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

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

The Late Mrs John Withnell

Miss V. H. Ferguson

Ferguson, Miss V. H. 1928, 'The Late Mrs John Withnell', Early Days, vol. 1, part 3: 46-53.

[Read before the Society, June 20, 1928]

Western Australia can boast many splendid pioneering women, who, with their husbands, courageously blazed the trail in this lonely and vast part of Australia in its early days. None of them, however, did this more thoroughly than the late Mrs. John Withnell. She was the first white woman in the Nor'-West; a great pioneer and State builder, and a woman of great heart and indomitable will.

Emma Mary Withnell was the daughter of George and Sophia Hancock, of Beverley, and was born there on December 19, 1842. Her father, Mt. George Hancock, came to Australia in 1829 in the ship “Warrior.” He was a man with a University education and came to this State with his parents. Her mother’s maiden name was Sophia Gregory. She was a member of the ancient clan of Gregory whose family authentically dates back to 1162 when the direct male ancestor was Thomas Gregory, Lord of the manors of Freesley and Ashfordby, Leicester, England, and a direct descendant of the clan McGregor of Cair Mohr.

Mrs. Withnell's father knew the value of education, and although it entailed no small self-sacrifice after the hard daily toil of farming in those pioneer days, he used to teach his children, five sons and seven daughters, in the evenings when the day's labours were ended. He brought with him a good library of standard works to the colony, and after the lessons were finished in the evenings, Emma, at the tender age of eight years, was encouraged to read aloud from one of the books. She thus early acquired a love of good reading which she continued to cultivate all her life. She possessed a wonderfully retentive memory and could quote prose or verse from the best known authors without the least effort or hesitation.

Mr. and Mrs. Gregory were highly esteemed in the Beverley district for their talents, courage and kindness. Moulded by such a home, on May 18, 1859, Emma Mary Gregory, at the age of 17, married John Withnell and they set out on their adventurous journey through life.


Starting for the Nor’-West

After they had been married about four years, Mr. Withnell decided to go to the Nor'-West, and Mrs. Withnell would go with him. So, in 1863, the little party set out for pastures new and almost unknown. This was a courageous undertaking for a man, but how much greater for a woman! They had to take with them two small children—mere babies—but even this did not deter her from accompanying her life-partner to the then unknown Nor'-West. The only other woman to go with the brave little party was Mrs. Withnell’s sister, Miss Hancock, just a girl in her teens.

The “Sea Ripple” was a small sailing vessel with a tonnage of 100 tons or so, and was chartered from the well-known old Fremantle firm of J. and W. Batemen. With the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Withnell, the two children, Miss Hancock, and Mr. John Hancock, the members of the expedition were paid servants. They took with them a miscellaneous collection of stores and provisions to last for a long period, 1,000 sheep, 10 draught horses, one saddle horse, six cows, and one Clydesdale colt.

The Journey

The journey itself took about a month and was unadventurous until nearing the end, when misfortune seemed to follow them. It had been their intention to land at Port Hedland and take up country on the De Grey River, but when they were opposite Tien Tsin, which was the old name for Cossack, they were becalmed for a week and much mortality followed among the stock. Eventually a breeze sprang up, but it took them in on the tide only to run on a reef. This proved disastrous, for when the tide went out, the little vessel listed badly and the sheep suffered greatly. Eventually the vessel was refloated and a hole which had been knocked in her, covered with a tarred sheet and the journey resumed. However, the captain refused to land them at Hedland, but promised to take them back to Cossack for another £100. They gave him a cheque on Mr. George Shenton and went to Cossack, anchoring a couple of miles out, and they and the stock were, under hazardous conditions, landed in small boats. On landing, Mr. Withnell and Mr. Hancock, went in search of water and located a good supply, though somewhat


brackish, near Roebourne, They had no means of transport, so they made a depot for their stores, and each started off carrying as much as they possibly could, while Mrs. Withnell carried her baby and helped the other toddler along. It must have been a weary walk, but the plucky woman managed it.

They eventually pitched camp on a hill which they named Mt. Welcome. It was on a Sunday flight and Mrs. Withnell used to tell how after they had boiled the billy and made a damper and had eaten and drunk, they had family prayers and even sang hymns, though none of them could sing very well.

