Alfred William Howitt – our namesake

Portrait of A W Howitt
1900 by Tom Roberts, Oil on canvas 43.2 x 35.6 cm
Monash University Collection, purchased 1967.
Courtesy of Monash University Museum of Art

When the founders of The Howitt Society were considering a name befitting their concern for the bush, eminent Australian, Alfred William Howitt, was selected given his observations and ideals, particularly involving East Gippsland.

The work of Howitt is important, as he described aspects of early European settled Australia prior to the introduction of land management practices that over time have caused so much damage to the Australian bush and are there as a reference for improvement.

Reproduced from a paper with the kind permission of the author, historian Peter McHugh, a knowledgeable and experience forester now retired and researching and writing an important history of forests and forest management. Peter’s extensive resume is included at the foot of this posting.

Alfred William Howitt

Alfred William Howitt (1830-1908) had an impressive and many faceted résumé as expert bushman, explorer, natural scientist, geologist, botanist, public servant and pioneer authority on Aboriginal culture and social organisation.

Alfred William Howitt c. 1863 Source: State Library

Like thousands of others, Howitt arrived in 1852 to make his fortune in the Victorian gold fields, with modest success.

But it was here that he learned to live with confidence in the bush and took great scientific interest in observing its natural cycles.

After working for a while on his uncle’s farm, he was employed by the prospecting board at the instigation of now controversial Gippsland explorer Angus McMillan, to lead a party to cut a track into the Crooked River near Dargo and open it up for gold prospecting.

In 1859 he explored land around Lake Eyre, and his reputation as a bushman and explorer was soon widely acknowledged.

In August 1860, the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition set off from Melbourne bound for the Gulf of Carpentaria. There had been no word for months from the explorers, so in June 1861, the Royal Society of Victoria – who had organised the expedition – sent Howitt on a second expedition to search for Burke and Wills.

Howitt left Melbourne at the end of June 1861 and proceeded straight to Cooper’s Creek in South Australia.

On 15 September he found John King, the only surviving member of the party. King was close to death from starvation, but local aboriginals had rescued him and were caring for him when Howitt arrived.

Howitt also dug up the cache at the ‘Dig Tree’ and recovered Wills’ notebooks.

The Burial of Robert O’Hara Burke, by William Strutt – 1911

His sketch of the burial of Burke was used by William Strutt for his epic painting now held in the State Library of Victoria. Howitt is shown at the centre of the group of three men on the right holding the Union Jack flag.

Howitt was later sent back in 1862 to retrieve the remains of Burke and Wills for burial at the Melbourne General Cemetery in Australia’s first state funeral in January 1863. It is estimated that 100,000 people watched the funeral procession pass through Melbourne.

For his services Howitt was appointed crown lands commissioner, police magistrate and warden of the Omeo goldfields, and so in 1863 began a distinguished career of 38 years as a public official, 26 of them as magistrate.

Howitt moved to Bairnsdale from 1866 till 1879 then to Sale, where he acted for a time as police magistrate for the whole of Gippsland. During his long tenure he travelled enormous distances, and in one year, it was said, 7000 miles on horseback.

Tribute to A W Howitt. The artwork of Annemieke Mein
on display at Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale.
Photo: Peter McHugh 2021

From the 1860s onwards, Howitt gathered information about the social organisation of the Aboriginal tribes of Gippsland, documenting subjects such as boomerangs, canoes, name-giving, songs, message sticks, kinship and social relations.

This tablet supported the above artwork by Annemieke Mein
on display at Gippsland Art Gallery, Sale.

His book “Eucalypts of Gippsland” published in 1889 became a standard text and he collected hundreds of varieties of ferns, grasses, acacias and flowering plants.

He noted about bushfires:

“These annual bushfires tended to keep the forests open, and to prevent the open country from being overgrown, for they not only consumed much of the standing or fallen timber, but in a great measure destroyed the seedlings which had sprung up since former conflagrations.”

He also commented upon ecological balance and the dieback of red gum along the Gippsland plains and infestations of insect larva.

“The influence of these bushfires acted, however, in another direction, namely, as a check upon insect life, destroying, among others, those insects which prey upon the Eucalypts”.

In 1890 Howitt delivered a speech to the Royal Society about how Aboriginal people created grassland as habitat for game, often up to a line of forest from which they could hunt, based upon a deep knowledge of how to control and apply fire.

Speaking some decades after the period to which he refers, Howitt states:

“The valley of the Snowy River, when the early settlers came down from Maneroo to occupy it…was very open and free from forests”…

In Howitt’s account of the lower Victorian Alps, he describes the changes in the Snowy River corridor.

“After some years of occupation, whole tracts of country became covered with forests of young saplings…and at present time these have so much increased, and grown so much, that it is difficult to ride over parts which one can see by the few scattered old giants were at one time open grassy country.”

When Howitt retired from the Public Service in 1901, he moved to Metung and once again took up his studies of the eucalypts of Gippsland and of its Aboriginal people.

Howitt travelled to England in 1904 where an honorary Doctorate in science was conferred by University of Cambridge.

View from Mt Howitt – 1935. Source: State Library

Eucalyptus howittiana, as well as Howitt’s Wattle or Sticky Wattle (Acacia howittii) is named after him. Mount Howitt and Howitt Plains north of Licola are also named in his honour.

Howitt is often credited with being the first European to visit the secluded Lake Tali Karng near Mount Wellington and the sacred Den of Nargun on the Mitchell River when guided by local aboriginals.

Alfred William Howitt is buried at Bairnsdale and certainly deserves greater recognition.

Peter McHugh

Peter’s full resume available here

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