Excitement was caused in Northam when it was reported that a strange creature had been seen on two or three successive nights in the Avon River, near the Central Bridge.
On 14 January 1929, The West Australian broke the story of the strange creature in the Avon River. While some swore that what they had seen was a small alligator resting on a sandbank, others stated that it was a shark. Most people however felt that both speculations were incorrect and that it was most likely just a large lizard. Whatever it was, Police found the claims to be serious enough that, at 1am in the morning, they attempted a search and, during the day, a Constable patrolled the bridge with a rifle. With no success, a more thorough investigation was organised to take place on 15 January.
Hundreds of people lined the riverbanks and the bridges and watched the Police carry out their search, all to no avail. Despite descriptions (said to be five feet long) and the occasional sighting, the monster eluded capture.
By the 16 January, the monster was still at large.
Great excitement prevails here and hundreds of townspeople lined the river banks again last night, some staying until the early hours of the morning. The animal was seen again about 11:30 p.m. by Inspector Johnson, who estimates its length to be about eight feet.
The story took hold and with no clear answer to the mystery, speculation began to dominate the news. Convinced that what they were searching for was a crocodile (often referred to as an alligator), The Daily News theorised that someone from the north must have left it on the riverbank when only a baby or when it was still an egg. The West Australian added further detail to this theory:
The search continued, people continually watched the river and a Policeman still patrolled the area with a rifle. While reports of the creature increased during the night, nothing was seen in daylight hours. Despite the summer heat, no one went swimming in the Avon.
Perth newspapers received daily reports from Northam which generally proffered no new information. On 18 January 1929, The West Australian touched upon the word ‘hoax’ but immediately discounted it due to the fact that the Inspector of Police had also seen the monster and was determined to capture it.
The Beverley Times (published weekly – Beverley is under an hour away from Northam) finally had their chance to publish the story on 18 January. Unlike the metropolitan newspapers, they went into greater detail stating that the monster was first seen by Mrs Whitworth, some youths, young men who had attended the band concert and, finally, Inspector Johnston (Inspector of Police).
Despite the many eyewitnesses, the creature remained at loose in the Avon River. The Inspector generally advised against using rifles however when a report was received stating that the creature was visible, a Constable was immediately sent to the area.
A constable was despatched to the seen [sic] and after firing two shots at the alleged alligator, the second of which found its mark, it was discovered to be a piece of timber.
The Police remained convinced that something was in the river and even though it had not been identified, the search continued.
An investigator from the Mirror eventually made their way to Northam and the story (in true Mirror fashion) was printed in a rather sensationalist manner.
Apart from critising their contemporaries, much of what was printed was similar to what had already been told. They did however make an interesting statement with respect to “wide and varying” tales.
Since then almost everybody in Northam seems to have had a peep and the dimensions of the freak now range from five to thirty-five feet in length. Sometimes it is equipped with a crocodile’s head, sometimes it is like a shark, and sometimes it has a horrible snout like a pig…
Then the Truth got hold of the story and immediately rubbished the claims of a monster in the Avon. They stated that its existence and the furore following it was reminiscent of similar stories from around the country where no clear evidence of the monster could be found.
That there can be no doubt about the existence of the monster is indicated by the fact that its habits appear to be identical with all the other monsters which have ever appeared – it keeps out of sight during the day and appears at night, just like bogies and Bunyips.
Further mocking the sightings, they ran with the needling headline, “Populace Keeps Anxious Night Watch For a Pink-Striped Spnorter“. They were also the only paper to print an image of the monster albeit fictional.
The Sunday Times soon followed with poems; a short one which referred to various people who had lived in Northam throughout the years (below left) and a much longer one which speculated and questioned but often ended with the words, “Northam only knows!“
By 25 January 1929 (just over ten days since the monster was first reported) The Beverley Times ran an article stating that it still had not been captured. The people of Northam continued to line the riverbanks but it was noted that the original excitement had died down and that children were once again swimming in the river.
No longer of the opinion that the monster was a crocodile, Inspector Johnston had come to believe it was probably a large fish. This was further fuelled by the words of Mr Jessup who stated that Murray Cod (known to grow to quite a large size) had been released in the river in about 1914.
By the end of January the search may have continued but with no new sightings or information, the story of the monster in the Avon River at Northam fizzled out of the news. When it did appear, it was often in the form of a mocking joke with the newspaper, Truth, revelling in the chance to continue to make fun of the story.
Presumably, with no success and nothing more to go on, the Police search would have also eventually come to an end. Having eluded capture, the monster and what it was exactly, remained a mystery.
If you can add any more detail to the story of the monster of the Avon River, please feel free to leave a comment below.
While today (in most parts of the world) whaling is thankfully banned, in the past, whaling was an occupation that was carried out regularly. Whales were hunted to extremes for their blubber, oil and bones. Western Australia was no exception with whaling being an early industry in the colony. Early accounts indicate great excitement at whales being killed and reports were regularly printed in the papers. On 2 September 1843, the Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal printed an article recounting the news for the whaling industry for the previous fortnight. They then went on to describe “a curious scene” in Fremantle.
Numerous whales had been attacked by the whalers however it was reported that one of them had been harpooned and then managed to pull away, dragging the boat and its occupants with it. Near Straggler Rocks it began to dive and the whalers in the boat had no choice than to cut the rope attached to the harpoon.
Thinking that they had lost the whale, the whalers returned to shore. A few days later news soon spread that the whale had in fact died from its wounds and had been found washed up on North Beach, located a few miles from Fremantle. The whalers gathered what they needed and headed straight to the beach, hoping to recover as much of the whale as possible.
Meanwhile, news also reached Perth of the whale on the beach. The fascination at seeing a whale close up was too much for some and as it was only an hour’s ride from Perth to the Fremantle area, many people took off on their horses to catch a glimpse of it. One amongst the group was a young man, suitably nicknamed ‘Jonas’ by the paper, perhaps in a bid to protect his identity.
