Cuthbertson Exploration Party

Western Australia – The Coming Colony. – Wanted, a few men, with 250l. each, to join a well-equipped expedition to explore and prospect this new El Dorado, under an experienced Australian explorer; good prospects and profits certain.- Address Cuthbertson. 46. Queen Victoria-street, E.C. [London]

Walter Robert Cuthbertson’s advertisement attracted the interest of ten men: Philip Thomas, Henry James, Alfred Oldham, James Stanford, Robert Muller, Henry Beaumont, John Henderson, Mr W Smythe, Mr H Tarn, and Mr H Walker. Middle-aged, wealthy, and often with backgrounds in mining, they handed over their £250 and signed up for, what sounded like, the adventure of a lifetime.

Joining them on their expedition, and ensuring they were well-fed in the outback, was French chef Mr De La Chaumette. Accompanying him was his wife and son.

The Cuthbertson Exploration Party boarded the ship ‘Oruba’ and, on 1 December 1893, they departed England. A month later, they arrived in Albany. From Albany, they travelled to Fremantle and stayed at the Federal Hotel before embarking upon the next stage of the journey. Writing to the ‘West Australian Mining Register,’ Cuthbertson said, “I am pleased to state that everything is looking favourable to its completion as far as the exploring party is concerned, and we expect to start about the end of the month for our field of action, and expect to be absent about ten months or more if everything goes well.

Their interest was the goldfields of Western Australia, but, specifically, the Murchison goldfields. To get to the Murchison, they made their way to the gateway of the Murchison: Geraldton. They arrived on 16 January 1894 via the ss Albany.

A Prospecting Expedition

Exploration parties, and in particular, privately funded exploration parties, attracted considerable interest from Western Australians. Cuthbertson’s Exploration Party was no exception. While that interest was initially professional, the group quickly became an object of amusement wherever they went.

In Geraldton, some shopkeepers took advantage of their lack of knowledge regarding the country they were traversing. Knowing they would be passing by Lake Austin on their way to Cue, a draper’s assistant convinced each man to purchase a pair of bathing pants. Unbeknownst to them, Lake Austin was not an extensive body of water but a salt lake.

‘Kitted out’ for the journey ahead, they departed Geraldton around the 20 January and camped near Newmarracarra Station while they awaited the delivery of their horses, wagons, and general outfit. From there, they proceeded along the road to the Murchison goldfields.

21 days after leaving Geraldton, they were still on the road. By early March 1894, they were reportedly somewhere between Cue and Geraldton. Travelling overland was slow, but not that slow. The size of the party, and the number of belongings they took with them (including feather pillows and mattresses), no doubt played a factor in their delay. A writer for the Murchison Miner described them as “travelling in great style” and derided them as not a group of explorers but a “travelling menagerie.

A Prospector’s Camp

There were some stories as to the reason for their slowness. At one point, near Mingenew, their cart broke down, and they sent it back to Geraldton for greasing. Another writer described the men’s pace as being hindered by their swords constantly becoming stuck in bushes.

The ‘Cue Chatter’ from mid-April 1894 advised that the Cuthbertson Exploration Party finally arrived. They had kept to the main track and took six weeks to get there when it should have only taken two. One writer wryly noted that that tardiness should earn them the nickname “exploiting, not exploring party.

At Cue, the party disbanded. Some went out to do a little prospecting on their own, while Cuthbertson and a few others continued north to Nannine. Within a few months of their arrival, most of the men returned home to England.

Cuthbertson was understandably miffed at the way he was portrayed in the newspaper. It was always his intention to travel slowly and purchase mines along the way. Furthermore, he had terrible issues with the telegraph department and the receipt of telegrams. His backers in London could not wire him funds, and he was unable to purchase said mines as intended.

To Cuthbertson’s credit, he ignored the talk and returned to the Murchison goldfields in 1895 and purchased a few mines. He remained in Western Australia for several years before leaving in the late 1890s and making his way overseas to the United States and then Canada for other mining opportunities.

Four years later, in 1898, The Geraldton Express and Murchison and Yalgo Goldfields Chronicler published some Murchison reminiscences. According to the writer (who probably exaggerated), the men were “clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day – so long as the boodle lasted.” They had green tents, kapok mattresses, a dozen medical chests, a magazine of firearms, and each man carried a belt equipped with pockets and weapons. Not to mention the French chef.

During their journey, the Cuthbertson Exploration Party’s fame “ran before them trumpet-tongued.” People who passed them could hardly wait to get to Cue and competed with each other to tell stories of what they saw. Even the local newspaper “sparkled with their real or alleged doings.” It is that fact that is important to consider. Some of the observations that took place were true, but as the stories were told and retold, some were more than likely embellished. They were wealthy and they were travelling in style, in contrast to the many who did not. It made them the perfect source of ridicule in the outback. They were “the famous expedition of new chums,” and they became the stuff of folklore; the subject of yarns told around campfires at night.

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