William Whitfield Mills

Printer, surveyor, supervisor, manager, camel expert, explorer and gold miner.

William Whitfield Mills

William Whitfield Mills was born on 19 November 1844 at Plymouth, England and educated at Heavitree School in Devon. After leaving school Mills became a printer. On 23 January 1866 he left Plymouth on the Atalanta for South Australia where he arrived with four pounds in his pocket to start a new life on 15 April 1866. He joined the South Australian Government Service in June 1866 and in 1868 joined George W. Goyder as Second Class Surveyor for a survey expedition to the Northern Territory. He left Port Adelaide on 27 December 1868 for Darwin. Goyder had placed a ban on swearing and when Mills was found guilty of this offence he was demoted to cadet. He was reinstated on 15 February 1869 to his old rank and the survey of Darwin began the next day.

Life was not meant to be easy, not even in them days. The men were overworked and under paid and pestered by Aborigines, who would set fire to the high grass. They were half eaten by the mosquitoes and risked to be wholly eaten by crocodiles. Jack Reed was one of the unfortunates who was never found after been taken by a crocodile. If all that was not bad enough they also suffered from the heat and high humidity. Nobody had told them that the wet would last for five months. They also suffered from boils and abscesses as a result of a lack of fresh food, diarrhoea, mosquito attacks and constant loss of sleep. They were without vegetables for months on end and lived on flour, oatmeal, rice and tinned meat. If lucky this was at times supplemented by snakes, lizards and hawks.

During May and June Mills was in charge of a group surveying the river area, the South Arm township, Cemetery and Parklands. The next month it had become necessary to form a regular armed guard twenty-four hours a day to protect the camp from the Aborigines, with Mills in charge of a watch. Mills Street in suburban Darwin was named after Mills. Mills received a bonus in 1870 of nearly 85.

When the building of the Overland Telegraph line was started Mills applied successfully for a position of surveyor at 150 a year. He became the sub overseer of the C Section sub section C party. He also became the first aid man and in charge of the medicine chest.

In an effort to find a way through the MacDonnell Ranges, after John Ross had been unable to do so, it was Mills who discovered a dry riverbed and, following it down, found pool after pool of clear water. That night he wrote in his diary, 'numerous waterholes and springs, the principal of which is the Alice Spring which I had the honour of naming after Mrs Todd'. W.W. Mills named the pass Heavitree Gap after his school in Devon, England.


The Todd River with Heavitree Gap in the background.

In March 1871 Mills started the survey of his section, marking the route on trees as he went after which the men would clear a ten metre path as a passage for the drays and to stop trees falling on the line. Mills also had the task of inspecting every pole and the wire and insulator before the poles were placed in 1.2 metre deep hole. During the next three months Mills' party completed nearly 120 kilometres of line.

On 26 June Mills wrote that he had found some first rate poles, having come upon a clump of gums about 550 in number. He had 47 miles of poles erected and about 17 miles of poles cut. The line had been laid out to its connection with Section D. He expected to have the poles erected up to Section D by 15 September.

After completing his own work Mills went further north to help others completing their sections. During his time on this work he also made detailed notes about the terrain and vegetation. These were later published and found to be of great value to land holders. Mills returned to Adelaide where he arrived on 10 November 1872 and was paid a bonus of 150 for his enormous efforts.

After a stint at gold mining and surveying at Sandy Creek in the Northern Territory from 1873-1875, Mills tried unsuccessfully to gain government employment in South Australia. He instead established his own surveying business.

At the age of thirty-four Mills married Mary Jane Mullen at Christ Church Kapunda on 24 March 1879. Mary was the daughter of John Mullen, born County Meath, Ireland in 1821. Mullen arrived in Sydney in 1841 and Adelaide in 1848. In 1851 he went to the Victorian goldfields like thousands of other South Australians. On his return he married Mary Kelly also from Ireland and moved to Kapunda where he operated his own business and became part owner of the East Kapunda Copper Mine.

However surveying in and around Adelaide or Perth was far too mundane for Mills who preferred to work in the outback. During 1881 and 1882 he was manager of a Camel Carrying Company carrying freight from Farina to Peake and Charlotte Waters. Charlotte Waters was named for Lady Charlotte Bacon whose son Harley Bacon worked on the Overland Telegraph as a storekeeper.

William Whitfield Mills and Mary Jane had two daughters, Alice Thornton Mills, born at Norwood on 24 November 1881 while Mills was up north. On 6 June 1882 Mills undertook a contract to deliver 30 camels from Beltana Station to Northampton in WA for Sir Thomas Elder, who owned Beltana.

Instead of going down to Port Augusta, across the Nullarbor and up the coastline he went across the centre of Australia i.e. from Beltana to Giles, named after Ernest Giles, and then due west to Winditch Springs (on the present Canning Stock Route) before proceeding down the Murchison River to Northampton. Mills was accompanied by Charles M. Short, son of the then Anglican Bishop of Adelaide, and five Afghans as cameleers. They experienced sustained periods without water and eventually completed the journey after 25 weeks.

Their second daughter, Ethel May Mills was born at Kensington on 1 May 1885. Three years later almost everything went wrong for Mills. His wife Mary Jane died at Kapunda on 1 October 1888, at the age of thirty. Their two daughters were brought up by their Aunts and Grandfather John Mullen at Kapunda. From 1888 to 1891 he worked as a surveyor in Broken Hill and later in Western Australia also as a surveyor and miner. He returned occasionally to South Australia but eventually went back to the west, surveying and prospecting. He died on 18 August 1916 aged 72 and was buried in the Widgiemooltha Cemetery Western Australia.

In 1993 the late Elliott Whitfield Mills, his great nephew wrote a book about Mills entitled 'William Whitfield Mills Experiences with Darwin Survey and Overland Telegraph Parties and Discovery of Alice Springs'. From SA to WA by Camel was the other title on the book

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