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

Early Days, Volume 7, 1969-1976

John Septimus Roe: first explorer of the wheatlands; the search for an inland sea

Eva Braid

Braid, Eva 1975, 'John Septimus Roe: first explorer of the wheatlands; the search for an inland sea', Early Days, Volume 7, Part 7: 81-97.

(This paper could not have been done without the unfailing help and encouragement of officers of the Western Australian Lands Department.)

In October and November 1836, when the Swan River colonists were desperate for pastoral or agricultural land, the Honourable the Surveyor-General, John Septimus Roe, led an expedition out to the east of the settled districts of the Avon Valley. The land was a disappointment and gained no honour for Roe, nor has the expedition been given much attention. In the only book written of Roe, “Amazing Career” by F. R. Mercer, the exploration is mentioned briefly but is described as from north of the Avon Valley to the east, then south and west to south of Northam. In fact the route was over the hills to York; then a wide traverse east-southeast, turning to the north and then west to the Wongan Hills and home by the Moore River to the Swan.

Although it was thought Worthless for many years, the country covered by Roe is now the heart of Western Australia’s wheatlands; is covered with farms and the huge silos of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd. and carries millions of sheep and other stock. It is still a harsh monotonous land during the summer. Even those for whom it has a strong emotional appeal, who know and appreciate it, would understand only too well how uninviting it would have appeared in the early summer of 1836 to white men looking for land on which to make a living. Railways and the roads of John Macadam were only just being built in England and there was no capital or labour for such things in the new colony. Little complaint comes through in Roe’s notes of this expedition, nor of the bitter disappointment. He was a man who got on with his work as quickly and efficiently as possible and wasted no time recording discomforts.

Western Australia’s first Surveyor-General was the son of the Rev. James Roe of Sandleford Priory, Newbury, Berkshire. There was an eighth son as well as two daughters but his parents managed to send their seventh


son to Christ’s Hospital School, London, in 1807 when he was ten years old. This school is famous as the Blue-Coats and noted for strict discipline and spartan conditions. 1

In spite of homesickness, the awful food and what John Septimus described as thumpings, he applied himself to work. He knew of the struggle his parents had to educate their children, but in any case he had an inquiring and scholarly mind, interested in learning all he could. His letters home describe the school and reveal his own settling in to it. The first, dated 17th June 1807, is to “Dear and Honoured Mother and Father”, very carefully and precisely written by a very miserable little boy. The second gives the school routine:

“In the summer we get up at 6 o’clock, make our beds and wash. We have bread and beer for breakfast and sometimes a piece of cheese from the night before. We go into school at 7 o’clock and come out at 11 o’clock. Lunch is at 12, then school from 1 o’clock to 5 o’clock. There is pea soup called hogwash and much disliked by the boys.” i

As the lad became interested in his studies and made friends, the letters were not so formal; at times they were scribbled in haste with blotches and smudges. As with other schoolboys he was sometimes in trouble— “I have broke a window which costs four shillings and I hope you will send it to me which I hope will be very soon.” When his mother paid the school for extra milk for her son, she received a letter from the Matron asking if it was correct to pay young Roe the money instead of the milk, as suggested by him. He is making the best of things in 1812 when he asks his mother for cloves and cinnamon to make a plum pudding for Christmas. It would contain Id of brandy and he adds that the one he made the year before was the best in the ward.

In January 1817 Roe was home again. He passed an examination at Christ’s Hospital and in February received orders from the Admiralty “to proceed as master’s mate under Captain Phillip Parker King to survey the coasts of New Holland and New South Wales, usually denominated Australia.”2

Roe sailed to Australia on the transport ship “Dick” of 437 tons and then sailed with King completing the exploration of the north-western coast of Australia. There were four voyages between 1817 and 1822; three on H.M.S. “Mermaid” of 85 tons and the fourth on H.M.S. “Bathurst” of 170 tons. As they threaded their way along the coast through the intricate mass of islands and reefs. Roe recalled with horror the ships that had been wrecked and gave thanks for their own often miraculous escapes.

The voyage of H.M.S. “Bathurst” began in May 1821. Just out from Port Jackson Roe fell 50 feet from a mast to lie insensible on the deck. He blamed the complete loss of sight of his right eye on this fall.

Captain King recorded a visit to Dirk Hartog Island on the western coast during this survey. He wrote that “on the 24th January 1822 Mr. Roe went ashore at Cape Inscription to fix on a post a memorial of our visit.” There were two posts on the summit of the Cape, one erected by Dirk Hartog and one by the French Captain Freycinet. A memorandum was fixed on the larger post and near it Roe piled a heap of stones. The Perth Gazette of the 24th December 1836 reminded the Swan River colonists of this visit by “Mr. Roe our Surveyor-General”.

Roe was very happy to be back in England in 1823 and to have left Australia where he worked so dangerously and endured pain and illness. He was promoted to lieutenant with pay retrospective to 1822. At this time he is described as aged 26, dark hair, blue eyes and a sallow complexion, height 5 feet 9 inches.

From February 1824 to December 1827 Roe sailed with Captain Bremer on H.M.S. “Tamar”; in Australian waters again and then on long coastal


explorations to India, Arabia and Africa. He described the climate of India as the most pernicious he’d known and was very ill there for some time.

At last, in September 1828, Roe was back at Newbury, enjoying family life and delightful walks with someone he called dearest Matilda Bennett. They were in love but could not marry as Roe had no private means and they could not live on his pay.

As he worried about this, he was offered work in Australia again. Late in 1828 the British Government decided on a settlement at the Swan River. Roe was asked to join the colony as surveyor and agreed provided that his work was on land. Once the Government had made up its mind everything had to go ahead with the greatest urgency. The little ship “Parmelia” was taken by the Admiralty in the early days of December and Roe wrote to his father that he thought it would be sailing about the 16th January, 1829. Lieutenant Roe could now marry his Matilda and was determined to take her with him to the Swan. While busy organising equipment for a surveying office, gathering personal necessities and storing them on the “Parmelia”, Roe also arranged his marriage.

He was now 32 years old, had travelled the world, fought in wars and surveyed dangerous coastlines: he had survived tempestuous seas and great illness but appears to have been reduced to a nervous wreck as he pleads for his father’s consent to an immediate marriage. He told his father that Matilda would be an invaluable treasure to any man and that her heart and mind would render any man happy. She had no fortune so his intentions could not be described as avaricious or sordid.

