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FITZGERALD of Fitzgerald-street was - like Charles of Charles-street - that Captain Charles Fitzgerald R.N., who was the Governor of Western Australia from 1848 to 1855. It is meet that these two important thoroughfares keep green his name, if not his memory, for no governor of the colony did more to lay down roads and highways than he. His name is also on the map of Western Australia in the town of Geraldton, in the Geraldtine Mines, which claim to be the first attempts at mining in Australia, in the Fitzgerald Peaks and the Fitzgerald River, near Esperance.
Governor Fitzgerald was an Irishman from County Clare and was born in 1791. He entered the navy on St. Patrick's Day, 1809, rose to the rank of captain and after commanding various warships was appointed Governor of the Gambia Settlements on the West African coasts. He was a bluff sailorman, always on the quarterdeck, never afraid to speak his mind, an autocrat to the finger-tips albeit not a ferocious one as were his two successors, Kennedy and Hampton.
He arrived in the colony at a period of its greatest depression and his first dispatch to the Home Government warned them that such was the despondency everywhere "that large masses of the colonists were leaving the colony daily as fast as they could". The advisability of forsaking the colony was even being discussed when he arrived, but he put fresh heart into the colonists and he was welcomed with open arms. Almost at once he was urged to request the Imperial Government to send convicts here to restore the fortunes of the colony and although he wavered at first, he had in the long run to send their petitions and resolutions to Downing-street. In 1849 Western Australia was declared a penal settlement and in 1850 the first convicts arrived.
How bad things were can be gauged from the fact that only a few years before Fitzgerald arrived the colony's treasury chest contained at one stage only the miserable sum of £7/6/5! The coming of the convicts, however, with their military estalishment, lifted immediately the veil of gloom, ad properity set in. At once Fitzgerald set the convicts to work building roads and other public works, and as a result further settlement of the Interior took place. But at that time the, whole population of the colony numbered but 4,622 souls, of whom less than 3,000 were adults! As to the land under cultivation, there were only 3,000 acres of wheat and 1,000 acres of barley, oats and potatoes, etc.
The whole of Governor Fitzgerald's term of office was a stormy one. He was blamed for everything that went wrong, he received no praise in his own time for the things that went right. He was involved in a law case which brought him great unpopularity. He was embroiled in the troubles among the Roman Catholics, Bishop Brady and Bishop Serra having disagreed badly over the private affairs of that Church. The sale of Crown lands, that Is to say, the price and the conditions under which they were sold, was an ever-present sore. Then there was the native problem.
His particular bugbear, however, was the two newspapers published in Perth. With the total population of the colony less than 3,000 adults, two newspapers in Perth alone seem one too many, and the result was a scramble for news. Whenever there was none, and that appeared to be very often, both these journals picked on the Governor and tore him to ribbons. It was done not only directly but by innuendo, and mostly by his own officials who defied the rule forbidding civil servants from writing to the Press and with their inside knowledge were able to sting him to fury.
His first two years in office were the worst. He was continually in direst straits for money with which to pay the establishment. The settlers were so despondent, that they merely grew enough crops for their own upkeep and none for export. In the year that Fitzgerald arrived the exports of the colony amounted to £30,000, of which £13,000 was for sandalwood. Even in the year before he went away the exports had only risen to £31,000, but this time it was wool that was the main item exported, the amount being £20,000. Another sidelight on the poverty-stricken state of affairs is seen in a government notice which fixed the price of land in Perth. Blocks in St. George's-terrace were fixed at £22, in Hay-street £17, and others £12.
FITZGERALD'S tenure of office was marked by extensive explorations. Surveyor-General Roe performed his greatest feat of exploration, covering over 1,800 miles and Fitzgerald himself led an exploring expedition to Champion Bay. The party was ambushed among the hills some 20 miles inland by natives who rained spears on them. Fitzgerald, in dodging one that was meant for his back, caught it in his knee. It travelled upwards through his thigh and finally emerged 12 inches beyond the skin. Fitzgerald was lamed for life but got some satisfaction out of the fact that their bivouac on the coast became the town of Geraldton.
If Governor Fitzgerald first saw Western Australia at the lowest ebb of its fortunes, he left it flourishing. He was met on his arrival with rumours and suggestions for evacuating the whole of the colony. When he sailed away, all such rumours and suggestions had been scotched for all time. He did much for the colony as a whole, but he deserves a special niche in the hearts of all citizens of Perth by reason of the fact that he resolutely refused the request of Captain Henderson to erect a vast gaol on the heights of Mt. Eliza. Fitzgerald retired in 1855. He received the C.B. in 1857 and died in Ireland in 1887 at the age of 96. The History of Australia, used in our schools, shows him as Sir Charles Fitzgerald but he was never knighted.
Cygnet [Cyril Bryan], 'Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald-street', West Australian 14 January 1939: 3.
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