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

Early Days: Volume 1, 1927-1931

North-West History: A Survey

A. R. Richardson

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

Richardson, A. R. 1928, 'North-West History: A Survey', Early Days, vol. 1, part 3: 18-26.


It is no doubt unfortunate, more especially from an historical point of view, that no connected and comprehensive history of the early settlement of the northern areas of Western Australia, from, say, the Geraldton district to as far north as Wyndham, has been written, nor the chief incidents connected with the exploration and settlement of this extensive area of territory recorded by those who took part in the enterprises connected with such settlement.

The location and growth of these settlements was in a way scattered and spasmodic. Settlement from the Geraldton end was thrown out from the earlier settlements around York, Northam, and Toodyay by the Burgeses, Moores, Morriseys, Crowthers, Padburys, Churches, Wittenooms, Von Bibras and many other families. Then reaching further north and also making a jump over some 700 miles of unoccupied territory was due to early exploration ventures of the brothers Augustus and Frank T. Gregory in 1861, and even before that. This brought into notice and history the large pastoral areas of Nicol Bay, De Grey, Ashburton (Onslow), Broome (Roebuck Bay), and other adjoining localities, and this is the district which, owing to personal connection with the pioneer settlement, I know most about.

As mentioned with fuller details in my book, "Early Memories of the Great Nor’-West”, reports by individual travellers calling in at some of the ports or shelter-spots dotted along the coast (though without any resident inhabitants other than the aboriginals) stated that promising looking country for pastoral settlement lay along the coast between Shark Bay and King’s Sound, now known as Derby, and more particularly in the vicinity of Nicol Bay. These reports reaching the ears of some of the residents around Perth in the early 'sixties, some of whom were not satisfied with their prospects as sheep farmers in the older districts of York, Northam, Williams, etc., they urged the Government to organise


an exploring expedition fitted out for examination of the inland country around Nicol Bay, a little north of Exmouth Gulf.

F. T. Gregory’s Expedition

This when equipped and manned, started away in the little schooner Dolphin, under leadership of Surveyor F. T. Gregory, with several good bushmen, such as Melak, Maitland Brown, Shakespeaie Hall, Edmund Brockman, James Harding, Pemberton Walcott, John McCourt and —— Jones.

No doubt the majority of these gentlemen and youths were real bushmen and with resourcefulness able to meet and grapple with any emergencies, difficulties or dangers.

In due course they landed their party, horses, equipment and stores in Nicol Bay in the month of May, 1861, not far from the mouth of the Maitland River—Gregory naming this river after Maitland Brown. They then followed up the Maitland River till its upper branches merged into the Fortescue, which they followed through very difficult hilly country till they reached some of its upper reaches of water, consisting of deep pools, and also struck that marvellous stream of running water which they called the Millstream, now so well-known as forming part of the Millstream sheep station. They then sought to strike into and through the Hamersley Range in the direction of Mt. Augustus on the Gascoyne River, and located. I believe, by the Gregorys’ brother Augustus on a previous exploring trip. But after terrible difficulties in the Hamersley Ranges and after crossing the Ashburton River named by Gregory, they struck south-westerly, encountering a rather long stretch of spinifex, hilly and rather waterless country. They penetrated some 60 or 80 miles into this and just sighted Mt. Augustus when Gregory decided to turn back on his tracks until again reaching the Fortescue River, which he then followed up, striking some considerable stretches of good grassy plains. Thence crossing the watershed dividing the waters of the upper Fortescue and Delney Rivers and attempting to penetrate inland beyond the upper sources of the Delney and Oakover Rivers, he again struck rather barren and waterless country, and


while he and Maitland Brown attempted a hurried exploration of the surrounding country, towards Mt. McPherson, they nearly perished for want of water and were precious glad to get back to their depot camp. From here they followed on down the Delney and Oakover Rivers, crossing and traversing many miles of good pastoral country, now the scene and locality of scores of good sheep stations. They finally reached the large grassy plains characteristic of the Lower Delney River and the summer drawing nigh, the weather hot, and water, except in the watercourses, becoming scarce, they hurried on as fast as their now jaded horses would permit, keeping a westerly course never very many miles from the sea and salt marshes, and crossing the rivers Strelley, Turner, Yule, Sherlock, Eastern Harding, and main Harding, finally reaching their original camp on the lower Maitland River. Gregory reports in his valuable old journal that though much of the country had been hilly and spinifexy, yet there were large areas of grassy plains and stretches of useful edible bush country and softer kinds of spinifex, all well adapted for the establishment of sheep and cattle runs and intersected with creeks and rivers, some with fairly deep pools, but no doubt many of which would possibly dry during the long hot summers and spasmodic droughts.

