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

Early Days, Volume 8, 1977-1982

The founding of the Society: some personal reminiscences

Paul Hasluck

Hasluck, Paul 1978, 'The founding of the Society: some personal reminiscences', Early Days, vol. 8, part 1: 7-22.

By the Rt Hon. Sir Paul Hasluck, G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., K.St.J., M.A., F.A.S.S.A., F.A.H.A., F.R.A.H.S., F.R.W.A.H.S.

Fiftieth Anniversary meeting, Friday 25 June 1976

This paper had reached its final form on 14th June and I was proposing to send it to my old friend and colleague Ivor Birtwistle for comment and possibly for enlargement before I delivered it to the Society. That was the day he died.

I have decided not to alter the paper in any way. It would be out of place to try to convert these reminiscences into a funeral oration. Let them stand as a story of the work we did together. Let us think of him again for the last time we can do so, as our active and enthusiastic colleague who was intending to be with us on this occasion and who doubtless would have made some valuable additions to this story of the Society’s early days.

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Society. Mr. Ivor Birtwistle and I are the only two survivors of the original office-bearers in the Society and, as both of us spent so much time and effort in years gone by in persuading pioneers of various kinds to set down their reminiscences of the early days, we would be open to reproach if we did not record something about the beginnings of the Society.

First, something ought to be said about the place and the time in which the Society was founded. In an attempt to describe the state and position of Western Australia in 1926, I have drawn on some contemporary publications.

The first is Western Australia: An Official Handbook for the Information of Commercial Men, Migrants and Tourists, dated 1925. The coloured frontispiece shows a view of the state’s capital. The broad sweep of Perth Water, dotted with sailing boats, fills the foreground, right to the foot of the city. The skyline is dominated by three spires—Wesley Church, the Town Hall and St. Mary’s Cathedral. On a lower slope the tower of St


George’s Cathedral can be seen behind a continuous belt of green treetops through Stirling Gardens and Government House grounds. The view is of a modest and graceful riverside town with an air and outlook quite different from that of present-day Perth. There is not a car-park or a traffic roundabout in sight.

The population of the state in 1926 was approximately 365,000. An immigration policy, based on an agreement with what is described in the handbook as the Imperial Government, provided for the settling of 75,000 persons from the United Kingdom on the land within five years. Western Australia was then a primary producing state. To quote the handbook: ‘Half a dozen large and thriving primary industries are the foundational piers upon which the superstructure of prosperity is being raised.’

Wheat, fruit, wool, livestock and timber were the staples. Out of the total value of production, agriculture accounted for 36%, pastoral for 25%, and forests and fisheries for 9%, giving a total of 70% for primary industries. Of the rest, mining accounted for 11% and manufacturing for 19%. Trade was predominantly with the United Kingdom, other states of Australia and British Commonwealth countries, and only about 12% was with foreign countries. The trade figures also expose one cause of contemporary grievance against the other states of Australia. Western Australia received about £7 million (S14 million) worth of goods from the eastern states and they took only about £1.5 million ($3 million) of our produce.

The handbook has an enthusiastic chapter about the ‘Fair City of Perth’. The capital is described as ‘a bustling little city with signs of progress everywhere’. One paragraph tells of the recreation grounds and ‘carriage drives’ recently formed along the full length of the river frontage and also describes St. George’s Terrace as ‘a fine tree-planted boulevard overlooking the river’. There is a page of photographs of new and imposing structures of architectural interest. The pictures are now mainly of interest as a record of buildings since demolished—the A.M.P. building, the Masonic Temple, St. George’s House and the old T. & G. Chambers.

A chapter on transport 'deals ‘chiefly with railways for land transport, ships for coastal and overseas trade, tramways in the city. The North-West Aerial Service links Perth with Derby and intermediate coastal towns. On this north-west air service it is boasted that the company has eight aeroplanes capable of travelling more than 100 miles an hour and seven highly-skilled pilots. A regular air service between Perth and Adelaide was not inaugurated until 1929, so travel to the eastern states was still by train (a five-day journey) or by the weekly interstate steamers.