‘Jonas’ arrived and noticing that the first spade was about to be dug in, decided to seize the opportunity of being first for himself. He jumped on top of the whale and dug in his spade, only to be met with an almighty explosion! There was nowhere else for ‘Jonas’ to go but down into the rotting belly of the whale.
Initially everyone laughed at his predicament but seeing as though ‘Jonas’ was struggling, they quickly went about undertaking the difficult task of rescuing him from inside the whale. ‘Jonas’ was safely returned to land unhurt but left in a rather putrid state.
Looking upon the decade as a whole, we can see that many interesting events took place throughout the 1830s. William IV succeeded his brother to the throne of the United Kingdom in June 1830. The Slavery Abolition Act 1833 (abolishing slavery in the British Empire) was passed. Charles Darwin set off on a voyage of discovery in 1831 with the information collected later used in his book, ‘The Origin of the Species’. On the other side of the world, Western Australia (settled by Europeans in 1829) was still only a fledgling colony.
It was also in the early 1830s (approximately 1833) that Joseph Byron was born and, unlike the aforementioned events, his birth would have gone unnoticed except to those closest to him.
Attempts to establish the place of his birth have thus far been unsuccessful. While it is possible he was born in England, there is also the chance that he was born elsewhere.
Later evidence indicates that Joseph was lucky enough to receive an education. He was literate which gives rise to the assumption that he came from a family of means. Nevertheless, as he grew older, a career in the military called to him.
Again, details of his life in the military are sketchy. He served time in India and may have been part of the forces in Jhansi during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. By early 1864 and in his early thirties, he was certainly stationed in Jhansi as it was there that he was court-martialled.
In mid-1864 Joseph was brought to the General Court in Jhansi and was charged with insubordination. Insubordination within the military generally consists of an individual choosing to disobey a superior’s orders. Assaulting or treating a superior with disrespect are also acts of insubordination. No details as to what Joseph did are provided in the records at hand but it is likely that he committed a very serious act. On 8 July 1864 he was sentenced to ten years’ transportation and served time in Calcutta Barracks.
Four months later, on 3 December 1864, a warrant was issued by the Clerk of the Crown calling for his removal from India so that his sentence could be executed. From India, he was sent to England.
It is in this communication (printed in the Proceedings of the Government of India) that information concerning his military career are obtained. Joseph Byron, No. 246, was a Driver in B. Battery, 22nd Brigade Royal Artillery.
Having arrived in England by April 1865, Joseph bounced around from prison to prison during the next two years. On 7 April 1865, he was received at Millbank Prison in London; well-known for holding convict prisoners before their transportation to Australia.
Looking through the Millbank Prison register of arrivals, it’s interesting to see that Joseph most likely did not arrive alone. On the same date there were eleven other prisoners who were all sent from Calcutta Barracks in India to England. Many were found guilty of striking a superior officer or attempting to shoot a person. They were sentenced to four, five or six years transportation. Joseph’s crime was listed simply as ‘disobedience’. He was one of two sentenced to ten years.
He remained in Millbank for two months before being sent on to Pentonville Prison in London, arriving on 19 June 1865. In the register, his trade was described as a bricklayer as well as a Private in the Royal Artillery. It was recorded that he was single, could read and write and was 26 years of age. This indicates a birth year closer to 1838 and conflicts with later records. A report of his character was also provided and was noted simply as ‘good’.
On 9 March 1866, Joseph was removed from Pentonville and was sent to Chatham Prison in Kent. He stayed there for the remainder of his time (six months) in England.
On 6 September, Joseph, along with 97 other convicts from Chatham Prison, boarded a paddle steamer which conveyed them down the River Medway and out to The Nore (a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames Estuary). It was there that the new clipper ship Corona was waiting (already with pensioner guards and their families aboard) to embark and transport them to Western Australia. From The Nore the plan was to sail south around the coast of England towards Portsmouth and Portland to embark more convicts from these towns. It did not work out that way.
The ship set sail as planned. By 10 September they reached The Downs (an area of sea near the English Channel) and it was noted in the Surgeon’s Journal that many of the convicts had begun to feel the affects of seasickness and that some were also suffering from diarrhoea. The latter ailment was not another symptom of seasickness and its diagnosis and origin can be seen in the entry written on the day the convicts embarked.
One of the Crew seized with Cholera, sent on shore about 3P.M.
Cholera had broken out on the Corona and it was only the start of the voyage. Two days later, as the realisation dawned, steps were taken to try and ensure that the highly contagious disease would not spread further.
Barracks and Prison to be whitewashed twice a week with Chloride of Lime. Chloride of Zinc to be frequently applied to all parts of the Ship. All secretions from Stomach and Bowels to be disinfected. Stoves to be kept burning about Dock all day.
It’s not known whether Joseph suffered from seasickness or contracted cholera.
The disease however took its hold and on 16 September 1866 the ship was towed to The Motherbank (a sandbar northeast of the Isle of Wight) and remained in the area until early October. Throughout that time two convicts, William Sharp and Enoch Gibson, passed away.
By 8 October, the original plan was put back in motion and the Corona sailed for Portsmouth and then Portland to embark a further 79 and 133 convicts respectively, taking the total convicts on board to 308.
They were fed meat which, on alternate days, was accompanied by either compressed vegetables or preserved potatoes and washed down with cups of either lime juice or wine.
As the illnesses abated and the journey continued, the convicts fell into a weekly routine which was prescribed by the Surgeon and written at the front of his journal. They were required to be up by 6am to wash their beds, hammocks and themselves. At 8am they ate breakfast. At 9:30am they said their prayers. They were exercised on deck and attended school. Dinner was eaten at 12pm and supper at 4:30pm. They said their prayers again at 6pm and were in bed by 8:30pm when the Surgeon completed his rounds.
Each day was the same as the last with the addition of shaving on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Sundays were also especially marked with the words ‘divine service’. All prisoners were expected to “assemble together in a clean and orderly manner, for the worship of Almighty God.“
Fifteen rules were also written in the journal and mainly consisted of standard ones such as being required to behave in an orderly manner. They were also not permitted to steal from the stores of food, had to take their bedding on deck every morning and would be severely punished if found with a cutting or sawing instrument.
They ate in separate sections in the mess and each group had an appointed Captain who was in charge and responsible for several duties. Joseph would have been in a particular group in the mess and was required to eat with them for the duration of the journey. Considering his background within the Army, perhaps he felt quite at home on board the Corona. He was certainly no stranger to rules, regulations and strict order.
The ship sailed onwards towards its destination. Most of the trip went fairly well apart from two major incidents: the death of a third convict, Thomas Hinson, who succumbed in early November from diarrhoea and was buried at sea; and the discovery that deck planks had been sawn through by two convicts who were attempting to gain access to (what they thought) was the arms and ammunition stores. Denials served them no good and they received 24 lashes each as punishment.
Finally, at noon on 22 December 1866, Rottnest Island was sighted. By 3pm in the afternoon they arrived in Fremantle and cast their anchor. Despite their delay at the start, the journey was considered to be the fastest ever to Western Australia and was completed in 66 days.
Joseph and the other convicts remained on board for two more days and, at 6am on the 24th, were disembarked from the Corona and brought ashore. By 8am they had arrived (on foot) at Fremantle Prison.
Convict number 9104, Joseph Byron was noted as 33 years old (birth year 1833), single with no children. He stood at five foot six and a quarter (just over 170 cm). He was described as having light brown hair, hazel eyes, a round face, dark complexion and was considered stout. Other identifying features included a “mark of ulcer sores on left arm and throat.“
His religious denomination was recorded as the Church of England and under the box entitled ‘Residence of Convict’s Family or next of Kin’ it was written “No friends“.
Prior convictions were also stated and while it was written that he had been convicted previously, he had never been transported before. Other than that, his character was good.
At Fremantle Prison, Joseph and the other convicts were inspected and then sent off to bathe. Having handed over what he was wearing, he was issued with a new set of clothes made of heavy cotton material and stamped with black arrows. He also received other items such as socks, handkerchiefs, a pair of boots and a cap. Finally, his hair was cut short and he was sent to his cell.
It’s likely he spent little time in Fremantle Prison and was quickly put to work within the colony, working on roads or public buildings. Joseph however was not interested in keeping his head down and his nose out of trouble. Nine months after his arrival, on 6 September 1867, he was formally warned by Mr McMahon (an assistant warder) that if he continued to misconduct himself he would be brought in and severely punished.
By early January 1868 his behaviour had not improved and he was imprisoned in Perth for three days for “Disobedience of Orders & refusing to work“, a charge which was extremely similar to his original conviction. Perhaps Joseph would not (or could not) work.
Over a year later, on 11 October 1869, he was granted a Ticket of Leave. No longer required to work exclusively as convict labour for the Government, he was free to be employed privately and to earn his own money. Four days later Joseph went to work for John Bancells in Perth as a labourer.
None of his employment prospects were long term. In March 1870 he cut firewood for William McGrath in the Swan district. He worked as a teamster for Mr R. Thompson (also of Swan) in April 1870 and, in June 1872, he twice worked as a gentleman’s servant for Patrick Lambert in Perth.
Joseph seemed only capable of working odd jobs. Despite his trade being a bricklayer, he never actually obtained employment in that field.
Questions as to how he was supporting himself or why he had so few jobs during this period can be answered when reading over the ‘Remarks’ section in the register. Apart from when he was located at the Guildford Convict Depot for the first nine months of 1870 (confirming his employment in Swan) from 1869 until 1874 Joseph was in and out of either prison or hospital. He also spent considerable time in the invalid depot with the record showing that he was in that institution for most of 1873 and the first six months of 1874.
Looking closer at some of the individual records allows us to gain an understanding as to what Joseph may have been going through.
He suffered from rheumatic gout and appears to have been regularly admitted to hospital with this complaint. His first hospital visit occurred on 23 October 1869 at about age 36 and a mere three years after his arrival. He remained there for three months and was not released until 17 January 1870.
Joseph was not always completely blameless for his actions. On 18 May 1872 he was found guilty of assaulting Thomas McNamara (likely another convict) and was sent to prison for fourteen days. This conviction resulted in the cancellation of his Conditional Release which had only been granted three months prior. Another two years passed before he was finally granted his Certificate of Freedom on 21 July 1874.
The following year, in January 1875, he was back in hospital when his old gout problem caused him difficulty. This stint did not last as long as the previous one and he was released in early February.
On 22 October 1877 (noted as being a much older age of 50 in the records) Joseph was found guilty of using obscene and threatening language. No detail was printed in either the register or the newspapers as to who (if anyone) the language was directed towards. He was sentenced to 40/ or one month’s imprisonment. Given the impoverished nature of Joseph’s life in Western Australia, there can be no doubt as to which option was the only one available to him. He went to prison and was discharged in the following month.
Underlying the story of Joseph’s behaviour, it would appear that alcohol was another issue. While there is the possibility that Joseph was ‘self-medicating’ as a way to combat the pain of his rheumatic gout, we can’t ignore the fact that he may simply have been an alcoholic. Perhaps alcohol eased or helped him forget his joint pain for a short while but it would not have been conducive to improving his condition; alcohol is known to trigger the symptoms of gout.
Joseph was a convict who did not succeed within the system. It would appear he tried to survive on his own however, when necessary, he turned to the Government for support and became known as an imperial pauper. Throughout the years Joseph was recorded as receiving several shirts and a couple of pairs of boots, fairly minimal requests compared to other convicts’ larger orders. In the first instance of his making a claim for a shirt (on 24 July 1876) he was described as an ‘invalid’ and was required to sign his name. The signature, though a little scratchy, is strong, dark and clear. In amongst dates, facts and records, it offers a small, personal glimpse relating to the man himself.
As an imperial pauper, the years may have passed by slowly and difficultly for Joseph. He resided in Fremantle and at some point went to live in a cave near Rocky Bay. With the Swan River on his doorstep, the area (today part of North Fremantle) would have been much quieter than the hustle and bustle of the town of Fremantle.
My own visit illustrated this fact perfectly. Even today the cave and the area where Joseph lived is quiet and peaceful and with the Swan River gently lapping at the shore I can understand why he would have chosen to stay in the cave and maintain his liberty rather than opt for admittance to an invalid home.
It’s not known how long he resided within the cave but it is likely he lived there for quite some time. As it’s known to happen with people who frequent the same area for a considerable time, he soon became known to everyone as Rocky Bay Joe.
The 1880s saw the occasional visits to both prison and hospital but generally he kept out of trouble. As a new decade began in 1890, Joseph was about 57 years of age. The year did not start well.
On 30 January 1890 Joseph returned to the cave at Rocky Bay to find that his bed and all his belongings (everything he owned in the world) had been set on fire by a group of boys.
The Police were said to have had the names of the boys but whether they were charged remains to be seen. Searching in the Police Gazettes and newspapers indicates that no one around that time period was taken to Court for a similarly described offence.
Less than a week later, Joseph approached the Fremantle Police Court determined to receive compensation for the loss of his property.
He explained that he suffered from rheumatism, and the pittance he earned was just enough to live on, and it was very hard to lose his things in the way he had. He had nothing left except the clothing he wore.
While sympathetic to his plight, the magistrate informed Joseph that he could not give him compensation and that the only way to obtain it was to sue the boys in the Local Court. Such an option would require hiring a lawyer and Joseph (a man clearly without wealth) stated “…he had not the means to do that.” With no other option, Joseph simply had to accept what had happened and move forward. Legal and correct but unfair nonetheless.
Four months later, on 5 May 1890, Joseph was sent to prison for seven days for being drunk on a Sunday. He spent one day in prison but, upon realising he was ill, was transferred to the hospital where he spent a further eight days.
The cold weather, living rough, his illnesses and perhaps the loss of his property took a major toll on his health. A month later he reported again to the hospital and was admitted on 8 June suffering from influenza and compressed liver. A week later he was listed in the category of ‘seriously ill’ and was described by the Doctor as “very low & weak”. He never recovered from this final illness and, in the morning of Monday, 16 June 1890, Joseph Byron passed away.
His death certificate reflects his status as a pauper in Western Australia. In fact, his ‘Rank or Profession’ on the certificate is recorded simply as ‘Imperial Pauper’. His official cause of death was listed as influenza, congestion of liver and exhaustion. Absent from the certificate is his place of burial. This information is also not recorded on the Metropolitan Cemeteries Board database. Joseph Byron’s final resting place is unknown and it is disappointing that I cannot pay my respects to the man I have spent the last month researching. Perhaps more information will come to light at a later date.
The Prisoners’ Cash Account book also reveals just how much Joseph had in his account. The last entry (recorded before he was admitted to hospital) calculated that he had eleven shillings and eight pence to his name. Using the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Pre-Decimal Inflation Calculator (starting with the year 1901 as it’s the earliest year available) the amount is roughly equivalent today to $1.17.
Despite the opportunities that existed within Western Australia, Joseph was not a success story to come out of transportation. His records reflect a man who had a painful illness, was often in trouble and in and out of prison or hospital. While there is no doubt these visits were on occasion a result of bad behaviour or sickness, there is also a possibility that his attraction to these institutions was also due to his own poor social situation. If he was sleeping rough or lacking food, the lure of prison or the hospital (where he would be fed regularly and given a bed to sleep in) may have been too tempting.
Joseph Byron was not overly influential or instrumental in creating great things within Western Australia’s history. He had not wealth nor status and thus, as time passed, his story was easily forgotten; a common occurrence for people without family to remember them. Regardless, every person, even the very poor, have stories to tell. They might not be around to tell them themselves but I believe it’s important that we take the time to learn their stories, tell their stories and recognise the part they played in the world, no matter how small.
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.
The Daily News Friday evening edition was first to break the story and deemed it interesting enough to be front page material. They ran with a concise headline, one which would immediately catch the public’s attention:
Skeleton Found At South Perth
Perhaps readers were initially sceptical of the find. It was, after all, 1 April 1938 – April Fool’s Day – and The Daily News had even printed an image of a young boy being ‘fooled’ by his friends. Was the skeleton another joke?
Earlier in the day, sewerage workers employed by the Water Supply Department were digging an eight foot deep trench on the fence line of a row of houses located between First Avenue and Fremantle Road (now Canning Highway) in South Perth (today the area forms part of Kensington) in order to connect the houses to the main sewerage pipes.
Mr William Mason was one such worker and, as he was digging, he started to come across bits of old wood. He ignored the wood but halted work when his shovel suddenly hit something solid. Carefully digging around so as not to cause any damage to the object, he eventually uncovered it, removed more dirt and came to the realisation that what he was looking at was actually a human skull.
Then I struck something hard, and I dug it out carefully. I dug under it, and turned it over, and saw part of a skull facing me. I picked it up and recognised immediately that it was a human skull. I got a bit of a shock.
Police were notified but didn’t arrive until much later. The workers however continued to dig and unearthed the rest of the skeleton which looked as though it had once been buried in a thin, wooden coffin which disintegrated once it was hit with the shovel.
Near where the skull was buried Mr Mason picked up what he initially thought was some stringy bark. Upon closer inspection he realised it was actually a tuft of straight, dark ginger hair, two to three inches wide and six to eight inches long. He placed the hair inside the skull for safekeeping. A large, metal, corroded belt buckle was also found with the remains.
There was practically a full set of teeth in good condition, indicating that the bones were those of a young person.
Mr Mason noticed…
There was a hole in the temple. At first I thought it was the hole of the ear but it was too high. The hole was abolt [sic] the size of the top of my finger.
Once the Police arrived they took control of the scene and seized the remains for further investigation.
Initially there was much speculation as to whether the remains were European (perhaps a convict) or Indigenous. The tuft of hair inside the skull led the Police to believe that the skeleton was Aboriginal until Mr Mason explained that he had put the hair there. There was also talk as to whether the area (located on rising ground near water) was once an Indigenous camping ground. This however was quickly dismissed.
The remains were examined the next day by a Doctor who concluded that the individual had most likely been in the ground for at least 50 years but possibly longer. They were then turned over to the Government Medical Officer for a thorough investigation while Detective Sergeant McLernon was handling the police inquiries.
At this point, the story goes cold. No follow up article appeared in any of the Western Australian newspapers. No brief outline of the report written by the Government Medical Officer was printed weeks, months or even a year later. The story disappears.
Contacting the State Records Office of Western Australia also produced no further leads. They had no records within their collection relating to the skeleton. While the response from the SROWA was unfortunately negative, it does not mean that no record exists absolutely. Perhaps the information has not been recorded yet or is located deep within the archives.
What became of the ginger-haired skeleton? Initially I believed the truth of the story but the lack of follow up information printed in any newspaper has me questioning the legitimacy of the find. Was it simply an elaborate April Fools Day stunt which fooled everyone, including the press? Is this why there is no follow up article? Too embarrassed to admit they had been fooled, perhaps they simply chose to remain silent.
The Mirror was the only newspaper who decided to print the words of Mr Mason’s mates after he made the discovery and yelled out, “Look what I’ve got – a human skull!”
“Another April Fool stunt” chuckled fellow workmen.
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t but until further information is uncovered, I guess this mystery will have to remain unsolved.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following blog post may contain images and names of deceased persons.
Roebourne, 13 August 1889
Mr. Alex. Edgar has arrived in town. While in Condon he received a letter from Mr. Alexander McPhee saying that he had caught a white native about 260 miles inland from Condon, and adding that he wanted to arrive in Condon by mail day.
Unable to arrive in Condon in time, Alexander McPhee (with the Aboriginal man in tow) instead sent a telegram addressed to Mr Edgar in Roebourne which provided additional information about the man. Described as having albinism, the man was considered to be as “white as any white man” and sported light brown hair and sandy whiskers.
Several days later the Acting Government Resident at Roebourne, Mr R. C. Hare, sent a telegram to the Colonial Secretary.
For three months no more news was heard. Then, on 24 October 1889, the story was once again picked up and reported as if it was new. A more detailed description was printed and the man was said to have white hair, a white beard and white skin. His eyes were grey, he stood at five foot six inches tall and had quite a number of scars on his head and body. He also had the “usual tatoo marks“. Typical of the Victorian era and their fascination for people who were different, they ended the description with…
…he is a novelty if not a freak of nature.
Alexander McPhee was noted to be heading to Perth sometime in the future and it was stated that he would be bringing the Aboriginal man with him.
On 26 December 1889, Alexander McPhee, the Aboriginal man and two other Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Franklin in Cossack bound for Fremantle. The journey south along the coast of Western Australia took several days and included stops in Ashburton, Carnarvon and Geraldton. On 31 December 1889 at approximately 7pm, the ‘Franklin’ reached its destination.
Three days later it became apparent that Mr McPhee’s decision to come to Perth was for the sole purpose of exhibiting the Aboriginal man to the public.
Exhibition of the Albino Jongon, at the Mechanics’ Institute, Perth, January 4, from 10a.m. till 1p.m. and from 8p.m. till 10p.m.
It is in these notices however that we first learn that the man previously referred to in newspaper reports as simply ‘Aboriginal Albino’ was actually named Jun Gun (often spelt in a variety of ways but more often spelt in this manner).
Advertising was placed in the papers which called people to come and see “the wonder of the nort[h]” for the admission cost of one shilling.
Newspaper reporters who attended the exhibition followed up with articles detailing their observations. Most stated that he differed greatly to the “ordinary albino” and then went on to describe him:
Jungun, as the native is called, has none of these peculiarities, but differs from the ordinary aboriginal chiefly in the colour of his skin and hair. The former is of a light brown tinged with red, or what may be called a copper colour. His hair is a very pale brown tinged with flaxen. The irides of his eyes are hazel brown, and there is a slight brownish appearance about the pupils.
Described as being about 27 years old, he was dressed in white pants, was wearing a headdress of feathers and wore a piece of kangaroo bone through his nose.
Many people visited the Mechanics’ Institute both in the morning and evening for the purpose of seeing Jun Gun. During the evening show, he and his two companions sung several of their tribal songs but preferred to do so whilst behind a curtain.
Throughout the exhibition it was noted that Jun Gun was not shy or uncomfortable and Mr McPhee stated that, “He had always found him very tractable in his disposition, and of an even quiet, temper.” How McPhee managed to convince Jun Gun to leave his tribal lands is never touched upon. But, not only had he convinced him to travel to Perth, he had also convinced him to travel to the east coast of Australia.
The exhibition of Jun Gun in Perth ran from 4 January until 8 January. Four days later, on 12 January 1890, Alex McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men boarded the S.S. Albany in Fremantle bound for Melbourne. Mr McPhee was recorded as a saloon passenger while “three natives” were recorded in steerage (right).
On 24 January, Jun Gun arrived in Victoria. The Argus was the first newspaper to pick up the story and stated “The discovery and bringing of Jungun within the confines of civilisation reads very much like a romance.” They also provided background information about how McPhee arranged and was allowed to travel to Melbourne for the exhibition.
To do this he had to give up his employment and pay a deposit of £10 for each native to the Aboriginal Board for their return.
