John Whitehead – Author, History Cartographer

The Editor of The Allan Cunningham Story, Diane Challenor, has, for some time, followed the journeys of John Whitehead from her lounge chair. John is an Historian, a History Cartographer, who goes out into the field, findng and mapping the trails of Australia’s early explorers.  This is not an easy task, as those of you, who are familiar with our changed landscape and the inaccuracy of the early maps, know. John’s tenacity and dedication to his task provides us, the readers, the potential treckers, a map and a guiding dialogue to help us follow in the footsteps of the explorers.  It is not part of John’s nature to push himself forward, he lets his work speak for him, however, we here at The Allan Cunningham Project wanted to know more, and felt that our readers wanted to know more about the man who has produced over eight books, filled with maps, instructions and quotes from original sources.  The books are an inspiration for those of us who dream of following in the footsteps of the explorers. In response to our request, John Whitehead wrote down what he called his “small story” in response to our request for a biographical sketch:

John Whitehead - Author, History Cartographer

John Whitehead – Author, History Cartographer

A Biographical Sketch of John Whitehead
Author, History Cartographer

The early years

I was born in Orange NSW in 1935. My first school was at Captains Flat a mining town south east of Queanbeyan. After that at I attended at Queanbeyan for three years and then Orange Primary and afterwards Orange High. Like most people my age who attended the school system in the middle twentieth century period, we were subjected to the British Empire version of “Australian History”. I can remember primary school history books containing the following drawings and descriptions:

  • Sturt in a boat on the Murray River shooting at “natives” on the shore;
  • Kennedy being speared by the blacks;
  • Burke and Wills “courageously” perishing from starvation while the poor “natives” looked at them in wonderment;
  • The near to death Eyre being supported by his black servant.

We were told that our heroic British explorers conquered the continent to make it safe and civilised for us to live in. This then enabled our erstwhile pioneers and settlers to take advantage of all the wonderful natural resources that were being discovered in an uninhabited country.

British oriented texts also presented Captain James Cook as the discoverer of Australia. The majority of people in this country still consider this to be the truth despite:

  • The aborigines having occupied the continent for at least 60,000 years;
  • The numerous visits by the voyagers from Asia and Indonesia;
  • The traverse and discovery of the north and east coast of Australia by the Portuguese circa 1521;
  • The later Dutch, Spanish and French visits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

So, the only Australian history that I learnt was in primary school, there was nothing taught about Australian history at high school.

After high school and gaining the Leaving Certificate, I commenced my work with Local Government in July 1953, when I applied for the position of Cadet Engineer to the Canobolas Shire Council.

Self funding a university degree, six years of tenacity

I had to be indentured in a similar mode to the trade situations of the time for plumbers and carpenters. However, with a firm purpose, I decided to study to be a professional Civil Engineer, even though I did not have to meet this requirement for my job.

I eventually found out that to obtain a Local Government Engineers Certificate, one needed a Degree in Civil Engineering from a recognised University, and, in addition, had to pass examinations in Town Planning, Local Government Law, Road and Street Works, Water Supply and Sewerage. Also, two years work experience was required in a Council environment.

Sydney University was the only university in NSW and it was a closed shop to all but the financially endowed students. However, a qualification system was established by the State Government.  It’s aim was to overcome a shortage of university-trained civil engineering graduates; a direct result of World War II. The shortage continued in the immediate years afterwards. The State Government qualification system catered for those who could not afford a University education; and the Department of Local Government made provision for students who wished to carry out their studies, while being fully employed by a Council. At that time, there was no distant education provision at any Australian University. This was an opening for me and I decided to aim for it. I had to find some kind of a course that would enable me to achieve this goal.

The same subjects that were included in the University syllabus had to be completed. The main difference to the University course was that the private study student had, at the end of the course, to sit for one examination that covered all subjects. If you failed in more than one subject, the whole lot had to be taken again twelve months later. This was a somewhat onerous task as it meant that the work carried out in the early years had to be remembered, through to the sixth year of the study period. It was an extremely difficult requirement. It took me six years to complete the course.

Also, Councils in those days would not subsidise your course and all course fees (including text books), along with private correspondence organisations, had to be paid by the student. A cadet engineer’s salary was not very high, equivalent to a modern day apprentice. Initially half my pay went to course and text books.

A long and fulfilling career as a Civil Engineer begins

I qualified in 1960 and began a long career as a civil engineer in Local Government and I became, initially a Municipal Engineer, and then a Shire Engineer. History was a long way from my mind.

After working at Canobolas (Orange) for six years, I had three years at Gilgandra Shire and six years at Cooma Municipal Council ending up at Coonabarabran Shire for the balance of my career over a period of 28 years.

An element of curiosity ignited, leading to a life long passion

In 1968, the local high school Headmaster asked me if I would be prepared to help him investigate explorer Oxley’s route through the Warrumbungle Coonabarabran Pilliga Scrub area. This request must have sparked an element of curiosity in me, as I agreed, and then instantly became involved in the preparation of a report on the matter. The curiosity must have been laying dormant for many years, as I also became interested in reading about other Australian explorers. A lot of debate occurred as a result of this report, particularly in regard to the location and naming of Mt Exmouth in the Warrumbungle Mountains. There are still many sceptics who disagree with the fact that Oxley did not climb and observe the Nandewar Mountains from it’s summit. Our report indicated that Oxley had actually ascended Mt Bullaway many kilometres to the north, and outside the boundary of the National Park. In the early years of the district’s history, it was convenient to have it known that explorer Oxley passed through your area or property, and having Oxley pass through the Warrumbungle National Park was seen by many to enhance the status of the park as a tourist and historical attraction. There was general agreement with my analysis, and subsequently, other people have provided additional information which proved the assumptions made, were correct. I published 1000 copies of this report and it was sold out to the locals. I still have some copies but they are in bad order.