Let us now glance briefly at a publication issued in 1926 by the New Settlers’ League under the title: Western Australia: New Settlers’ Handbook. It reveals in its advertising pages a far different appeal to the farmer than the one that would be made today. There is no advertisement for farm tractors but several for harness and saddlery and for horse-drawn implements and waggons. For building there are pre-cut wooden cottages and Wunderlich pressed metal ceilings and wall linings. Windmills are the most common form of pumping and wood stoves the standard equipment


for the kitchen. For recreation there is an advertisement for a ‘non-scratch phonograph’ and player-pianos. Westralian Farmers, which had recently established the first wireless broadcasting station, invited readers to ‘link up your home with a Mulgaphone wireless receiving set’. The illustration showed an aerial of two wires strung alongside a farm house between tall masts about sixty feet apart. Department stores in the city held out the attractions of mail order business. Bairds promised careful packing and prompt despatch for groceries, tools, fencing wire, blacksmiths’ outfits, saddlery and harness, boots, drapery, clothing, gloves, ribbons and cottons. Blankets and tents were available for those who had not yet reached the stage of wanting galvanized iron, cement in casks or bags and furniture.

In a foreword to this handbook for settlers, Sir James Mitchell wrote of the ‘almost boundless opportunities in Western Australia’. In an appeal for immigrants he said:

*. . . if you desire elbow-room, a clear blue sky, with glorious fresh air and sunshine; if you want to become your own master; if you want to have your own farm, your own shop, your own business, here is where your fortune lies ... The State provides much, but the settler must do his part. He must pay his price for his opportunities and that price is work—interest in every detail of his task, a desire to learn, common-sense and initiative ... But it can only be done by work.’

That was the temper of those optimistic times in a land of opportunity. In 1926 there was great faith in the future. We were then in the middle of one of the most striking periods of growth in the state’s history. During the 150 years of Western Australian history there have been two periods of marked population increase associated with mineral discoveries—the gold rush of the 1890s and the mineral boom of the 1950s and 1960s resulting from changes in the world demand for base metals. In the gold rush, the population went up by 300% in the decade from 1890 to 1900. In the recent mineral boom the population rose by approximately 35% in the decade from 1950 to 1960 and by approximately another 35% in the decade from 1960 to 1970. Yet in the ten years from 1920 to 1930, without the fortuitous aid of a mineral boom, and more directly as the result of government policy, the increase in population was 30%. This development was achieved mainly through land settlement. The total area under crops rose by over 180% in the ten years between 1920 and 1930. There was, of course, a big decline in the war years, but, starting again in 1949 from a figure roughly comparable to that of 1930, the increase in total acreage under crop rose by only 50% each decade in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the thriving and progressive period of the 1920s, social and political conditions were somewhat different from what they are today. I will not enlarge on this aspect of the contemporary scene. It may be relevant to remark, however, that in those days, as I remember them, Perth still had some of the characteristics of a country town rather than those of a metropolis. If anything had to be done, it was well known where to go and whom to consult about doing it. Perhaps a younger generation would describe the situation by saying that there was a recognized establishment.


One knew who were the prominent citizens and what each of them could be depended upon to do. The level of personal acquaintanceship and the degree of informality and confidence among prominent citizens were of a kind unknown today. In those days leaders of the community had a certain urbanity that comes from the fact that a person is recognized and respected and does not have to be perpetually thrusting and striving and asserting in order to convince himself and others that he is someone pretty important. No leader of the community would have known what you were talking about if you had used the phrase ‘public relations exercise’.

In a similar way, the morning daily newspaper in those years had a standing in the life of the community rather different from the role of the media today. The morning paper was also part of a settled order. Its editor was one of the establishment. The West Australian, at a penny a copy, had a large double spread, no illustrations, and no display advertisements. The main news was in the middle pages and not on the front page. Headlines were modest labels to describe the subject matter below them. It would be considered a very old-fashioned paper today, but it was honoured as an institution on roughly the same level as those other main pillars of the community—the parliament, the church and the university.

In those days, parliament, the church, the university and the press enjoyed an eminence and influence in Western Australia of a kind that it may be difficult for a younger generation to appreciate today. For a variety of causes the standing of each of these institutions has declined during the past half century and there is nothing today comparable to the respectful attention that the community paid to them in the 1920s.

