What is the aim of the Project?
To archaeologically survey, document and verify the location of the Sturt expedition’s (1844-1846) underground room at Depot Glen, near Milparinka.
What is the “Underground Room”?
The “underground room” is a subterranean bunker dug out by Sturt’s expedition team in 1845 to escape the heat of the summer, and carry out repairs on important equipment, whilst they waited for rain.
Why is it important?
Charles Sturt was a significant contributor to the exploration of the Australian nation over 24 years. Searching for the expedition of Dr Ludwig Leichhardt or the Bourke and Wills Plant Camp remain indeterminate, but here we have the chance to properly document and record the existence of a significant historic relic of European exploration.
As one of the oldest, significant, and previously unrecorded sites of European exploration, the location, existence and recording of any buried relics should be documented as a matter of urgency.
- Sturt’s Steps Touring Route is a $5M Project currently under way to bring increased visitation to the area which approximates the route taken by Charles Sturt’s when his Inland Expedition came into the Corner Country in 1845.
- Unearthing archaeological evidence of early European exploration to understand pre-cartridge firearms, metallic objects, surveying and domestic instruments, tools bottles, and other remnants of explorer Sturt’s physical presence in the area.
- Provide tourism potential for this site of European exploration.
- An exciting opportunity for a University multidisciplinary team of archaeologists, surveyors, geologists, historians, academics, work integrated learning students or interns (supported by an archaeological or surveying firm) for a real world project experience.
- To enhance and augment the exhibition potential historic heritage museum, building restoration and interpretative facilities in the nearby Milparinka village.
What is needed?
To attract a multidisciplinary team of University researchers, students and affiliates to:
- undertake a formal survey of the site, undertaken by professional surveyors so that a formal geographic position can be made with the assistance of any existing archival field notes, documentation and recent explorations.
- conduct an archaeological excavation of the site
- collect and preserve artefacts located,
- assist in displaying artefacts located in a public place or institution.
- prepare application for official listing of the site on the ‘heritage register’
- to conduct project in line with BURRA CHARTER conservation principles,
- to work with government agencies and community to promote the site as a significant tourist attraction in linking it with the ‘Sturt’s Steps Project.
The Site’s Legal Status
The site is located on the Western grazing lease Crown Land known as Mt. Poole Station held by the O’Connor family.
On Mt Poole Station lease are two surveyed national heritage historic sites :
1. James Poole’s Grave ( Within 1 km of the underground room) and,
2. Sturt’s Cairn A large area ( Approx. 300 Hectares) encompassing the very large stone cairn built by Sturt’s men on the summit of Mt. Poole. ( A few km away to the West) and currently being restored with grant funding as part of the Sturt’s Steps project.
These sites are all legally accessible to tourists who visit the sites regularly via easements and graded roads.
In 1845, the members of Captain Charles Sturt’s expedition to the centre of Australia set out from Adelaide and were stranded on a waterhole near today’s Milparinka, far western N.S.W.
They had a whaleboat, 15 men, four wagons, carts, bullocks, sheep and dogs and were headed for ‘the inland sea’.
In February 1845 Sturt ordered the men to dig an underground room to escape the oppressive heat of summer while they waited for rain.
In November 1845 Sturt ordered the men to take whatever things needed for repair to the underground room. It was here that Daniel Brock, the ‘handyman/collector’ of the Expedition, could work on them.
In December 1845 James Poole (second in command) died from scurvy and was buried nearby.
Sturt, himself blind and unable to ride a horse, ordered an emergency retreat for the whole expedition back to Adelaide before the group became stranded through lack of water.
Daniel Brock’s diary first came to light in 1975 and for the first time described the underground room as:
“ …hard as baked clay and stones, 7 feet deep, 16 feet wide and 12 feet long” …” laid timber over the hole ..covered top with brush wood ..and mud..all the soil dug out thrown back over the whole ( sic)”.
What has been achieved to date?
