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.