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.

The true cost of Kennedy’s Folly

Original Government House, 1861

Original Government House, 1861

The first Governor had a nice place to live, which was built in 1834 for James ‘young brides’ Stirling. But by the 1850s, the new Governor, Arthur Kennedy, whined it was unsuitable and a bit cold in winter. Declining to have it repaired, he demanded a new Government House, more in keeping with the lifestyle to which Arthur wished to become accustomed.

The Government tried to get England to pay for it, but they told us to bugger off. Originally estimated at a massive £5,000, by September 1858 this had risen to £7,000.

Designed by an army major with no training in architecture, a foundation stone was laid in March 1859 with lots of Masonic pomp. The project was then handed over to the Royal Engineers to mismanage. Remarkably the same amateur architect was later tasked with designing an asylum in Fremantle. To no one’s surprise, this was also a disaster.

Costs kept spiralling due to constant indecision and daily changes to the design. No sooner had a wall been erected than it was torn down again for a new idea. After three years labour, the convicts working on the place had made very little progress. People complained there were better things for them to do. Like fix the awful roads.

When a roof was finally put on the building it was nearly a miracle. However, it was far from finished, needing several more towers and an interior.

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Kennedy’s Folly

In January 1863 it was sufficiently finished to allow for a party in the upstairs ballroom. A ballroom that should not have been there. When the building was nearly complete, the new Governor demanded six rooms be converted into somewhere he and his wife could entertain their cronies.

Completely redesigning the structure of the upper floor was, of course, very expensive and time consuming. And no one remembered that the six rooms were guest bedrooms, so Government House was unable to put up visitors.

In March 1863, it was realised the red brick pillars on the colonnades did not match the stone arches above them. So they started painting the pillars a marble colour.

When the furniture arrived not only was it hideously expensive it was also hideous. And badly made. So yet more money was spent replacing it.

Finally, in mid-1864 the Governor moved into his new residence. By this time more than £18,000 in cash had been spent, along with the wages of the Royal Engineers on the project, so the total cost was nearer £50,000.

When opened for inspection, while the outside was pretty enough, the interior was a disaster. A better building could have been knocked up for under £10,000. It was given the name ‘Kennedy’s Folly’, which is a little unfair. It was so long in construction, Arthur Kennedy had moved on and never even got to look inside.

Murder on the dancefloor

Audrey Jacob, 1925

Audrey Jacob, 1925

Hundreds set out to have a good time at Government House Ballroom on the night of 23 August 1925. Young men and women dressed to the nines to party in aid of St John of God Hospital.

At half past one in the morning, few dancers observed a tall, slim girl with short dark hair, dressed in a blue silk evening frock. She crossed to an attractive young couple in the centre of the floor and spoke with the tall well-built young man, handsome and smartly dressed in evening suit. He turned and said something to her as the orchestra started up.

Suddenly above the wail of the saxophone and the drums came a loud noise. The music and dancing ceased and all eyes turned on the man as he staggered and fell to the floor with a heavy thump.

Cyril Gidley was arrogant, cruel and violent. Dodgy Perth will spend no time mourning his loss. Instead we turn our attention to the attractive 20-year-old art student whose life was never to be the same again. Audrey Jacob.

Audrey had been engaged to a naval officer, Claude Arundel, when Gidley had come on the scene around twelve months before his death. After much persuasion, she broke off her engagement and agreed to marry the new man in her life.

But one night, on the way to Gidley’s lodgings, they quarrelled because she had received a letter from her former fiancé. Gidley became enraged.

He picked her up and carried her to his room.

“I struggled, and tried to get away,” sobbed Audrey. “Sometimes he would let me get as far as the door, and then pull me back. He seemed to be enjoying the joke. He was very cruel by nature.”

When she was exhausted he grabbed the art student by the throat and hissed the single word “Yes” at her.

The next day Audrey’s mother found her crying, and noticing the bruises on her neck, guessed what had happened.

On the fateful night in August 1925, a girlfriend persuaded Audrey to attend the ball at Government House. They went dressed as Pierrot and Pierrette.

It was then that she noticed Gidley dancing with another girl. She approached him, questioned what he was doing, but he told her to mind her own business and leave him alone.

Audrey ran from the ballroom and returned to her lodgings on the corner of St George’s Terrace and Howard Street. Sobbing for half an hour, she started to undress, before noticing a loaded revolver in her drawer.

Deciding to end it all, she put on her blue evening dress, and walked to the foreshore. But here she began to consider what would happen to her immortal soul if she used the gun on herself. Instead, she went to the Roman Catholic Cathedral, and there, at midnight, knelt in the grass and recited the Rosary.