As was the case in Perth, advertisements were soon printed in the paper announcing the opening for 1 February 1890 but, unlike Perth (where he was displayed in the Mechanics’ Institute) Jun Gun was to be displayed in Kreitmayer’s Waxworks and Museum which was located on Bourke Street in Melbourne.
Jun Gun’s appearance soon became a source of debate among Victorians as to whether he did have albinism or if he was the progeny of a relationship between an Aboriginal person and a European person. In an extremely cringe-worthy article, The Argus began by asking the question “What is it?” and then went on to say:
With a curious and pathetic interest one asks that question when looking at “Jun-Gun,” the Australian albino, at the Bourke-street Waxworks. What is it? this thing brought in from the wilderness, which yet remains to Australia; this queer white flower from the black garden?
At first suggesting that a Doctor look over Jun Gun closely in an effort to ascertain his origin, the writer then touched upon the subject of the lost explorers from Ludwig Leichhardt’s expedition and raised the question as to whether Jun Gun’s appearance was due to him being the offspring of one of these lost men. Leichhardt was a German man and this theory was further enhanced in the 1930s when it was stated that the word ‘Jung’ in German means young. There was much speculation that Jun Gun’s name may have been bestowed upon him by Leichhardt.
Unwilling to fully commit to this theory however, the writer then turned to thoughts of prenatal influence.
In a nutshell, the story of Elsie Venner (written by Oliver Wendell Holmes), was a fictional book in which a woman was bitten by a rattlesnake while pregnant. The woman eventually died but her baby survived; a daughter who was said to have snake-like characteristics developed because of the snake bite which occurred whilst she was in the womb.
Alexander McPhee was quick to respond and wrote a letter to The Argus on the same day that the article went to print. His letter was printed in the next day’s paper. While he refuted the claims with regards to Jun Gun having European ancestry (his tribe was said to have never seen a European man before McPhee came along) he also provided additional information in relation to the stories he’d heard from the Indigenous people which may have related to Leichhardt. Fuelled by the claims in the letter, talk soon turned to Leichhardt and the possibility of finding new traces of the lost explorers. A meeting was held and Mr McPhee was invited to attend. The group came to the conclusion that a new expedition should be established to investigate the rumours about Leichhardt. They invited McPhee to lead the party but he refused.
Unfortunately, however, that gentleman’s business arrangements will not permit of his leaving Victoria just now unless he is compensated for loss of time, and nothing definite can be done until this financial difficulty is overcome.
Jun Gun continued to be a popular exhibit at the Waxworks and entertained the crowds by singing his tribal songs and making fire using a stick. While in Melbourne, he visited J.W. Lindt’s studio and had his photograph taken. If you wish to view the photograph on the National Library of Australia’s website, please click here.
The newspapers continued to ask the question as to whether or not he had albinism and to add credence to the claim that he did, Mr Kreitmayer (the owner of the Waxworks) invited several medical professionals and other leading men to examine Jun Gun and provide their opinion. Unable to completely explain his appearance, they rested on calling him a “freak of nature.“
Jun Gun was on display at the Waxworks throughout most of February 1890 and, towards the end of the month, The Australasian (a pictorial newspaper) printed an article as well as an image of him.
By mid-March the exhibition in Melbourne began to wind down and his last appearance was announced. On 25 March 1890, Mr McPhee, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men were reported to be travelling overland from Melbourne to Sydney (right).
He was exhibited first in Solomon’s Royal Museum in Sydney and by the middle of April was reported to be heading to Newcastle for exhibition at 53 Hunter Street. William Freeman, the Business Manager, placed an ad in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (left).
From Newcastle the party travelled back to Victoria and, in early May, The Ballarat Star announced that Jun Gun would be exhibited in Ballarat at the Mechanics’ Institute. The public could view him for the cost of sixpence.
It is elsewhere advertised that the aboriginal albino Jun Gun will be exhibited in Ballarat on Saturday next. This extraordinary individual was annexed by Mr McPhee in the back country of Western Australia, and his appearance in Melbourne caused no little curiosity and speculation.
In Ballarat, unlike what was seen at the other exhibitions, Jun Gun and the two Aboriginal men displayed their prowess with the spear and boomerang. They also demonstrated their defence skills using a shield; batting away cricket balls, boomerangs and sticks which were thrown at them from a distance of 30 yards (approximately 27 metres). Disturbingly, the objects being thrown had such force behind them that the newspaper noted that several boomerangs had been broken.
After the exhibition the aboriginals, who were in full war costume, wearing only trunks, and having their breasts and arms painted, were taken round the Oval, to give the spectators a view of them at close quarters.
It was to be Jun Gun’s last exhibition.
After this date (May 1890) he no longer appeared in the papers unless it was in association with McPhee, Leichhardt and the new expedition.
Eight months later, on 6 January 1891, The Argus printed a letter (part of which is below) received from McPhee which was dated 8 December 1890.
Sir,- Thinking that many of your readers will be interested in my return trip with Jun Gun to his country, I forward you an account of it. I arrived in Roebourne (the centre of the north-west district of this colony) about the middle of July, and started for a small station about 250 miles along the coast east of Roebourne called Yinadong, whence I started inland with Jun Gun, Timothy, and four horses. We travelled in an easterly direction over rough spinifex country for 150 miles, the only permanent water being a patch of mound springs which extend along a salt marsh for 20 miles. We met natives who knew Jun Gun, and he was so overjoyed at meeting his friends again that he wanted to leave me at once and walk to his country, so I let him go. I offered him flour and tobacco, but he refused them, saying he would rather live with the others on rats and lizards. He took off all his clothes, and got a spear from his mates, and started off with them in high spirits.
Jun Gun, it would seem, after about five months of being on display, had finally returned home.
McPhee continued with his letter stating that he’d met another Aboriginal man who looked similar to Jun Gun and then further mentioned he’d spoken to an older man who said that “when he was a boy he heard of a party of whites and horses dying a long way inland.” Once again a lost party (perhaps Leichhardt’s) was hinted at by McPhee.
