One of my bucket list experiences had to be driving across the Nullarbor earlier this year, accomplished in style in a 20ft caravan with a full ensuite. And what an experience it was. Many people were willing to tell us how boring it would be, watch out for the locals who stand in the middle of the road and then surround your vehicle. There’s nothing to see, it’s hot, it’s windy. Well, none of it was true and we thoroughly enjoying the experience. The sites of the Bunda Cliffs, the flat plain, the people you meet, mostly we free camped, although we did stay at the Eucla Caravan Park so we could drive around the area to the historic telegraph station and the Delisser Sandhills. An enjoyable happy hour was spent in the camp kitchen with several tourists and a traveller who recited some of his very own bush poetry.
Now you might be wondering, why was this on my bucket list? Well, when I first started delving into our family history some 30 years ago, nanna (Norma Cripps nee Lymburner) told me that her grand uncle who was a Delisser, had been a surveyor, as was her father Charles Harry Norman Lymburner and during one of his surveys had named the Nullarbor Plain. If you google Nullabor, there are literally thousands of websites telling the story…but, some of them have it incorrect. So let me tell you the story of Edmund Alexander Delisser, from his birth in London, England to his demise near Cairns, Queensland.
Edmund Alexander Delisser was born the fourth son of Alexander Delisser (surgeon) and Deborah Crawford, June 28, 1829 in London, Middlesex. He was baptised along with his sister Adelaide, whom we read about in this blog, in the parish church of Saint Pancras on April 6, 1831. At the time the family were living in Judd Street, Bloomsbury, London.
His oldest brother is my great great grandfather, Adam Lymburner Lymburner. We read how Adam was requested to change his name from Delisser to Lymburner as per a request in the will of his grand uncle Adam Lymburner late of Scotland, Canada and London.
Edmund and his younger brother Alfred, both attended Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire, Edmund being there from 1845 to 1847. The college was founded in 1841 to educate the sons of gentlemen.
In 1848 Edmund joined the 78th Highland Regiment of Foot as an ensign, then in February of 1851 he was promoted to Lieutenant. During this time he travelled with the regiment to many parts of Europe and the Middle East. It was while he was in Aden, Saudi Arabia, that an attempt was made on his life.
“Attempt to Murder a British Officer at Aden.— We lately extracted into our columns an account of the fatal attack on two British officers by the Arabs at Aden, and from a private letter addressed to Mr. Lymburner, of this province, it appears that a desperate attempt was made at the same place on the life of his brother, who is an officer in the 78th Highlanders. This gentleman was riding within the camp at Aden, when on Arab artfully engaged him in conversation, and having attracted his attention to the girths of his saddle, took the opportunity of cutting the reins of the bridle and endeavouring to stab him with a kris, which he had hitherto carefully concealed. The officer closed with his treacherous assailant, and succeeded in wresting the weapon from the Arab and slaying him with it on the spot, but not until he had received seven wounds in various parts of the body. The corpse of the wretched Arab was hung in chains at the gate of the camp in Aden, and as this is in the eyes of his nation a most ignominious death, the example had produced a striking change in the demeanour of the Arabs towards the English. Both in this case and in the previous the aggressors had been discovered to be Seids, or descendants of the Prophet, induced by sheer fanaticism to seek the lives of the infidels. The Arabs had endeavoured to recover the body of their countryman, but were defeated by the vigilance of the guard. A few days, however, after the occurrence we have named, a slow-match, skilfully made, was discovered lighted under the gate of the magazine, which, if not detected in time, would have blown up the garrison. Reinforcements from Bombay were expected, to enable the troops to march into the interior and punish the natives for refusing to deliver up the murderers of Captain Milne.”
Source: South Australian Register, Monday 15 September 1851, page 3
The history of Aden can be found here.
This must have been a pretty traumatic time for Edmund, with seven wounds that needed to be healed and the affair caused considerable stir in England, so he eventually sold out of the army. The Cornwall Chronicle, a Tasmanian newspaper, dated May 26, 1852 has this to say – “78th foot.- Lieut. E. A. Delisser has leave of absence from India to South Australia for two years from the date of embarkation.”
Then according to the listings from the War Office in The London Gazette, he retired from the regiment – “78th Foot, Ensign Alfred Wickham Pym Weekes to be Lieutenant, by purchase, vice Delisser, who retires. Dated 14th September 1852.”
Adam was already in Australia by the time Edmund had joined the 78th regiment. Sometime during 1852 he sailed, more than likely to South Australia, although there has been no shipping list with his name. It is a possibility that he could have arrived as a Pensioner Guard, retired servicemen who came out on the convict ships to guard the prisoners.