At the same time Roe took no chances. He asked Matilda’s mother to fit her out for a voyage to the Swan River and obtained a Special Licence for Marriage by any clergyman at Newbury, to exonerate his father from performing the ceremony if he so wished. James Roe married his son to Matilda Bennett on the 8th January 1829. The “Parmelia” was not ready as early as Roe had expected, or at least told his father. Captain Stirling the Governor, Surveyor-General Roe and other officials and their wives, embarked on the 3rd February. Roe addressed a letter to his father “Off Portland, 6th February 1829”, and said they had sailed from Spithead about 4 o’clock on the 5th.

At Swan River the job ahead was enormous. The first hand-written memorandum of his work is dated Garden Island 7th June 1829 requesting stores.3 The first entry headed “Surveyor-General’s Office” is on the 2nd July. There were thousands of applications for land from town lots to land grants as big as an English county. Cockburn Sound had to be charted, towns, parks and roads surveyed. There was not nearly enough suitable land near the Swan to satisfy the claims of the settlers who had come because of the land settlement conditions. The river flats that had im-1 pressed Stirling were all too limited, and behind the level coastal plain the hills were stony and heavily timbered. The search for pastures had to start while the colonists were still unloading from their ships and Roe was harassed by desperate and often very angry land seekers.

Captain Stirling employed some of his soldiers as explorers. Ensign Dale found the Avon Valley which filled very quickly. Colonists joined the search but short trips inland found only a great deal of scrub, little grass and flat water courses which became salt in summer. Then it was thought that there must be a range of mountains inland through which a path would lead to open grassy plains. As the coast had no large rivers there must be an inland sea into which the rainfall drained. This was encouraged by stories from the aborigines of remarkable hills inland and of the Moleyean which the white men gathered was a vast sea to the east.

Very optimistic was the Irish barrister George Fletcher Moore. He developed a farm on the Swan, acquired a land grant at Beverley and was;


appointed Advocate-General but managed to roam around looking for land. He made friends with aborigines and learned to communicate with many of them. In May 1836 Moore discovered the river which is named after him and in June traversed out east to the north of the present Meckering with George Leake and Richard McBryde Brown.

After this it was realised that the plains and rivers must be far inland and exploration would have to be equipped to stay out a long time and cover large areas. Roe was now 39 years old, with little or no sight in his right eye. He and Matilda had five children, the eldest Sophia born on the first Christmas Day of the Colony and the youngest, John Henry, aged six months. However, Roe addressed a memorandum to the Colonial Secretary offering to lead an expedition to fix the real value of the reports of inland water and that Mr. Moore had handsomely volunteered to accompany him.5 The offer was accepted and arrangements for the expedition are detailed a little later.6

Roe and Moore would be accompanied by Surveyor George Smythe and Policemen Heffron, Syred, Craigie and Hampshire, with a native of the York district. Roe and Moore would ride, the former his favourite Tom Thumb and Moore his own horse. George Smythe, the four policemen and the native would lead packhorses George, Doctor, Bob, Hector and two unnamed horses. Provisions for 35 days were of biscuits, flour, pork, rice, tea, sugar, four gallons three pints of spirits and 12 pounds of tobacco, some 200 pounds for each horse.

The expedition set off on the 2nd October 1836. The first camp was made on the Darling Ranges north-east of Greenmount. On the afternoon of the 5th October from Bland’s farm at York a start was made into the unknown east, out to the silent, trackless bush. These men rode and walked where no white man had been before and in the little pocket-sized Field Books in the Lands Department, writen in pencil by Surveyor General Roe is a description of the land as it was in the early summer of 1836.7

It is known now that this country to the east is a vast plain, sloping gradually to the west and south. There is not one mountain from which to take a bearing and instead of rivers and plains of grass only broad shallow valleys cut across the undulated tableland. The drainage of the country finds its way into areas of depression in these valleys. They are designated lakes but are really only large salt flats, their beds metamorphic rocks covered by clay. They would be river valleys but are so extensive, the country so level, the rainfall so small, the area for evaporation so enormous, the water rarely flows but dries out leaving a thin layer of sediment and salt every year.

The lakes are surrounded by flats of red clays and loams on which were extensive woodlands of eucalypts running in broad belts following the low places. As the ground rises the soil lightens. Rainfall decreases with every mile to the east and vegetation had adapted to this and to the long dry hot summers. The eucalypts changed with the rainfall in species, density and size.

The Avon Valley is York gum country, the tree taking its name from the district. With it grew the white gums, jams and wattles as the acacias are known. On the clay and loams of the shallow valleys grew the gimlet and salmon gums with morrells and yorrells. These took every drop of water and allowed for no grass. Particularly heavy “robbers" were the gimlets which grew on the heavier clays. As the land rose and the soil lightened, mallees were found. The undergrowth of this woodland country was of acacia, grevilleas and hakeas with an increasing number of poverty bushes as rainfall decreases.

Between the valleys are the sand plains of decomposed granite which were covered with scrub and heath-like vegetation; dull and monotonous for most of the year it burst into glorious colour for a few weeks in the


spring as hundreds of varieties of flowers bloomed. When Roe went out in October, the flowers would have withered except for wattles and everlastings in favoured places.

Roe set off on a course E.S.E. from York which for a mile or two took them along the road to Mr. Hardy’s farm. They passed over loamy soil covered with grass and pink everlastings with jam and wattle trees. Their first bivouac, as explorers called their camps, was on the Mackie River. It was mainly salt pools but by tracing it up some way fresh pools were found. The next day they passed over undulating brown loam with occasional gravel and sand. There was little grass, and timber ran in belts of whitegum, mallet and some salmon gums growing in graceful clumps. Grass was found amongst York gums, wattles, small trees of the jam specie of acacia and nut trees. The nut trees would be sandalwood or quandong trees which grew amongst the jam, the sandalwood being a root parasite. The jam trees were so-called because when cut the wood is scented like raspberry jam.

