Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

Life on the Swan 85 years ago

Burton, Canon Alfred 1928, 'Life on the Swan 85 years ago', Early Days, vol. 1, part 2: 20-28.

[Read before the Society June 24, 1927]


The object I have in view in writing this paper is to give some glimpses of the home life of the early settlers on the Swan, their social relations, their daily routine, their recreations; what interests they had, what problems occupied their minds, what ideas they formed of their strange surroundings, how they met all the unwonted happenings of a world so new. The material to hand for this purpose consists of three diaries about which it may be best to say a little.

Mrs. William Mitchell’s Diary

The first and smallest is that of Mrs. William Mitchell, wife of the Rev. W. Mitchell, who arrived in 1838. This journal is obviously a fragment; it begins and ends abruptly; it has three gaps, one of three months and two of more than six weeks duration, which are almost certainly caused through inside leaves of the exercise book having been destroyed as well as the outer ones. The only other explanation, viz., that the writer failed to keep the diary written up because of ill health is discredited by the fact that even during serious illnesses she did not neglect the record.

The period covered is from September 3, 1838 to July 10, 1840—two years and ten months. Her theme is almost entirely domestic affairs. The cares and incidents of her home; her husband and his work; these fully occupied her thoughts.

Yet here and there she makes history of wider import and tells of things of interest outside the narrow affairs of home life. An entry on January 2, 1839: “New Governor — Hutt, Esq., arrived last night in the Brothers” is followed three days later vby one showing the esteem in which his predecessor, Sir Jas. Stirling, was held:

“At 3 o’clock Sir James embarked on board the Champion for the Cape. All that could leave their homes came from Perth, and all accompanied him to the water’s edge. Lady Stirling embarked in the evening.” Her religious interests, too, are seen to be wider than the concerns of her own branch of the Church.

On Sunday, June 14, 1840, she records: “Sacrament at Henley Park at 10 o’clock. Service at Guildford at


three. Mr. Smithers, the new Wesleyan Minister, preached at Perth Chapel. Dear William drank tea with Mr. MacDermott. Willy took care of the goats." (William, her husband; Willy, her son). Both had their flock to tend.

But the entries of widest interest are those in which she tells of Lieut. Grey. I showed these, some years ago to Prof. Henderson, of Adelaide, who had written a life of this great statesman, as they give details of which he was not aware. Grey was evidently a man of attractive personality. G. F. Moore came in close touch with him, and speaks of him in highly favourable terms. Together they explored the country around the Swan, Susannah Brook in particular, and had much congenial talk upon the prospects of this new land.

Mrs. Mitchell writes on February 14, 1839, at Fremantle : “William had a pleasant ride from Perth with Lieut. Grey, a gentleman who came here some months since from the Isle of France, and appointed by the Government of that place to explore the country to the north, with a view of forming a settlement there. He is now on the eve of embarking in a whaler which is to take him and his party as far as Shark’s Bay.”

Three days later, on Sunday, February 17, she says: “At 3 o’clock this afternoon Lieut. Grey and his party, consisting of Mr. Walker, a medical man, Mr. Smith, five sailors, two soldiers and one native called Kibra, went on board the Russell (Capt. Long) and sailed out of harbour with a fine breeze.” Little did she think that an expedition begun so auspiciously should end so disastrously; but the sad tale is told by G. F. Moore in his journal, of how the leader struggled into Perth ahead of his company, in desperate haste to form a rescue party; how Walker, half demented, staggered to the outskirts of the settlement; how Smith succumbed to the sufferings of the forced march along a desolate coast.

But while this tragic result was not anticipated, still less did these historians imagine that this adventurous young officer had such stuff in him as was destined to make him one of the foremost of England’s Empire-builders, and that this fruitless attempt at settlement was a brief but stern apprenticeship that preluded a long, varied and unique career full of experiences that proved him a master in the art of pioneering and a great Colonial statesman.


