Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

Elder Expedition 1891

This extensive collection of journals, scientific reports and early photographs belonging to the RGSSA is from the 1891 Elder Scientific Expedition to inland Australia. One of Australia's most professionally mounted expeditions it was planned by the forerunner of the Royal Geographical Society of South Australia and financed by Sir Sir Thomas Elder. These are important historical and scientific records of inland areas not previously explored by Europeans and many new species of plants and animals were identified.

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The Elder Expedition looms large in the early history of the RGSSA, having been financed by Sir Thomas Elder, but managed by the Society (then known as the South Australian Branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia). Sent out to explore many areas of inland Australia relatively unknown to Europeans, the expedition ended in the Murchison district of WA after the scientific staff lost confidence in the leader and resigned.

Regarded at the time as one of the strongest and best equipped of all Australian inland expeditions, the party left Warrina on the Central Australian Railway south east of Oodnadatta on 2 May 1891. Surveyor and explorer David Lindsay led the 14 man party which consisted of three officers, three scientists, a cook, three European assistants and four Afghan camel handlers to manage a string of 44 camels. By mid-July the expedition had moved through the Musgrave, Mann and Tomkinson Ranges into Western Australia. From this point travelling conditions deteriorated, with a lack of feed and water for the camels slowing progress.

Attempts to travel further west were abandoned and the party was forced on to recuperate at Fraser Range Station. Travelling on to the Murchison district in severe drought conditions the party broke up on 31 December 1891 with the leader David Lindsay being recalled to Adelaide and the reminder arriving back in June 1892.

Some critics called the expedition a failure, however scientifically it was a success and a number of discoveries were made. Also 165 dry glass photographic plates were exposed recording the expedition - the first time this had been done in Australia and it was remarkable the plates were preserved in spite of being carried on the backs of camels. The RGSSA has 55 of these plates in its possession and these have been preserved and digitised.

There are many items in the RGSSA collection relating to the Elder Expedition, for example;

  • Handbook of Instructions for the Expedition prepared by the Society’s Council: rgs 919.40432 E371891
  • Lindsay’s journal of the expedition, heavily redacted from his original: rga 919.4230432 E37 1893-1903
  • Maps of the Elder Expedition: A 994.IT

After a series of unsuccessful probes Lindsay abandoned the original plan to move further westwards and leaving the Barrow Range the expedition travelled south west through the Great Victoria Desert to Queen Victoria Springs, arriving there on 23 September 1891. Very little water was obtained and the party was forced on to Fraser Range Station, a pastoral outpost on the northern fringes of the Nullarbor Plain.

While the party recuperated at Fraser Range, Lindsay travelled to Esperance and received telegram instructions to modify the expedition plans and move into the Murchison district north east of Perth. En-route, through country blighted by drought, tensions came to a head and on 31 December 1891 the scientific staff and one of the assistants resigned. Lindsay was then recalled to Adelaide and in a series of meetings with the Society’s Council he defended his leadership against charges levelled by the scientific staff. The balance of the expedition, which had proceeded with exploration of the Murchison region under the leadership of surveyor Larry Wells, was later recalled to Adelaide, arriving on the ss South Australian on 23 June 1892.

At the close of the Council’s confidential enquiry Lindsay was exonerated by the Council. Elder, although withdrawing support for the expedition, declined to sheet home any responsibility to Lindsay, blaming instead the dry seasonal conditions.

Some writers, including the late Ken Peake-Jones – author of the Society’s official history The Branch without a Tree – have deemed the expedition a costly failure. There is substance in these charges, but in levelling them Peake-Jones overlooked a number of positive achievements of the expedition, particularly its scientific work and its pioneering of photography under expeditionary conditions.

In excess of 150 new (ie undescribed) species of insects were collected and 19 new species of plants were included in the seven hundred species collected by Helms, the naturalist of the party. Collections of land and fresh water molluscs, lichens, fungi, birds, mammals and reptiles (116 of the latter with five new species, including the now nationally vulnerable Great Desert Skink Egernia kintorei) were also made. The collection of mammals included several species now extinct in South Australia. Detailed descriptions of the geology of the country traversed (including comprehensive lists of rock and mineral specimens) were produced by the geologist Streich, along with ethnographic notes by Helms on the Indigenous people encountered. The scientific results, amounting to almost four hundred pages, were published as Volume XV1 (1892-6) of the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia.

Although the technology for photography had been available for almost half a century there had been no success in its use in Australia under expeditionary conditions until the Elder Expedition. Dr Frederick Elliot, the expedition’s surgeon, was known to have photographic experience and was appointed expedition photographer in addition to his medical duties. Using 8½” x 6½” silver gelatin dry plate negatives Elliot successfully exposed 165 and images from 143 of these were subsequently published. Of the published images, 107 appeared in a general album and 36 in a much more restricted ‘anthropological’ album, the latter intended for a handful of learned societies and individuals. It was remarkable that the heavy and fragile glass plate negatives survived the rough handling of the expedition and – perhaps even more remarkable – that some have survived to the present. It is known that twenty have been sold on the antiquarian market in Adelaide over the past few decades and in recent times 55 have been returned to the RGSSA. The latter are curated to professional standards and have been digitised

Elder Expedition
Elder photographic plates