The country gradually rose to a plain, granite rock cropped out of the ground and then a ridge appeared from which a good view of the country ahead showed nothing remarkable to indicate a change. At midday the expedition could have ended as Moore’s gun went off while lying on the ground but it passed between men and horses without doing mischief. 14i miles were covered that day and the second camp was made in a large shallow valley with a watercourse containing pools of fresh water. The next morning another ridge was ascended from where the Althorpe Peaks of present maps could be seen. Kangaroos were seen which Roe described as large. About mid-morning numerous old huts, as Roe always called the mia mias, were seen; simply constructed of branches thrown against prostrate trees and thatched with salmon gum bark. Grass, pink everlastings and the screaming of white cockatoos gave hope of water, which they found nearby.

In the afternoon the ground was sloping away to the east. They made their way through abominable thick scrub until the ground levelled out to a vein of stiff clay timbered mostly with what Roe called the cable gum. It was the gnarderuk of the natives now well-known as the gimlet. Roe described it as having a tall stem, twisted or fluted, of dark sepia colour with tops formed like the salmon gum, and like them also the leaves glisten as if wet. The clay was baked hard, grass very scanty and in the bottom of the plain were salt lakes. They made camp 3 at coarse grass in distant tufts, with no water since a fresh pool during the afternoon.

The next day the expedition continued E.S.E. Plains, shallow valleys and ridges succeeded each other, giving hopes of better things and each bringing disappointment. Numerous smokes of fires from the aborigines showed the country inhabited and more groups of huts were seen, some semi-circular with grass tree thatch.

The fourth day out Roe noted that the large bare shoots of granite which appeared frequently above the land surface were a sure sign of water and were the abode of pink everlastings, York gums, jams and wattles and white cockatoos screaming their claim. The only view ahead was from the high granite peaks, so he and Moore would ride ahead to reconnoitre, leaving the baggage to catch up. Nowhere in the Field Books does Roe mention the York native who was listed in the proposed expedition. From the manner of the search for water, the fact that only five pack horses were taken and the ignorance of the nature of the nests of the malice hens, it would appear that a native did not accompany the white men.

Roe soon found that the granite outcrops were the only source of water in the eastern lands. On that almost level scrub covered or timbered country they are the only relief as they run across the country in belts


more or less about fifteen miles apart. Some stand 100 feet and more above the land surface, others much less and some are flat and known as sheet granites.

On these granite outcrops are rock holes and gnamma holes, the first just natural depressions, the latter caused by decomposition of rock by various causes. Gnamma is an aboroginal word and refers to water on rock although some people now apply it to any artificially created native water hole.

The characteristic shape of a gnamma is that of a narrow necked jar. They've been described as like a hollow tooth with a small hole leading to a decayed cavity. It is often difficult to know which is a true gnamma hole and which a large rock hole, but to the old-timers only the correctly shaped hole was a gnamma.

Their formation is something of a controversy but it is thought the type of rock, the aborigines, and nature all took a hand. Granite is composed of several mineral. Felspar is softer and weathers more quickly than quartz so, if the softer material is surrounded by the harder, in time a depression forms. Aborigines and animals would scrape out loose material trying to get every drop of water and the hole would get larger.

Then the aborigines are thought to have lit fires in the holes. The heat on the rock would cause expansion and cracking and destroy bacterial build-up. The heat of the sun would have the same effect to help as well. When cooled the mud, sticks and chips of broken rock would be cleaned out. The holes vary in size from a few gallons to several thousands and some are so deep the theory is that they were washed out by overflow of heavy rain. Joints in rock could provide channels leading to a hollow and so build-up erosion.

Throughout the dry areas the aborigines dug holes on bare clay pans or in depressed areas of clay to trap water. The shape of these clay holes were the same as the gnamma holes on the granites, with the round smooth lip-like openings. The smoothed clay would be baked hard by the summer sun and often gave the appearance of rock. These holes, definitely made by the aborigines, confirm for many people that the gnamma holes were also man-made. The natives did not have the tools white man would think necessary but their scrapings over the centuries would have done the work.

There was other water stored as well. Small streams and creeks ran down the granite outcrops after rain into the coarse sand and stones at the foot. One spot at least woud have a rock or clay basin underground to hold water right into the dry season. These were the soaks. Even the smallest granite meant some sort of soak if only for a short while after rain. Sometimes wells could be found in deeper basins some distance from the outcrop.

In many places, as the rainfall drained down from the granite hills, creeks and channels were grooved out as the water rushed to lower places. These watercourses held pools of water or soaks where there was rock or clay underneath the surface. Some good soaks were found near the salt lakes in small basins. There were instances where the soaks were fed from streams making their way into the underground drainage system to the lakes. These were the springs of which there were all too few and most soaks consisted of water held in the deposits immediately surrounding them.

Ail watering places were important staging places for the aborigines in their nomadic lives. They made sure to keep all holes or wells covered when they held water. Roe found the waterholes roofed over with dead branches and covered with soil, leaving one small opening only which they closed up when leaving the vicinity in order to exclude birds and animals. He surmised it was also to keep off the sun’s rays which he said, “the natives on the south coast at least are of the opinion injures the water".


Roe's fourth camp on the 8th was in a beautiful clump of wattle in full yellow flower but when they left the next morning they carried water, having seen the dreary uninviting country over which they would have to pass the next day. Numerous native footsteps had been about and their fires were not far from the bivouac. As the explorers started out smokes shot up from a line of trees and were answered by others 10 or 12 miles to the east. About noon some fifty natives allowed themselves to be seen. Some rejoiced at the meeting while others at first kept aloof, handling their spears, throwing sticks and looking sulky.

Those friendly entered into free and familiar dialogue. Some had been to the Avon and others to the north but all said they knew nothing of the land to the east. They pointed N.N.W. and said they were going to Gabba. To the question “Where is Moleyean?” they pointed N.N.W. After much noisy talk and receiving half a biscuit each, they all departed in good humour.

Roe steered across an open plain, on which there were, as usual, many kangaroos, towards a hill. On the western slope of the large bare granite which crowned this hill excellent water was almost running in a small channel. This they made camp 5 and marked it on a York gum. The country was now dipping to the north-east and Roe was hopeful that this meant a favourable change in the nature of the country. The next morning they crossed a dry watershed dipping north-east “being the first indication of water flowing eastward”. There were other signs of better country; one well seemed to be a great resource of the natives whose old fires surrounded with kangaroo bones were observed in great numbers. At the end of the day however. Roe recorded “We are still among the gimlet, salmon gum and whitegum: none of which in general seem to be tenants of superior soils.” Roe, of course, was looking for grass and water.