The Effect of Exploration

It was then the written and spoken accounts of F. T. Gregory’s exploring journey and travels excited the pioneer spirit of Irishmen in Western Australia and reaching as far as Victoria. One of the first to be moved in a practical manner and to put his impressions into action was the late Mr. Walter Padbury, and that sturdy old pioneer, with his practical temper which had little respect for mere theories, after thinking out his plans and working out the cost of risks, got to work and chartered a little ship, the Tien Tsin, of 254 tons (most of the ships trading to W.A. in those days ranged from 20 to 200 tons, with an occasional 300 tonner). Having fitted up the Tien Tsin for stock carrying and loaded her Up with about 600 sheep, some horses and outfit, away they sailed for Nicol Bay, discovering Butcher's tidal inlet, up which their boats could creep until they, could land their stock, which they did, with the intention of later on travelling them overland to the De Grey pastoral


areas (about 160 miles farther east) which Gregory had specially spoken of and emphasised as some of the best country he had seen. Mr. Charles Nairn was left in charge of the stock, it being the intention and plan of the campaign to follow the first shipment with a second load. These sheep and livestock and plant were successfully travelled (after rains) overland to the lower De Grey where the De Grey station was first established. Shortly after, other venturesome spirits began to think out plans for following this bold lead of old Mr. Padbury, and John Wellard next chartered the same ship, the Tien Tsin, and put on board a shipment of about 500 ewes, horses, and some cattle and outfit. He himself went with them in person, taking Mr. Shakespeare Hall, John McCourt and a party to work the expedition. These were also landed at Butcher’s Inlet in Tien Tsin Harbour in 1863-4.

Later on other parties followed—John Withnell with his wife and two young children, and Mrs. Withnell’s sister. Miss F. Hancock, with a shipload of stock, horses, etc., in the brig Kestrel attempted to land in Port Hedland to be near the De Grey country, but after landing their, stock they found no fresh water obtainable and had to re-embark them, losing nearly half of the 700 sheep, and most of their horses. They sailed back to Cossack (then known as Tien Tsin harbour) and Butcher’s Inlet, where they landed them and established their homestead at Eramuckadoo Pool on the Harding River, now the site of Roebourne town.

Another party and company (Mount, Qrkeny and Smith) arrived from Melbourne in the Aurifera with about a couple of thousand ewes in the month of December, landing their stock, and plant under the burning heat of a tropical December and losing a good many in consequence. Their destination was also the De Grey River, where they had taken up (that is, secured by lease from the Government) some 300,000 acres of country, the working partners of the company being Mr. Lambert and Mr. Frank Mount, and their working manager, Mr. McKay, a hard-headed experienced Scotchman.

When our own party and company, consisting of Messrs. Edwin Anderson, manager; McKenzie Grant, sub-manager; my elder brother, J. Eliott Richardson;


John Edgar and the writer, a boy of barely 18, arrived on April 2, 1865, we found the parties already mentioned and two or three other parties hailing from Swan River, as it was then known (that is, the country around Northam, York and Toodyay), viz., Messrs. Thos. Middleton, Samuel Viveash and Wilkerson, Thos. Lockyer and son, who, with their stock, sheep, etc., had not moved away from the Harding River.

