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

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

The disaster to the Clarkson Brothers, 1874

J. E. Hammond

(Read before the Society, March 30, 1928.)

J. E. Hammond, 'The disaster to the Clarkson Brothers, 1874', Early Days, vol. 1, part 3: 27-32.


The party was organised by the late Henry James Clarkson, who went to the North-West in the year 1872. After some little time at the North-West, Mr. Clarkson was commissioned by Grant Henderson and Harper, to go to the South-West for the purpose of buying stock for their North-West stations.

In order to gain some knowledge of the route, he decided to go overland, which he did in company with the late John Hancock. This journey was considered a brave undertaking in those days, as the natives were at their worst. Mr. Clarkson realised that the task of getting stock over land that season was a big one, as both feed and water seemed very scarce the whole of the trip. When he left Perth for the South-West I joined Mr. Clarkson, who was my half-brother. After searching the South-West thoroughly, to get the type of stock and number required, he started to buy cattle at Albany and Kendenup and several other places till we arrived at the Blackwood River. By this time about 500 head of stock had been purchased. At some point near Augusta, the stock was rushed into the river and made to swim across. I shall never forget seeing so many heads just above the water. After leaving Augusta, the Margaret River was reached, where a long stay was made at the residence of the late Mr. A. P. Bussell. A large number of stock was purchased in that district.

While staying at the late Mr. Bussell’s, I was asked to make the journey of 56 miles to Busselton for medical aid for Mrs. Bussell, on a little pony under 14 hands high, selected by the Bussell girls as the most capable out of scores of horses which they owned. The journey was commenced at 3.45 p.m., and the return home at 7.15 a.m. Almost from the time of leaving till I returned was complete darkness. One could well imagine the delight of those Bussell girls when they saw


that their little pony had done what they asked of it, covering the journey of 112 miles in so short a time.

After some days of mustering, a start was made for Busselton, where another large number was bought. The total on leaving this district was about 800 cattle and 70 horses, all for stud purposes. After leaving Busselton some trouble was experienced in getting the herd along without picking up stock or leaving any on the way. This kind of thing gave us anxiety until we left Perth behind.

On leaving Perth the total was 970 cattle and 113 horses. Many had been purchased from the late Mr. S. Pearce, and the late Edward Higham and the late Mr. H. Hall. A final start was made for Geraldton involving nearly 300 miles of a drive with half the time in water and rain and wet rugs to sleep on. Food was wild game and Johnny cakes, twice a day. The journey took one month to complete, as far as the Upper Irwin, where the stock was made up to 1153 head of cattle and 173 horses. A halt was then made to reorganise for the final start for the North-West.

The Party

The party consisted of 17 members :—The late Henry James Clarkson (leader), William Wilberforce Clarkson, Jesse E. Hammond, half brother (in charge of stores and armoury), John E. Hammond, half-brother, John Knapton, of Busselton, William Bryne, of Busselton, Thomas Scott, of Busselton, Edward Brady, of Augusta, Valentine Hester, of the Blackwood, Eugene Loch, Felix Loch, J. B. Loch (brothers), of Lochville, D. Poole, of the Irwin, W. Pearse, Greenough, and three South-West natives.

Equipment for the journey consisted of 23 riding saddles, 9 pack saddles and harness, 19 shot guns, 21 revolvers, 21 boxes of cartridges, 1501bs. shot, 42 cannis-ters gun powder, 21 boxes gun caps, 1 waggon and 6 heavy draught horses, 1 dray and 2 heavy draught horses, 3 tons of flour, 7 bags of sugar, 3 bags of rice, 2 boxes tea, 3 boxes dried fruits, 1 box soap, 1£ dozen brandy, a quantity of patent medicines, a number of axes, picks, ropes, etc., and a large case of boots and clothing.


Trials of the Journey

The final start was made for the De Grey River and before we had reached 30 miles along the Greenough River we found ourselves in a bad plight.

The stock had split up into mobs and had gone in all directions, numbers of them turning back. It took days of mustering to recover our number before we could continue our journey. This trouble was brought about through the hostility of the last lot of cattle which we purchased on the Irwin.

Our next trial was crossing a large sheep station between the Greenough River and the Murchison owned by the late M. Morrissey, of Mt. Erin. Water was only obtainable from wells; therefore the task of watering such a herd of cattle can well be imagined.

Finally we found this job beyond us and had to make a desperate struggle for the Murchison River some 25 miles further on. Fortunately a small clay pan was discovered by the leaders in the herd which gave two or three hundred a drink. After this great number had been satisfied it made them good leaders for the balance of the journey of some 11 miles.

On reaching the Murchison at a place called Ballennew, we found a pool of good water, something over half a mile in length and a fair amount of good feeding country, so it was desired to remain there for some time to rest the stock, as some of them had travelled over 700 miles. Travelling seemed slow with the likelihood of flour running short. It was decided to send the waggon down to Colalie for another two tons—a distance of 60 miles. From this point we were travelling by a chart drawn by the late E. T. Hooley. According to his chart we had a drive of 60 miles to the next watering place.

Mr. Clarkson decided to take this part of the journey in two lots, as our travelling was very slow. We could only cover about 10 miles a day because our riding horses could not stand the work. In fact, by this time both men and beasts were brought to a standstill from exhaustion. This happened at midnight, when the leader of the party said prayers for us. Early next


morning we were awakened by Mr. Clarkson, and there were no cattle to be seen. It was on a salt bush flat.