The Rev. J. R. Wollaston’s Diary

While Mrs. Mitchell’s diary is the shortest, that of J. R. Wollaston is by far the longest; but comparatively little of it deals with the Swan. Its value is great, however, because he views people, things and events from the outside as it were. He is the visitor to the Swan, the spectator, the looker-on, who sees more of the game than Mrs. Mitchell, who was in the thick of it—and was finding it, I venture to think, a very serious business. She was very much a “stay-at-home”; he an indefatigable traveller, though past 50 before he came to W.A. He was somewhat deaf, yet what he lost from lack of hearing, his eyes more than made up for. Nothing escaped his notice. Above all else a keen student of character, his not unkindly pen pictures of many persons who figure in our State’s history make his journal a sort of portrait gallery. That of Thomas Peel is a very good sample. But of persons more closely connected with the Swan he also gives glimpses, e.g., the Rev. Wm. Mitchell and of Major Irwin’s household.

“Mr. Mitchell writes a very indifferent account of himself; his health is weak, and his temporal concerns embarrassing. Yet I know no man more deserving of support and encouragement, it tells sadly against human nature that a good and pious man like this should be left to struggle on in weak health for his family while he is doing everything that zeal and talent can effect for the good of the souls of those around him. I wish it were in my power to assist him.”

“The Major [Major Irwin] is an old plain soldier. As we were starting (from Perth for Henley Park) a pony with side saddle was brought up—I had seen no lady—nor heard of any to accompany us. Presently Mr. Mackie’s black servant brought out of the kitchen sundry bundles tied up in cloths and handkerchiefs. These were hung on the pummels on either side. While admiring the ingenuity of this pack-saddle and thinking the pony was sufficiently loaded, out came another black (an Indian coolie) with a red handkerchief tied over his head under the chin, and a blanket wrapped round him. This was the Major’s servant who, unable to ride any other way, was mounted (lady fashion). We drove him before us all the way, on a brisk trot, the poor fellow holding on the pummel with one hand, and securing the goods and dangling chattels as well as he could with the other. He dropped his blanket once, and I dismounted to replace it. He must have been very tired for the poor wretch was bumped through bogs and swamps the whole way.”

“Nothing could exceed the kindness and hospitality of my reception at Henley Park. I had not seen Mlrs. Irwin before. She has four hoys. There are also other relatives in the family; among the rest, Mr. Jowett, who is ploughman (nephew or son of the author of “Christian Researches in Mediterranean”). Partook of tea and supper combined (common meal here when people


dine early), read to them a chapter in Bible, and prayers, and went to a nice comfortable bed.”

As one reads all these accounts one cannot help being struck with the way in which the pioneers had to turn their hand to any and every kind of work. Hunting in the bush, grubbing in the field, building up the home, road-making, droving, butchering, horse-breaking, etc., and Wollaston, as versatile a pioneer as any in the land, adds to his list that of the family washing. Sometimes I wish his versatility had not reached this sublime height. It has won him the enduring regard of one lady I know, and one suffers so much by comparison with such model husbands. Some such passage as this the lady probably came upon:

"Last week we were washing for three days in succession. The first day the boys were engaged in the bush, so I had it all to myself, and I got through very creditably, a large bed tick and four blankets, sundry sheets and table cloths, seven pairs of trousers, and minor articles ‘too numerous to mention.’ All is hot done yet, but we have fortunately got a woman coming to do some of the fine things. As to ironing, we males can only indulge ourselves with a shirt and collar or so for Sunday wear.”

“The cows and steers have a propensity to eat clothes and often die in consequence. A pair of duck trousers has been half destroyed from our clothes line. I caught the cow at it, and ran after the beast, but she galloped off into the bush with one leg of the trousers hanging out of her mouth.”

Dr. S. W. Viveash’s Diary

The third diary is that of Dr. S. W. Viveash, and it has features that are lacking in the other two:—

(1.) It begins on the day of departure from their home in England, at Berwick, near Marlborough; (2) it covers a much longer period—from June 27th, 1838, to October 20th, 1851, more than 13 years—but with several wide gaps; (3) it gives a detailed account of the voyage .out, which alone gives the diary a special value. More than five months on board the “Britomarte,” with a captain singularly painful to endure for more than five minutes, and a mixed company of passengers 84 in number, besides the crew, and an assortment of live stock, trees, plants, baggage, etc., that must have made very close quarters for everyone: (4) Dr. Viveash spent some time on the Swan, then for a considerable period he went over the hills, settling eventually at Yangedine, and on or about July 1st, 1842, returned to the Swan, taking up his abode at Houghton, which he rented, and later settling at Wexcoinbe, some two miles lower down the river. (5) Another feature is the careful (and yet


confusing) record of the temperature in the summer, at morning, noon and night—in fact, at four periods generally. The confusion arises from the double entry as it were, not only in the margin, but also in the text of the diary and in no case do the entries coincide.

