1815 - 1901
Eyre, the third son of a Yorkshire parson (Anthony William Eyre, vicar of Hornsea and Long Riston), could trace his family back to the Battle of Hastings (1066) and had only one ambition in life, to join the British army. He was to be disappointed as he failed the medical exam and was soon packed off to Australia by his family.
He arrived in Sydney in 1833 aboard the Ellen and worked as a drover. His first overland crossing from Sydney to Adelaide was made in 1838 and the following year he became interested in finding a stock route west to the new Swan River Colony.
He made two unsuccessful attempts to cross the country. The first got him within sight of Lake Torrence and the second got as far as Streaky Bay.
In 1839-40 he brought sheep to Albany by ship and travelled north as far as York. He was accompanied by an Aboriginal tracker named Wylie who would feature in his later successful crossing of Australia.
He returned to South Australia and the following year made another attempt to find a route west. Again he was stopped by Lake Torrence but this time he sent the main body of his party to Streaky Bay while he returned to Adelaide to arrange for more supplies.
By February 1841 the party had reached Fowler's Bay but it was obvious that there was not enough supplies for all of them to attempt the crossing. Eyre selected John Baxter and 3 Aboriginal guides (Wylie, Joey and Yarri) to join him in the journey further west.
The first signs of trouble came in April when Joey and Yarri were caught stealing supplies. When Eyre reduced their rations, as a punishment, they took off on their own but 5 days later they were back and Eyre allowed them to re-join the group.
On the 29th of April things turned deadly and Eyre later wrote of the incident:
"At the dead hour of night, in the wildest
and most inhospitable wastes of Australia, with the fierce wind raging in unison
with the scene of violence before me, I was left with a single native, whose
fidelity I could not rely upon and who for aught I knew might be in league with
the other two, who perhaps were even now, lurking about with the view of taking
my life as they had done that of the overseer."
Baxter had been killed by Joey and Yarri. They had pressed Eyre to turn back and head for Fowlers Bay. When he refused they waited until Baxter was alone and killed him before making off with the supplies and two shotguns. They shadowed Eyre and the remaining native (Wylie) for a couple of days but Wylie refused their calls to join them. During the first night Eyre was effectively unarmed. Even though he had two pistols and a rifle, he had no ammunition for the pistols and a bullet was jammed in the barrel of the rifle. He put the rifle over a fire to dry (holding the end of the barrel) and the rifle went off missing him by inches.
Due to the nature of the ground, Baxter could not be buried and had to be left wrapped in a blanket at the mercy of the elements. Almost 40 years later (another source says in 1922), William Graham organised a search for Baxter's remains, which were found minus the skull. Baxter's bones were shipped to Perth but no records remain to tell us what happened to them. There is a memorial to John Baxter located about 20km south of Caiguna which was erected in 1930.
Eyre and Wylie pressed on alone. Half starved and desperate for water they were making their way along the coast when they spotted a French whaling ship Mississippi at anchor. Eyre hailed the ship and was soon re-supplied. This chance meeting almost certainly saved their lives. He named the spot Rossiter Bay after the ship's captain.
Over the years the whaler Mississippi has been reported as being an American ship - possibly because of the name. We can lay this to rest here by repeating Eyre's own words from his journal:
'In a short time I arrived upon the summit of a rocky cliff, opposite to a fine large barque lying at anchor in a well sheltered bay... ...I had the inexpressible pleasure of being again among civilized beings, and of shaking hands with a fellow–countryman in the person of Captain Rossiter, commanding the French Whaler “Mississippi.”... ...I learnt that the Mississippi had but recently arrived from France, and that she had only been three weeks upon the ground she had taken up for the season’s whaling.
The only subject upon which he [Captain Rossiter - an Englishman] was at all anxious, was to ascertain whether a war had broken out between France and England or not. In the event of this being the case, he wished me not to mention having seen a French vessel upon the coast, and I promised to comply with his request.'
Although they still had some 500 kilometres to cover they were now approaching Wylie's home territory and things gradually got better although Eyre was not exactly complimentary about some of the terrain they crossed as he wrote:
"Most properly had it been called Mt. Barren, for a more wretched arid looking country never existed than that around it."
Finally they made it to Albany and the country had been successfully crossed for the first time. As it turned out another expedition was needed to cross the same ground as Eyre. In a desperate bid for survival Eyre had not made too many detailed notes about the country they had crossed. John Forrest was to lead the second expedition (from west to east this time) and to fill in the gaps left by Eyre's lack of commentary.
In 1850 Eyre married Adelaide Fanny Osmond, daughter of
Captain Osmond, R.N. The couple had 4 sons and a daughter.
Eyre went on to serve as a Magistrate in South Australia and then became Lt. Governor of New Zealand, St. Vincent and later the West Indies. During his tenure as Governor of Jamaica there was a Negro riot at Morant Bay. Eyre instituted martial law and some 608 people were killed before hostilities ceased. A royal commission found that Eyre had acted with 'commendable promptitude but unnecessary rigour'. He was then recalled to England where legal controversy followed his actions in Jamaica but nothing came of it in the end.
He retired to Walreddon Manor, near Tavistock on a pension granted in 1874. He lived in seclusion until his death in 1901.
Eyre is said to be the first white man to enter Western Australia by any means other than by ship.
"If there is any road not travelled then that is the one I
Edward John Eyre