Sulphur and fire

Just waiting for a squaddie with a match

Just waiting for a squaddie with a match

It deserves to be better known, but the first town in the Swan River Colony was not Perth or Fremantle, but Sulphur Town on Garden Island. Admittedly, Albany had been colonised a couple of years before.

Sulphur Town was home to the first Government House, and saw WA’s first horse race. What became of it is the subject of today’s story.

More than 400 people lived in the town, named after the ship which carried the 63rd Regiment. A regiment that was to start and end the settlement.

But by 1834, Sulphur Town was practically abandoned, as people left in the rush to claim good land along the Swan River. Even so, all the original buildings still remained.

In May of that year, the transport ship Lonach was anchored off shore. Onboard were the 45th, 55th, and 63rd Regiments. Some of the soldiers’ wives were permitted to land on Garden Island to do the laundry, and it seems that a few of the men followed them.

After a few ales, the squaddies did the only reasonable thing possible. They burnt the entire town to the ground. It seems likely they started with Governor Stirling’s old residence, before moving on to the barracks, the stores, and several huts and out-houses.

Ladders belonging to Thomas Peel were tossed into the flames, while any locked cabinets were broken open, just in case something valuable had been left behind.

The newspaper howled for the severest punishment the law allowed, but by this time the Lonach had departed, taking all the guilty men (and their wives) with them.

Recently, local archaeologist Shane Burke has discovered a molten champagne bottle on Garden Island, a permanent reminder of the need to keep soldiers well away from matches.

Dances with trees

It's not the size of your chopper...

It’s not the size of your chopper…

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.