The West Australian still lived and breathed in the traditions set by Sir Winthrop Hackett and Charles Harper and maintained by Sir Alfred Langler, executor of the Hackett estate. Perhaps the easiest way to recall the stature and the standing of the morning paper is to recite that at the time that Hackett was editor he was also chancellor of the university, president of the public library, museum and art gallery, chancellor of the diocese of Perth, and a member of the Legislative Council. That was the sort of standing an editor had in those days. In the 1920s the paper still lived in this glow of distinction. Senior journalists took their responsibility to the community and their reputation for honour very seriously.

Associated with The West Australian was the Western Mail, at sixpence (five cents) a copy. In those days this was the weekly source of news for a large part of the population outside the metropolitan area, for radio broadcasting did not start in Perth until 1924 and for the first few years the range and the coverage of wireless news services were limited. As well as being the chief source of news for those who were beyond the daily distribution of the morning paper, the Western Mail also offered one of the few outlets for the young writer, whether of short stories, verse, or articles on general topics. Moreover, it served a conscious educational purpose. The ‘Mutual Help’ pages conducted by W. Catton Grasby answered questions on all sorts of topics. Perhaps one day some suitably qualified person might do a paper for the Society on Catton Grasby and the contribution he made to


the agricultural development of Western Australia. I have often thought there might be material for a very interesting anthology of useful hints and good advice to be compiled from the paragraphs he wrote for ‘Mutual Help’. The Western Mail also sponsored various causes for the good of the community. Its editor, Alfred Carson, had founded the Silver Chain Nursing League, which in those days, when social service benefits were not as extensive as nowadays, was a major agency for the charitable care of the sick and the aged, and he had been associated with many other welfare movements. He was a descendant of one of the early colonial families and keenly interested in the history of the colonial days.

At the time of the Society’s foundation, Ivor Birtwistle had recently succeeded Carson as editor of the Western Mail and, following the same tradition, he had become active in the founding of the Surf Life Saving Association in Western Australia, and was a director of the Y.M.C.A. and chairman of the Boy Scouts’ Association. It was natural for Mr. Carson and Mr. Birtwistle to be approached to help in the movement to found the Western Australian Historical Society. In those days one did not talk of publicity campaigns. One made sure of having support in the right places.

In those days I was in journalism at a much humbler level, having recently emerged at the age of 21 from a three-year cadetship on The West Australian. As a cadet I had been drilled in the old tradition of reporting accurately and fairly. The newspaper had a Latin motto at the head of its editorial column—‘Vigilans et Audax’, Watchful and Bold. It could justly have added another word to the motto—‘Respectability’. The young reporter was discouraged from sensationalism and taught to be fair, balanced and accurate. He was also instructed that certain words could not be used because this was a family newspaper to be read at the breakfast table. For instance, if in reporting a case in the police court it was impossible to avoid mentioning a certain place, it should not be referred to by any phrase but ‘a public convenience’. The length at which any event was reported and the position given to the report in the paper were the result of a judgment on the importance of the subject to the community and the judgment on ‘importance’ was related to questions of what was good or bad in the public interest.

As well as learning to be a reporter, I had started to write articles in my own time on local historical topics. The attraction was partly an interest in the early days, partly the vanity of being a contributor of original writing as well as a reporter, and partly the extra payment at twopence farthing (1.9 cents) a line paid for such contributions. The early days were starting to be a marketable topic. These articles on local history probably accounted for the fact that I was invited to join the group of much more influential people who were planning the foundation of an historical society. I regarded it as a great honour both then and now to have been one of the founders of the Society, even though least among them.

I do not know who first put forward the idea, but somehow or other, about the middle of 1926, it happened that a group of people were saying to each other that there ought to be an historical society. It was an ex-


pression of a growing interest in our own beginnings and perhaps, too, an assertion of our own identity as ‘sandgropers’, at a time when the post-war development of the state and immigration both from overseas and the eastern states had brought in many newcomers. Let me recall some of the circumstances that might have shaped this intention to have an historical society.

During 1926 (as in 1976) there was some public controversy about whether Western Australia was founded at King George Sound in 1826 or at the Swan River in 1829. Sir Nicholas Lockyer of Melbourne, a son of Major Edmund Lockyer, pressed hard for recognition of the establishment of a military post at King George Sound as the founding of the colony. The principal librarian of the public library, Dr. J. S. Battye, argued equally strongly and at even greater length against this. Although there was little done to celebrate the events of 1826, the controversy stimulated thoughts about the celebration of the centenary of the events of 1829.

