It all started innocently enough. The British India steamer Nalgora departed Calcutta in early November and arrived in Fremantle Harbour on 27 November 1931 carrying a cargo of gunnies (coarse, heavy fabric) and bananas. The unloading of the cargo began almost immediately and it was at that point that a monkey was spied on deck.
All Olaf Magnus Svenson really wanted was a home, food, water, a garden and peace and quiet. To achieve this, he decided to set himself up far away from civilisation; over 50km away from the nearest town; on a remote mountain near the Yellowdine Nature Reserve.
Described as a “bare granite rock” and a “waterless, hungry spot“, Mount Clara (nearly an hour away from Southern Cross and close to the Karalee Rocks) would not have been the most hospitable place in Western Australia. To his credit, Olaf made it work.
Often described as German, he was actually Swedish and was born to parents, Sven Olsen and Christina Nilson, in approximately 1854. In Sweden he married Anna Swenham at age 30 (1884) and had three children. He was a sailor which could explain how he ended up in Australia, spending two years in Victoria and two years in Tasmania. By the 1890s (perhaps coinciding with the goldrush) he arrived in Western Australia and in 1896 he was located east of Southern Cross, having decided that the area at Mount Clara would do nicely for a home.
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.
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.
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.
On the night of Jan. 5th, 1905, a fearful storm raged on the South and South West coast of England. A vessel was seen making desperate struggles to keep her course. She was, however, lost to sight and the eager eyes watching, could see no more. Next morning some fishermen searching among a quantity of wreckage, discovered the mannikin, known as Dick Trelawny, tied to a beam of timber.
Washed up on the coast of Penzance in Cornwall, the fishermen who initially found Dick Trelawny eventually became wary of him and came to think of him as something sent to them by the Devil. He went to live with an old lady and, so the story goes, it was there he remained until Captain Jack Neville came across him.
Captain Neville said that he recognised the “importance of this little mite from a scientific and physiological standpoint…“and, after several Doctors looked him over, they came to the conclusion that Dick Trelawny was between 48 and 75 years of age, weighed over four kilos and was about 65 cms tall.
He initially spoke in a “guttural tongue” unable to be deciphered by linguists but soon learnt English and French.
His features, though pensive, are constantly illumined by a sweet smile which, with his merry little laugh and winning eyes, make him a most interesting and pleasant study.
He was given the name ‘The Cornish Pixie’ and agreed to go with Captain Neville to be exhibited around the world.
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.
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