The next day Roe continued his course to the east and hopes of river beds and mountains were once again dispelled. One shallow valley followed another. A scrubby plain was crossed which had been burned by the natives the year before and upon which a family of two large emus and three small ones were disturbed. They camped by a nearby granite and named it Emu Hill. There were numerous marks of the natives around this bivouac, many not more than 24 hours old, including the holes that had been dug by the women in search of roots, and about 5 dozen short sticks 18 inches in length, an inch in diameter—“the use of which we could not conjecture, unless they had been used by the youngsters in practising throwing the ‘dowart’ or ‘kylie’; the former a straight round stick 18 to 24 inches in length which they throw with a good aim and kill bandicoots, kangaroo rats, wallabies, birds, etc. and the latter a curved flat piece of wood of, the same length, flat on one side, and convex on the other, rather sharpened at the sides and edges and is used by them in fighting and in killing game.”

The next morning, the 12th, the country traversed was so nearly level that Roe could not say in what direction the winter rain would drain but he thought to the eastward. He continued to record descriptions of the trees, noting different types of wattle and white gums. Another type of*, native hut was passed—sticks bent together and thatched.

Deep in thick scrub were found two circular mounds, the sandy soil being very regular in a circle, about 12 feet in diameter. They were thought to be natives’ graves but when opened to two feet, egg shells were found and it was realised the mounds were nests of some sort. Many white ants’ nests had been passed, which had been dug out and robbed of their contents by the natives.

A discovery of secondary limestone formation gave hope that a favourable change might be not far distant but both men and horses had made a fatiguing march of 14 or 15 miles that day through terrible bush and scrub and they were in great doubt of finding horse feed if they proceeded further.


Camp 8 was disturbed during the night by a dingo. It took a piece of bridle and a padded horse rug from within five yards of the camp fire. The ropes of the horse were found much gnawed and the culprit was even seen sitting up close by a horse.

Roe persevered to the east. There were now few signs of fire ever passing over the land and fallen trees crossing each other impeded progress. The trees were rotting where they had fallen while others were decaying where they stood. Camp 10 was made at what Roe describes as a totally unexpected windfall of pasture and water in the midst of abrupt ironstone hills. He was concerned because they had not seen a kangaroo or emu that day or the day before. Cockatoos, parrots and other birds had become scarce, as well as the kangaroo rat or bandicoot which was usually starting up from underfoot in other places every few minutes. Roe was still puzzling as to what became of the water which at times must fall on the 100 miles they had passed over but thought appearances were still in favour of it having drained off to form a river in the north east.

They were now far out; the soil at bivouac 10 was a rich bright red loam, nearly as bright as brick dust. The next morning they found a new kind of shrub about 12 feet to 15 feet high, straight and narrow, growing like a larch but with a soft grey bark, spear headed leaves, and the young flowers about to burst from buds resembling bunches of figs. This would be the kurrajong and Roe was out on the edge of the present goldfields country.

The horizon to the south and east became more bare of hill-tops but Roe continued to search for an opening in this direction for another two days. Travel was slowed when George Smythe cut his knee. The fifth pack-horse had to be dispensed with as such and his load distributed amongst the others who were by this time less loaded than on leaving York. At bivouac 14 on the 18th October there was no feed or water for the horses. They were given three pounds of mashed biscuit each, mixed with bran from the packing.'It was accepted by most, if unwilling and with reproach.

On the morning of the 20th Roe decided he must make his way from hill to hill in a northerly direction where a few granite peaks appeared on a horizon as flat as the calm sea itself. The course was now north-westerly approximately along the route of Canning’s No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence of nearly 70 years later. During the last week they had seen several of the large birds they recognised as the gnow of the natives. They had also seen more of the circular mounds and some were opened up but still it was not known which bird had made the nest.

Good food and water were found and the party halted for the day at 2.50. A dark-stemmed casuarina was marked 16. After dining Roe and Moore climbed the nearby granite peak and while busy taking bearings saw 8 or 10 natives in the distant bush. A big fire blazed up and Roe wrote: “No doubt for the purpose of driving away the evil spirits which they must have felt stood before them on the summit of the rock.” It was now about 150 miles from York and Roe was sure the aborigines would not have seen white men. The intervening country was such that it was unlikely they would have even heard of them.

The granite peaks were more numerous. Roe described camp 17 as among our old and valued friends the York gums, jams and wattles etc. They found a well 10 feet in diameter and holding 4 feet of water. It was a spring, presumably Spring Well Vale. It was obviously a great resort of the natives as well as emus, birds and animals of the kangaroo-rat type.

It was easier going through more open scrub to a peak near the present town of Burracoppin where another spring was found. There were flat stones which had been used for pounding roots and remains of fires all around. Birds were in abundance and some were shot for the larder. Roe


writes that this was the greatest extent of good grass land since leaving the Avon and may probably amount to two square miles. As the party con-inued north the next day, in parts the gimlet forests had been burnt which made easier travel. There were numerous holes in the clay for catching water but all were dry. Deep footmarks made in the Winter showed how soft the land must have been where now it was hard and dry.

From a hill near camp 19 Roe was gratified with the prospect of an extensive grassy country to the eastward and northward amongst which granite peaks of good elevation were a pronounced feature. The most remarkable were a considerable double elevation being on the same ridge with each other, hill “g” 6i miles distant and “h” 6i to 7 miles. With others, these were the most considerable since leaving York.

The next morning, the 24th October, the party set off towards the double elevation. They came on one of the circular mounds, heaped differently from those seen before, which had all been hollowed in the middle. Opening it up six large eggs were found, about the size of a black swan’s. It was decided that the eggs were those of the bird called gnow by the natives, resembling a wild turkey—now generally known as the mallee fowl. Two of the birds had been seen a few days before. Roe had described them as “about the size of a barn door cock or a large drake, with belly and throat speckled like a turkey, brown on back, black and white tail tipped white at extremity, and like a turkey hen’s. Wings small and not adapted to long flights.” They were very gratified at having solved a mystery and at having beaten the natives to the eggs. From now on they could recognise the empty nests whiph were concave on top, while those with eggs were convex.