This site was initially identified in 1982 by Warwick Schofield and Allan Newhouse. The exact site was unknown to National Parks, N.S.W. and remains formally unrecognised to this day.
In April 2021 Warwick Schofield, along with a retired senior police inspector and a significantly awarded Australian farmer and grazier, revisited the original site.
Camping very close to the site, with the landholders permission, and with no surface evidence of relics, Schofield used ranging poles in place to record dimensions and levels to prove that the site matched EXACTLY the geology and regolith structure reported by Brock.
After running metal detectors, and making photo records of the site, two 4” test auger holes were drilled by hand through loose sandy loam and broken rock pieces to a depth of about one metre.
At a depth of about 930 mm , a muddy coloured horizon was reached which revealed narrow iron bands pierced with small nails, horseshoe nails, wire and other items. (A pinpointer and magnet were very useful tools)
Very Strong metal detector signals at about 150 mm near the ‘front of the room’ revealed heavy pieces of cast iron , one piece exactly matching a fractured hub of a wagon wheel.
(A 2,000 word report plus detailed diagrams and labelled artefacts has been prepared by Warwick Schofield)
Schofield’s subsequent exploration of the actual site early in 2021 revealed material as described in the following REPORT:
Site survey 13/14 April, 2021.
Ranging pole designations and distances
Surface map showing ranging pole locations
Cross section ranging pole C-D
Chart: Artefact numbers and descriptions
Chart: Cast iron artefact from southern wall
The Party Departs for Milparinka
We (the party of two, 200 series Toyota Landcruisers, Warwick and Margie Schofield, Detective Sergeant (retired) Shaun O,Sullivan and Nevin HOLLAND, OAM) departed Broken Hill at 9.00 AM Tuesday, 13th April and arrived at Milparinka turnoff at 12.30 PM.
Excellent bitumen Silver City Highway all the way. Dirt road for the next 1 km west to the Milparinka historic village. The hotel was active, with meals, drinks and in house and cabin accommodation available. (5 bed room, 4 bed room, 2 bed rooms in house at $65, and four cabins outside). A volunteer was present at the historic site and three men were working on the latest machinery display. The new pastoral industry interpretive centre was also open. Public toilets and hot showers were available. We were told Mrs. O’Connor and her son were in residence at Mt Poole Station and The family had recently purchased Mt Browne to the south which is now occupied by the other son.
Arrival at Underground Room Site
We drove the 12 km on the reasonable gravel road to our campsite near the historic reserve and set up our two tents near the underground room.
I drove alone to Mt Poole Station homestead to talk with Mrs O’Connor. There was no evidence of anyone present, nor evidence of frequent or recent wheel tracks or personal movement. A flooding event only weeks earlier would have left the homestead isolated but the Preservation creek crossing had just been cleared I presume by the large front end loader parked at the homestead.
Marking Out The Underground Room Site
At about 2.30 PM we marked out the site corners with four ranging poles, labelled them A, B, C, D in a clockwise direction from the front left hand corner at Nevin’s base marker and took in situ photos. A Rounded buried rock 100 mm from pole ‘A’ was called Nevin’s base marker.
Measurements were then taken between each pole and recorded.
|SIDE||FACING||LENGTH mm||LENGTH Ft/in|
Dimensions Chart – Diagram A.
We then estimated a point which we assumed was the rear side corner of the underground room near ranging pole C. (About 1 metre towards Pole D and slightly in from the Northern ‘wall’ diagonally inside the site i.e., to the S.E. see Diagram B.)
This site was selected from surface indications which included exposed, undisturbed, near vertically dipping, finely laminated, indurated shales immediately outside the estimated position of the Northern wall of the underground room and compacted soils covered with a small amount of vegetation resulting from recent heavy rain, (~100 mm) immediately inside the estimated position of the Northern wall. Assuming a reasonably level floor in the underground room, this site also represented the deepest amount of fill covering the original floor (about 1 metre).
