John Cole’s part in Grey’s First Expedition


[By One who Knew Him.]

Mr. John Coles, another of the old pioneers of South Australia linking her present with the past, has just joined the great majority, at the age of 72. He first saw the light at Chumleigh, in North Devon, on December 5,1814, and, having mastered the manipulative processes of one or two handicrafts, was ready at the age of 21 for the service of his country. On July 5, 1835, he entered a corps of the Royal Sappers and Miners, now the Royal Engineers, and after a rapid training at the Woolwich Military School he volunteered in 1837 to join the party led by Lieutenant, now Sir, George Grey, to the north-west coast of New Holland. Lord Glenelg, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, had accepted the offer of Lieutenants Grey and Lushington to examine the western and north-western shores of the continent, to ascertain whether some great river or water inlet might not be found to open out there—a step which the British Government were the more inclined to take from the recommendations of the Royal Geographical Society and the urgent desires and hopes of the colonists of Western Australia. All being ready the expedition embarked on July 5, 1837, at Plymouth in H.M.S. Beagle, Captain Wickham, R.N. They were to proceed either to the Cane of Good Hope or to Swan River, as might ultimately appear best for the purposes »c the expedition, and there to charter a small vessel to convey the party and stores to the most convenient point in the vicinity of Prince Regent’s River. They touched at Teneriffe and Bahia, and in due course arrived at the Cape, where they quitted the Beagle and hired the schooner Lynher, of 140 tons, Henry Brown, master, and left the Cape on October 13 for the Australian shore. Mr. Grey’s plan was to proceed to Hanover Bay and there select a good place for a temporary encampment, when, after landing the stores, the schooner was to be sent to Timor for ponies for the survey and other matters, the intention being to introduce useful animals and plants into this part of the continent, collections of which had been made enroute. On December 2, 1837, the Lynher anchored off Entrance Island, Hanover Bay, and at early dawn Grey was astir, and forthwith landed with Mr. Lushington, Corporal Coles, and two others for a preliminary survey. Their hardships at once began. The country was rugged to a degree—huge blocks of red sandstone confusedly piled together, so overgrown with spinifex and scrub as to hide the interstices, into one or other of which some member of the party was continually falling. Their ship experience had wholly unfitted them for such work under a blazing sun and with no shelter. A feeling of thirst and lassitude soon set in, for which they were wholly unprepared, having only two pints of water with them. Continuing their trudge around the shore of the bay, and drinking occasionally of brackish water—the only water to be found—they began to succumb, and Captain Grey halted the party. It was now growing late, and the leader became anxious to make the coast before nightfall, so that by walking along the shore after dark they could fire a gun as a signal to the schooner to send a boat for them. He therefore started ahead of the others with Coles, and their progress was arrested in the course of a mile or so by an arm of the sea 400 or 500 yards in width. This must be crossed, but Coles could not swim. It was arranged, therefore, that Mr. Grey should cross alone, nude, except for cap, shoes, and shirt, Coles mean while trying to attract the notice of the party on the Lynher by discharging his rifle. The lieutenant’s left hand, with which he carried his pistol over his head on entering the stream, to defend himself against the natives, who were seen on the cliffs on the further shore, was at once required to save his life, for in the violent tideway the stream washed the cap from his head, so that it dragged round his throat by the chin-strap and nearly throttled him. After a desperate struggle he struck out and made the shore, only, however, to hear a native call from the cliffs and the answering coo-ee of his fellow-blacks. Thus, practically unarmed, there seemed to be nothing for it but to run the gauntlet of the savages. Darkness had come on, and the shore was so rugged and broken that he fell constantly, and got terribly cut and bruised, and so exhausted that on arriving opposite the vessel he had hardly strength to hail her. But the blacks heard his call, and he now heard their voices around. Grey’s position was now serious—unarmed, weak, naked, and surrounded by hostile blacks. Thoroughly worn out, he crept into a hole in the rocks, flung himself down, and slept for some two hours, when he was roused by someone calling his name. Listening, he heard the noise of the row locks, and he at once shouted, ” Lynher, ahoy!” The boatmen responded with hearty cheers, and pulled in. Entering the boat he found all the party there before him. “Have you a little water here?” asked Grey. Plenty, sir,” said Coles, handing him a drink. Speaking of this afterwards Mr. Grey said—”I did not know at the time that the water Coles handed me on entering the boat was all they had on board when he was picked up, and that although suffering severely from thirst himself Coles would not touch a drop so long as he had any hope that I might be found alive and in want of it.”

By December 16 all the stores and animals had been landed at the spot chosen for the encampment, and Mr. Lushington Bailed away in the schooner to Timor for the ponies, and while she was absent Grey made short incursions, and began his observations of the fauna and flora of the country. On January 17, 1838, the schooner resumed ‘with twenty-six ponies, which swam ashore on the following morning, whose taming, entire and un broken as they were, caused some delay and amusement. The country they were in was broken by gorges, deep ravines, and torrents, and the progress was tedious, as it was impossible to move loaded horses without marking out the track for them. On February 10 they had gained the elevated plain, having lost seven ponies and injured many others. The natives were often seen, and appeared hostile. It was the duty of a young man whom they had picked up at the Cape to notch the trees along the line of route, marked so that the followers might know the track they had to pursue. Grey noticing that he had left a prominent one unmarked, sent him back to notch it, and not duly returning, Grey went back to look for him and found him flying speechless with terror from a native who with couched lance was in hot pursuit accompanied by numbers of other sable denizens of the woods. Grey fired over the head of the assailant, whose retaliatory spear the next moment whistled by his head, but whilst the native was couching a second he shot him in the arm, which put him hors de combat. The other natives closing in, Grey retired his men behind some rocks. The spears came whistling round, and their fate seemed inevitable. One, bolder than the rest, placed himself behind a rock, and flung a spear which carried away a part of the stock of the leader’s gun, who then handed Coles his gun to reload, and taking the rifle from him, stepped out to level his assailant, receiving three spears in the act, which knocked him down and wounded him severely in the hip. The savages yelled with delight. Grey, however, was on his feet again in an instant, and sent a bullet through the savage’s back. The effect was electric. Not another spear was hurled; not another yell uttered. The little advance party now made their way camp-wards, the wounded man leaning on Coles, but when trying to cross a stream within 2 miles of the camp he sprained his wounded hip so severely that he had to lie down, and was unable to rise again. Coles at once set off for assistance, and within an hour Mr. Walker, the surgeon, and Mr. Lushington arrived with assistance, and transported the wounded leader to camp. The wound proved very serious and difficult to heal, but the work proceeded. On March 4 a noble river, apparently a mile or two broad, was discovered, which he named the Glenelg after the Secretary. Subsequent examination, however, dis closed a series of rapids in its channel. They afterwards found some caves in the sandstone rock, in which were found many rough sketches of female human figures variously coloured. On March 31 Messrs. Lushington and Walker were sent to discover a pass through the mountains, bat returned and reported the utter impossibility of horses proceeding in that direction. During their absence the leader had taken stock of the remaining provisions, and found just twenty days’ supply left, with twelve hones. The surgeon also informed him that he felt it his duty to recommend him to return to the vessel without delay, as in his debilitated condition a single night’s exposure might cost him his life. Grey knew this to be true, and on April 4 they faced about for Hanover Bay, where they arrived on the 15th, and found both the Lynher and the Beagle in waiting. The ponies were turned adrift, and the party embarking in the Lynher proceeded to Mauritius, and thus the first expedition ended.


Adelaide Observer, 8 May 1886.