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date: 08 December 2023

Sturt, Charlesfree


Sturt, Charlesfree

  • Bill Gammage

Charles Sturt (1795–1869)

by John Michael Crossland, c. 1853 [replica]

Sturt, Charles (1795–1869), soldier and explorer in Australia, was born on 28 April 1795 at Chunar-Ghur, Bengal, India, the eldest of the eight surviving sons and third of the thirteen children of Thomas Lenox Napier Sturt (1767–1837), an East India Company judge from a genteel but not well-to-do Dorset family, and his wife, Jannette, née Wilson (1772–1835). He was sent at the age of five to relatives at Middlewich in England, and was educated at Astbury, Cheshire (1802–10), Harrow School (1810–12), and Little Shelford, near Cambridge (1812–13). His father could not afford to send him to university, but on 9 September 1813 an aunt obtained him a commission as ensign in the 39th regiment. He served at Weymouth, and from June 1814 in the war against the USA. With his regiment he returned to Europe in August 1815, entered Paris, and for three years was with the army of occupation in northern France. For eight years from late 1818 he was on garrison duty in Ireland, helping to quell the ‘Whiteboy’ riots; he was promoted lieutenant in 1823 and captain in 1825. In December 1826 he sailed with a detachment of his regiment in the Mariner in charge of convicts for New South Wales, and arrived in Sydney on 23 May 1827. Governor Ralph Darling sent him briefly to King George's Sound in Western Australia and to Port Macquarie in New South Wales, and then made him military secretary and garrison brigade major. In November 1827 Darling appointed him to lead an expedition into the interior, to seek pastoral land and to trace a presumed inland river system.

With three soldiers and eight convicts, Sturt left Sydney on 10 November 1828, and at Bathurst joined his second in command, Hamilton Hume, an expert explorer who taught him much bushcraft and Aboriginal protocol. The party followed the Macquarie River until it terminated in extensive marshes: while Hume charted their limits, Sturt explored north-west of the Bogan River. The combined party then followed the Bogan, and on 2 February 1829 came upon a river which Sturt called the Darling. In the searing heat of a drought summer, the river's only water came from salt springs, and after following it down for a week Sturt was obliged to turn back. He picked up and followed the Castlereagh until it joined the Darling, then returned, reaching Sydney on 27 April 1829. He noted no good land, but in the Darling he had found Australia's longest river, and shown that all the western streams north of the Lachlan flowed into it.

In Sydney Sturt applied to lead an expedition to trace the Darling, if possible to a sea which he supposed existed inland. Instead Darling sent him to follow the Murrumbidgee. The governor discounted the notion of an inland sea, but told his superiors in England that a navigable river and good land would attract settlers. He assigned a ship to meet Sturt at Lake Alexandrina, on Australia's southern coast. With three soldiers, nine convicts, an Aborigine, and George Macleay [see under Macleay, Alexander] as companion, Sturt left Sydney on 3 November 1829, picked up the Murrumbidgee, in a month passed the limit of its white settlement, and in another reached its confluence with the Lachlan. On 7 January 1830 he launched a boat and with seven companions sailed downstream, reaching another river on 14 January. Sturt later named it the Murray, after Sir George Murray, secretary of state for the colonies. On 23 January the party encountered a river which Sturt rightly took to be the Darling, then sailed down the Murray to reach on 12 February its shallow outlet to the sea beyond Lake Alexandrina. The ship had gone. Weary and short of food, the party sailed upriver until 17 February, then rowed almost 900 miles to help on the Murrumbidgee. Sturt reached Sydney on 25 May. For the rest of his life he suffered frequent illness.

In August 1830 Sturt was posted as officer commanding troops at the convict garrison on Norfolk Island, and helped quell a convict uprising there, but illness forced him in July 1831 to hand over command. In January 1832 he returned to Sydney and the following April he sailed for England. On the voyage he became blind, and although treatment partly recovered his sight he was obliged to sell his commission and renounce his military entitlements; he quitted the army on 19 July 1833, and in return received 5000 acres in New South Wales. In 1833 his Two Expeditions into the Interior of New South Wales (2 vols.) was published.

On 20 September 1834 Sturt married, at Dover, Charlotte Christiana (1801–1887), the daughter of Colonel William Sheppey Greene of the India service, a family friend. The couple sailed for Sydney in October. Sturt selected his land grant at Ginninderra, near present-day Canberra, and bought 1950 acres closer to Sydney, near Mittagong, where the Sturts lived for two years. In 1837 he bought a further 1000 acres west of Sydney, and moved there, but he was not a good manager, and in May 1838 financial difficulties obliged him to attempt a journey overlanding stock to the new settlement at Adelaide. He followed the Hume, proving it to be the Murray, but because of delays ran short of supplies. The trek was a financial failure. Sturt's report of good country seen in 1829–30 had favourably influenced the selection of the site for South Australia, and in Adelaide he was welcomed. On 8 November 1838 South Australia's governor, George Gawler, offered him the position of surveyor-general. He accepted, sold his New South Wales interests, and on 2 April 1839 brought his wife and two sons to Adelaide. In 1840 the family settled at the Reed Beds, later the Adelaide suburb of Grange, named after the Sturts' house.