I take the first which comes at random:

“Tuesday, 19th Jan., 1841: 6 a.m., 68 deg.; 10 a.m., 72 deg.; 4 p.m., 74 deg.; 9 p.m., 70 deg.”
“Friday, 19th Feb.: 4 p.m., 87 and 85.”
“Only on two occasions have I noticed a reading over 100— 22nd and 23rd Feb., 1841; 103 and 105.”

From the pioneering point of view the period spent over the hills at Yangedine is the more interesting, as during his first period on the Swan the time was largely occupied in land hunting, buying stock, considering offers of various locations, with a little medical practice. And on his return to the Swan, his professional skill was more frequently availed of, although all spare time from this and magisterial work was given to the developing of the land.

At the end of the diary there is a record of the horse and cattle brands of the Guildford district. W. Brockman, S. Moore, A. Dewar, W. Cruse, Jas. Simpson, J. J. York, Hy. Morley, Alfred Minchin, Shaw, E. B. Lennard. Col. Irwin, G. F. Moore, Jas. Hitchcock, and John Spice are amongst the names and all their devices in the way of brands are depicted.

Dr. Viveash is stated to have been a great walker, thinking nothing of setting out for York in the early morning and sleeping there that night, and, no doubt, sleeping well. While living at Yangedine, which is a good 12 miles from York by the present road, he often walked to the town to visit patients ; and the Barracks at the Dale across country could hardly have been less, and this he mentions as a place where his services were often needed, a company of soldiers being there.

There seem to have been a fair number of doctors in the early days of the Colony, three being mentioned in these diaries as on the Swan apparently, Harris, Hines and Viveash; and in Wollaston's diary there are two or three spoken of. But lawyers appear not to have flourished. The Clergy were few in number—six for the whole Colony—-but laymen gave valuable aid in maintaining regular public workship, McDermott, Hines, Viveash, Irwin and Moore all helping.


The Seasons

One often hears the opinion expressed that the seasons are changing, that we don’t get the same weather now as was experienced in the early days. These diaries do not bear out this view at all either for summer or winter.

The very boisterous weather earlier in June, 1927, coincides with these entries made by Mrs. Mitchell in 1840:—-"2nd June: Heavy rains . . . during past night; 3rd June: Showers all day.; 5th June: Very boisterous weather; 6th June: Very wet, indeed; violent gales of wind.

The fine weather that often continues for several days in July of August is noted by G. F. Moore, who, finding the sun so warm in July, ventured to bathe in the river, marvelling at the genial climate of our midwinter. Such conditions I have noted several times, and have seen boys revelling in the water in July.

But the reversal of the seasons, and the abundance of sunshine at all times, naturally struck settlers from the Old Country most forcibly, and their records faithfully reflect their feelings of wonder and satisfaction at the change for the better. There is scarcely a complaint about the heat in itself; only when the urgency of the time compelled them to unwonted tasks, that had to be carried out under very trying conditions.

Accidents of a serious nature appear to have been frequent, and seem to indicate that the battle against nature in her primitive state is as full of dangers as that against human foes. The pioneer and the soldier face perils similar in degree, though different in form. Falling trees, unbroken horses, treacherous natives, the pathless bush: from these and other dangers the records show that pioneers fell victims.

Capital Punishment

Much prominence is given to the murder of a Mrs. Cooke and her child on the Avon River bank between York and Beverley, on Fleay's property not far front Yangedine in 1840, On July 8th in that year Mrs. Mitchell records: “The two natives who are to be hung for killing Mrs. Cooke and child passed through Guildford to-day.”

On July 10th Mr. Viveash, at Yangedine, writes:—-“All natives left us but Charles and Jelly. The former went to see two natives, Borabung and Dujup, hung for the murder of


Mrs. Cooke and child about three miles from Fleay’s house. A native called whilst we were at breakfast saying the execution would take place. I, however, thought someone had played a trick on him, having heard from Mr. Drummond that if found guilty they would be sent to Rottnest for their natural lives. About 12 o’clock the policeman called to ask us if we would take our natives and meet Mr. Bland and Stone to witness the sentence at Cooke’s late residence. I returned with the policeman. About 20 Europeans and five or six natives were there. The culprits, especially Burrobung, appeared much cut up. Dujup wanted Charley Miguet to let him have a pistol to shoot the white people.”