Brock’s diary records the depth at the rear of the underground room to be “7 feet”. This fill material appears to be about halfway vertically down the noted original depth of excavated underground room at the site.
We used a manually rotated 8” post hole auger to test the soil .
The Nature of the Soil – Hole #1
The soil was a light grey colour and mixed with pieces of broken rock up to 70 mm long.
We commenced drilling what we called Hole #1. Sampling at about 600 mm deep, the soil was of the same texture and structure-less as noted near the surface, it was a damp sandy loam and just made a loose bolus when squeezed in the hand.
At about 800 mm the limit on the handle length of the auger had been reached and there had been no noticed alteration in the nature of the soil.
Each auger content was spread on a mat and searched with a powerful magnet and metal detector. The metal detector had indicated nothing from the surface.
A pinpointer detector was also used at all times.
A second, hand operated auger, with a longer handle was then used to deepen the hole. This auger was only 4 inches in diameter.
At about 880 mm below the surface (about 1800 below the horizontal base string from the natural ground surface at the rear of the site) a fine reddish coloured fine loamy soil horizon was recovered.
At about 920 mm a small iron metal strapping penetrated by a nail was recovered (Diagram D, 1/2). This gave a strong signal in the pinpointer and was easily attracted to a magnet. The strapping was about 12mm wide and 26 mm long. The 50mm long nail was penetrating the centre of the strap and had a rounded head. Further loosening of the soil at this depth and the use of the pinpointer (my arm could hardly stretch to the bottom of the hole) detected another five pieces of rusty metallic strap up to 130mm long and two pierced by small nails. (Items 1/3 to 1/7 ). The hole ended in a hard base at 950 mm.
I was happy to go home at this stage as I believed our hypothesis of a man made excavation hole at this site was proven and it had a reddish sandy clay floor about 120mm thick and contained a very old man made objects buried nearly 1 metre below the surface. Completion of the test hole concluded at about 950 mm with a hard base and no further signal from the pinpointer.
That evening, it was decided to repeat the test hole technique the next morning. The decision was made to drill a hole a further 1 metre towards the front of the site (The East) from Test Hole #1. This was still close to the assumed Northern wall of the underground room.
This was designated Hole #3. And by 760 mm below the surface the same hard base was encountered. We noted the same red floor horizon and recovered 6 nails and a piece of wire 143mm long and diameter 3mm (Diagram D, 3/13). One nail was a distinct hand-made, unused horseshoe nail 52mm long and slightly bent. (Diagram D, 3/10) The other nails were also possibly horseshoe nails but a lighter gauge.
In the meantime, the metal detector had indicated a strong signal point inside the underground room boundary close to Post A, and in very shallow ground (60mm). A large piece of cast iron corner angle weighing 6.6 kg was recovered. (Diagram D, 2/8 and repeated in Diagram E) I postulated that this was a piece dug up by a gold seeker some years earlier, discovered by us lying on the surface in about 2015 near a shallow hole and we reburied in the same hole at that time.
Hole #4 was a shallow dig following a strong metal detector signal and produced a small, neat bracket with punched square holes ( item 4/14 ) at about 100mm depth.
A strong very linear metal detector signal was detected again near post A but running parallel with the Southern wall of the underground room , just inside the room and about 1500 mm long.
I suggested an iron fence post, or maybe an axle. Using the pelican pick, nothing was found at the shallow level where the corrugated iron was found nearby.
We dug a narrow trench (we called this Hole #5) and as the signal continued to get stronger, at about 240mm we encountered the top of a flat sided piece of cast iron the size of a brick weighing 3.9 kg. (Diagram E 5/CA2-22 ). Following along the line of the wall we recovered four more pieces and a piece of broken green glass bottle (Diagram D 5/15).
We accidentally broke the piece of green glass bottle (which I recovered by hand), but the rest would still be in place. Our trench was very narrow and we backfilled it but kept the pieces of iron and the glass. We did not check with the metal detector if we had all the iron from the linear site, there may still be some there.