Our own party and company above mentioned was made up in Portland, Victoria, some tidings of Mr. Gregory’s 1861 exploring expedition and his report of good pastoral country having reached us through letters from Mr. Padbury to Edwin Anderson’s father who had recently visited Western Australia on some land business. Our company chartered a barque named Maria Ross and loading her up with over 1,600 ewes, horses, equipment, and plant sailed out of Portland on March 5, 1865, calling in at Fremantle for the latest news. We reached Tien Tsin Harbour on April 2,1865, and found the barque Tien Tsin anchored near Jarman Island, near Butcher’s Inlet, with Captain Jarman as captain and Mr. Butcher (afterwards harbour-master at Albany) as first officer. She was just returning, after having taken a Government party and Mr. R. F. Sholl as Resident Magistrate to establish a settlement at Camden Harbour, where a large company and party from Melbourne were engaged in trying to establish a sheep station in the district. It completely failed, however, and the remnant thereof was a few months later transported to Cossack and Roebourne where Mr. R. F. Sholl was then located as Resident Magistrate. Amongst the members pf that unsuccessful company were the late Alex McRae, E. T. Hooley, Hyndaugh, Tom C. Murray, of Colac, Victoria, and many others whose names I forget.

Our own party had next to think out and execute plans for the unloading and landing of our sheep, horses, plant, etc., which involved careful handling and some risk, as our ship would not venture to anchor nearer than between 2 and 3 miles from the foreshore. We finally succeeded in landing them on the beach, some little distance to the west of where Cossack was afterwards located. We stayed to rest the stock some few weeks around Eramuckadoo Pool, close around which Roebourne now stands. From thence we travelled our


stock and party some thirty miles E.S.E. and established the well-known Pyramid Station.

During the following four or five months other parties and companies arrived in vessels, amongst them a rather large and important company known then as McDenison Plains Company from Melbourne. Mr. C. E. Broadhurst, the manager (with his wife and family), several members of the company, viz., H. Hicks, Simpson, McIntosh, Robt. and Charles Fraser, James Stewart, Roderick McKay and H. W. Venn, Donald M. Paterson, Smith, A. McEdwards, and many others; also a smaller party from Portland with cargo of livestock owned by J. Norman McLeod (father of the late Donald McLeod). Other parties followed on later, but those enumerated are some of the earliest settlers. Later on overland parties with herds of sheep and other stock arrived overland from Geraldton and York and Beverley districts—Fishers, Hancocks, and Edward T. Hooley, who had the honour of taking over the first flock of sheep overlanded from Geraldton district, David Fraser’s party being another.

The overland journey, some 800 miles, was at that time not just a picnic. Natives were aggressive more or less and a few attacks by them resulted in either deaths or wounding and the wide strip of country between Geraldton and the Ashburton and Roebourne was absolutely untravelled by the white man. and water except in the good seasons, was an uncertain quantity.

The Difficulties

In rightly assessing the difficulties practical and economic facing those earliest settlers it must be borne in mind that the destination of the various parties and pioneers then braving the problems of far distant pastoral settlement and responding to the call of the wild (and that call has a fascination for the British spirit of adventure) was a far distant one and isolated and cut off from any base of communications reasonably accessible, as the intervening 700 to 800 miles was an absolutely unknown and uninhabited country.

A somewhat anomalous condition of things was involved in the problem; that is, the attraction that called that body of early pioneers into being was centred in the reports written and published in Mr. F. T. Gregory’s


journal of his explorations around Nicol Bay, Ashburton, Fortescue and De Grey Rivers, and so it thus happened that this special locality formed the goal of those early adventurers, who appear to have had no eyes for the hundreds of miles of pastoral country that the overland parties passed over with their stock en route to their El Dorado. We have hundreds of times asked ourselves “Why?" For when memory retraces those migratory journeys we realise that the country passed over and rejected or discounted has since become known as the rather vast and more or less fertile region known as the Gascoyne, Ashburton and Murchison pastoral districts, now depasturing hundreds of thousands (or millions) of sheep, cattle, horses, etc.

However, it was not many years longer before pastoral settlement began to locate itself and spread over these immense areas of sheep and cattle country. The time set in in the seventies and eighties when the Browns, Butchers, Brockmans, Gooches, Campbells, R. E. Bush and many others began with earnest and persevering efforts to develop the Gascoyne areas, while the Wittenooms, Lee Steeres, Cruickshanks, Laceys, O’Grady, Darlot Bros., Burges, Little-Howards, Harls, Perks, Judge Davis, and many other pioneer settlers were hard at work converting millions of acres of wilderness on both the lower and upper Murchison into a habitable and wool-producing country, civilising and making useful the blackfellows, and for some of the earlier years living themselves nearly as hard as the blackfellows.

