Trove Tuesday – Old Ned of The Causeway

I have long been of the opinion that those who are the most interesting and who have the most interesting stories are often people who lived with nothing during their lifetime. Unfortunately, this fact also means that it’s their stories which tend to be forgotten first. But, with a little digging and the help of Trove (it is Trove Tuesday, after all) a lot can be uncovered about Perth’s past identities who otherwise would’ve remained hidden by the passage of time.

On the eastern side of Perth there is a bridge called ‘The Causeway’ which crosses the Swan River and under this bridge is Heirisson Island. Due to dredging and land reclamation Heirisson Island is now one island but, in the past, it consisted of several islands and mud flats. Living on these islands (throughout the early 1900s and up to the 1920s) were many old age pensioners with the most notable being Edwin Wilcocks (sometimes spelt Wilcox)  who became known to everyone as ‘Old Ned’.

Edwin

Edwin was born sometime in July 1830, most likely in England (he referred to himself in one article as an Englishman). While the exact date and place of his birth and when he came to Western Australia is unknown, it appears he was definitely here by the turn of the 20th Century.

In the early 1900s Old Ned was in the Police Court a couple of times for minor offences such as being on premises unlawfully or obscene language but generally kept out of trouble.

Court

He was homeless and received a pension but also tried to increase his income by doing odd jobs around Perth. Old Ned (like many other old age pensioners) refused to be sent to the Old Men’s Home in Claremont as he wanted to retain his freedom and independence. Instead of going to the Home, he chose to live in a humpy on one of the islands under The Causeway.

Old Ned
Edwin Wilcocks outside his shack.

It would appear that he started off living on the island in a tent and suffered a setback in 1910 when it accidentally burnt down. Such incidences amongst shanty towns of the homeless were a common occurrence due to the open air fires that they used for cooking. Old Ned lost all his property which was worth a total of £8.

Tent Fire

After the destruction of his tent, he built himself a humpy (most likely out of scraps he found around Perth). In May 1919 he answered a knock at his door and was hit over the head with a piece of wood by a woman he had known for several years. While he was receiving treatment for his wound in Perth Hospital, the woman returned to his home and stole some of his belongings.

Assaulted

By the 1920s, Old Ned had reached the age 90. His advanced age and his homelessness meant that he became a source of fascination for journalists. His image was printed in the paper as well as anecdotes relating to his life.

He was said to have fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 under Sir Colin Campbell and served in the Royal Navy for over 20 years. A separate article however lists his service in the Navy as being about 60 years while another states that he fought in the Crimean War.

Sailors were real sailors then – they knew how to wear a beard!

He drew an Imperial Pension which kept “him in beer and and ‘bacca and an occasional feed, and at infrequent intervals allows him to indulge in the luxury of a housekeeper” however it was also stated that he drew four pensions from different sources.

Edwin Wilcocks was described as a widower who, over the years, had fathered 13 children (seven girls and six boys) but the names of the children were never divulged.

At the outbreak of WWI, Old Ned was said to have been very concerned. He was over 80 years of age but reportedly volunteered his services, taking great offence when his offer was rejected due to his age.

WWI

Living on an island in the Swan River meant that he was at greater risk of falling into the water (especially if he’d consumed a drink or two). This was said to have happened at one point but luckily for Old Ned, a couple of tramway men pulled him out and rescued him. After one of the men described the accident as ‘a narrow escape’ Ned scoffed and retorted:

Don’t you believe it, my son. I’m not goin’ aloft till my hundredth birthday.

In July 1920 when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor) was visiting His Majesty’s Theatre for the returned soldiers reception, Old Ned was the first to shake his hand. In response to the Prince’s “How d’you do, old veteran?” he went on to say:

Pretty good, me boy, but not quite as young as when I shook hands with your great grandmother!

By 1924 Old Ned had become unwell and after a long visit at Perth Hospital it was suggested by the authorities that Ned be taken to the Old Men’s Home. He was still against the idea but this time he consented. His initial reluctance however soon turned to acceptance and he began to enjoy his time at the Home. He became the oldest and the most interesting character there.

