Death at Lake Austin

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

On 26 November 1930 Hughie King departed Austin Downs Station (his place of employment) and headed southeast towards Lake Austin. Foxes were a nuisance in the area and, as part of his job, he went hunting to try and curb the pest.

It was the end of spring and the steady approach of summer was making itself known. The weather was hot. Lake Austin (a system of mostly water-less salt lakes) shimmered in the unforgiving sun. The grass was long in places and perhaps it was the heat which drew Hughie to a small gum tree at the southeast part of the lakes. Perhaps it was something else entirely; an indescribable intuitive feeling. He approached the tree and there, beneath the limited shade and partially covered by grass and sand, were the skeletal remains of two people. Understandably spooked by the grim vision before him, Hughie did not choose to hang around and immediately took off.

Though frightened he did not simply forget what he saw. The next day, at one in the afternoon, he approached Constable William Fanning at the Cue Police Station and made a report. He could not offer much in the way of detail but he agreed to accompany the Police to the spot where the remains were found.

33- Govt Buildings Cue
The Government buildings in Cue in the late 1960s, one of which was the Police Station.

Bright and early at 8am on 28 November, Constable Fanning, Constable Rule and Hughie King departed Cue and drove south to Lake Austin. Having driven just over 32 km they left their car east of the Mainland (once a small town) and then walked 4.8 km south to a small mound of sand and gravel.

…here found the remains of two persons laying under a small tree & had apparently been dead for a great number of years as the undergrowth had grown over the remains which was partly covered over with sand.

Lake Austin
This map shows (in capital letters) the towns of Cue, The Mainland and Austin in the vicinity of Lake Austin circa 1904. The skeletons were found on the south side of the Lake. Also visible is the railway running through Lake Austin and the Government wells (green spots). Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 9022.M95H2).

No statement was made with regards to the sand. Was it there because of natural causes such as wind? Or, was the sand covering the remains because someone had put it there? As per the Coroner’s request, they began removing the sand so that they could examine the bones and the scene.

They worked on one skeleton at a time. Near the first skeleton they found a magnifying glass, a pipe, a penny stamped with the year 1877 and a three penny coin stamped with the year 1890. Fragments of books and the individual’s clothing were also uncovered but were not complete enough to offer additional information.

Waterbury
A Waterbury Watch circa 1886.

The second skeleton (missing part of its skull) was found with similar effects as the first; a pipe, a magnifying glass with the initials J. C. H. scratched on a corner and a Waterbury watch which had stopped at 4 o’clock. Constable Fanning noted that they wound the watch up and, despite being buried for years, it managed to give a few ticks.

The scene indicated that the individuals had been laying on the ground when they died. They were located on opposite sides of the tree with the skulls being about 30cm apart. Under the first skull was the remains of a waterbag while under the second was the remains of blue serge cloth (presumed to be a jacket). It was as though they had simply gone to sleep.

The bones had to be officially looked over by Dr Cashmore at Cue however Constable Fanning made several observations of his own, noting that they were “much decayed from long exposure to the weather” and appeared to have been men who stood nearly six feet tall. Both individuals had been wearing toe plated, hob nailed boots however most of the metal had rusted away.

Hobnailed Boots
Hobnailed Boots. Courtesy of Orbost & District Historical Society & Victorian Collections.

Hobnail boots were named as such because they had hobnails attached to the soles and were commonly worn to provide grip on soft or rocky ground. Worn generally by workmen, they would have been the perfect boot for miners who regularly traversed the dusty, rocky ground of the goldfields.

It appeared that the two men were prospectors who had travelled to Lake Austin in search of gold and eventually met their death. If that was the case, remnants of their camp should have been nearby. Constable Fanning looked for any signs of tools or firearms but could find none. He theorised that the men may have “got lost in the early days and had wandered about salt lake country where no water could be had & evidently died from thirst & exhaustion.

Once they had carefully noted what they found, they were under instructions to remove the bones and transport them to the morgue at Cue for further investigation. In Cue, Dr Cashmore agreed with Fanning’s hypothesis; the bones belonged to two white people who had died many years ago.

With little to go on, Constable Fanning started by questioning the older residents at Cue but found that no one had any information with regards to the men’s identities. He wrote his report on 29 November 1930 and submitted it to Mr Edward Butler (the Resident Magistrate at Cue) for further instructions.

Mr Butler did not believe any further action was necessary and stated, “Should any further information as to their identity come to light the question of holding an inquest can be considered.

The next day Constable Fanning and several other people drove back to Lake Austin and again walked through the salt lakes to the place where the bones were found.

Across intervening hollows, where sundried powdery earth crackles under the foot, to the depth of inches each time a step is taken, the party made their way. Having sifted the earth beneath where the bones lay without gathering much further evidence, the remains were buried beneath the tree, where they had rested unmolested for many years.

By 3 December 1930 the news of the skeletons at Lake Austin had become public knowledge with the Daily Telegraph and North Murchison and Pilbarra Gazette first to break the story. Assumptions were made that the remains had been there for 20 or 30 years and the reporter commented:

As this is a fairly well prospected field it is remarkable that they have been at rest there all this time.

From Cue, Constable Fanning’s report was forwarded to Inspector Louis Simpson at Geraldton who then sent it to the Commissioner of Police (Robert Connell) in Perth. Far from simply filing it away, the Commissioner responded to Inspector Simpson on 17 December 1930 and provided the first lead. He advised that two men, Edward Plush and Joseph Thomas, had been reported missing from the Cue district in 1908 and were presumed to have not been found.

In a rather fascinating illustration as to how the Western Australian Police operated in the 1930s (well before today’s technology) there was a lot of back and forth with regards to these two individuals and the location of various Cue Police files. While the files remained undiscovered, Constable Fanning, through the use of the Police Gazettes, was able to eliminate Plush and Thomas as possibilities.

Back to the drawing board. By the end of January 1931 no further information was uncovered and the Acting Commissioner of Police decided to utilise the press. Notices were placed in the Perth and Kalgoorlie papers and a request was sent to the Geraldton Police that notices be placed in the papers that reached Geraldton, Mingenew and Cue.

Percy Gillam
Percy Gillam circa 1927

At around the same time Percy Gillam decided to send a letter to the Inspector of Police in Perth. Dated 29 January 1931 and written on Mt Barker Sub-Branch RSL paper (he was the Secretary) he shared his knowledge of two men who disappeared after leaving Sandstone in 1910.

Dear Sir,

Re your inquiry Remains of 2 men found near Cue. about 1910 2 men were sent away from Sandstone by Mssrs Brown & Kirwan on a prospecting trip I forget the month. One was named Ernie Bradbury very deaf. I cannot call the other mans name to mind. Far as I know nothing was heard of of these 2 men again. only that they had left Day Dawn. They were equipped I think by the P.W.D [Public Works Department] with a couple of camels at Day Dawn & probably that Dept. may have some records of the names of both men also if they ever did turn up. I know the above firm did the provisioning for the trip.

Yours SSully
P Gillam

They were both fellows about 5ft 10 high.

Sandstone Map
Map showing Sandstone (right) in conjunction with Cue and Lake Austin (all underlined in red). Courtesy of Google Maps.

It was by far their strongest lead. The letter was forwarded to Geraldton and Sergeant McDonald (the Sergeant in charge for the Inspector) wrote back with additional information. He was stationed in Sandstone in 1910 and knew that Brown & Kirwan were merchants and carriers who often backed prospectors by giving them supplies. He further confirmed that there was a Government Public Works Department at Day Dawn who regularly supplied camels to prospectors.

Train Service

He surmised that if the two individuals had utilised the camels from the Public Works Department there should be a record of them being collected and returned. If the camels were not returned it could mean that something had befallen the prospectors and that perhaps there was a connection to the remains found.

A memo was sent to the Under Secretary for Works requesting a search of Public Works Department records and by mid February 1931 they responded. Two men named Alfred Credgington and Ernest Bradbury had obtained the loan of three camels at Day Dawn and had subsequently disappeared.

Alfred Credgington and Ernest Bradbury were both aged in their 40s and both stood at 5ft 10 inches tall (the skeletons were estimated to be about 6ft). They were loaned camels and equipment on 19 July 1909 to assist them with prospecting around Curran’s Find, southwest of Sandstone.

There appears however to have been some confusion as to where exactly they intended to go. While they told the Government workers at Day Dawn that they were planning to prospect southwest of Sandstone, their initial letter (dated 1 June 1909) stated they were intending to prospect near Lake Way, Wiluna (northeast from Sandstone). Furthermore, a note in the Public Works Department papers indicates that they were last seen at the 40 mile in November 1909 which was a goldmine in the Lake Mason area (northeast of Sandstone but not as far north as Lake Way).

Prospecting Areas
This map shows the areas where Credgington and Bradbury were thought to have gone. Day Dawn was located between the Cue and Lake Austin labels. Courtesy of Google Maps.

No one was sure which direction they took after leaving Day Dawn however it was presumed they would have headed back to Sandstone where Brown & Kirwan was located. To do this, the two prospectors would likely have travelled in a south easterly direction from Day Dawn, taking them through Lake Austin.

Inspector Simpson wrote to Constable Fanning in late February 1931 concluding that it was feasible “…that the two skeletons found at or near Lake Austin are those of Credginton and Bradbury, as Lake Austin is only twenty miles from Cue and 16 from Day Dawn, and neither the men, camels or equipment have been heard, of or from, since leaving Day Dawn on 19th July, 1909.

Brown & Kirwan
Advertising from Brown & Kirwan circa 1909.

Responding to Inspector Simpson, Constable Fanning advised that despite asking many of the older locals at Cue, no one could remember two men by the names of Credgington and Bradbury. He was given the name of William Summers (a principal in Brown & Kirwan at the time) who had relocated to Queensland as well as the name of Nick Kirwan (one half of Brown & Kirwan) who was living in Yalgoo. Interviews were requested in the hope that these individuals connected with the business would remember more of Credgington and Bradbury.

Kirwan in Yalgoo was the easiest to contact. Yes, he had known Ernest Bradbury but not Alfred Credgington. He had left as a partner of Brown & Kirwan prior to July 1909 and, despite the business continuing to use his name, he had no knowledge of the two men’s prospecting trip. He further confirmed that Bradbury was about 40 years old and quite tall (5ft 10 or 5ft 11) but stated that he did not know what Credgington looked like. Perhaps the most useful piece of information that he could provide was the statement that Hilton Brown (the other half of Brown & Kirwan) was living at Yanrey Station (south of Onslow) and had been a personal friend of Bradbury’s.

By May 1931 the files were received at Onslow Station and Constable Martin was instructed to conduct an inquiry and write a report with regards to Hilton Brown and what he may or may not know. Officially born as Herbert Hilton Australia Brown, Hilton was out on the run at the Station when Constable Martin phoned (he was unable to personally travel to the Station due to the rains). The questions were left with Mr De Pledge (the Station owner) who went out and interviewed Brown and then relayed the answers back to Constable Martin. Perhaps understandable given the remote location but nevertheless a practice that would never be conducted by Police today.

Hilton’s knowledge was similar to what was already known. Yes, he knew Ernest Bradbury and had loaned him two camels at Sandstone. He remembered him leaving the town with his friend in 1909 and believed he had travelled first to Meekatharra to purchase stores and then headed to Lake Way near Wiluna for prospecting. He never heard from Bradbury again but one of the camels returned to him some time later.

He also offered some new information with regards to Alfred Credgington’s looks; he had a broken nose. A suggestion was made by Constable Martin to have the nasal part of the skull looked at to see if it had ever been broken.

Despite the Geraldton Guardian and Express having previously stated that the remains were reburied on 30 November 1931 (four days after they were found) Constable Fanning did as he was told and arranged for Dr Cashmore to look over the bones again. Many questions with regards to this action arise. Was the Geraldton newspaper incorrect in writing an article stating that the bones had been reburied? Did Constable Fanning return to dig them up again? Was a second inspection of the skull simply not conducted due to the reburial? These are questions which I am unable to answer however the records state that Dr Cashmore did look at the skulls again. Whether this was deceptive or not remains to be seen.

I have to report that one of the skeletons has been further examined by Dr Cashmore D M O & he stated that he could not say if the nose had ever been broken or not, as only part of the bone of the nose is left in the skull. There is one half of the skull left on the second skeleton, the front portion being missing.

Constable Fanning once again forwarded the file to the Resident Magistrate at Cue (Mr Butler) and despite an increasing likelihood that the remains were those of Credgington and Bradbury, he decided that an inquest was unnecessary.

RM Butler

On 9 June 1931 Constable Fanning wrote a report to Inspector Simpson and at the end suggested that William Summers (in Queensland) be interviewed in the hope that his knowledge may shed additional clues with regards to Credgington and Bradbury. It was the last lead to chase up and the last hope with attempting to identify the remains.

Inspector Simpson forwarded this information and request to the Commissioner of Police in Perth who then sent the file to the Commissioner of Police in Brisbane. From Brisbane it was sent to Rockhampton and from Rockhampton to Mt Larcom where Mr Summers resided.

Constable Quinn of the Mt Larcom Police Station interviewed William Summers on 7 July 1931. Summers confirmed that he lived in Sandstone from 1906 to 1922 during which time he worked first as a courier for Brown & Kirwan and was then promoted to Manager before eventually purchasing the business. He further confirmed that Percy Gillam (the writer of the letter) was Manager of the firm in 1909.

William Summers also remembered Ernest Bradbury and described him as an “experienced bushman“. The most clear and informative of all the individuals interviewed, he went on to say…

Both these men [Credgington and Bradbury] were prospecting around Youanne in the early part of 1909 & later on in the same year they arrived at Sandstone in a camel team with George Brown, who was then a partner in the Produce store of Brown & Kirwan. Bradbury obtained the loan of a camel from Brown & with his partner left about July 1909 towards Magnet or Barrigan & Meekatharra where they would obtain rations, stating that they intended to then proceed to Day Dawn where it was their intentions to procure the services of some camel’s from the Government.

Then the clincher…

They also stated that they intended to work their way around Lake Austin & return to Sandstone via Berrigin.

Map Summers
This map shows the locations Summers thought Credgington and Bradbury may have gone. Courtesy of Google Maps.

It would appear that even Credgington and Bradbury weren’t too sure where they were going to go. Perhaps they were simply playing it by ear. According to Summers, they were only supposed to be away prospecting for about six months in 1909 and after nine months had passed, a search party was formed and spent several weeks looking for them. No trace was found but a camel (the one loaned by Brown) returned to Sandstone several years later.

One more lead was investigated but resulted in nothing. At a standstill, the Commissioner of Police advised Inspector Simpson (Geraldton) that, “At the present time no further inquiry need be made as it seems impossible to satisfactorily clear up the identity of these remains.” Despite it being possible that the remains were those of Credgington and Bradbury, there was not enough to absolutely confirm it.

All files and documents were returned to Perth by August 1931 however investigations were not officially abandoned until February 1932. Perhaps as one final push in the hope that extra publicity would cause someone to come forward with new information, an image of the gum tree (where the remains were found) was printed in The Daily News (Perth) on 10 February 1932.

Strange Deaths

Along with the above photo, details of the case were reiterated in an article on the same page as well as in the next day’s paper. Both articles indicated that the case was stagnant and likely to remain unsolved.

At present, the case is chronicled among the unsolved mysteries of the back country of Western Australia. [10 February 1932]

Today the search has been abandoned, but the file remains and will be kept in the hope that even now something may turn up that will indicate that the skeletons are those of the men the police believe they are. [11 February 1932]

The possibility of the remains being Credgington and Bradbury was again put forward however without enough identifying information (letters, cards, clothing, mining permits etc) found with either skeleton, the Police were not comfortable declaring them as such. Today a DNA test (providing the remains were not too damaged by exposure) would have helped the case but in the 1930s it was not an option.

Initially I was of the opinion that the skeletons must have been Credgington and Bradbury and while I am still partial to this thought, I can understand why the case became cold. The initials J.C.H. on the magnifying glass is one concerning factor. While it is possible that Credgington or Bradbury borrowed, stole or purchased a magnifying glass with these initials inscribed upon it, there is also the chance that the initials were there because it belonged to someone whose names actually started with J. C. and H. Obviously, this did not fit Credgington or Bradbury.

The second concerning factor is the note stating they were seen in the vicinity of Lake Mason in November 1909. Seeing as though they collected the camels from Day Dawn in July 1909, does this mean they travelled to Lake Mason first and then headed back towards Day Dawn via Lake Austin, perhaps to return the camels? It’s plausible given where the skeletons were found but it does not appear to have been a possible route option put forward by Credgington and Bradbury. Of course, they could have changed their minds.

Regardless of the fact that they could not be confidently identified, I also have a number of other thoughts and questions with regards to the case itself.

No mention was made by Dr Cashmore or Constable Fanning of bullet holes or fractures visible on the bones so it is presumed that the individuals did not die in an extremely violent manner. An inquest was twice refused (most likely because the remains were not identified) so there was no detailed investigation to ascertain the exact cause of death.

Police could find no sign of the men’s camp nearby which could mean they became lost and separated from where they were based or, their camp was nearby but the equipment was taken in the aftermath of their death or in the proceeding years. Perhaps people stumbled across the camp many times but never stumbled across the skeletons. The same goes with the camels they had with them. They may have wandered away or were taken by someone who came across them.

It was the lack of evidence of the camp which led Constable Fanning to theorise that the men had died from dehydration. With the area in which they were found described in the 1930s as “No Mans Land” it is a strong theory and certainly the most logical. In considering it however I struggle to reconcile ‘death by dehydration’ with the position in which the bones were found. Would not one, but two men, dying from lack of water and resigned to their fate, have the foresight to lay down next to each other, make themselves comfortable with improvised pillows and simply await death? It seems a rather considered act to me. On the other hand, they may have lay down in such a manner if they had both become sick.

Then there is the fact that the areas frequented by these men were completely different in 1909 and 1910 compared to what they are now. Back then there were smaller towns (now ghost towns), mining sites, camps, a railway between Geraldton, Cue, Day Dawn and Mt Magnet and people often on the road. Furthermore, Government wells were located in various areas to serve people as they travelled (see the first map of Lake Austin). If they were good bushmen with adequate supplies they should have been fairly safe. Even William Summers seemed incredulous that Credgington and Bradbury (whom he considered a bushman) would succumb to the elements.

Summers states that he is well conversant with the country around Lake Austin, particularly in 1909, and he cannot think for a moment these men would perish in that locality…

Summers was strongly of the opinion that the remains were those of Credgington and Bradbury and, without provocation, he put forward that they had likely been murdered for their equipment. He was quoted as saying:

Well if you knew how good a bush-man Bradbury was, you would say the same, and to think that no relics of the pack-saddles could be found.

This brings me to another point of conflict with regards to the identification. While Summers confidently described Ernest Bradbury as a good bushman in 1931, the special notice issued when the pair went missing in 1910 stated “they are not good bushmen“. Which statement was correct? I suppose another consideration with respect to this is whether or not Brown & Kirwan would financially back two prospectors who had no knowledge of the outback.

There is one final aspect of the case which does not make sense to me: the reburial. Why would remains, relevant to an ongoing investigation and possibly needed in the future, be reburied? Perhaps the Police were convinced that all they had on their hands was an historical case of two men becoming lost in the outback; an occurrence which was all too common. Perhaps they simply felt as though the remains should be returned to where they were found and where they had lain undisturbed for decades. While I would not go as far as saying the reburial hindered the case (the Police really did a fantastic job chasing leads around Western Australia and as far as Queensland) I am of the opinion that the action taken was odd. It’s also sad with respect to the individuals. Somewhere out in Lake Austin there is a stunted gum tree perched on a gypsum hillock and buried beneath it are the remains of two men who died many years ago while prospecting for gold. They may never be found again.

A future blog post will investigate Alfred Credgington and Ernest Bradbury in closer detail. If you don’t want to miss it, please be sure to subscribe to The Dusty Box by clicking the ‘Follow’ button on the right side of the page or ‘Like’ us on Facebook.

If you enjoyed reading the story you may also like to listen to the story: https://soundcloud.com/undawaterguy/two-skeletons-at-lake-austin

Sources:

  • State Records Office of Western Australia; Western Australia Police Department; General Files [2]; Reference: AU WA S76 – cons430 1930/9342; Title: ‘Skeletons of two white men found near Lake Austin (Cue) on 26/11/1930.’
  • State Records Office of Western Australia; Western Australia Police Department; General Files [2]; Reference: AU WA S76 – cons430 1910/5846; Title: ‘Prospectors – Alfred Credgington [Credington?] and E. Bradbury with 3 camels (Hired?) equipment left Day Dawn 19.7.1909.’
  • State Library of Western Australia; Map of the Central Goldfields [cartographic material] : including parts of Murchison, East Murchison, Yalgoo & Peak Hill G.Fs.; Call Number: 9022.M95H2 (http://purl.slwa.wa.gov.au/slwa_b2247326_2).
  • 1886 ‘A WONDERFUL WATCH.’, Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 – 1912), 1 December, p. 3. (SECOND EDITION), viewed 11 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197829740
  • Image of Hobnailed Boots courtesy of the Orbost & District Historical Society and obtained via Victorian Collections (https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/55c1c19c2162f110e0fab915).
  • 1930 ‘Two Skeletons Found.’, Daily Telegraph and North Murchison and Pilbarra Gazette (WA : 1920 – 1947), 3 December, p. 5. , viewed 12 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article214217378
  • 1930 ‘LAKE AUSTIN TRAGEDY’, Geraldton Guardian and Express (WA : 1929 – 1947), 6 December, p. 6. , viewed 13 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article67252957
  • 1927 ‘Sailors and Soldiers Section’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 9 October, p. 7. , viewed 15 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58335794
  • 1932 ‘STRANGE DEATHS OCCURRED HERE’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 10 February, p. 5. (HOME (FINAL) EDITION), viewed 20 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82525754
  • 1932 ‘WHOSE SKELETONS?’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 10 February, p. 5. (HOME (FINAL) EDITION), viewed 20 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82525696
  • 1932 ‘WHOSE SKELETONS?’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 11 February, p. 1. (HOME (FINAL) EDITION), viewed 20 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article82524288
  • 1933 ‘”LOST” IN THE BUSH’, Geraldton Guardian and Express (WA : 1929 – 1947), 3 January, p. 1. , viewed 21 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article67239496
  • 1910 ‘LOCAL INQUIRIES.’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 16 April, p. 4. (THIRD EDITION), viewed 30 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77829274
  • 1909 ‘Advertising’, The Black Range Courier and Sandstone Observer (WA : 1907 – 1915), 16 July, p. 4. , viewed 30 Jul 2017, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article204877810
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