In 1926, too, Professor Shann’s book Cattle Chosen, dealing with the early days at Augusta and Busselton, was published; following closely on the heels of Dr. Battye’s more solid volume The History of Western Australia (1924). At the 1926 Science Congress in Perth, Miss Burgess contributed to the history section a paper on the Australind settlement. Miss M. E. Wood, then on the public library staff but later university librarian, was known to be working on a thesis on the exploration of Western Australia. The formal study of Western Australian history had begun.

At the same time there was an increasing amount of occasional writing in periodicals on local history. Horace Stirling ran a regular column of anecdotes and reminiscences in the Daily News, successor of the Morning Herald, of which he had once been the editor. R. Clarke Spear in the Pastoral Review and the annual called The Golden West, and Victor Riseley and others in the Sunday Times, as well as various contributors to the Western Mail made their twopence farthing a line from the reminiscences of old colonists or stories of some incident of the early days. There was a growing market for articles or paragraphs about the romantic past and the grand old pioneers.

One consequence of all this writing about Western Australian history could be described as ‘an old colonial backlash’. This was particularly the case in respect of the books by Battye and Shann. Persons who had themselves taken part in pioneering or whose parents had been among the earliest settlers, said in effect: ‘What do these people know about it? They were not there and my father was’; or ‘There’s a lot more to be told that is not in the records’; or, in a few cases, ‘I’ve got my father’s diaries and letters at home and they give a different story’. As one illustration of this ‘backlash’ I can mention the controversy that arose from a brief statement made by Dr. Battye about events following the murder of George Layman at the Vasse in 1841. Members of the old families contested strongly the version given by the historian and drew on family legend in the argument.


This feeling that proper credit should be given to the pioneers and that the true history could best be written by those who knew about it in a personal way was a very strong element among the various influences that shaped the founding of the Historical Society. With the departure from this life of many old colonists who had a story to tell there was a growing sense of urgency about recording the truth, as the old colonists saw it, while there was still time. Thus it turned out that the old colonists, rather than the historians or the journalists, became the strongest element in and the shaping of its work during the early years.

Another big influence was a feeling among the ‘sandgropers’ that they needed to reassert their identity among all the johnny-come-latelies who were busy around the place. ‘Sandgropers’ were a circle within the circle.

I will digress into personal reminiscence to illustrate further this point. My own grandfather did not come to the colony until 1876. My father, arriving from England as a four-year-old child, had a vivid memory of Fremantle and Perth as they were in the 1880s, before the discovery of gold. The total population of the whole colony in his boyhood was approximately 30,000. It was a surprisingly young population, the 1881 census showing nearly 40% under fifteen years of age and over 50% under 21 years of age. At a rough guess, after allowing for the fairly high number of unmarried men who came during the convict period, there were probably less than 4,000 separate family units (father, mother and children) in the whole colony at the time when the gold rush started in the 1890s.*

*The basis of the guess is—Out of 30,000 persons, less than 15,000 were adults, and of these, on a masculinity rate of 135%, 4,800 were adult females. Subtracting grandmothers and spinsters, we can guess at something less than 4,000 mothers at the centre of a family unit.

Many of the families were connected with one another by marriage. Even if not related or personally acquainted, everyone knew about nearly everyone else. In my own childhood I was perpetually hearing conversations which began with my father saying: ‘I remember when this was all bush until old So-and-So built a house over there. He was the son of Tom Smith, who married Mary Jones, whose father had the grocer’s shop at Such-and-Such a place’. Old Western Australians like Jesse Hammond or B. S. Ranford could mark a map showing the place where everyone lived in Perth in the 1860s, and my father could do the same for the early 1880s. Perth was then a town of scattered houses small enough for the daily postal delivery to be done on foot by two postmen, one walking east of Barrack Street and one walking west.