In February 1924 he celebrated his 94th birthday at the Home with two other Veterans, Vincent John Helier (90) and Charles Denham (88). A concert was held and food put out for all to enjoy. Interestingly, the celebration’s occurrence in February was at odds with his statement in a previous article of his birthday occurring in July.

Birthday

Sadly, Old Ned’s statement that he would live to the age of 100 never came to be. On 30 July 1924, five months after the above article, he passed away at the Old Men’s Home in Claremont. He was buried with full naval honours in the Anglican section at Karrakatta Cemetery (the gravesite has since been renewed) and three days after his death a large feature article was printed in the Mirror.

Everybody who lived in the vicinity, everybody who travelled over the Causeway, everybody who knows Perth, as a matter of fact, knew Old Ned.

He was said to have lived in his humpy under The Causeway for about 24 years without charity but received a “liberal pension”. Described as a good cook, he could also “polish off a pound of steak with the best of them.”

Old Ned smoked a black pipe and enjoyed a pot of good ale. He was quite proud of his hair and beard which were both extremely long and white and was glad that they helped him maintain a patriarchal appearance as well as prove his age when doubters suggested he’d added a few years.

Edwin Wilcocks was a storyteller right up until the end and became famous for his anecdotes (although they sometimes strained the truth). He was a poor man but a photo of him in his later years (sans beard due to his illness) nevertheless made the front page of the Mirror. A rather fitting tribute for a man who was described as “Perth’s Most Picturesque Veteran”.

Ned
Edwin Wilcocks possibly during his time at the Old Men’s Home.

Note: the above information has come directly from newspaper articles printed in various Western Australian newspapers throughout the years. Some of the facts appear to contradict each other and while it’s possible most of the stories told by Old Ned were true, it’s also possible that many were exaggerated.

Sources:

The African American Bushranger

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article may contain images and names of deceased persons.

Yankee Whaling

Long before a vision of a state arose in the heart and mind of Sir James Stirling, American ships regularly navigated the southwest coastal waters of Western Australia in search of their quarry: whales.

These American whalers had been visiting our coast since the late 1700s and often came ashore in order to replenish their water supplies. They were known to have traded with the Indigenous tribes and even took wives on their visits. Each season, upon returning to Western Australia, they reunited with the Indigenous tribes and again took up with the same wife; often finding that children had been born from the union.

So frequently did the Whalers visit our shores they deemed it necessary (or prudent) to sink wells either to establish a new well or to deepen an existing waterhole.

Crews often consisted of a mixing pot of ethnicities with a large number tending to be of Creole-Native American or African American descent. Conditions were harsh and it was a well-known fact that crew members regularly jumped ship at the places they visited. Perhaps it was after some time spent in Albany that African American, John Fisher, decided that he’d had enough of the whaling life and would stay in Western Australia.

Listed as being born in approximately 1821, it is not known when exactly he jumped ship. While he may have been here earlier,  he is first recorded in the Inquirer in 1851 when he was convicted of sheep stealing in Kindenup [Kendenup] and sentenced to seven years transportation. He had been employed by Captain John Hassell and was in the company of a small group of Aboriginals  when he was caught.

1851

Despite the sentence being recorded in the newspapers as ‘transportation’ it would appear that John’s punishment stopped short of being sent out of the Colony. Perhaps the start of the convict era in Western Australia in June 1850 meant that there was no need for him to be sent interstate. He remained in Western Australia (the exact prison is unknown) and was instead sentenced to penal servitude – seven years of hard labour, most likely working on Government funded public projects.

Convict number 8178, John, or, as he was sometimes known, Jack, was listed in the Western Australian Convict Register as being 30 years old and standing at 5 foot 2 inches tall. He had dark hair, black eyes, an oval face and was considered a ‘healthy’ build. He was single with no children and his occupation was noted as ‘farmer’. In the special notes section it was written:

Coloured man; scar over left eye and on right arm.

The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News also picked up on the story but printed no details of John’s first name and simply reported that “an American black, named Fisher, had been sentenced at the Quarter Sessions to 7 years’ transportation for sheep-stealing.”

It seems John must’ve been a fairly well behaved convict, or, Western Australia was in dire need of labourers. Two years after his conviction, on 23 June 1853, he was granted a Ticket of Leave. This document enabled John to work within a particular district until his sentence expired. He kept his nose out of trouble (he certainly wasn’t mentioned in the papers from what I can tell) and on 7 October 1858, he was granted a Certificate of Freedom. John Fisher had served his sentence and was now effectively a free person to do as he pleased.

For about six years he stayed on the straight and narrow. After receiving his Certificate it appears he eventually moved towards the Vasse district and began working for Henry Yelverton on his sawmill in Quindalup. Henry himself had joined a whaling ship in the 1840s before reaching the Swan River so perhaps he’d taken pity on the wayward John and decided to give him a chance. It did not work out.

On 25 July 1864, John absconded from the employment of Henry Yelverton. The catalyst for such behaviour most likely came from his actions on the previous night; he had broken into the house of George Woods and had stolen a single-barrelled shotgun and ammunition.

Fisher immediately took to the cover of the bush and, with his weapon in tow, began to commit robberies in the district. These actions meant he was now considered a bushranger.

As the fellow was well armed and threatened to shoot any person who attempted to take him, he was generally feared in the district.

When he next came to the public attention, it was the 29th and John had decided to burgle the home of Alfred Bussell in Margaret River. He stole a double-barrelled shotgun, ammunition and rations and took (by force) a young Indigenous woman who was reported in the paper to be ‘half-caste’.

On the 14th August he came across a Noongar man (unfortunately named) “Monkey Legs” and threatened to shoot him if he got too close.

The next day Fisher was spotted by Mounted Police Constable Harrison and Native Assistant ‘Newton’ in a stockyard about two miles away from Mr Yelverton’s timber station.

A stand-off ensued. Harrison told Fisher to surrender and Fisher responded by pointing a gun at him, threatening to shoot if he moved. They remained in this position for several minutes when Fisher suddenly turned and ran into the swamp. Constable Harrison and Newton both shot at him but missed.

On the 6th September 1864, Inspector of Police, Frederick Panter, Police Sergeant Dyer and two Noongar men started searching for signs of Fisher. They came across his tracks about 15 miles from Busselton and after hearing that he’d been seen earlier in the morning, they bunkered down, hid near a swamp during the night and waited and watched some nearby huts.

Perhaps John Fisher was onto them. He didn’t show. Rain further hindered the search and the tracks that were previously visible, were lost. The search party kept looking but Fisher continued to evade them.

Finally, on 9th September, it was ascertained that Fisher had sent a Noongar man named “One-eyed Bill” into Busselton to purchase some bread. The search party made contact with Bill and asked him to draw Fisher out from his hiding spot. They followed Bill’s tracks from Busselton to a spot at the back of The Broadwater and there they saw Bill and John Fisher walking towards them. The party quickly hid themselves behind some trees and waited for Fisher to walk past them. When Fisher was a couple of metres away, they jumped out from behind the trees and ordered him to surrender.

John Fisher’s immediate reaction was to cock and raise his gun but, before he could take aim, Mr Panter had him in a chokehold and Sergeant Dyer jumped in to hold his arms. Perhaps an indication that he was never Fisher’s man, One-eyed Bill also turned on him during the capture.

He struggled violently, and it was found necessary to strike him over the head with a pistol, before he was sufficiently subdued to be hand-cuffed.

22 Sept 1864

The Inquirer and Commercial News further touched on his previous conviction and background:

For some time past this man has been the terror of the neighbourhood, and he had sworn never to be taken alive. He came into the Colony in an American Whaler, and it is reported that he had received a sentence of seven years’ penal servitude for sheep stealing.

On 6th October 1864, John Fisher was brought before the Supreme Court charged with the larceny of Alfred Bussell’s gun. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years penal servitude. Before sentencing, Chief Justice Burt enquired after Fisher’s character in the Sussex District:

12 October 1864

A ‘Colonial Convict’, he was recorded in the register as being 40 years of age (making his birth year now 1824 – perhaps they were estimating). While many of the details relating to his description were similar to his first conviction, there were however some differences. His eye colour was noted as being ‘dark hazel’ instead of black and his complexion was described as ‘negro’. Time had taken its toll and his build was now noted as being ‘stout’. The special remarks section stated:

Is a negro; two small scars left temple.

John Fisher was to serve his sentence in Fremantle Prison.

Fremantle Prison
Fremantle Prison in 1859 – Painted by Henry Wray

He was admitted on 11th October and the property he had to hand over was recorded in the Male Prisoners’ Property Book. John Fisher’s belongings included one pair of trousers, one cotton shirt, a belt and a sou’wester hat. The sou’wester hat is an interesting item on its own. It would’ve been collapsible and generally made of oilskin which was waterproof. It was longer in the back and the feature of this design was to keep the rain off your neck. The sou’wester was traditionally worn by sailors and would’ve been a vital garment during John’s whaling days.

Fishers Property

Once again, John Fisher served his time. His sentence officially expired on 7 October 1868 and on 12 October 1868, he was granted his Certificate of Freedom. A free man, it appears he decided that this time, he would move north.

By the 1870s, it would appear that John Fisher was living in Northampton (Geraldton District) and working for the owners of the various stations in the area. While it seems he may have been occasionally in trouble, and he may have been shot in 1877 by John Drummond (so far unconfirmed if it’s him) generally, he kept out of trouble. His bushranging days seemed to be over.

Without adequate descriptors it is hard to confirm whether later articles in the papers relate to John Fisher. Further hindering the research is the fact that there also seems to have been another John Fisher living in the same area.

The smoking gun comes in 1884 when John Fisher wrote a letter to the Victorian Express explaining his actions in convincing an Aboriginal man who’d committed an assault to remain in Mr Shire’s house. In the original article printed on 26 March the reporter referred to John as an ‘African servant’. Quick to differentiate from this label, he ended his letter with, “I am not an African servant, as stated, I was born in America and am now shepherding for Mr. Frank Hall.”

23 April 1884

Five years later, John Fisher’s story officially comes to an end. He was still working in the Geraldton District when he died in 1889. His death was registered and his age listed as 60 (a birth year of 1829). If calculating from his birth year stated in 1851, he would’ve been 68.  Though I haven’t yet ordered the record (and will do so at a later date), the State Records Office of Western Australia holds within their archives a file from the Police Department:

Northern District, Geraldton Sub-district, Mt Gould Station. Report on death of John Fisher, an African Native caretaker for Mr Bush’s station.

Sources:

  • Image of the whaling ship courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_whaling).
  • 1851 ‘King George’s Sound.’, Inquirer (Perth, WA : 1840 – 1855), 2 July, p. 1. (SUPPLEMENT TO “THE INQUIRER.”), viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article65740309
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.  Jack Fisher; Convict Department; FCN42; ACC 128/40-43.
  • 1851 ‘Domestic Sayings and Doings.’, The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864), 4 July, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3172560
  • Information on Henry Yelverton’s early life courtesy of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/yelverton-henry-4898).
  • 1864 ‘GENERAL INTELLIGENCE.’, The Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News (WA : 1848 – 1864), 16 September, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article2935275
  • 1864 ‘Local and Domestic Intelligence.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 21 September, p. 2. , viewed 09 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66013942
  • 1864 ‘Supreme Court— Criminal Side.’, The Inquirer and Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855 – 1901), 12 October, p. 3. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article66013643
  • 1864 ‘West Australian Times.’, The West Australian Times (Perth, WA : 1863 – 1864), 22 September, p. 2. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3367110
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. John Fisher; Convict Department; FCN42; ACC 128/40-43.
  • Image of Fremantle Prison (painted by Henry Wray) obtained courtesy of Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fremantle_Prison).
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia. John Fisher; Convict Establishment, Miscellaneous; ACC 1156/V14.
  • 1884 ‘CREDIT TO WHOM CREDIT IS DUE.’, Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA : 1878 – 1894), 23 April, p. 3. , viewed 12 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article214094663
  • State Records Office of Western Australia; AU WA S76- cons430 1889/0657.