Recollecting Ludwig Leichhardt

We may never know what fate befell explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, but can we understand him a little better through his possessions?

Leichhardt's library

Leichhardt's library
Photographer: Stuart Humphreys © Australian Museum

Up in my attic is stored a large plastic tub – the sort you can buy at a $2 shop – in which is entombed the few remaining possessions of my dead grandparents. The usual photographs, letters, diaries and favourite trinkets lie ready in waiting for future descendants to explore.

Inevitably, such a legacy is incomplete, this small collection of objects being the end product of a process of evaluation, downsizing and disposal. It is a collection as representative of the values of the ‘family curator’ as it is of the lives of my grandparents, and I sometimes wonder what intriguing interpretations people will make of these possessions in a hundred years time.

Similar scenarios are faced every day by museums but on an industrial scale. The older the museum, the greater the opportunity for collections to have been reorganised, misplaced and even disposed of.Given this long history, Australia’s earliest museums are not only the storehouses of objects but also powerhouses of memory, where the stories of collections irreparably changed or long gone have the potential to be as valuable as objects existing today.

Ghost collection

It seems fitting that the ‘ghost’ collection I am currently researching should have belonged to Ludwig Leichhardt (1813–1848?), a man famous for performing the ultimate vanishing trick. In early 1848, Leichhardt and his expedition of six men set out from the Darling Downs, Queensland, on their ambitious journey to traverse Australia from east to west. They were never seen by Europeans again.

It was not the first time Leichhardt had disappeared, so those remembering his extended absence on an earlier journey from Morton Bay to Port Essington were prepared for a long wait. In time, however, it was accepted that the party had perished and, in 1853, a friend of the explorer presented the Australian Museum with Leichhardt’s worldly goods.In a number of tin boxes lay a microscope, botanical specimens, a diary, field notes, university lecture notes, correspondence, and almost 140 volumes of Leichhardt’s personal library.

From the start, the collection was perceived as an encumbrance – this was simply a temporary storage solution prior to retrieval by Leichhardt’s relatives – though it was acknowledged that some of the books would make a valuable addition to the Museum’s library. The boxes were relegated to the basement and forgotten over time, where they disappeared beneath a pile of coal dust and rubbish.


As expeditions scoured the Australian bush for the relics of Leichhardt’s missing party, his true relics lay buried in the bowels of the Australian Museum. Over the next 50 years, the physical reminder of this scientifically educated man was successively misplaced, rediscovered, listed, picked through and eventually abandoned.

By 1902, overcrowding at the Museum was extreme and Leichhardt’s possessions were transferred – books and manuscripts to the Public Library of New South Wales and the botanical specimens to the Herbarium at the Botanic Gardens. The Public Library was also lacking space and 45 of the autographed volumes – since lost – were passed on to the German Consul-General as ‘mementoes of this eminent German’.

Interested in what personal libraries can tell us about their owners, I recently embarked on the challenge of not only identifying the titles that had been stored in the boxes but also locating any surviving volumes. Using a list of the books made at the Museum in 1881, I rediscovered a number of Leichhardt volumes in the Australian Museum Research Library as well as many of those transferred to the Public Library (now the State Library of New South Wales).

More than half of Leichhardt’s volumes have survived, with many displaying pencilled notes made by the explorer himself. Somewhat ironically, most of these books have lain in basement library stacks for over a hundred years unidentified as Leichhardt possessions.


What has been fascinating about recreating the contents of Leichhardt’s tin boxes is what it tells us about this independent intellectual. Often on the move, Leichhardt’s books are physically very small, which enabled him to carry an extensive range of titles with relative ease.

Books in six languages reflect his good education and years of travel, while the range of subject areas suggests a man with broad interests. Perhaps most surprising is the lack of material relating specifically to Australia.

One of the treasures, however, is a French world atlas published in 1799 and most likely picked up by Leichhardt while studying in Paris. Curiously, the only reference to Australia is a blank map covering the ground crossed by Leichhardt on his expedition to Port Essington. One can’t help but wonder whether it was this very map studied in Paris that planted the seed for the ambitious project that was to make Leichhardt’s name in a country far away.

Inevitably, the meaning of an object collection changes over time. What were once considered a few boxes of irrelevant personal papers and books of a dead explorer were downgraded to little more than museum rubbish and the mementoes of an eccentric character.

Since then, the manuscripts from the trunks have been scoured by scholars from around the world and the rediscovery of Leichhardt’s phantom library has complemented our understanding of one of Australia’s earliest significant natural historians.

Dr Matthew Stephens, Research Librarian, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

First published in Explore 30(3), pp 4–5 (2008)

Matthew Stephens
Last Updated: