Inside the Collection

An Australian relic from Leichhardt’s exploration of the interior

Drinking cup, used by James Calvert on Leichhardt’s expedition from Brisbane to Port Essington,1844 -1845
Drinking cup, used by James Calvert. on Leichhardt’s expedition from Brisbane to Port Essington,1844 -1845, Powerhouse Museum, NN10265

It may be hard to imagine now, but once this cup must have been one of the most important things in the life of James Snowden Calvert. Around 165 years ago this cup travelled with Calvert and Leichhardt on the first overland trip from Brisbane on the east coast of Australia to Port Essendon on the west coast. On this trip across the dry and dusty interior water was often in short supply and the ration handed out to Calvert in this cup must have been one of the highlights of each day. Perhaps this was the reason he kept the cup as a memento of the hardships they shared on this, the first of Leichhardt’s expeditions.

James was born 13 July 1825, and spent his early years growing up around Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, in the north of England. At the age of 16 he decided to migrate with his brother to Australia and while on board ship he met Dr. Ludwig Leichhardt. After a series of discussions with the doctor he resolved to accompany him on his expedition to Port Essington. This party made up of volunteers, which included Messrs: Calvert, Roper, Murphy, Hodgson, Gilbert (a naturalist), and Phillips left Brisbane in October 1844.

After reaching the Condamine River, they subsequently discovered and named the Dawson river before proceeding from the coast to name Mount McConnell, and the rivers Burdekin, Clarke and Perry. Travelling overland took a long time and it was June 25 1845, some eight months later, before they passed the head of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Three days later they fought with a group of aborigines during which Gilbert was killed, and Calvert and Roper seriously injured. Even so Calvert continued the journey which gave European names to the Gilbert, Roper, and South Alligator rivers. On the 17th December 1845 they reached Port Essington and returned by sea to Sydney.

The 3000 mile trip had taken so long many thought the members of the expedition were lost forever, and perhaps this added to the jubilant reception Leichhardt and the others received on their return. Calvert however had not fully recovered from the wounds he received, nor the fact he had completed the journey with only the minimum of medical attention. As a result he was not able to take part in Leichhardt’s second expeditin, or third expeditions. But ironically this may have saved his life for none returned from Leichhardt’s ill-fated third expedition.

Calvert instead developed a keen interest in scientific botany and went on to obtain honours for: his exhibits at the Paris Exhibition, a large bronze and silver medal for Botany at the Great London Exhibition, and a silver modal for his services at the second London Exhibition.

He was made a magistrate by Sir William Denison, and frequently adjudicated at the various city police courts. In 1870 he married the young Australian authoress, Caroline Louisa Waring Atkinson. Louisa is now acknowledged as one of Australia’s pioneer woman naturalist’s and writer’s. She published her book Gertrude the Emigrant 1857 and Cowanda, the Veteran’s Gran in 1859. Louisa died suddenly on April 28, 1872, James followed her 12 years later.

Town and Country Journal, 26 July, 1884
A H Chisholm, Australian Dictionary of Biography,

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