On 8 March 1833, with white settlement only a few years old, Josephine Birkett was granted Perth Lot A12 by James ‘I like young brides’ Stirling. This attractive piece of land was on St George’s Terrace, exactly where the hideous London Court now sits.
She had already built herself a bungalow on the site (planning laws were somewhat different then), along with a few neighbours, including Charles Leroux.
All the cottages were constructed with roofs made of reeds and rushes. So it is no surprise that locals fretted about what would happen if they caught fire. And why weren’t the roofs supported properly? You can imagine that the owners dismissed such concerns with a wave of their hand. Nothing will happen, they would have said.
On 13 March 1833, just five days after taking legal ownership of the land, Josephine Birkett’s bungalow caught fire. Josephine had a narrow escape, the flames reaching the bed on which she was sleeping before she was aware of her perilous situation.
She and her daughter were unable to grab their treasured possessions, escaping only with the clothes on their back.
The fire quickly spread to the adjoining cottages, including that of Charles Leroux. A bugle was sounded and people ran to the scene to offer assistance. Among those who attended were Captain Ellis and renowned Aboriginal resistance leader, Yagan.
Yagan was keen to offer assistance, but knew exactly how white men thought under these circumstances. He went up to Ellis and asked him to tell him straight if white folk or black folk were going to be held responsible for the destruction. Ellis replied that as far as he knew it was an accident.
This was all Yagan needed, and he took charge, encouraging the colonists to work harder and bringing bucket after bucket of water himself. His cries of “mocha, mocha” stimulated the townsfolk to do their best.
But, despite these heroic efforts, as the smoke cleared, many of the cottages and all of their contents were completely destroyed.
Despite Captain Ellis’ words to Yagan, immediate suspicion fell on the local Aboriginal population. However, with no evidence the mob decided that it was probably a local boy who had recently been punished for some minor crime. But, again, no proof was forthcoming.
Eventually, Josephine’s servant said that, although it probably had nothing to do with her, she did remember throwing the glowing embers from a grate in the exact spot the fire started.
One happy outcome was that Private Jefferies, of the 63rd Regiment, was poking through the ruins when he discovered Josephine’s moneybox. He immediately returned it to her, earning praise for his honesty.
We wish all the ends to this story were happy, but suspect the reader already knows they are not.
Yagan was murdered by a young settler just a few months later, after the government issued a bounty for his capture ‘dead or alive’.
Captain Ellis was to be killed by an Aboriginal warrior the following year, as he fought at the Pinjarra Massacre.
Life was often bloody and short in the 1830s. Let’s not whitewash it with sentimental views of early colonists and their pretty cottages.
h/t Museum of Perth