On this day, 12 August, Helena Barbara Dance swung an axe at a tree. And for the most part, that is all most people know about her. First, let’s look at the account as given, very woodenly (see what we did there?), by Charles ‘Rapist’ Fremantle:
The Lieutenant Governor made up his mind to establish a town up the Swan River to be called Perth and to lay the first stone of it on the King’s birthday the 12 August 1829. There being no stone contiguous for our purpose to celebrate the commencement of the new town, Mrs Dance cut down a tree, fired volleys, made speeches and gave several cheers, naming the town Perth according to the wishes of Sir George Murray.
Although Fremantle says Helena cut down the tree herself, Alexander Collie downplayed her role saying she only “gave the first blow”.
And George Pitt Morison didn’t like a woman doing too much manly work either. So in 1929 he paints a bloke waiting to the side ready to finish the job after Helena has tapped the tree with her tiny axe.
We know she was intrepid. It is often claimed Helena was only present because all the other women were giving birth. But that’s not what was said at the time. Hubby William said she was the only female brave enough to leave Garden Island and venture into a ‘savage land’. By which he meant it was full of savages.
The pregnancy excuse was invented by later generations who didn’t want to think their great-great grandmothers were anything other than bold explorers.
And now it gets odd. William Dance has a different description of the foundation of Perth:
By the bye, the laying of the first stone of this town, which took place on August 12, and on which occasion we made as much noise and rejoicing as our limited means would allow, was done by Mrs. Dance.
So Fremantle and Dance disagree on whether or not there were any stones. Perhaps Helena’s husband was being metaphorical. Or had a really bad memory.
The Dances were forced to leave Perth in 1832 when they had to escort James ‘Young Brides’ Stirling back to England so he could desperately try to salvage his failing colony, and the couple never returned.
After living in England and France, Helena died in 1863, never knowing how much her brief moment of fame would later be celebrated.
Incidentally, Dodgy Perth is sceptical about the alleged box made from Mrs Dance’s tree which was miraculously found by the Queen of England herself in a junk shop and gifted back to WA in the 1930s. When a story is too good to be true, it’s always too good to be true. One day we hope the real story about this box will be uncovered.