GILES, Ernest (1835?-1897)


GILES, Ernest (1835?-1897)
explorer
son of William and Jane Elizabeth Giles, was born at Bristol, England. John's Australian Biographical Dictionary states that he was born on 20 July 1835, the Australian Encyclopaedia says 1836, the obituary notice in the Geographical Journal, "about the year 1847", and the Coolgardie Miner, at the time of his death, implied that the date was about 1820. Neither of the last two dates can be correct; The Geographical Journal's is obviously too late. Taking other things into consideration the most probable date appears to be about 1835. He was educated at Christ's Hospital school, London, and in 1850 joined his parents who had preceded him to South Australia. In 1852 he went to the Victorian goldfields, then obtained a position in the G.P.O. Melbourne, and afterwards one in the county court. Tiring of town life he went to the back country and obtained valuable experience as a bushman; he was exploring on the Darling in 1861, looking for pastoral country. He did not, however, attempt a regular exploring expedition until 1872, when with two other men he left Chambers' Pillar in South Australia about the middle of August and traversed much previously untrodden country to the north-west and west. Finding their way barred by Lake Amadeus and that their horses were getting very weak, a return was made to the Finke River and thence to Charlotte Waters and Adelaide, where Giles arrived in January 1873. He looked upon his expedition as a failure, but he had done well considering the size and equipment of his party. His friend Baron von Mueller (q.v.) raised a subscription so that a fresh start could be made. The services of W. H. Tietkins as first assistant was obtained, and with two other men a start was made on 4 August 1873. The journey began considerably south from the previous expedition and from the Alberga River a generally western course was steered. A month later in the Musgrave Ranges a fine running river was found and named the Ferdinand and by 3 October the party was approaching longitude 128. The country was extremely dry and though tested in various directions it was a constant struggle to get enough water to keep the horses going. Early in November, having passed longitude 126, a partial return was made and on 20 December the neighbourhood of Mount Scott was reached. A turn to the north and then west was made and the farthest westerly point was reached on 23 April 1874. Giles and one of the men, Gibson, had been scouting ahead when the latter's horse died. Giles gave him his own horse with instructions to follow their tracks back and obtain assistance. Giles made his way back to their depot on foot in eight days, almost completely exhausted, to find that Gibson had not reached the camp. A search was made for him for several days without success. The stores were almost finished, nothing further could be done, and on 21 May the return journey began. On 24 June they were on a good track to the Finke River and on 13 July 1874 Charlotte Waters was reached. Giles had again failed to cross the continent, but in the circumstances all had been done that was possible.
Early in 1875 Giles prepared his diaries for publication under the title Geographic Travels in Central Australia, and on 13 March, with the generous help of Sir Thomas Elder (q.v.), he began his third expedition. Proceeding considerably to the north from Fowler's Bay the country was found to be very dry. Retracing his steps Giles turned east, and eventually going round the north side of Lake Torrens reached Elder's station at Beltana. There the preparations for his fourth journey were made, and with Tietkins again his lieutenant, and with what Giles had always wanted, a caravan of camels, a start was made on 6 May. Port Augusta was reached on 23 May and, after taking a northerly course to clear the lakes, a generally westerly course was followed. Some water was carried, and the party was saved the continual excursions in search of water for horses that had caused so much difficulty to the previous expeditions. Towards the end of September over 320 miles had been covered without finding a drop of water, when almost by accident a fine supply was found in a small hollow and the whole party was saved. After a rest of nine days the journey was resumed on 6 October the course being still west. Ten days later the expedition was attacked by a large body of aborigines and Giles was compelled to fire on them. On 4 November they met a white stockman belonging to an outlying station. Their course was now south-west and on 13 November 1875 at Culham station they were met by John Forrest (q.v.), who escorted them to Perth where they had an enthusiastic reception a few days later.
Giles stayed for two months at Perth. Tietkins and Young, another member of the expedition, went back to Adelaide by sea, and on 13 January 1876 Giles began the return journey taking a course generally about 400 miles north of the last journey. He arrived at Adelaide in September 1876 after a good journey during which the camels were found to be invaluable. In 1880 Giles published The Journal of a Forgotten Expedition, being an account of his third expedition, and in 1889 appeared Australia Twice Traversed: The Romance of Exploration in two substantial volumes. This gives an account of his five expeditions. His last years were spent as a clerk in the warden's office at Coolgardie, where his great knowledge of the interior was always available for prospectors. He died unmarried at Coolgardie on 13 November 1897. He was given the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1880.
Giles was a first-rate bushman and a great explorer. Unlike some of the earlier explorers he received little reward for his work, and he was allowed to drop into obscurity. It would have pleased him could he have known that the finest appreciation of his work was to be written by a competent observer nearly 40 years after his death, "All who have worked in that country since Giles's time have felt both admiration and astonishment at the splendid horsecraft, the endurance, and the unwavering determination with which these explorations were carried through. . . . To read Giles's simple account of those terrible rides into the unknown on dying horses with an unrelieved diet of dried horse for weeks at a time, with the waters behind dried out and those ahead still to find, is to marvel at the character and strength of the motive which could hold a man constant in such a course". (H. H. Finlayson, The Red Centre).
Giles's own publications; The South Australian Register, 15 November 1897; E. Favenc, The Explorers of Australia; The Geographical Journal, January 1898.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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