This close familiarity among old colonists continued even after the population had grown. When I was a schoolboy at the Guildford state school in 1917, which was a flood year, we watched the rising waters on the Helena River flats to see if they would reach the level of the flood of 1865. We knew the level of 1865 because a board had been nailed on the gum tree in which Police Sergeant Piesse perched, and from which he was rescued, after he had lost his horse when trying to cross the flood. We knew about that incident because the grandfather of one of the boys


pointed out where he himself had fixed the mark. We learnt about Success Hill and the Success Spring, at which Stirling had replenished his water kegs in his exploration up the Swan River in 1827, because old Oliver Jones, still living in Guildford at the age of eighty or thereabouts, had been shown the spring by his father, who was with Stirling when he discovered it. At Guildford in those days most of the buildings of the old convict establishment were still standing, though some were decrepit.

Thus, one of my generation who had grown up in this way had close personal links with the colonial days. Those of an older generation had heard stories from their parents going back to the first years of the colony.

I stress this point to underline the fact that at the time of the foundation of the Society in 1926 we had among our members and office-holders some who had been born in the colony as early as the 1850s and 1860s and some whose childhood memories included the stories told to them by their parents or grandparents of pioneering hardships in the first twenty difficult years after 1829. It will be readily understood how such men and women felt a sort of proprietary interest in the history of Western Australia. It will also be understood why, when some newcomer ventured to contribute an article to the newspaper, its publication was likely to be followed by a letter to the editor from one or other of these old colonists putting him right on every detail.

Old colonists knew a good deal about each other and, as the colony had been so small before the gold rush, they also knew something about most events that had happened, either by their direct personal experience or by hearsay from their relatives or friends. It was common in my own boyhood and in my early years in the Historical Society to be told: ‘You ought to ask So-and-So about that. He knows all about it.’ This meant either that he was there himself and had a part in the affair or his father, brother,

I uncle or someone close to him had been there and had told him what happened.

Like all people in a small community they had a habit of identifying people. In one sense this was exclusive but it was not snobbish. People were either ‘sandgropers’ or ‘t’other siders’ (those who had come in from the eastern colonies). For the most part ‘t’other siders’ were persons whose parentage was unknown, while ‘sandgropers’ were persons whose parents could be identified.

Alongside this interest in identifying people there was also a silent identification of persons of convict origin. Although transportation ceased in 1868, a curfew for ticket-of-leave men continued for some years, with the challenge in the streets after dark: ‘Bond or free?’ In the small colonial community up to the time of the gold rush, most ‘sandgropers’ who had come to the colony of their own free will knew who had been transported. Of the total of 9,000 convicts sent to this state, many remained single or, if already married, were not joined by their families; and many ex-convicts moved out of the colony when they were free to do so. But quite a number, possibly a thousand or so, married locally and lived respectably and gradually took part in the life of the community. The old free colonists


did not fully accept them, but they were kindly towards them and, in my own experience we kept our knowledge of their origins strictly within the family. There was a euphemistic phrase: ‘His father did not pay his own fare’. It was used only among ourselves and I do not think any old colonist would share his knowledge of origins except with other old colonists.

In the early days of the Society there was a feeling among many members that in historical research we should keep off the convict period. In fact one might read the journals of the Society for the first five years and scarcely be aware that convicts had ever been sent to Western Australia. This feeling seems to me to have been largely due to a kindly reticence about a past which some members of the community had put behind them and did not wish to recall. I remember that, if my own father had mentioned strictly within the family that someone had not paid his own fare, he would then probably add that the man had become a very decent citizen and his children had been brought up well and it was no blame to them that someone had made a mistake before they were born. There were somewhat similar reticences and a strong group loyalty among the old colonists themselves. It would have been considered rather ill-mannered to go around opening cupboards where other people kept their skeletons.

I now return from my digression to my main theme. I have spoken at some length about old colonists because old colonists played a major part in the foundation of this Society. I remember very clearly the conspiratorial gathering which was held by the little group of founders in one of the bare classrooms at the university in Irwin Street, Perth. It was a cold winter night. In the cheerless room, lit by one bright unshaded electric globe hanging from the centre of the ceiling, the group of about twenty dignified ladies and gentlemen sat awkwardly on spindly chairs behind little wooden tables and kept their overcoats and furs on throughout the meeting. Professor Shann, who was host in the sense that the university provided a free place for holding the meeting, presided. Mr. Birtwistle sat at his elbow with some papers in front of him.