Contradicting this letter, another website, The Batavia Legacy, writes that Jun Gun died in 1892 in Healesville, Victoria. Given the fact that the place of death is quite specific I deemed it worthy of follow up. I’ve left a comment on the blog but as at this post’s publishing date, it has not been approved nor responded to.
Their source for this statement however may have originated from a newspaper article printed in The West Australian in 1934. It adds the following extra detail (albeit slight) with regards to Jun Gun’s time in Victoria and adds weight to the aforementioned website’s claim.
He and his full-blooded compatriots, when not on exhibition, were taken up to one of the aboriginal reserves near Healsville (Victoria).
Jun Gun was not mentioned for several years until January 1893 when Western Australian newspapers picked up on a story printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (USA) in which he was referred to by the American writer as “The Prince of the Red Desert“.
This article, by comparison to the others, went into a huge amount of detail relating to Jun Gun; providing descriptions of his appearance, his story, his tribe, language, how McPhee found him and even attempting to write the words of a tribal song he was singing whilst in Melbourne. While the accuracy with respect to the Indigenous language (reported as being ‘Naugamont’) has not been ascertained, the article itself provides a fascinating firsthand account of Jun Gun according to the writer’s observations. It is well worth a read.
His squatting, gold-bronzed figure was flanked on both sides by a woolly headed, coal-black native of his own tribe. The three were making the tabbee, the strange music of the irghilly, beating its two blades together rhythmically, rocking too and fro on their haunches, ankles crossed, and singing a low rolling hum in chromatics…
The American further organised a ‘transformation’ while he was at Lindt’s photographic studio and arranged for Jun Gun to be dressed up in a dark blue suit accessorised with a hat and cane. Finding him to be unrecognisable in the clothing, the writer stated, “His bearing was unassuming and precisely what is meant in the best use of the word aristocratic.“
Having read through various newspaper articles and records relating to Jun Gun I find myself pondering the question, what was McPhee’s intention? Was he hoping to attract fame and fortune off the back of Jun Gun’s differing looks? Was he hoping that Jun Gun’s appearance would raise questions and ultimately result in a new expedition to look for Leichhardt? Despite the exhibition being about Jun Gun, Leichhardt was mentioned often and it was McPhee who provided the quotes from Indigenous people about lost Europeans and horses; a carrot which continually enticed others to once again look for the lost explorers.
Early in 1890 (while in Melbourne) Alexander McPhee was described by the Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA) as a “gold prospector, explorer, story-teller, showman, etc.“. Perhaps McPhee (a natural story teller) simply recognised the talk, interest and questions which would arise from Jun Gun’s appearance and decided to use it to his advantage.
Unfortunately, despite all the information that is available, it is all one-sided. We can read about McPhee’s side of the story but we can’t read Jun Gun’s. We’ll never know whether it was Jun Gun’s choice to travel with McPhee or if he felt coerced in some way. We’ll never know how he felt to be on display; to be told to sing his tribal songs and make fire; to be looked over, prodded at and inspected by people full of opinions seeking to prove or disprove his Aboriginality; to stand on an oval and fend off viciously thrown cricket balls all in the name of Victorian era entertainment. It is my hope that in the end Jun Gun really did return home to his family and his country but, in all honesty, we may never know.
In 1616, Dirk Hartog, in command of the Dutch ship ‘Eendracht’ left Holland bound for Batavia (today’s Jakarta). He was employed by the Dutch East India Company and was accompanied by several other ships when they became caught in a storm and were separated. Hartog and the crew of the ‘Eendracht’ arrived at the Cape of Good Hope without the other ships and upon leaving the Cape, proceeded to sail across the Indian Ocean; taking advantage of the roaring forties (strong westerly winds).
On 25 October 1616, Hartog and his crew accidentally discovered several islands off the northern coast of Western Australia. They investigated and sailed into Shark Bay and landed on what is now known as Dirk Hartog Island. He decided to name the island “Dor Eylandt” (Barren Island) and before leaving, nailed a tin plate (above) to a post erected on the island. The plate bears an inscription which recorded his discovery. Translated from Dutch it read:
Today marks the 400th anniversary of Dirk Hartog’s discovery of the coast of Western Australia and, seeing as though it also happened to coincide with Trove Tuesday, I thought I’d delve into the historical newspapers on Trove to see how Dirk Hartog and the Island were featured over the years.
A letter by T.J.M. dated February 1827 and printed in The Australian provides us with the earliest mention of ‘Dirk Hartog’ in the papers. The writer, in discussing how to help Australia grow, stated that no more convicts should be sent to Sydney or Hobart. It was instead suggested a penal settlement be established in the areas of Shark Bay and Dirk Hartog Island but there was some concern when considering who had claimed the land.
But here a new question presents itself; that part of New Holland being claimed by the Dutch, it would be necessary to obtain it from them, either by purchase or exchange.
In 1864 it was reported in The Inquirer and Commercial News that a Mr Turnbull from Victoria had made an application to the Western Australian Government to lease Dirk Hartog Island.
It would appear that Mr Turnbull’s application was unsuccessful or he decided not to go ahead with it because by 1867, Francis Louis Von Bibra had applied for and, in 1869, was granted a pastoral lease over the Island. Incidentally, I have a family connection to Francis Louis Von Bibra. On 26 October 1869 he married Mercy Everett (nee Crampton), my 2nd Great Grandfather’s sister.
It was Von Bibra’s son, Leopold, who (with an exploring party) in 1874 discovered human remains buried on the Island. Thought to have been a ‘malay’ the skull was sent to Perth and likely deposited in the Museum.