A few more hours and the expedition was amongst the high granites seen from the last camp. From a rocky summit could be seen a large valley to the north and east. Roe writes “The lakes or reservoir at our foot seem to form the bed or channel of the receptacle for all the water of this part of the country. The surface has the appearance of being extensively covered with water. But whether the water is fresh or salt, or part of a river, whether its dip is to the north west or the south east must be decided tomorrow. Proceedings will, it is hoped, throw more light on the subject.”

While taking bearings and examining the country, suddenly a large fierce fire appeared high above the trees skirting the distant water. Their spy glasses showed it to be a reeling pillar of red dusty soil raised in the air by a whirlwind swooping over the valley and carried with headlong fury and a mighty roaring noise to the south-east. Its progress could be followed for miles as it rose and fell before a stiff north-west wind.

They were nearly caught by a similar willy willy as they ascended hill “g”, the southern peak of the double elevation. They took warning by the roaring noise it made among timber some way off, to abandon a wood they were in and gain an open space.

Camp 20 was made on the side of hill “g” close to a hole of excellent water in the foot of the rock, where excellent grass, heavy in seed, was in abundance for the horses. In the vicinity were cockatoos, pigeons, crows, hawks and other small birds, besides more kangaroo-rats than usual but no traces of kangaroo were discernible. The moon was partially eclipsed that evening but the sky was overcast and the shadow not well defined.

The evening meal was eggs. “It is but justice to the gnow, whose nest we robbed today of six eggs, to say that when blown out of the shells (which are very thin indeed for their size) and fried, the eggs were most excellent although the hatching process had commenced in some and was considerably advanced in others.” The sun rose at 5.30 the next morning, Roe reports, “Having no trees to mark the number of our bivouac on, the cairn of stones on the top of hill “g” and the conspicuous character of the hills, answered the same purpose.”


He then led his men N.N.E. towards Eagle Rock, then turning off for the lake shore ahead. Samphire flats prepared them for salt water as they made towards the lake, but instead of water, when they reached the shore, spread out before them was one vast white sheet. The level surface was covered by a coat of gypsum in pieces from an inch to a tenth of an inch in length and clustered like sand. Underneath was soft smooth clay in layers of various colours, red, brown, blue, yellow and then whitish in succession to about one foot in depth when salt water oozed in on the rock bed. On the surface were numerous traces of emus, dogs and some natives.

Roe skirted part of Lake Brown and leaves a description but there is no mention of disappointment. The lowest dip in the distant land was to the north-east but as there was no appearance of water anywhere Roe proceeded west. They traversed good land and steered for good grass seen on a hillside. An old native well was found close to a granite rock and they gladly halted for bivouac 21. On deepening the well good water flowed in at 20 inches. There was no sign of the water being brackish at any time. Grass was there and over the hilltops and of good quality. This was Mangowine Spring with Mt. Grey behind.

Camp 22 was north of Mangowine in a hollow where a watercourse trended south-east and running water in a rocky stream bed formed pools along its course. This was Barbalin Creek, fed from the big Barbalin Rock. This stream ran feet deep in winter and was often impassable for miles after heavy rain. It is said to have kept running even in the droughts of 1911 and 1914. In the late 1920s Barbalin Rock and Knunagin (The Twins of Roe) were used for catchments for reservoirs from which thousands of acres of agricultural land were watered.

Roe rested at bivouac 22 by Barbalin on the 27th October, to effect repairs and wash and mend clothes etc. He took stock of provisions and decided that, with care, they would last until the 12th November. By dead reckoning the men had marched 272 miles since leaving York on the 5th.

It was now urgent to make for the Swan River by a circuitous northerly route. Homeward bound on the 28th Roe took a course at first northwesterly, finding water and grass amongst the numerous granites. The forest country was open and belts of cypress thickets appeared occasionally. Camp 23 was made at the foot of a granite long known as Mt. Marshall, near the present town of Bencubbin.

Proceeding west the granite disappeared. A watercourse was followed down but it dissipated in broad swampy ground, then very dry. At sunset they halted for the night unable to find water for their thirsty horses so the nags were given a pint apiece from the small amount being carried. Roe concludes they have left the granite country behind for only a few flat sheets were seen during the early part of the day, as if lingering to maintain its place. They had been impeded by thick scrub and fallen dead timber lying in all directions. This had prevented them seeing more than a mile ahead and sometimes not more than 20 yards on either side of the route.

The next morning the country was dipping to the west as Roe passed into the Cowcowing lake valley. Luckily just after starting they came upon a piece of sheet granite in which was a deep hole of good water. They watered the horses and filled all empty vessels. There were traces of natives about this hole. During the afternoon as the march continued through the bush two native fires smoked up “proof of our having been perceived”. Six eggs were found in a mallee fowl nest but no water could be found. They searched until after seven o’clock and after halting attempted to find a soak during the night. They were on red loam where they marked a salmon gum 25, estimated to be a few miles north of the present town of Koorda.

Hurrying west the next day they struck lakes and granite country again, though not of any height. The birds had deserted the country and a kangaroo had not been seen since leaving Mt. Marshall but there were emu


tracks on the lakes and scattered bones of feasts. Again they found mallee hen eggs of varying degrees of hatching but all tasty for hungry men. Water was found near a granite, possibly old Noorijin soak.

The first day of November brought the expedition in sight of a wide shallow valley which was followed around to the north west. Roe then veered south west to avoid scrub and salt lakes and to their relief high hills appeared. Moore found these to be the Wongan Catta of which he had heard on his Moore River trip earlier in the year. Coming in from the east the hills of Wongan are always blue to hot and tired eyes. Roe put the name of his dearest Matilda on many favoured places in the State and so the highest peak of Wongan he named Mt. Matilda. Bivouac 29 was made under the Wongan Hills just east of a large lake. This could be the Bidgaronning Spring.

In November 1936 the Wongan Ballidu Road Board held Centenary Celebrations. All descendants of John Septimus Roe were invited and the Royal Western Australian Historical Society was represented by Dr. Bryan.