Some of those whom I can recall were Mrs. Edith Cowan, Mrs. J. B. Roe, Mrs. Mary Farrelly, Mrs. Edward Shenton, Miss Dolly Ferguson, Mrs. H. K. Maley, Miss Dircksey Cowan, Alfred Carson, Steve Chipper, Warden Clifton, Edmund Clifton, Vernon Hamersley, Octavius Burt, Ned Stirling and W. E. B. Solomon. I do not know who had arranged the meeting. I was there, a junior enthusiast, because Mr. Birtwistle and Mrs. Cowan had asked me to come. I understand all invitations were given orally in this manner.

Professor Shann, beaming behind gold-rimmed spectacles, spoke with stirring enthusiasm about the need for a society and the work it might do. He started to enlarge on the work that awaited it. He did not have to convert or persuade anyone. Steve Chipper, who in those days was always ringmaster at the Royal Show and saw that all events went on time, took advantage of the first pause in Shann’s speech to say in effect: ‘Well let’s get on with it. What comes next?’


Mr. Birtwistle produced some information about the Royal Australian Historical Society in Sydney. In short time it was agreed that was the sort of thing we wanted. Then we got down to cases. Who would be asked to join? How should we go about forming the society?

I have used the phrase ‘a conspiratorial gathering’. They spoke with frankness. They were certainly going to have an old Western Australian as president, and some of them had already spoken to Sir James Mitchell, former Premier of the state and at that time Leader of the Opposition. He was interested and willing to act. They had to fit Dr. Battye in somewhere, because he had control of so many records at the public library. They also wanted Canon Alfred Burton, for he had cornered the market in the Hale and Wollaston papers and other church records and was likely to be good for some research and for writing papers. Some other names were mentioned less favourably and discarded, sometimes after an exchange of glances and sometimes for a stated reason such as that ‘she’ always caused trouble or ‘he’ didn’t know anything about the subject. Without much difficulty the meeting reached agreement on nominations for office. Obviously the patrons should be the Governor, the two Archbishops and the Premier. That was the standard pattern. Mr. Birtwistle was the obvious and welcome choice as honorary secretary. Professor Shann would be chairman of council. My name was mentioned as one who would be suitable as honorary research secretary. I am not sure whether I was accepted because no one else wanted a job involving some work or whether it was because I was identified. When my name was put forward, they turned to look at me, but Ned Stirling said: ‘His grandfather used to write editorials for my father on the Morning Herald,’, and Steve Chipper said: ‘The old man used to try to teach me drawing at the high school— but I never did much good at it.’ I was accepted because someone knew who I was.

Then it was agreed that a small committee should draw up the rules and arrange a meeting and prepare an agenda and choose persons to nominate those agreed upon to be office-bearers. The outcome of this small gathering at the university in Irwin Street was the publication of a statement in The West Australian on 26th August over the names of Sir James Mitchell, Mrs. Cowan, Mrs. Farrelly and Mr. Birtwistle announcing that a meeting would be held to form an historical society and setting out the reasons for this move.

The meeting was held in the Karrakatta Club lecture hall on 10th September. The Society was formed. In clarification of my reminiscences of events immediately after its foundation, I should explain that Mr. Birtwistle was honorary secretary in 1927 and 1928 and then became chairman of the council. I was honorary research secretary in 1927 and 1928 and then became honorary secretary. In those days the chairman of the council was the effective head of the management of the Society and handled the monthly council meetings and all the committee work.

As I have indicated, old colonists took a prominent part in founding the Society and in the first few years they were the predominant element in its


membership. It would be wrong to interpret this remark to mean that the Society was in the hands of a social elite or that the membership was rank-conscious. The term ‘old colonists’ included some members whose families had held official or socially prominent positions in the early days, but even more who were equally proud of being descended from those who, to use the terms of the 1830s, were respectable tradesmen or the labouring classes. Half a century of common hardship had formed a common bond among old colonists in all walks of life. One of my most vivid memories of our monthly meetings in the early years of the Society was the eager conversation at suppertime when members were telling each other who their grandparents or parents were. The pride was not that their ancestors had been important but simply that in the pioneering days they had been there. And some there were, of course, who could say that they themselves had seen the day when such-and-such an incident took place and who could describe some remembered scene of their boyhood in sharp contrast to the wonderful changes of a later day. Some could tell of the time when the roadway in St. George’s Terrace was a track in the sand with a narrow footpath made of oyster shell dredged from the river running alongside the wooden paling fences of the straggling white houses set in their own gardens.