During the developing period of these early struggles with adverse forces of nature, it must not be thought that those early settlers received much help or spoonfeeding from governments or from the public purse. They worked and fought and battled chiefly at their own charges. Many of those sheep stations were moulded and shaped out of the mulga—fenced and subdivided and wells of water laboriously sunk from, say, 20 to 100 feet in depth, including a proportion of blanks where water was unobtainable, or salt—but all had to be paid for, chiefly on loans from financial institutions, as ready-made capital in those times was rather an unknown quantity, and rates of interest were not too liberal. It also should be pointed out and its economic


aspect pondered that wages and production costs were not on the high level they are at present; for if they had been with the low wool prices then prevailing—(6d. to 9d. per pound, and sheep cutting not more than 51bs. average) great areas, of country must have remained permanently as nature formed them, an unproductive waste, as their development and improvement would be an economic impossibility; for hundreds of these stations. were anything from 50 to 250 miles (some 300) from any port of shipment or railhead, which distances had to be traversed not with motor cars, but by horse or camel or donkey teams, and every hundredweight of provisions and fencing and building material had to be dragged many weary miles from some shipping port. Also, be it remembered, a fairly high freight for the sea carriage had already been paid; and the same hauling expenses also paid on their wool and fat sheep. All these considerations accounted for many financial failures ; and the encouragement or reward that the successful ones received from governmental or legislative liberality to a considerable measure consisted of an increase of land rentals and a large addition to taxation of all kinds. Besides these burdens very ominous warning and political threats would reach the ears of the settlers that the area of their holdings and leaseholds might at any time be reduced to say, one-third of their present area.

No doubt after the gold discoveries on the Murchison country took place in the ’nineties, settlement, when helped by railway conveniences, more rapidly developed and governments soon realised that more heed and attention had to be paid to the public voice, and demands for facilities, when voiced by some hundreds of impatient demonstrative diggers, than when only pleaded for by a few score of somewhat impotent and long-suffering pastoralists. However, the ensuing railways were a timely help to the sheep men in affording them transit for both wool and fat sheep—and they were thankful for it.

While these difficulties of settlement were being battled with and overcome on our pastoral territory south of the De Grey River, similar and even greater difficulties of settlement were being tackled and faced by enterprising and venturesome settlers around Broome


and on the Fitzroy-Kimberley and right on to Wyndham, where the Duracks, McLartys, the Rose brothers, McDonald, P. Hutton, G. Paterson, and many others were facing similar problems with the rather ugly one of more hostile and mischievous natives. Added to these drawbacks also the considerable difficulties and heavy expense of sea transit to metropolitan markets on their fat cattle and sheep, and also an even more severe climate, though certainly regular rains are enjoyed.


Probably even a rather sketchy outline of the history of the earliest days of the Great Nor'-West such as this paper furnishes would be omitting some important features if entirely leaving out all reference to the pearl-shell industry and discoveries.

It was, I think, about the year 1865-66, only about a couple of years after the settlement around Roebourne and Cossack was beginning its life history, that observers began to notice the natives wearing ornaments, necklets, etc., of mother-of-pearl shell. It was also known to mariners and visiting boats with Malay crews that at low tides the pearl shell and beche-de-mer had for some years been collected on the coasts, and so resident sailors and adventurous youths took up the idea of employing some of the natives to gather pearl-shell at low water on the shores. This plan meeting with some success, they went a step further and procured boats of from 5 to 15 tons and selected crews of natives during the summer months to gather shells. Soon there developed a paying industry, especially when some shipments to London realised from £100 to £150 per ton. The next step in advance was when they found the natives made splendid divers; and at low tides by anchoring on the shell banks these native divers brought shell up from a depth of 6 to 7 fathoms or more and the season's catch for one boat often amounted to £300 to £600 —or even higher figures—and became an established industry.

A further development of the industry came in with the advent of Japanese, also Malayan professional divers, using the diving-dress and machinery and a much larger class of boats and luggers and forming a kind of Japanese and Malay coloured settlement at Broome.

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