Surveyor-General Roe rested at camp 29 on the 4th November. The horses had shown great symptoms of exhaustion and one lay down on the ground from inability to proceed further. It gave the men a day’s rest and time to repair their clothes and shoes which were nearly torn off them. The spring produced enough water to give the horses about three gallons each for the day. Birds and small animals came to this water in great numbers and the men had trouble frightening them away although a fire was kept going all day. A native dog wanting a drink gave a dismal howl and moved off on seeing the strangers. Roe deduced this must be the only water nearby. Tracks of aborigines, dogs and kangaroos were everywhere and all along the western quadrant from north to south signal fires blazed up and smoked continuously signalling an unexpected happening and signifying to the explorers a more populated and watered country ahead.

Stores were re-stowed and loads lightened for the weary horses by discarding worn-out saddle bags and two of the oiled canvas squares. Carrying a stock of pigeons and draining the water hole to the last drop, Roe and his men set off on the 5th. They crossed the top of a large lake (Lake Hinds) and then steered south-west. Roe was pleased that the cable gums had disappeared and hoped their western limit had been passed. Soon the familiar timber of the Darling Ranges appeared, sloping ground developed into a defined water course and Roe noted that they followed the form of what in Australia is dignified by the name river. On the evening of the 6th Moore recognised a spot where he had camped at the end of his journey up the Moore River. As this river had been traced, Roe proceeded due south the next morning.

Although a number of smokes and huts had been seen the natives bad kept out of sight. On the afternoon of the 8th, Roe established contact with some by making friends with a little boy who ventured out of the bush. Roe could not persuade them to tell him the name of the spot but learned that Toodyay was south and Boolgart Spring to the east. They were so short of food by now Roe could not make presents which he found regrettable.

A creek was struck and followed down to the junction with another stream which Moore recognised as the Swan. Then came a fine long reach of the Swan, deep and about 40 yards wide where they halted after a severe day of marching. Close to their last bivouac, 35, a running stream joined the Swan. Roe supposed this to be the Gatta. The prints of horse feet and a shoe with large nails were seen, presumably the track of some person searching for stray cattle. The next morning they met a friendly native and following his advice weie soon near Mr. Bateman’s house on the Swan and noticed the brook at Colonel Latour’s land coming out from the hills.


Then they fell in with a boy tending cattle. At 10.30 the explorers were at the house of Mr. Jones, a tenant of Mr. Baylis. Then came Mr. Shaw's property where the wheat was looking remarkably good. At 150 yards from Mr. Shaw’s house the tired men steered for the road and arrived at Mr. Moore’s farm on the left bank of the Swan at 11.20 a.m. on the 11th November 1836.

The arrival home was reported in the Perth Gazette the next day— “The party which started on an excursion to the eastward at the beginning of October returned on the 11th November. An unfavourable report is given of the country for sheep pasture. The general features of the country were not so promising as our sanguine expectations had induced us to anticipate and water was only found lodged in the cavities of rocks at the summits of granite hills.”

George Fletcher Moore wrote on the 13th: “I have this day returned from my expedition to the interior. We have been just forty days out during which time we have been nearly 600 miles. It has been a journey of some trial and difficulty as the greatest part of our way lay through dreary forests and dense thickets when we had to force our way through dense bushes frequently prickly. We were obliged to turn back just as we were approaching a better part and to the solution of that question which is of interest, namely the direction of the water of the interior. The season in the interior appears unusually dry and I fear you will think I am only talking metaphorically when I say that throughout the greater part of that vast space we did not see as much water at once as there is in your fishpond and we did not see a watercourse as strongly marked as to enable us to decide which way the water would run if there were any.”

A few days later Moore wrote “I find on looking over my notes that . the country does not look as bad on paper as it does in my mind. The impression in my mind is of vast gloomy forests, dense prickly scrub and dreary uninhabited plains.8

In the following February, Moore wrote to the Perth Gazette that Mr. Roe was busy preparing a chart with his usual accuracy and care, but a difficulty had arisen as the chronometer findings differed so much from dead reckoning as to deduce that the instruments had been affected by the irregular motion of the journey of the pack horses.9

A detailed chart has never been found, here or in England, and for many years this led to duplication of names when other explorations were made. It also meant inability to identify with certainty the places Roe had reached.

In his Field Books, Roe followed the time-honoured practice of noting natural features as “A”, “B” or “C” and so on, then, after consultation with higher authorities, giving names at the end of the exploration. A plan of the colony compiled by John Arrowsmith of London from the surveys of John Septimus Roe was printed in London in 1839. This marks Roe’s expedition of 1836 with the names given by Roe, so a chart must have been sent to Arrowsmith.

Most of Roe’s names are on present-day plans. East from York are the Althorpe Peaks given after the leader of the House of Commons at the time; then comes Mt. Bebb. Continuing eastward is Emu Hill, Mt. Arrowsmith and then Mt. Walker, the latter presumed to be after the surgeon and naturalist on Captain Grey’s expedition. Where Roe turned north after searching for an opening to the east is Welcome Hill and Chrichton Vale. Then comes Glenelg Hills, Chingah Hills and Spring Well Vale where the excellent spring was found. Landsdowne Hill is near the present town of Burracoppin.

From here to west of Wongan Hills, Roe’s route in more detail has been plotted by Mr. Ian Elliot of the Lands Department. The route shown on the Arrowsmith map was expanded to the scale of 1:250,000 and laid over


the 1:250,000 map sheets. Then using Roe’s Notes from his Field Books 4 and 5 and comparing his descriptions of the terrain with Lands Department Aerial Photographs, slight corrections were made to the route to fit the terrain. In no place was the line shifted more than two miles from that shown on Exploration Plan 31 by Arrowsmith. This method is accepted as being the most accurate where distances have only been estimated by explorers. Obviously the greatest accuracy is at the fixed points at either end of the journey and at unmistakable points such as “The Twins” (Knungajin).

After Landsdown Hill, presumably for Lord Landsdowne, Mt. Moore is marked to the west of their route. The large lake which gave such hope has remained as Roe named it, but the Colonial Secretary, after calling himself Brown for some years, reverted to the family name of Broun. Point Caroline would commemorate the Colonial Secretary’s wife Caroline Broun. To the east of Lake Brown were noted and named Bacon Hill, Speen Hill, Highclere Hills, Dorchester Vale, Donnington Hill and Donnington Vale and Newbury Vale.