Our monthly meetings were held in the Karrakatta Club lecture hall, which we used on advantageous terms because some of the ladies on our council were also influential members of the club. Meetings had the standard pattern of ten or fifteen minutes of business, followed by the reading of two or more papers, discussion and supper. Usually there were exhibited a few objects or documents recently donated or lent to the Society and sometimes members brought along some family treasure to exhibit in illustration of the subject under discussion.

In its early years the Society was able to draw readily on the memories of early settlers. When I was writing my paper on Guildford and the Swan,

I was able to talk with old colonists who had been born in the district as early as the late 1840s. When I was gathering material for a paper on the Murray River district, I talked with those who had been there in the 1850s. Old Mrs. Cooper told me at first hand about Thomas Peel. Michael Pollard remembered Francis Corbet Singleton. For another paper I recorded the conversation of James Kennedy who had been a member of John Forrest’s expedition of 1871. Working on the first year in the northwest, I yarned with Ted Lewington who had gone up to Cossack with the first party in 1864.

Usually at the monthly meetings someone would mention in conversation the name of some old pioneer who had an interesting story to tell and, as a dutiful research secretary, I would arrange to see them and record their story. Some of these conversations had their outcome in papers for reading at the Society’s meetings and, as the old pioneers were not used to writing, it fell to my duty to write many of the papers that appeared in our journal under other names. Starting with the fourth number, I took over the editorship of the journal from Mr. Birtwistle.


The early documentary records used by the Society in its first few years were largely the diaries and letters of early settlers and the files of contemporary newspapers. About 1930, however, F. I. Bray, who was in the Chief Secretary’s Department, joined the Society and became a most enthusiastic delver into various sets of papers in departmental custody. Every month he was producing new material and unearthing new sets of records from the colonial days. He was also a willing collaborator with any other member who sought information on one topic or another. At a later stage in the Society’s history he became an equally enthusiastic member of the Memorials Committee but, for the time being, limiting my records to the first five years or so of the Society’s life, I pay tribute chiefly to his work in disclosing some of the wealth of colonial archival material then dispersed in various odd places in governmental offices in various city buildings. The interest he aroused by locating new documents and the representations made by the Society as a consequence of his curiosity led the way at a later period to the establishment of the State Archives.

It would be difficult for me to single out for honourable mention all those who worked hard and well in the early years to shape the Historical Society. During my own period as honorary research secretary and honorary secretary, I learnt to value and to rely a great deal on members such as Canon Burton, Edmund Clifton, A. T. Hope (who became honorary treasurer), W. E. B. Solomon (who was honorary solicitor), and Miss Dircksey Cowan, the assiduous and devoted honorary keeper of the records. I will say something at greater length of the four persons who signed the statement proposing that a society be formed.

The first name is Sir James Mitchell. He had been Premier and Treasurer of the state from 1919 to 1924, and became Premier again from 1930 to 1933. At an earlier period of his political life, he had been Minister for Lands from 1909 to 1916 and again from 1919 to 1924, and Minister for Agriculture from 1909 to 1911. At the time the Society was founded he was Leader of the Opposition. In these successive roles he took an active part in the history of Western Australia for over twenty years. Land settlement and the development of the wheatbelt and the south-west probably owed more to him than to any other single person, and I cannot think of anyone up to the present time, John Forrest included, who played a more notable part in this aspect of the state’s development. I think scant justice has been done to him by historians as one of the greatest Western Australians. As we knew him as our president, the skills of the politician were less evident than the simplicities and loyalties of someone who, born in Western Australia to one of the early families in the south-west, gave first place in his affections to his native place and loved to be in the company of those who shared the inestimable privilege of having been born a ‘sandgroper’. He loved people and was interested in all their homely doings and their families, and Western Australians were for him a special sort of people. His position as president was not merely titular. He attended the monthly meetings whenever he could and was always drawing attention to things of historical interest he had noticed in his official travels around the state. When I was secretary, he was frequently on the telephone to ask


me what was being done about this or that commemoration or telling me about some old colonist whom he had met recently and who ought to be interviewed. He brought back a piece of wood from a fence post in the old cemetery at Augusta and had it made into a desk ornament for the Society. He stopped on the roadside when a small bridge was being repaired at Bannister and told me about the wandoo timbers that had been on the ground for seventy years and were still so sound that they were being used in the restored structure. When he met oldtimers he yarned with them and told them they ought to join the Historical Society. After he became Premier for a second term, he helped us in our extremity by setting aside a room in the Lands Department for our use for council meetings and for storing our growing collection of papers. He continued as president of the Society after he became Lieutenant-Governor and moved to Government House. He had a deep feeling for Western Australia and an unfailing optimism about its future. In the loneliness of Government House, it became something of a habit to telephone to me at home and tell me to come around for a yarn. It was always a yarn about Western Australia.