Two pieces had circular castings about 65 mm (2 1/2”) inside diameter and 100mm outside (see Diagram E 5/CA525).
Nevin suggested broken part of a wagon wheel hub. He is familiar with old farm equipment. We have since noted that this piece has a 9mm taper to the ‘outside’ flat surface in the cylindrical casting, exactly as a wagon axle end bearing to locate the axle into. The end of the axle then protrudes and is secured by a securing end pin and adjusted for wear and greased by removing the pin and adding packing washers.
One piece of the casting has a two letters of a casting mold, I over CA (Diagram E, 5/CA6-26) This piece has the same diameter as the 5/CA525 and has the locking tab intact as is the case in a wheel hub assembly. (pers. Com. Nevin Holland).
In this same trench we recovered a piece of previously molten iron weighing 1 Kg. Could this be from a portable hand forge? (Diagram D, item 5/18)
Also, a cylindrical piece of wood which I wrongly discarded as I believed it was a piece of dead modern plant/tree root. I had, on a previous visit seen quite tall woody shrubs growing in the site.
We placed all the small items in sealed plastic bags and labelled them. No attempt was made to clean or interfere with them.
The cast iron pieces were placed in two stock feed bags with a total weight of about 28.9 Kg. Twenty eight (28) artefacts were recovered all together.
At 100 mm depth near pole D, we called this Hole #6, a square sheet of ‘modern’ corrugated iron turned down at both outside edges was recovered outside the front of the underground room. The result of a strong metal detector signal over a broad area of about 700mm by 700mm; about 100 mm below the surface, (see Diagram E, item 6/27).
Closing Stages of 2021 Site Survey
The progress of the exploration was photographed at all stages.
A RED plastic, dated and signed marker was placed in the bottom of each hole.
All auger holes were then back-filled in the order from which the soil was removed.
Leaves and dust were replaced on the surface and the group agreed that we left no evidence of our activity.
Return to Mt Poole
We finished the survey at lunchtime on day two and traveled in one car to Mt Poole . After climbing to the summit and noting the Xero plants (Xerothamnella parvifolia) (endemic to the site but rare in N.S.W.) still surviving OK (maybe in bud) but the boulders on the northern face of the stone cairn precariously balanced and one held in place only by the fence wire.
Thanks to Property Owner
Returning to camp, we came via Mt. Poole Station homestead and saw a modern car parked there. Mrs O’Connor was sweeping the front verandah behind the mosquito/fly netting. When I introduced myself and asked if it was OK to spend the night at the waterhole and we would be moving on in the morning she seemed OK. I mentioned my previous visits and named a mutual friend from Lightning Ridge and she seemed OK and introduced herself as Anita. She waved goodbye as we drove away. I am fully aware (as a property owner) of people driving around and camping on my private land.
- 15 August 1844
Sturt departs Adelaide
- 27 January 1845
Arrived at Depot Glen, Preservation Creek, Milparinka
- 1 February 1845
Underground Room constructed. Finished 8th February.
- 16 July 1845
Poole led retreat group South. Sturt, Browne & others went North
- 17 July 1845
Poole Died. Sturt and Poole’s group regroup at Depot Glen.
- 18 July 1845
Depot moved to Fort Grey Depot (Lake Pinaroo)
- 30 July 1845
Sturt, Browne, Stuart to Lake Blanche, Mt Hopeless
- 12 August 1845
Sturt, Browne, Stuart return from Lake Blanche
- 14 August 1845
Sturt, Browne, Flood, Lewis, Cowley depart for Kudaree
- 8 September 1845
Sturt’s furthest Northern point, Kudaree waterhole,
- 5 October 1845
Sturt returns to Fort Grey Depot, It was in good shape.
- 12 October 1845
Sturt left Fort Grey Depot with Morgan, Mack for Cooper Creek. And Near Birdsville.
- 13 November 1845
Sturt returned to Fort Grey Depot…found abandoned.