In 1879 Western Australia celebrated 50 years of European Settlement and The Inquirer and Commercial News provided a very brief (rumoured) history of Dirk Hartog stating that “…there is an old tradition in Holland that the famous Dutch pirate Dirk Hartog buried enormous treasures at some locality along its shores, perhaps on the island which still bears his name.“
Most articles throughout this time period continued in much the same way. While it appears this was the first instance in which Hartog’s name was printed in association with buried treasure, other attempts at describing the history of the Dutch in Western Australia were often vague and generally constrained to a sentence or two. While it’s possible they didn’t have a lot to tell, it’s also likely that the English preferred to tell their own stories when it came to the history of Australia.
The first pictorial image relating to Dirk Hartog Island was printed in the South Australian newspaper, The Pictorial Australian, in 1891 and was sent in by Mr E. E. Nesbit of Perth. Drawn from a photo taken by Mr Berringer of Shark Bay, it featured the post which Dirk Hartog used to affix the tin plate. It was said Mr Berringer carried his camera 30 miles on horseback in order to take the photo.
Other pictorials showing Dirk Hartog Island were printed in the Australian Town and Country Journal and are well worth a look on Trove. You can view the images here: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-page5243655
1916 marked 300 years since Dirk Hartog’s arrival in Shark Bay. Unlike today where celebrations have taken place over several days, the occasion was marked by a special meeting of the Royal Historical Society of Western Australia and a lecture given by Mr Siebenhaar held at the Museum. Relics connected to the discovery and settlement of parts of Western Australia (post Dirk Hartog) were put on display and kept on display for the public to view.
In 2016, the 1616 Dirk Hartog Festival celebrating the 400th anniversary has been in full swing since the 21 October with the last day being today. For more information about the festival, please visit the website: http://www.sharkbay1616.com.au/. Otherwise you may like to watch the video below for a snapshot of all the events so far.
Last week I came across an ABC news article about the sighting of a marsupial mole (Notoryctes Caurinus) by Kiwirrkurra Rangers from the Tjamu Tjamu Aboriginal Corporation. Known as the karrkaratul, it spends most of its life underground and is rarely seen. Reading about the mole and watching the Corporation’s amazing video (above) led me to think about Trove. I wondered what information on the marsupial mole could be found within the historical newspapers. A perfect post for Trove Tuesday!
While the Indigenous people would’ve known about the mole for thousands of years, European people first came across a similar species (Notoryctes Typhlops) in 1888 when Mr Benham (working on Idracowra Station in South Australia) found it amongst the sandhills. Unfortunately for this poor little mole, it was killed and sent to the Adelaide Museum.
Hailed as an important discovery in Australian natural history, the mole was first reconstituted and stuffed and then investigated by Dr Stirling (a lecturer on physiology at Adelaide University). Notes were written for a presentation to the Royal Society of South Australia where Dr Stirling stated that it was “evidently an underground burrowing animal, something like a Cape mole (Chrysochloris), but differing in many respects.” He further concluded that the condition of the eyes indicated nocturnal habits while the teeth and remaining contents in the bowel indicated that it fed on insects.
The discovery of a new creature for scientists to study (and the desire to have a better specimen that hadn’t been beaten to death) set off a mole hunting frenzy within central Australia. Less than a year later three more moles (presumed dead) were sent to Adelaide for further study.
Throughout this time Western Australian newspapers barely reported on the discovery of the marsupial mole. Not to be completely excluded however, by September 1900 it was noted that the Perth Museum had been gifted their own specimen; a donation from Professor Baldwin Spencer M.A.
Fast forward seven years to March 1907 and it would appear that the species, Notoryctes Caurinus (karrkaratul) found mostly within Western Australia’s desert country had been captured by Mr P. Trotman.
The Aboriginal man accompanying Mr Trotman wanted him to release the karrkaratul back into the wild but, he did not. The mole was instead killed, preserved in spirits and taken to the Perth Museum.
The first meeting of the Western Australian Natural History Society was held a month later at the Museum’s lecture room. The West Australian reported on the events of the meeting and dedicated a considerable portion of the article to the discovery of the karrkaratul. It was stated that “this proved to be the first specimen of the mole that had been collected in Western Australia.“
Several more specimens were collected by Mr S. J. Pryor of Wollal [Wallal] in 1910 and 1911 which were both sent to the Perth Museum but, interestingly, the 1911 specimen was noted as being the second mole found within WA with no mention as to what happened to the 1910 specimen.
Initially, the moles found within South Australia and Western Australia were thought to be the same species with the scientific name, Notoryctes Typhlops, applied to both. The two types of marsupial mole are considered to be almost identical (it’s nearly impossible to tell them apart in the field) and it wasn’t until 1921 that the karrkaratul (Notoryctes Caurinus) was listed as a separate species.
Throughout the 1920s many more articles about the karrkaratul were printed in the newspapers in order to provide readers with information about the marsupial mole with respect to its appearance and habits.
An interesting snippet from 1927 provided details with respect to the karrkaratul’s tracks (visible in the video at the top of this post) which were said to be like that of small bob-tailed goanna but without the clear footprints.
The rarity at seeing the karrkaratul in the wild unfortunately did not quell the appetite for obtaining specimens. In 1940 Mr Aitken of Wallal sent one to the Perth Museum and, two years later, he sent another three. After this point however the articles continue to be informative and there appears to be no other mention of specimens being collected in Western Australia (of course that doesn’t mean that they weren’t).
Since these early newspaper articles, the fascination with the karrkaratul has not dimmed. The images and video taken by the Tjamu Tjamu Aboriginal Corporation have been shared on Facebook hundreds and thousands of times and there’s been lots of online news articles published (both Australian and International). A creature completely unknown to me, it certainly piqued my curiosity and led me to write this blog post. I guess it’s hard not to be fascinated by the rather adorable karrkaratul. In a world where everything is nearly always known and visible, the karrkaratul has managed to remain invisible and to this day, still maintains a good deal of its mystery.
1888 ‘A DISCOVERY IN AUSTRALIAN NATURAL HISTORY.’, The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic. : 1873 – 1889), 29 November, p. 183. , viewed 14 Jun 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article63225142
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article may contain images and names of deceased persons.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.