The second signatory was Mrs. Edith Cowan. She was the first woman member elected to any Australian parliament, winning the West Perth seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1921. One of her parliamentary achievements was the Married Women’s Protection Act. Mrs. Cowan was a descendant of two early colonial families and had married into another. She was an acknowledged leader in most of the women’s organizations of the day. An obituary notice I wrote in the Society’s journal in 1932 said in part:—

‘Those who met with her for six years in council meetings can bear testimony to her unfailing energy and wholehearted devotion in this work; and there can be no question that her forthright approach to the tasks in hand was one of the most effective and beneficial influences on the progress of the Society ... At general meetings, where she was often called on to preside, her friendliness and sympathy among members made the Society happier and richer . . .’

The third signatory of the initiating statement was Mrs. Mary Farrelly. She was also prominent in most good causes and in women’s organizations. She was a descendant of two early pioneering families in the midlands and was especially well-known in country districts. She was our most persistent and successful recruiting sergeant and was staunchly loyal to the Society and her principles. She was both determined and kindly. In those days women prominent in public life all had one peculiarity. They carried enormous handbags—a genteel equivalent of the Aboriginal gunny bag into which all the paraphernalia of a feminine campaigner was stuffed. Mrs. Farrelly’s bag was the biggest of the lot, and its bulging contents always included a bundle of nomination forms for membership of the Historical Society and several handsful of wheat. She was likely to press one or the other on anyone who showed the slightest interest in either history or food. She had a deeply-rooted faith and crusading zeal both for the Historical Society and for wheatmeal. As some other persons might light a cigarette


or suck a peppermint while enduring platform eloquence of other speakers, Mrs. Farrelly would fortify herself by munching grains of wheat. Her wedding gift to my wife was a hand mill for grinding wheat, together with instructions on how to make wheatmeal porridge fresh every morning and keep the good man healthy. I often wondered what that porridge would be like. I never got any. But the mill did come in useful in later years for grinding coffee.

The fourth signatory was Mr. Birtwistle. I do not know much about what goes on inside the Historical Society today but, in its early years, it was very much like any other organization composed of human beings. There were sometimes awkward situations. There were always crosscurrents. There was often the need for great diplomacy. Mr. Birtwistle, when he succeeded Professor Shann as chairman of the council in 1929, proved to be not only one of the most competent chairmen who has ever kept a committee on target but he was also a master diplomat. The comparative efficiency and happiness with which the council of the Society flourished owed a great deal to him. He provided all the managerial talent that our president, Sir James Mitchell, lacked, and they complemented each other. As we approached the centenary year and measures were taken for state-wide celebration of the anniversary, Mr. Birtwistle represented us effectively and ensured fitting participation by the Society both in the planning and the execution of the celebrations.

The Society emerged from the centenary year as a recognized and influential body and proceeded thereafter to play a significant part in matters historical. It was first in the field and for many years alone in the field.

In conclusion, I record a personal memory of the pleasure I had from my membership of the Society. One of the privileges it brought to me was getting to know so many old colonists and to enter into the home and family life of so many of those who had been associated in one way or another with the early settlement of this part of Australia. This gave me a depth of experience of the old colonial days that could not have been gained in any other way. My interest in the history of Western Australia was nurtured from roots thrust deep into the years of pioneering. In the Society I formed friendships that lasted, and was admitted as a sort of honorary member of the family into many homes where the old colonial memories ran deep and the old colonial virtues of courage and helping neighbour were still honoured and where people still smiled at the self* importance of the little men who strutted on some temporary stage but did not yet belong to this part of the earth. I learnt the inwardness of being a sandgroper.

Garry Gillard | New: 12 June, 2022 | Now: 12 June, 2022