In a northerly direction, one of our natives said he could see some cattle. It must have been quite a mile away. However, we managed to cross to the place and found the stock standing in water in the bed of the river. The water here was very bad, but it saved their lives and ours, too. The cattle had smelt this water during the night and made off to it. We knew ourselves there was fresh water nearby, because of the presence of wild game, and of course we got better water by digging in the sand. That evening we followed the river up and got quite good water for ourselves and much improved for the stock. The next day it was decided to follow the river instead of taking a short cut across the bend of the river shown on the chart, which proved a great gain to us in the end. Meliniddie, marked on the chart as “large clay pan,” was reached after two days. This was a grand sight full of rain water.

The next trouble was to get horses strong enough to go back to Ballenew to bring up the other stock. After giving the horses four days’ rest a start was made, leaving Felix Loch and me to look after the number we had this far. Mr. Loch and I were left with 14 days’ supply of flour, tea, sugar. Instead of being relieved in this time we were there 30 days, when we decided to leave our post and go back to meet the party. Our horses were well rested and in good condition. We started off and, after travelling about 25 miles, we met them. Felix Loch and I had then been 12 days without the staff of life. This state of affairs did not make much difference, as at the best of times we lived principally on Johnny cake and wild game. Fortunately we always had plenty of wild game. Meliniddie was again reached two days later. We decided to rest the stock here as long as the water would last.

Ten days later another start was made. Good conditions prevailed till we reached the junction of the east branch of the Murchison. Here the water supply was in abundance, but the feed was not so good. This point was reached on the 18th December, 1874. We were all happy and content as the conditions seemed so much brighter. Although the next water supply was very un-


certain, we were in safety and all hands had meals together for the first time since the start was made at Albany some 15 months previously. A few days later preparations were made for the Xmas dinner. On Xmas Eve we shot two turkeys and 24 wild duck. Some three dozen mallee hen eggs had been found, and numbers of wild pigeons shot. Our menu was wild turkey, wild duck and pigeons, batter pudding, boiled rice and fruit. All hands enjoyed the dinner and we spent a very happy day.

The Tragedy

In the evening a programme was drawn up for the next advance. It was decided by Mr. Clarkson, our ever-cautious leader, that the country be explored beforehand. So the late H. J. and W. W. Clarkson went ahead, taking a native of that country with them to show the watering places. Things were fairly satisfactory till they arrived at Hooley’s well some 40 miles away, when the native took them in an easterly direction about another 40 miles without leading my half-brothers to any water. At night this native stole away and left them, with one of their horses played out for the want of water.

It appeared that the Clarkson brothers tried to reach the main camp on the other horse, but W. W. Clarkson became exhausted at a point some 25 miles east of Hooley’s well, and could not travel, so his brother had to leave him, and try to reach the well which was now about 20 miles distant. The unfortunate man had only travelled three miles from his brother when his horse knocked up. H. J. Clarkson thought that the only thing left to do was to walk to the well. He filled his water bags and reached within a couple of miles, where he left the horse. Some natives had evidently seen him and hid themselves till he had passed on. Soon he sat down to rest under the shade of a bush and dropped off to sleep. It was quite certain that he did this walk at night. While asleep the natives pounced on him and pinned him to the ground and killed him. Although he had his revolver fully loaded he did not have a chance to use it. I don’t think he could have saved his brother’s life had he been spared this fearful end, and I firmly


believe William Clarkson to have perished from exhaustion and thirst soon after his brother left him.

It was six days after the Clarkson brothers left the party before a search was made for them. This delay was through Henry Clarkson having said: “If we are not back in four days, you can make sure that we have found plenty of water and are looking for a good camping place for us all for a month or so..” This remark dispelled the suspicion that there was anything wrong.

The search party consisted of the late W. Bryan, John E. Hammond, and J. Knapton, taking with them as much water as they could carry on horses. After three days they were compelled to return to camp, not being able to find any water for the horses. The next day the same men made another attempt on fresh horses and succeeded in finding the spot where Henry Clarkson had tied his horse to a tree with a little note pinned on the tree. The words were: “Isabelle has knocked up. I will walk to the well and return again if I can. Henry.” This showed clearly that something serious had happened, and a further search located where the horse had been taken some little distance and killed. The saddle was broken up and parts missing. The search party by this time were showing signs of exhaustion and returned to the main camp.

It was decided now to report back to Geraldton. The late J. E. Hammond and J. Knapton taking the report. A fresh party was made up in Geraldton consisting of the late E. W. and R. E. Clarkson, brothers of the two missing men, the late Inspector Lawrence and the late Mr. John Rowland, of Dongarra, with Hammond and Knapton, sworn in as special constables. It took nearly three weeks before this party reached the main camp and the spot where the note was pinned on the tree, and where the horse was killed. This soon led to the discovery of the remains of William W. Clarkson, about three miles from where the horse was left. On the east side about three miles on the west side of that spot that the remains of Henry J. Clarkson were found. Evidently he had been killed by the natives. The remains of these unfortunate brothers had to be brought back to Geraldton, a distance of about 400 miles.

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