When they settled down and made a count of their stock, the realisation of their losses on the journey was painfully brought home to them. Their muster showed 84 ewes, two rams, one cow and one horse. Their troubles and trials even then were not ended. A storm came up and carried away many of their stores which they had imagined were safe in the depot where they landed. Even some of the sugar and flour went, and their supply of boots. This was a real hardship, for they were soon barefoot and the burning sands must have been terrible. However, “spunk” again told, and one of the party manufactured sabots cut out of some wood and finished them off with sheep skin, and they just made the best of things till they could get more boots. Mrs. Withnell surely was an optimist, for she told how “they kept the sugar that was left for the children, and fortunately the cow calved and we had milk, the supply of which was later supplemented by the loan of another cow from Mr. Shakespeare Hall, who was a neighbour.” Their other nearest neighbours were the Fishers and McKays, who were 50 miles away, and the Seabrooks and Robinsons 30 miles off.

Her Life in the North

Mrs. Withnell spent 40 years in the Nor’-West and eight children were born up there. One, Mr. Harding Withnell, of Mt. Lawley, was the first white boy born in the Nor’-West ,and was born shortly after the party arrived there. Later, when the other children were born, a Mrs. Bassett, who had arrived in the district, used to help Mrs. Withnell, and she in turn helped her when her bairns arrived.


It is difficult to imagine the courage of these women pioneers at such times. Of course the men folk had to work hard all day, but it was marvellous what their wives did, and there is no doubt Mr. and Mrs. Withnell inspired one another on to the noble lives they lived. Noble indeed under the most primitive and difficult conditions.

Mrs. Withnell did everything for her family while they were growing up. Cooked, sewed, taught them and trained them in every way. They had no books, so in the evenings, after the hard day’s work was done, she used to teach them from the newspapers, making them spell out the words and pick out their letters, while she did the mending and making. Her children tell one to-day of the tender care and love of their mother and how wonderful she always was. In all things, however, she was helped in every way by her husband who loved and appreciated her to the full.

The first home they built was of mud bats with a spinifex roof. It was just a room or two at first, but grew with the family, and had a wide verandah right round.

The Natives

Of course the natives were wild in those parts, but little trouble was made by them. They were treated kindly and reasonably and soon learned the white men and women were their friends. In a short time they came to love Mrs. Withnell, who nursed them and cared for them when they were sick, and they called her “the medicine” woman, because of the medicines she kept in her medicine chest which cured them of their ills.

Mrs. Withnell used to tell how when they first went there Mr. Withnell painted a wide white line right round their homestead and told the natives they must not come inside that and firearms must never cross it. If they did they would be very practically punished. Just in the same way he made them paint a white line round where they camped and said no white man would ever cross it. If he did he, too, would be punished by them. Only once was there any trouble and that was made by one of the white men. He crossed the border—presumably for no good purpose—and the natives took the law into their own hands and dealt with him. He was left to their tender mercies until Mr. Withnell and his


men thought it wise to interfere and save him. It was all the lesson that was needed, and the natives always realised that they would be honourably and kindly and justly dealt with by Mr. Withnell, “the medicine woman,” and those with them. Although the natives were somewhat wild and some settlers had been killed by them, they never attacked Mrs. Withnell, and as time went on they loved her and were always interested in her and her folk.

Mrs. Withnell related how in their early days there, some of the native women who came to the camp were fearfully interested in her hair. She had quantities, tinged with gold, and they used to take it down and hold it out in the sun while the others danced round it. They were very anxious, too, to know to what tribe she and her husband belonged, so that they could know if they were rightly married. Fortunately Mrs. Withnell’s answers satisfied them entirely and they became firm friends. These friendships were strengthened when boats arrived from the Malay States and the crews brought smallpox with them and it spread among the natives and they were dying like sheep. Mrs. Withnell treated them from the medicine chest as best she could, and as many as possible, but great numbers died, and the tribes left them just where they died, so Mrs. Withnell and her husband had to have them burned or bury them themselves. Little wonder she was called the Mother of the North and the Medicine Woman. It was fortunate they kept a well-stocked medicine chest and brandy, for when the Pilbara goldfields broke out they were most useful. Many of the young men seeking their fortunes got very ill, and Mrs. Withnell doctored them and really saved dozens of young men’s lives.

Mrs. Withnell and her husband possessed that simple Christian faith. Every Sunday a service was held—minus a sermon—at their homestead, and the neighbours and everyone on the homestead attended it. Later, as time went on and more settlers came, Mrs. Withnell started a Sunday school for the children. She was very proud of this school and used to say the children attending it had no prayer books or hymn books, but they knew their church service by heart and many of them when they did get books or go to towns, knew more about them and could find their places, etc., better than the children in the south who had so many


more advantages in the way of church and religious observances generally.

From a religious point of view Mrs. Withnell's influence was very far reaching, and many men and women to-day are the better for her friendship and influence in years gone by. She had a great attraction for young people and in the eventide of her life many well-known citizens of this State—middle-aged and growing old—used to visit her and speak of her with affection and admiration. Hers was the simple faith taught her in childhood’s days and standing her in good stead throughout her long span of life.

Forty Years in the North

Mrs. Withnell spent in all 40 years of her life in the Nor’-West, and for about 20 years never came south. The journey in those days was too big an undertaking and in the early years she always had a small baby and the others growing up. She had 10 children altogether and all are fine, big strapping citizens of Western Australia, save one son who died many years ago.

Other pioneer women whom Mrs. Withnell used to speak of were Mr. and Mrs. E. T. Hooley, Mr. and Mrs. L. C. Burges, who were at “Andover” in the early days, and Miss Finnerty (Mrs. Burges’s sister) who spent some time with her sister, Mr. and Mrs. Elliot Richardson:, and others who came long after Mrs. Withnell and her husband had blazed the trail.

The loneliness was one of the greatest hardships of those pioneering days in the lonely Nor’-West. Mrs. Withnell used to say it was awful and hard to bear. Sometimes she was left alone for days, save perhaps for one hired hand. This could not of course be helped. Mr. Withnell and the other men had to be away sometimes if they were to progress and develop their station. Often she was quite aione all day with the tiny children and until long after dark. She used to tell a good story against herself. She had been all alone one day and as evening wore on she worked herself up into a nervous fever. Looking out she saw a figure in the bushes not far from the. house, and she took it for a native lurking round. Fearing she knew not what for herself and her little ones, she could stand things no longer, so she took her rifle, which Mr. Withnell in his


wisdom had insisted on her learning to use. She called to the figure, but it answered not nor moved. Again she called and said if he did not answer she would shoot. Still silence, so, she was as good as her word, and fired. Still silence and no movement. She knew she had hit it, so she went to investigate. As she neared the fearsome object, she discovered it was a dress and hat of her own she had pegged out to dry early in the day. She laughed at herself and about it afterwards. How many women to-day would have had the courage to get close enough to shoot?

Mrs. Withnell knew perhaps the depths of loneliness in that far north as few other women did. It was this that made her so sympathetic and understanding regarding the immigrants to-day, whose lonely lives some think is child’s play compared with the conditions of the early pioneering days. Still, this old lady so well and practically versed in every condition of the bush, used to say: "Yes, but there is still the awful loneliness and it must be very hard for the newcomers who come to this great land, for the work is hard and the lonesomeness at times terrible." Even up to the last she was most sympathetic with the women on the land today and no one could understand the conditions better than she.


In the course of years, success attended their efforts. Mrs. Withnell was a true helpmate and a most capable one. She ran the station and a butcher’s shop. At one time, when things were specially bad, wool only bringing 8d. per pound in England and costing 6d. to bale and freight it, and there was no sale for their wethers in the first few years, Mrs. Withnell again proved of what practical stuff she was made.

The pearling industry opened up and Mr. Withnell went to try his luck with pearl shell fishing as a means to supplement (his resources). During his absence Mrs. Withnell ran the station and opened a butchering establishment. Not only did she get rid of the old wethers, selling two sheep a day, making money at 6d. a pound and being paid in gold, but she made a great success of the butchering business. Her husband also made money pearling and things appeared to be prospering.


But fate dogged them once more and in a “willy willy” they lost thousands of sheep and their house was blown to pieces. Fortunately for Mrs. Withnell, she had just left the house before it collapsed and she had in her arms her baby. That baby was Mr. Jim Withnell, of South Perth. His mother was thrown over by the fury of the storm, and her infant carried away in the darkness. Mercifully he was blown against a pile of firewood and recovered not much the worse for the unpleasant experience, although Mrs. Withnell had her arm severely cut by a broken bottle, with rather serious results.

However, fortune smiled on them in later years and the Withnell family owned big stations and are to-day among the most flourishing and successful pastoralist; of the north. They owe much to their mother and realise the fact.

Last Years

For many years after Mrs. Withnell came south she resided at Guildford, and after her husband’s death she divided her time among her family. Some years she spent in Northam and the last nine years of her life of 86 years she spent with Mr. Harding Withnell and his wife at Mt. Lawley.

Her death took place on May 16 of this year, after only a few weeks’ illness, and her end was peace. She was laid to rest in the Guildford cemetery beside her husband, a curious coincidence being that it was the anniversary of the day he was buried there 30 years before. Mrs. Withnell was a daughter of Western Australia of whom the State has just cause to be proud.

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