John William Billiatt

John William Billiatt

John William Billiatt, born in 1842 in Lincolnshire, arrived in Adelaide in 1861 after having landed in Melbourne. He moved to 'Kingsford' near Gawler where he stayed with the King Family. With his cousin Stephen King he joined John McDouall Stuart's successful expedition crossing Australia from South to North and back at Chambers Creek in 1862. He was employed as an assistant cook and at times had to shoot a goose, emu and horse to provide a meal for the party.

He even had to catch fish when possible. Finding water was at times a major concern and of the torment of thirst he said, 'the eyesight becomes dim, the tongue refuses utterance and dries into a lump in the mouth, and the flesh seems to dry on the bones causing a person to appear somewhat like a mummy'.

Stuart was very appreciative of his efforts and on 15 July 1862 named Billiatt Springs after him in token of his approbation of Billiatt's 'thoughtful, generous and unselfish conduct throughout the expedition'. After completion of the expedition Billiatt spend some more time at Kingsford learning as much as possible about Aborigines, station work and the flora and fauna of South Australia. Another reason for his staying at Kingsford was his interest in Stephen King's sister.

On 15 September 1863 Billiatt married Ann Elizabeth King, third daughter of Stephen King Snr at St George Church Gawler. They were to have five children, three of whom died in infancy. Six weeks after their wedding they left for England on the Coonatto, captained by W. Begg. Having first told his parents all about Australia and his experiences on Stuart's expedition, he was soon giving talks and lectures in many of the surrounding towns. Some of these meetings attracted more than 200 people.

One of his aims was to encourage people to emigrate and settle in South Australia. Migration was a subject in which he was much interested. In October 1872 Billiatt and his family left for Paraguay in charge of a large group of migrants who would settle there with the help of both the English and the Paraguayan governments. Unfortunately for the more than 1000 emigrants no help was available after their arrival and the project turned out a disaster.

In 1875 the family was back in South Australia and living in Glenelg. Billiatt now earned a living as an educator and conducted his own school. He became a member of the Freemasons and also emerged himself in community affairs while still writing and lecturing about Australian topics close to his heart. In 1883 he became a committee member of the Literary Association and at a public meeting on 3 May gave a talk on 'A trip to Paraguay' at the Institute in Glenelg.

That same year he became Commodore of the Holdfast Bay Yacht Club. During that year he also wrote an article on the club's history for the Glenelg Historic Guide and Directory. In 1887 he was elected Vice President of the South Australian Academy of Arts. His daughter Annie became an accomplished artist and painted the tree marked by Stuart in 1862 and later photographed by Police Inspector Paul Foelsche. She also painted the Old Gum Tree at Glenelg.


Image courtesy Alister Morton

Billiatt and his family returned to England in 1889. While living there he was visited in 1913 by the Premier of South Australia who presented him with a gold watch in recognition of the part played by him during Stuart's successful crossing of Australia in 1862. Billiatt died on 6 April 1919, aged 76 years.

Thanks to Jill Watt who supplied most of the information.

For more information on the life and adventures of Billiatt see:
John William Billiatt, Explorer, Adventurer and Tutor,
published by Watt Price Publications
P.O. Box 392
Burnside, SA 5066.
It sells for $24.95 plus $6 postage within Australia.
Email Watt Price Publications to arrange overseas purchase.

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