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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Of Burke, Wills ... and wills

Refused proposals, an amended will, and the calamitous Burke and Wills expedition frame the story of policeman-cum-explorer Robert O’Hara Burke and star of the stage Julia Matthews.

1Julia Matthews, c. 1862 Davies & Co. 2Robert O'Hara Burke, c. 1860 Melbourne and Sydney Photographic Co.

An infatuated Robert O’Hara Burke unsuccessfully proposed marriage to Julia Matthews twice. His first (1858) proposal to the goldfield’s teenage star of light opera was rejected outright.  Burke was aged 37 at the time. In 1860, prior to his notorious expedition, Burke reiterated his intentions to the then eighteen year-old starlet, 'whose auburn curls and charming voice captured his heart'. It’s believed the second proposal was also met with rejection, yet Burke’s infatuation was profound: he amended his will to transfer his estate to the young woman. Burke’s final journal entries – written from Cooper’s Creek in 1861, shortly before his death from starvation and exhaustion – expressed his regret over the will change, and sought to amend it. Despite spurning his proposals, Matthews sang at a memorial Grand Tableau in Castlemaine in memory of Burke and Wills.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.