In spite of this and similar occurrences the settlers appear to have made general use of the services of natives.

There is on the Swan a spot known to a few where at least six pioneers lie buried and five of them were killed by natives, Yagan being responsible for one if not more. But while some proved hostile and murderous, many were clearly faithful and trustworthy and were of great value to the settlers generally.

Mails from England

It is touching to notice the importance that the arrival of letters from England had for everyone and with what care they record them. Dr. Viveash carefully makes a list not only of his own, but of all his household’s correspondence and from whom it came. In like manner the letters sent home are entered, and a mark put in the margin. It is the same in Mrs. Mitchell’s journal and also Wollaston’s.

The last named gives a lively account of the stir caused in Perth when the P.M. refused to deliver mails on a Sunday, the vessel from England having come in to Fremantle that day.

“Sunday, August 13, 1842: While we were preparing for church, guns were heard; the ‘Madras’ had arrived at Fremantle. Ship from England!’ was in everyone’s mouth and causing great bustle. To church, however, we went; read morning service and preached. Mr. Wittenoom, being an invalid, read only Communion Service ... At 2 p.m. the mail arrived—great commotion, in consequence of detention of letter by Postmaster-General, Mr. Camfield. He is a very conscientious man, and had previously told the Governor he must resign if he insisted upon the distribution of letters on Sunday. No mail had before arrived on a Sunday—so here was the test—and like a good man he kept his word. I was assailed by several for my opinion, and asked to interfere with Mr. C., but I would have nothing to do with the business. I cannot blame a man who acts conscientiously. It may, however, be said this was not like the common delivery of a Sunday post. News from England had not arrived for many months. Everyone’s mind was absorbed by the anticipation of


letters, and thus feelings proper for the day were disturbed, and service was not to take place again until seven in the evening. Under these circumstances, I am inclined to think mercy and not sacrifice should have been the interpretation of the opening of the mail. But as I have said, I could not blame Mr. C. One thing he was wrong in—not to have sat up all night sorting the letters in order to show his willingness to oblige the people so far as he could by having them ready for delivery by daylight on Monday; whereas this was not the case until ten on that morning.”

[Footnote at bottom of page: “Since ascertained I was wrong all was done that could be done to please the public, short of compromise of conscience.”]


One other aspect of life in early days may be glanced at. Dr. Viveash tells of the arrival at Yangedine of Lochee’s paper, a weekly publication. Apparently each issue is noted. Once he forgot to enter it on the day of arrival and made good the defect a day or two later. Papers from England came only at long intervals and a weekly news sheet meant vastly more to them than our daily does to us.

The books read are often set down. Reading aloud was in vogue. Dr. Viveash enjoyed a series of Marryat’s novels on board ship: “Peter Simple,” “Jacob Faithful” and others. “Peveril” is mentioned (perhaps Scott’s “Peveril of the Peak”). “The Listener,” by Caroline Terry,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Sea,” and “The Life of Emily Rowland” are referred to with approval. Mrs. Mitchell gives a friend Baxter’s “Saints’ Rest,” expressing the pious hope “May she find profit from perusing it.”

But reading matter light or heavy could only be enjoyed at odd times. The demands of a period when all around were things to be done made waking hours times for action. When weariness compelled them to rest they were too weary to read and times of enforced idleness, as in sickness, were the main opportunities for reading.

Nevertheless life in those days was by no means drab or miserable. Visits were paid in spite of journeys being over rough roads, on foot, or riding, or else in a cart. Generally they lasted for a day or two at least and the joys of friendship were an abiding solace. The hardships and the failures, the disappointments and the accidents, were met with a fine courage and a sense of humour which carried many unfailingly through the


daily trials; and of the heaviest of those trials doubtless many a brave heart said with the ancient poet:—

"Perchance even these things, hereafter it will be a joy to remember.”

Garry Gillard | New: 12 August, 2021 | Now: 12 August, 2021