The course plotted by Mr. Elliot takes Roe to Mangowine and then to Barbalin Creek. West of the route is Hamersley Hill and Mt. Stevens. Roe seems to have had no contact with the natives in this sparsely populated area and in any case was loath to give native names, considering them unpronounceable. Mt. Marshall and Lake McDermott were named in honour of Captain Marshall McDermott, a prominent colonist who owned a large property on the Swan and imported some fine Saxony sheep at great expense.

A puzzle has been that the Arrowsmith plan shows the Gardner Hills to the north of Mt. Marshall but there are no features on the landscape. On the 25th January 1975, Mr. Elliot paid a special visit to Mt. Marshall. Compass bearings taken by him prove conclusively that Roe’s Mt. Marshall was a granite peak now known as Wiacubbing and the present Mt. Marshall, and another nearby, should be the Gardner Hills. The confusion arose in 1854 when Robert Austin found a tree marked 23 at the eastern foot of a hill called by the natives Gnylburngobbing. Austin states in his journal “This is probably Mt. Marshall of the Honourable Surveyor General in 1836.” It is shown on Austin’s exploration chart as such and on subsequent plans. It was perpetuated in 1889 by Surveyor King during a Trig survey. As Mt. Marshall has applied to the feature which Roe meant to be one of the Gardner Hills, for over 120 years, there would be little point in making amends now. A family with three children named Gardner arrived on the Leader in 1830.

It is worth recording that Aerial Photo Run 15/5192 Bencubbin illustrates the extreme accuracy of Roe’s Field sketches. Mr. Elliot and some young friends searched for a tree or piece of wood marked 23 without luck.

From the summit of what is now Mt. Marshall it is possible to see much further out to the north-east where Roe and Moore thought the land might be falling away to a river valley. Clearing for crop farming has widened the horizon for miles around, over some of the best wheat-growing land in the state, if it gets but 7 inches in the growing period. The two explorers had reported that although without water or grass the soil was excellent.

After Roe turned for home he gave no names to any feature as he hurried through the Cowcowing valley and missed seeing that large lake. The next name was Lawrence Vale, perhaps after the solicitor of the first Western Australian Bank, W. J. Lawrence. Marshall McDermott was the managing cashier and R. Hinds was a director. This name is perpetuated by Lake Hinds west of Wongan Hills.

Had Roe turned for home at Mangowine he would have had a belt of good granites to Goomalling, a track followed by the early pastoralists and gold seekers. It was the Yarragin track as Mt. Stevens became known, then


the Yilgarn Track then the Old Goldfields Road. Remains of it are still there winding by the Jam, York gums and wattles of the granite outcrops. Pieces of old harness, drays, axes and shovels can be found as reminders of those who passed that way.

A little north of Roe’s track from Mt. Marshall there would have been another belt of granite by Mollerin Rock, Newcarlbeon and Moningarin and he would have seen some good grazing country further west. In 1842 Captain Scully journeyed up the Moore River about 15 miles past Moora and remarked "Had Roe’s track been but a day’s march further north

this stretch of good country would have been right on his track.”

If Roe had travelled directly east of York he would have found some better country but he was looking for a range of mountains and inland rivers, so had started out on a wide circle. As it was when Roe looked back on the eastern lands from Wongan Hills he was not impressed. Perhaps the Journal and chart were not published as neither the Governor nor Roe wished to publicise the depressing findings. He was an extremely busy man and got on with a multitude of other duties. However, when Moore had recovered from his trip, he was again optomistic. He thought the journey confirmed in a remarkable degree the existence of a large body of water at the north-east corner. Settlers and others were always wondering about it and the natives still told stories of an inland sea.

In 1846 the colony was stocked to its fullest extent when the Gregory brothers decided to set out on a long ride to test Moore’s theory. The Gregorys were original 1829 settlers and two of the brothers, Augustus Charles and Frank Thomas were Government surveyors, trained and inspired by Surveyor-General Roe. Unlike earlier explorations when men walked leading packhorses, they decided on a lightly equipped mounted party which would be more suitable for wide; plains and long watercourses. Their plan was to take a route along the north side of the Lake Brown valley and then traverse back north of Roe’s westward track over the high ground in which the Moore river was presumed to have risen.

The Gregorys set off from Bolgart on the 7th August 1846. Taking a course E.N.E., Augustus Gregory led the way along the south end of Lake Cowcowing, not recognising it as the Gow-gow-een of which the black men gave such a good report, and on until he could see Lake Brown and the high peaks of Roe’s north-east corner. Having fixed his position by Lake Brown, Gregory continued north-east into the pine trees of that area. Ten days after setting out they stood on a granite peak which rose 300 feet above the level ground. It was Mt. Jackson and from it Gregory could see the country for miles in every direction. It was not a cheering view for explorers looking for pastures, mountain ranges and inland rivers. The view presented was little but sandy desert with no prospect whatever of rivers or plains of grass.10

To the west and north smokes appeared so Gregory decided to turn in that direction. The brothers found and named Mt. Churchman after their mother, Frances Churchman; they worked around a huge, salt lake they named Lake Moore, then rode right across the present Wheatbelt to the Irwin and down the coast to Bolgart. They arrived back on the day planned, having ridden nearly 1,000 miles. Roe must have admired the efficiency of his pupils but the controversy and dreams of the north-east corner and the theory of inland rivers was finished.

Two years later, in September 1848, Roe was 51 years old. By now he and Matilda had 12 children and another was expected in a few months.

It was then he started out on his last and longest expedition.

With Henry Gregory, Roe traversed down the Avon Valley then across to the Lake country. He then turned towards the Stirling Ranges, called at the Cheynes at Cape Riche and pushed out to the east of Esperance and


the Russell Ranges. Once more the sandy wastes, dense thickets and salt lakes were all too familiar. The expedition was back at the Phillips River on Christmas Day. They ate a roast of kangaroo and once again John Septimus Roe made a pudding—of soaked biscuits and sugar with brandy from the medicine chest. Roe led his men back to the Swan on the 22nd February 1849, having covered 1800 miles in 149 days.11

The search for land had to go on. Robert Austin took out a party of volunteers in 1854, starting from Goomalling. He was to find and explore Gow-gow-een, described by the natives as water of vast dimensions far inland. It was hoped by the settlers that it might turn out to be the head of the Gascoyne River and a ship was to wait at the mouth of that river for the explorers. Austin struck the “great salt lake of Cowcowing” a few days after setting out. The Gregory brothers had camped at Nalcain well on its southern shore without recognising it as a large lake. After exploring Cowcowing, Austin continued north-east and reported to Roe “Reached Mt. Marshall on your track of 1836. I found no inducement to go further east and turned north.” This was the occasion when Austin confused Mt. Marshall. He had a native guide belonging to that area who told Austin he was a little boy when white men had come that way and camped there before. Austin judged the guide, whose name was Juniak, to be about 25 in 1854.