I have found that recent historical publications on explorers tend to concentrate on the more glamorous and adventurous expeditions in the more remote regions of Australia. Most of them usually reproduce all of the explorer’s journal or diary text with a short introduction and a brief commentary. To me this does not provide enough information for an adequate understanding of the expedition route and the camp location. Failures and tragedies in the history of Australian exploration seem to attract the book reader’s attention, particularly when lives are lost or aborigines become a problem. There seems to be little interest in the explorers’ stories that had successful outcomes.

Our criminal bushrangers attract more attention than they deserve. Less noticed explorers, such as Evans, Oxley, Cunningham, Hume, King, Roe, Stirling and many others were very successful in locating our extensive fertile lands and expanding the horizons of our nation. They rarely receive public attention, mainly because they did not fail in their goals or lose any lives. The later, more adventure styled explorers risked their lives to discover dry rivers, arid deserts, sand dunes and dry rugged mountains. They are the heroes who now attract the interest our city-based population, the media, the holiday explorers and the tourists.

I cannot remember if I disagreed with or even queried those early history lessons and documents; however it must have sparked some curiosity, because in later years I continued to be interested in early Australian history. The other factor that elevated my curiosity is an interest in maps and surveying, particularly the methods of route location of early Australian explorers.

In 2000, some locals started asking me for copies of the 1968 report, I had none but promised I would resurrect some for them. This started me off on a long, long obsession and another hobby.

I decided that I would expand on the report to investigate the 1818 expedition. After reading Oxley’s journal at State Library it became apparent that there were two separate expeditions and I would have to do the 1817 Lachlan River first (2003). This took three years with much travelling. The poor old Coonabarabran people had to wait until I finished Volume 2 in 2004. So that was how it all happened. The same thing happened with Cunningham; my weakness not to refuse community needs.

John Robson, expressed in his preface similar ideas to my own, in his book “Captain Cook’s World. Maps and the life and voyages of James Cook R.N.”:

“Another of my lifelong interests has been maps. I can spend hours looking at and poring over them. Any sort of map, old or new, will do, and over the years I have built up a collection of both maps and atlases.”

“Much of my enjoyment of travelling lies in the fact that it gives me an excuse to obtain more maps for my collection. I also enjoy drawing maps, and I have often produced maps of walks, excursions and other activities for my friends.”

It is, indeed pleasing to read many of the biographic works, with a set of maps beside you to follow and visualise where the action is taking place. Ion Idriess was my favourite in those early years, and his type of historic fiction writing enthralled me. One thing that I noticed was that Idriess usually provided a map of the area in which the plot of his book was located. Some of these were very detailed, nearly always located inside the back and front covers of the book, and enabled me to follow the plot of the book and where the various routes taken. Pity he wasn’t more accurate with Lasseter. Subsequently, I read most of the noted explorer’s journals and, eventually, many of the books written by other authors on explorers’ expeditions. Most history and exploration books are short on location descriptions and contain few maps. The map that is included is usually accompanied with extensive text and unrelated photographs.

I used to become very agitated with this situation because I always wanted to know the exact location of the explorer at any particular time on his journey, and the maps included in the books were just not good enough for me. This process has continued up to and including current day historical books. The number of exploration studies using text with a limited number of maps and illustrations is quite extensive. Most writers on the subject of Australian history have only a general interest in providing good interpretative maps. It was probably thought not necessary to establish any site or route location accuracy in their historical studies or maybe they just did not like drawing maps.

It can also be stated that the explorers themselves prepared and published better maps than their eventual historical commentators. Oxley, himself, made sure that the mapping quality was as good as the publication methods allowed at that time. Leichhardt, Sturt, Mitchell, the Gregory brothers, and Giles, all ensured that their publications contained good, clear maps. It is also interesting to note that navigators, surveyors and engineers are the people who have prepared the more recent books on explorers. Some historians, probably because of their sceptical nature, find it difficult to reach final agreement on many of these works, so therefore I attained a curiosity, a need to know more.

My curiosity resulted in the books that I have written on explorers. Oxley provided me with two expeditions and Evans three, two of which have been included with Oxleys’. Cunningham is a different matter. He not only went on one of Oxley’s expeditions, he also proceeded on another eight major expeditions, and spent three years with Phillip Parker King to and across the Northern Australian coast. He carried out many smaller botanical excursions to other areas of NSW, Queensland, and New Zealand. He was a prolific explorer and he has made my work a bit of an obsession trying to record all of his wanderings.

Not only have I an interest in history; geology is another passion of mine, particularly the geology of the Warrumbungle Mountains. This has resulted in a further three books on this subject. I created these documents because I wished to record my impressions of where the explorers travelled across our country. I think that my character might be similar to the aborigines in that I also have some kind of a connection with the landscape and features and I like to feel the sense of discovery that both explorers and aborigines have when traversing a wonderful land.

It might seem strange that a Civil Engineer could also be some kind of historian but it is what you feel about history and geology and not what your vocation happens to be. I am told that this kind of passion and obsession keeps the brain active and functioning and I have no argument with this claim.

I hope you enjoy my books. See a list of my books …

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