In September 1839 Sturt's time as surveyor-general was unexpectedly terminated when Lieutenant Edward Frome arrived from England with the appointment. Sturt became assistant commissioner of lands and acting registrar-general, and then on 29 August 1842 registrar-general. On 1 January 1843 his salary was cut by a third, and on 25 January he volunteered to spend two years searching for an inland sea in central Australia. He was instructed merely to penetrate to the centre of the continent, and in August 1844 led sixteen men from Adelaide up the Murray and Darling rivers into what became the north-west corner of New South Wales. He struck drought, and on 27 January 1845 was forced to shelter at Depot Glen. Shriven by heat and stricken by scurvy, which killed his second in command, James Poole, his party was stranded until rain fell in July. Sturt then sent a third of his men back to Adelaide, and probed north-west to Eyre Creek on the edge of the Simpson Desert, and north along Cooper's Creek. Heat, stone, and sand finally forced him back, and he returned to Adelaide on 19 January 1846. He had reached within 150 miles of the centre. There was no inland sea.

In his absence, and while still registrar-general, on 28 September 1845 Sturt was appointed colonial treasurer, but on 8 May 1847 took his family on leave to England. In 1849 he published his Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia (2 vols.), and that August returned to Adelaide, where he was made colonial secretary. His health and sight failing, he resigned as from 31 December 1851, and on 19 March 1853 left Australia with his family for England. In retirement at Cheltenham, he kept an interest in Australian affairs, and applied unsuccessfully for the governorship of Victoria in 1855 and of Queensland in 1858. He died at his home, 19 Clarence Square, Cheltenham, on 16 June 1869 and was buried at Prestbury on 22 June. He had been nominated a KCMG: his wife was allowed to use the title Lady Sturt. He left two sons and a daughter; his youngest son died of cholera in India on 29 May 1864.

Sturt was tall and slim, with brown hair and blue eyes. He made lifelong friends easily, and was distant but considerate towards his men, even under the most trying conditions evoking great loyalty from them. He was exceptional in his ability to befriend and learn from the Aborigines. Yet he seems never to have attained a good sense of Australia's topography, and his judgement as an explorer was questionable: he kept his dream of an inland sea after his own work proved that it did not exist. He was no bushman, and in 1845 particularly he took foolhardy risks. He took a boat on all his expeditions, but never overcame a habit of heading into the arid interior in summer, commonly in a drought year. Feeling that he was not properly rewarded for his exertions, he wrote in 1841 to the Colonial Office criticizing George Grey's appointment as governor of South Australia, and proposing himself. Grey responded by cutting Sturt's salary and prospects. His financial judgement too was poor: he squandered his land grants, and Macleay had to help pay for his funeral.

The results of Sturt's explorations were uninspiring: he found dry country which he rated poorly, then a river system without a navigable outlet to the sea, and finally desert. Yet his endurance and his courage became a model for generations of Australian schoolchildren, and he remains among the best known and most liked of Australian land explorers. In four states natural features, streets, buildings, suburbs, and a university are named after him. More monuments honour him than any Australian explorer. Perhaps the most fitting is that in the centre of Adelaide: there his bronzed figure stands high on a pedestal, straining forward, eyes shaded against the bright sun, searching still for the green land and great reward he never found.


  • N. G. Sturt, Life of Charles Sturt (1899)
  • J. H. L Cumpston, Charles Sturt: his life and journeys of exploration (1951)
  • C. Sargent, ‘Sturt's military service’, Sabretache [Sydney, New South Wales, Australia], 21 (July–Sept 1990)
  • K. Swan and M. Carnegie, In step with Sturt (1979)
  • M. Langley, Sturt of the Murray (1969)
  • C. Sturt, Two expeditions into the interior of southern Australia, during the years 1828, 1829, 1830 and 1831, 2 vols. (1833)
  • C. Sturt, Narrative of an expedition into central Australia during the years 1844, 5 and 6, 2 vols. (1849)
  • C. Sturt, An account of a journey to south Australia, 1838 (1990)
  • C. Sturt, The Mount Bryan expedition, 1839 (1982)
  • C. Sturt, Journal of the central Australian expedition, 1844–5 (1984)
  • C. Sturt, Proceedings of an expedition into the interior of New Holland 1829 and 1830 (1989)
  • Four letters from Charles Sturt on a proposed exploration of the Australian continent … 1843 and 1844 (1988)
  • D. G. Brock, To the desert with Sturt: a diary of the 1844 expedition (1975)
  • E. Stokes, To the inland sea: Charles Sturt's expedition, 1844–45 (1984)
  • E. Beale, Sturt: the chipped idol (1979)
  • B. Gammage, ‘Sturt's noble stream’, Journeys into history, ed. G. Davison (1990), 113–23
  • B. Gammage, Narrandera shire (1986)


  • Auckland Public Library, corresp.
  • Bodl. Oxf, corresp., journals, and papers
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. and journal
  • RGS, letters and memoranda relating to North Australia Expedition
  • State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, Mortlock Library
  • State Library of South Australia, Adelaide, corresp. and papers
  • estate office, Crichel, Crichel MSS


  • J. M. Crossland, oils, 1847, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
  • J. M. Crossland, oils, second version, 1853, NPG [see illus.]
  • Koberwein, crayon sketch (in old age), Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum
  • C. Sumners, bust, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Wealth at Death

under £1500: administration, 9 July 1869, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

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, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
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Royal Geographical Society, London