A strange calm came over her, and she decided to return home. But passing the ballroom, she noticed that the party was still going on. She made the decision to make a final effort to speak to the man she loved.

Making her way through the dancers, with the revolver still wrapped in her handkerchief, she touched him on the shoulder. He turned, and simply said “Excuse me, I am dancing with my fiancée.”

The room span and something snapped. In this dazed condition, Audrey raised her hand to her head—and then she heard a shot and saw Gidley fall.

After deliberating for an hour and a quarter the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. Audrey rose from her seat, and her mother rushed into the dock. No attempt was made to stop an outburst of applause from the crowded gallery.

It was always going to be impossible to resume life in Perth, and Audrey married an American industrialist, Roger Sinclair, and left for New York early in 1926.

For Perth, though, this was not the end of their fascination and for several years rumours continued to fly that Audrey was stranded penniless in South Africa, or that her husband had turned out to be a bigamist.

None of these stories were true, of course, and the last we know of Audrey Campbell Jacob is that she arrived in Boston on 2 May 1926 on board the Celtic. After that, Perth never heard from her again.

Drunk in the spirit

CockmanWe’ve all been there. Had a few too many at the Sunday Session and then barged into a church and made a complete tit of ourselves in front of the whole congregation.

You haven’t? Just me and James Cockman then.

Above is Cockman House in Wanneroo. You don’t really need a reason to visit, but I’ll give you one anyway: to pay homage to the drunk colossus who maddened Perth Chapel.

James was born in London in 1809, and arrived in Perth just a few months after the start of the Colony.

A giant who weighed 140kg, he was renowned for his enormous strength. He worked as a labourer on some of the grandest buildings in Perth, including St George’s Cathedral, Government House and the Barracks.

James found himself in trouble with Perth’s governing classes when he was a little worse for wear and staggered into Perth Chapel one Sunday evening in April 1838. I like to imagine him singing loudly as he tripped down the aisle before abusing the preacher.

In any case, his raucous behaviour didn’t go down well, and he was forced to issue an abject apology:

I, the Undersigned, having on Sunday evening last entered the Perth Chapel in a state of intoxication and interrupted the Service, and thereby made myself liable to a very heavy penalty, hereby offer this public apology for my conduct, and likewise pledge myself never again to cause any interruption or disturbance, the Proprietors of the said Chapel having kindly consented to withdraw the proceedings they had entered into against me.

It seems unlikely that this was written by James himself since this public confession was signed with a simple ‘X’, showing he was completely illiterate. More probable is that it was written by a worshiper and James was forced to make his mark at the bottom to escape prosecution.

Although James was not the only person who had upset the congregation recently, the leading members of the colony declared he would be the very last to escape trial.

In the 1850s, he took his wife and seven children up to Lake Joondalup where he built Cockman House. When you visit, remember to have a drink at The Wanneroo Tavern in his memory.

She’s got Bette Davis eyes

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She does not look at you. She looks through you, beyond you.

As a teaser for our next story, I bring you some of the most purple prose ever written about a person on trial:

Among students of human nature the eyes are generally conceded to be indicative of many things that other features or mannerisms can never reveal.

Those who have seen Audrey Campbell Jacob since the tragic death of Cyril Gidley have commented haphazardly on various features of her beauty. But her eyes have been discussed by every observer.

She was in the court for three hours on Thursday. Most of the time her face was downcast. She cried at intervals, and once her whole frame was shaken by sobs that seemed to suggest a coming breakdown.

But by supreme efforts she managed each time to regain control. Whenever she did raise her face it was her eyes that attracted everybody’s gaze. They are eyes that the student of human nature would never forget.

They are not big, nor yet small. Medium sized is a fair description. They are fairly well back under her brows, but not deep set.

They are not the eyes of a coquette or a woman accustomed to using her eyes as women are supposed from times immemorial to have used them. They are the eyes of one whose thoughts are really not with the immediate things around them.

There is about them the mistiness that is not brought by tears, but is associated almost with the dreamer. She does not look at you. She looks through you, beyond you, away somewhere in the distance as it were.

They are of no defined shade. Blue-grey would probably be the nearest description. They are the eyes that suggest artistry and intellect and the habits of one who thinks much. They seem to be forever looking for something that is not in the immediate vision.

At what far-away thing are they looking, of what far-away thing is she dreaming, here in this public place when her thoughts should be so alert? They are remarkable, the eyes of this twenty-year-old girl, the most remarkable I think that I have ever seen in or out of court.