs circulated.
Slowly the accused mounted the gallows. The bolt was shot and the prisoners hanged by their necks. The Aborigines who witnessed the scene were delighted and thought the performance was for their entertainment. The crowd cried out gleefully: “More fellow, more fellow.”
Wilkinson ready for the road at Laura, 1913.
At Red Lily Lagoon some of the horses got bogged while trying to cross. A police constable and his trackers camped nearby helped to pull out the horses one by one with ropes.
After this incident the horses had to be rested for a week. When the party was ready the precincts of Elsie Station one of the horses was drowned in the Roper River. Wilkinson had to buy another horse from the station.
A quick stop was made at the Beswick Creek Tin Mines with Wilkinson talking to the men at the various mine sites.
The party soon arrived at Katherine, but supplies could not be obtained nor could the horses be shod.
What was worse his helpers had obtained more opium charcoal from Chinese drovers. To add to Wilkinson’s woes he broke his spectacles and it was some time before they could be mended. Despite another attack of fever he pressed on.
Some relief came when they reached Pine Creek for Wilkinson was able to travel by train to Darwin for supplies.
He had a restful weekend. After a visit to the Daly River Wilkinson returned to Pine Creek with his horses.
Provisions from Darwin had arrived as well as the mended spectacles. He returned to Katherine now only with Charlie for the other Aboriginal man would go no further being a stranger in these lands.
There were now only the two who had to unpack and pack the horses as well as constantly attend to the loose shoes of the animals.
After some trauma crossing the Victoria River the party reached Victoria River Downs Station.
Here Wilkinson and his helpers had the luxury of sleeping in beds!
From here the journey took the men to Wave Hill Station, Inverney Station then on to one of the remotest places in the Northern Territory, Tanamai. The trip had taken 45 days.
On the way to Newcastle Waters, Wilkinson attended to a very ill drover who was purging, retching and had a high fever. The drover was given pain-killer, chlorodyne and quinine. He recovered.
When Wilkinson reached Newcastle Waters he had come to the Overland Telegraph, which he then followed south to Tennant Creek.
From here Wilkinson travelled to Powell Creek Telegraph Station.
There was a fault in the line, but the linesman was suffering from a dislocated shoulder, Wilkinson stayed with him while the operator went south to find the fault.
The horses were leg weary and in poor condition. Besides this Wilkinson had to shoe six horses. 24 days after leaving Newcastle Waters the party arrived at the Tennant Creek Telegraph Station.
Here Wilkinson came across two Aboriginal children who had a white father. In his will the father had left his money and property for the education of his children. Due to a technicality the will was not recognised and everything was confiscated to the Crown. Whatever happened to those children?
At Bonney Well, Wilkinson found it hard going to draw water from the well for the horses.
Outback cyclists stopped there also for water.
At Wauchope Creek a team of Government camels passed taking stores north to the telegraph stations.
Then at Birt Well Wilkinson lost his third horse in as many days to a disease called strangles, which is a respiratory infection. Talking of his last lost horse Wilkinson said: “A more faithful beast never carried a saddle. Parting with him is somewhat like parting with a child, I was so attached to him.”
Wilkinson arrived at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station and the town of Stuart in July 1914 where he stayed 33 days.
Wilkinson at a camp in the Northern Territory, 1911.
It was needed respite for the beleaguered horses.
In Stuart Wilkinson met Ida Standley who had recently arrived to start the first school. He particularly noticed that Mrs Standley was caring for Aboriginal children in an iron lean-to that had become known as The Bungalow.
It was disturbing when Wilkinson came to know that these children had been taken from their families under the 1911 Ordinance.
He was impressed with Mrs Standley’s dedication especially given that she insisted on teaching Aboriginal children as well as white children.
Wilkinson himself gave instruction to both the white and Aboriginal children. Then he was taken down with another bout of fever.
A dramatic event then occurred. World War One was declared on August 4, 1914 with a message coming via the Overland Telegraph at Alice Springs.
The people of Stuart were very excited and a patriotic meeting was held with Wilkinson giving a fervent address. There were hymns and patriotic songs for the Empire.
Wilkinson commented: “There was a patriotic spirit as hearty as in any part of the Empire.” Whether there were any flags available for the event one can only surmise.
Wilkinson moved on to Charlotte Waters passing through Maryvale Station where he noted: “The women folk work like men, in cattle mustering, horse droving, and stock work in all departments.”
From there the poor horses dragged through the Depot Sandhills. After 17 days he arrived at Charlotte Waters. He was at the end of his journey and all Wilkinson had to do was to go all the way back to Laura.
To add to his momentous travels Wilkinson went back via Hermannsburg.
William Wilkinson eventually retired to Brisbane where he lived with his wife until his death in 1935 at the age of 81.
Father Percy Smith described Wilkinson as a man “who looked for no praise, who sought no reward, who received no recognition”.
Wilkinson with his horses could have been McDouall Stuart with his horses or Ernest Giles with his horses or Peter Warburton with his camels.
Detail for this article come from The Strenuous Saint by P McD Smith, published in 1947.
Mark J Smith is the grandson of Father Percy Smith (1903-82) who was the first resident Anglican priest based in Alice Springs from 1933 and with his wife Isabel founded St Francis’ House, a home for Aboriginal children.