- 17 November 1845
Sturt returned to Depot Glen from Fort Grey.
“..reached the tents……about two miles below the spot …formerly occupied”
“..take whatever things wanted repair to our underground room and I was happy to learn from Mr Stuart who I sent up to superintend them, that the natives had not in the least disturbed Mr Poole’s Grave” – Sturt’s Narrative Vol. 11 p. 102.
- 28 November 1845
Browne heads south to check for water at Floods Creek in preparation for the final retreat (black water found)
- 6 December 1845
Depot Glen camp abandoned. Final retreat commenced.
- 19 January 1846
Sturt arrived back in Adelaide
Burke & Wills Expedition passes to the East
Woore at depot collected piece of wood from boat
Cumpston, 1951, p 129 ” ..completed silted up”
Tietkins with Giles collected piece of boat
Mount Poole Station established
Bonney (photographer) photographed The Glen
Albert Goldrush Milparinka, Mt Browne, Tibooburra
Nail from Sturt’s boat collected. Williamson, Harris-Wood, Slee, De Beer.
Mt Poole Station abandoned
Warwick Schofield, first visit to site. Underground room not noticed
Warwick Schofield photograph of “Underground Room”
Warwick Schofield visits, heavy vegetation at site of Underground room
Warwick Schofield visits in December. (Same as 1982) measurements made.
Warwick and Margie Schofield , Det Sgt (retired) Shaun O,Sullivan and Nevin HOLLAND. OAM visits the site in April 13/14.
Charles Sturt’s Underground Room
by W. Schofield, Febuary 2014
STURT’S NARRATIVE. 1849.
This was the official record of the expedition submitted to the Government three years after the expedition’s conclusion.
It was written by Sturt and published in facsimile form in two volumes in 1965, Expedition into Central Australia, Sturt. (This work was republished by Corkwood Press in 2001.)
It is of a narrative style and contains some dates, co-ordinates and details of the expedition. (A map constructed from tracings by Arrowsmith is basic and shows the main locations and place names).
The purpose of the expedition was to follow up the Eastern/Western water divide from The Barrier Range, northwards from near the present Broken Hill.
From the Northern termination of this divide to proceed westward to locate Lake Torrens (the belief in the “horseshoe” formation of Lake Torrens still existed) and maybe Mt Hopeless in the Northern Flinders Ranges.
Then, to proceed North Westwards to the centre of Australia, hopefully intersecting a vast inland sea on the way.
The only useful mention of the location of the underground room is:
“..….carried Poole across the camp towards the room….”
“ ……we buried Mr Poole under a Grevillia [sic] that stood close to our underground room…”
STURT, C. 1984. Journal of the Central Expedition.
Sturt would write up his daily diary from his field note book at the end of each day. (See Davis) Each Sunday he would complete a similar writing in the form of a summary of the whole week’s activities. This was in the form of letters to his wife and should have been titled “Sturt’s Letters to his Wife” (and not his JOURNAL) The letters are filled with “dearest Charlotte” statements. First published in 1984. The underground room gets very casual mention only.
DANIEL BROCK’S DIARY, 1975. To the Desert with Sturt, Brock.
Brock was designated “collector” on the expedition.
His personal diary of the expedition was not handed in, which it should have been, but instead was returned to England.
Two generations later it was handed in to the State Library of South Australia in 1938 and placed in the archives. It was discovered in 1966 and again archived until it was published in 1975.
This is the definitive reference on the underground room, recording its dimensions, construction methods, materials and general comments on the project. (But, unfortunately, no mention of the actual location)
”….a very unique looking dwelling house.” – Brock, p. 116
MR JOHN HARRIS BROWNE’S DIARY, 1966
The expedition’s surgeon. Browne’s diary was published in South Australiana, by South Australian Libraries Board Vol V Number 1, March 1966. Dr. Browne makes no mention of the Underground Room
ED STOKES. 1986, To the Inland Sea.