Austin and his men suffered great hardship in the Murchison. They did not reach the Gascoyne where the ship waited but instead were fortunate to make the Geraldine Mine. Roe was at Port Gregory and Austin, thoroughly weary, records how thankful he was to find Roe there. He thanked the Surveyor-General for the “kindness and consideration with which you have supported and guided me in this arduous undertaking. 1 regret that an expedition so efficiently equipped and left as free to act as I could possibly desire, has not resulted in immmediate benefit to satisfy those who are not capable of appreciating its ultimate utility.” Austin mentioned the work of Mr. Fraser, who sketched the most remarkable places, and praised Richard Buck as able, trustworthy and straight. Sadly Austin wrote: “Had success crowned our efforts and placed me in a position to ask favours I should certainly have solicited some mark of approbation for him, especially as it was the second time Buck had volunteered.” (Buck had gone with Roe on his trip out to the east of Esperance.)12

However, explorers received no rewards unless they found good country, in fact in the eyes of many they were disgraced. Roe was not honoured by the British Government and though a member of the Executive Council and the Surveyor-General, received no advancement whatever and very trifling increases in salary. In spite of this Roe went on with his work for the colony. He was President of the Swan River Mechanics’ Institute, later the Perth Literary Institute, from its foundation. He was a fellow of the Linnean Society and during his journeys made large collections in botany, zoology and minerals which formed the basis of the Perth Museum.'His surveyors and explorers came in from long expeditions with specimens and drawings—for instance Robert Austin staggered in with 54 specimens of plants, after having nearly perished himself and apologised for their condition.

Roe took his only holiday visit to England after 31 years in the Colony. He was away 18 months and during his time in England requested the Admiralty for recognition of his services. It was refused very curtly, but in 1864 the Perth Inquirer reported that the Hon. Surveyor-General had been promoted to the rank of Commander and all would wish this “painstaking civil servant and esteemed colonist Captain Roe, many years of enjoyment of his new office.”

Captain Roe had trained and guided the State’s surveyors and was in office when the young John Forrest made his way out to the Eastern Gold-


fields areas in 1869. The following year, in 1870, Roe’s dearest Matilda died. He then asked to be retired as he was 73 years old, had served continuously afloat or on shore for 57 years. As well there had been those spartan years of hard work and discipline at Christ’s School as a boy. He was very infirm by 1870 and had been blind in one eye for many years but he continued to take an interest in public affairs until he died in 1878, aged 81 years.

John Septimus and Matilda Roe had thirteen children. Before the land to the eastward, the land of the granite peaks, became a wheatbelt bringing great wealth to the State of Western Australia, descendants of Captain Roe and his friends and contemporaries made use of the scattered grass and water holes for a sort of nomadic pastoral industry. It became crisscrossed with tracks leading from one granite to another.

Sophia Roe, bom the first Christmas Day of the Colony and named after the sister of whom Roe was so fond, married Samuel Pole Phillips of Culham. In a drought year, years later, my father-in-law Colin Braid and a companion Herbert Sharman of Booralaming rode'out looking for horse feed east of Lake Moore, following the old tracks from granite to granite. Out towards Mt. Churchman they came upon some fresh wheel marks and a little further on found a chaff bag containing a big well-cured ham. Some miles further on horse bells were heard and then around a bend in the track were sheep in yards near a good soak. It was a Phillips of Culham outcamp and a shepherd had been in for stores but lost his ham on the way back. When the drought broke, the Braids obtained a breeding flock from Culham, said to be of special choosing.

Descendants of Captain Roe also helped in the development of the Wheatbelt. James Roe, a grandson, pioneered a property at Piawaning, east of the Wongan Hills. Although the land was not the type they were needing, Roe and Moore had noted the quality of the good red loam and described it as “what an agriculturist would call cracking with its own fat.” The land had to wait for superphosphate and railways before it could become a great national asset, and for men and women who would venture out as farmers where the rainfall was so small and where there was no surface water but those little soaks, gnamma and rock holes.

Now the Helena River flows out to the country in a network of steel pipes, linked with the great catchments at two of Roe’s bivouac’s Knungajin and Barbalin.

A copy of Roe’s Field Books of the 1836 expedition is in the Battye Library, 91 foolscap pages of typing, first written by hand in pencil in little pocket-sized note-books with metal clasps; out east of the settled districts in a wilderness.


Inside the front cover of Roe’s Field Book 5, a list of native names for trees appears as follows:—

• York gum: tworta.

Fan gum: wooruk.

White gum: wandoo.

High Spec Eucalypt: mallart.

Jam tree: mungie or men-ung.

Gum tree: Gnee-le-ruk.

The fan gum would be the salmon gum from its description and location. The Gnee-le-ruk cound be the mallee of various types.

John Septimus Roe



1. Letters of John Septimus Roe: WAA 563A, 568A.

2. “Survey of Western Coasts of Australia; 1818-22” by Phillip Parker King.

3. WAA: SDO/1/1

4. Moore’s journey: WAA J1-P253.

5. WAA: SDO/1/260.

6. WAA: SDO/1/307.

7. J. S. Roe Field Book 5 (held W.A.L. Dept.)

8. WAA: Letters of G. F. Moore.

9. Perth Gazette 18/2/1837, p. 853.

10. “Australian Exploration” by Augustus Charles Gregory and Francis Thomas Gregory, page 4.

11. WAA: Exploration Diaries Volume 4, p. 136.

12. Robert Austin, Journal of Exploration to the northward. WAA: 518. “Amazing Career”, F. R. Mercer.

Garry Gillard | New: 28 September, 2020 | Now: 28 September, 2020