From newspaper reports, we learn that from 1859 to 1864, Edmund was engaged on the survey for the Adelaide waterworks; and was Captain and Adjutant of the first Volunteer Force in South Australia. In 1864 he qualified as a surveyor in Victoria. The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, June 1865 wrote – Captain E.A. Delisser, a squatter, made excursions from Fowlers Bay, in South Australia, into the south-east corner of this colony. He went in a north-west direction from the head of the Bight, and after suffering somewhat from want of water reached a district covered with grass and saltbush, which he described as excellent for grazing purposes. His opinion of this district has since been confirmed by Mr. A. Mason and other travellers.”
Edmund’s claim to fame came about when he was surveying the area as described above. On one of his excursions, in the company of his brother Alfred, Edmund Alexander Delisser named the Nullarbor Plain – meaning No Trees. Many online sites and books have incorrectly stated that Alfred, his brother, named the plain. However on my trip across in March of 2014, I found this sign confirming the details.
Also an article in the South Australian Register dated July 18, 1900 which appeared just a couple of weeks after Edmund died, says – .
A correspondent has supplied the following:— An item of South Australian exploration which has hardly received the attention which it deserves from writers upon Australian history is the work done by Mr. E.A. Delisser at the head of the Great Australian Bight. So far as can be ascertained from Mr. Delisser’s own report (Parliamentary Paper 137 of 1867), and correspondence with gentlemen connected with the enterprise, the facts appear to be as follows:— During 1861-62 Mr. Delisser was engaged to fix the boundaries of various runs in the locality of Streaky Bay, in addition to which he made several excursions inland accompanied at different times by Messrs. Hardwicke and Mackie, north and westward of Denial Bay, and was the first to enter upon ‘The Great Nullarbor.” Mr. Eyre, while on his celebrated journey to King George’s Sound, had during February, 1841, penetrated the country north of Point Fowler, and, though he speaks of open plains fringed with mallee scrub devoid of large timber, it is quite clear from his diary that he did not see what is now known as the Nullarbor Plain, nor does the name appear on his map. Messrs. Miller and Dutton in 1857 are reported to have gone still further north of Fowler’s Bay, but they made no mention of the great plain. It is also quite clear that Major Warburton’s route of 1858 did not extend as far west as the country visited by the last-named gentlemen. In 1864 a Syndicate, consisting of eight members— viz., Messrs. J. Carr, E. A. Delisser, G. Mackie, A. Brodie, B. Laurie. J. and W. Stow, and another — was formed to occupy for pastoral purposes 1,600 square miles of land, secured on pre-emptive right by Captain Delisser and Mr. Mackie, being part of country discovered by Mr. Delisser: £3,000 was subscribed, and an expedition under the command of Mr. E. A. Delisser was organized to further examine the country and fix on suitable sites for wells. The following announcement appeared in the shipping news of “The Register” under date January 9, 1865: — ‘Melbourne Shipping. — Sailed: January 4 — Australia, brig, for Adelaide via Fowler’s Bay. Cargo — 12 horses, 70 sheep, 38 bales hay, 1 wagon, 15 bags flour, 6 cases preserved meat, 10 bags sugar, 2 chests tea, 30 bags oats, 20 packages saddlery, 2 do. ironmongery.’ From Eyre’s Depot (Point Fowler) Messrs. Delisser and Mackie proceeded in a north-westerly, direction for about 250 miles until just within the Western Australia border, 100 miles north of Eucla. The party sank wells, two of which had water fit for stock, and returned with a favourable report, having traversed one of the largest plains in the world, only lacking a sufficient supply, of water to render it suitable for pastoral purposes. The Syndicate took up the 1,600 square miles known as the ‘Ileumba Claims,’ and other applications were soon made for several thousand miles more by Messrs. De Graves, Davis, Candler, Lymburner, and others, besides the blocks on the coast already held by Messrs. Rounsevell near Eucla and by Mr. K. Barr Smith near the head of the Bight. A good deal of money was spent in well-sinking, but without much success, and consequently most of the inland country was gradually abandoned. During 1866 Mr. Delisser was employed by the Government under contract to traverse part of the coast, and to survey various lines from Yaribrinda, west of Lake Gairdner, to Eucla, for the purpose of accurately delineating the country and fixing starting points for runs. The tract of country thus made known comprises more than 10,000 square miles, which represents no inconsiderable addition to our geographical knowledge of the province. The earliest map on which the name Nullarbor appears is that of Delisser’s own work; but whether the name is native or not has often been questioned. Mr. Alfred Delisser, who was engaged in the above mentioned survey, in a letter from Rockhampton dated June 28, 1900, says: — “My brother discovered the Nullarbor Plain and so named it, as there were no trees in that country.” From this it appears that the name is derived from the Latin words ‘nulla arbor’ (not a tree).
Below is a map showing where Delisser tracked into WA in 1865.
In the next blog post we’ll learn more about Edmund and his experiences in Queensland.