Death at Lake Austin

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

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

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

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The Oldest Swagman in the State

Like all good bushmen, he knew how to spin a yarn. As he ambled into towns carrying a billy and his matilda (swag) he almost always sought out a man of the press.

Paddy Redmonds me name, and I am the oldest swagman in W.A.

With attention firmly turned towards him, Paddy would launch into a story about his life, his work and his love of the open road.

Many’s the time I could have made me pile had I but stuck where I was but, shure, the love of the road would set me feet a-jigging, whether I felt like it or no.

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The Great Monkey Escape

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.

Nalgora
The Nalgora. Courtesy of the Australian National Maritime Museum.

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The Hermit of Mount Clara

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.

Mount Clara
Mount Clara. Courtesy of Google Earth.

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.

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Monster in the Avon

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.

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‘Jonas’ and the Whale

Yankee Whaling

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.

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Rocky Bay Joe

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.

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Trove Tuesday – Old Ned of The Causeway

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

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

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