This is a coffee table book of coloured pictures but amazingly, reproduces many daily diary entries by Sturt.
Stokes prepared a populist article, supposedly retracing Sturt’s steps (in his Subaru !) in Australian Geographic.
In a newspaper article advertising the book at that time, Stokes claims to have obtained never before published Sturt’s original handwritten daily diaries held on microfiche in the National Library in Canberra and obtained copyright permission from a descendant member of Sturt’s family in England.
The setting for this document is that as each day progressed, Sturt made rough field notes ( lat/long, descriptions, distances, times, sketches, coloured paintings, notes). Each evening Sturt would write up a diary with the details of the day’s work and destroy ( except for the coloured paintings in a small notebook) the rough field notes. The complete set of diaries, recorded into nine folders, copyright is retained by Sturt family members. It is these, that Stokes arranged access to in c1986. Stokes Transcribed the whole of these works and made 17 cassette tapes of the document ( 30 hours listening ? ).
The UG room gets very casual mention only.
DAVIS. R, HAKLUYT SOC. 2002, The Central Australian Expedition. (The Journals of Charles Sturt )
This single volume work is a rerun of Stokes’ idea of a complete transcription of Sturt’s original daily field diaries. (Held in a private collection). Sections of the diaries had been hand copied, possibly by a government employee copier soon after the expedition, and some represented a rewrite by Sturt himself in his own handwriting, discarded by Sturt but recovered from the rubbish bin.
Where the handwriting from the official nine folders of Sturt’s journal was unclear and this copy was clearer, it was preferred and referenced as the “fair copy” by Davis. Davis felt that Stokes’ work was not thorough enough and so he has reworked the whole nine folders of the daily diaries.
All of this is explained in Davis’ 71 pages of Introduction. Transcription taken from holograph & microfilm (Davis Intro. p. LvII)
The UG room gets very casual mention only. However, Davis, in realising this adds an extensive footnote on the UG room where he quotes in full all the details from Brock’s diary as mentioned above under, Daniel Brock’s Diary.
CUMPSTON, J , 1951, Charles Sturt, His…
This is a thorough and readable account of Sturt’s expedition, however, the later publication of Brock’s diary in particular make it well out of date for the UG room project.
“…but by 1863, the underground room had been completed [sic] silted up.” p. 129. Otherwise, the UG room gets very casual mention only.
RUDOLPH IVAN, 2006. Sturt’s Desert Dream.
Probably the most recent book on the subject. Rudolph hails from South Africa to Australia in the 1980s and was a science teacher. His most recent book is Eyre, the forgotten explorer, 2013. He has researched and written books on the Rev. Dr John Flynn. Rudolph has a website promoting his books.
In 2003, Rudolph commenced three years research on Charles Sturt’s 1844/1846 expedition for his book. When the UG room gets the usual casual (and unreferenced) mention, Rudolph makes the remarkable statement about the room “traces of which are still visible today.”
I have been in contact with Ivan and he can’t remember where he got that information from. He seems to remember some notes or a sketch map but he has moved house since then and may have thrown his notes out.
CLUNE.F, 1936, Roaming Round the Darling .
“….Pooles Grevillia [sic] tree …a few yards away is a small depression which Dryblower Tom pointed out as Sturt’s underground room….” p.136. I don’t think so.
ABSOLOM J. 1986, , In the Steps of Charles Sturt (DVD, 53 minutes).
I have never known Jack to be so brief. He is a legend of local history and outback travel, especially around Broken Hill where he has his own art gallery. In the video he walks within 20 metres of the UG room without mention. Later on, walking down Preservation Creek, he says that, to avoid the heat, Sturt dug a cellar in the creek bank somewhere.
The Underground Room gets very casual mention only.
AUSTRALIAN GEOGRAPHIC, No. 7 JULY, 1987. Stokes Ed.
Very detailed but, no mention of underground room!
This post was compiled in February 2022 from a variety of materials provided by Mr Warwick Schofield.