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.

When the colonists needed Yagan

yaganToday Dodgy Perth takes a slight detour from our usual preoccupation with sex and scandal. Instead we wish to celebrate an Aboriginal hero of the early colony.

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

James Stirling and the tomboy


Ellen Mangles, looking very pensive

Dear readers, sometimes we have to face the unspeakable. Could it be that our founding father was in fact something of a creep? The relationship between James Stirling and Ellen Mangles has been portrayed as a great love story, like this from the late 1970s:

Theirs had been a most romantic love-match; he had been instantly swept off his feet by her that first day when, at her home, Woodbridge, in Surrey, as a laughing tomboy of thirteen, she had rushed by him on two donkeys, one foot on each.

Apparently in the late 1970s, it was romantic for a middle-aged man to fancy a girl of thirteen. (See Jimmy Saville, Rolf Harris, etc.) Okay, let’s not call in Operation Yewtree just yet. Perhaps this was more normal in the 1820s.

Let’s ask Ellen’s mother, Mary, what she thought of this “love-match” when Stirling proposed marriage to her fifteen year old daughter.

Mary considered her daughter to be childish for her age, and completely incapable of forming a relationship with a middle-aged man. She preferring horses, carts, and rowing to dancing and talking to boys. In fact, she had recently declared she did not like men at all, and had no interest in them.

Mum was extremely concerned by Stirling’s interest in her daughter, but doubted Ellen would see much in a man “double her age” in any case. What a “love-match” for Ellen, then. Wooed by an underemployed sailor on half-pay and more than twice her age.

Mr and Mrs Mangles discussed Stirling’s obsession with Ellen, and they agreed not to mention it to her. She had two more years at school, and because of her “extreme youthfulness and inexperience” (as Mary put it) it was best she not be informed about creepy sailors.

Stirling promised the Mangles he would respect this decision and wait until she had finished education. Mary did not believe him. She said he would either break the agreement, or—in an eerie phrase—break the spirit and keep to it only to the letter. Reading this prophesy is as disturbing today as it was in the 1820s.

Mary’s scepticism proved correct. Stirling could not keep his hands off her for the agreed time. Instead, he married her just before her sixteenth birthday. (Some WA historians are so embarrassed by this, they claim she had turned sixteen. She had not.)

There will be those who will say “Times were different then.” And indeed they were. Just as times were different in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. But that’s no excuse today, is it?

An unreliable history of Perth


Commemorating the centenary of the founding of Perth, you might imagine people were serious in 1929. You would be wrong:

Forsooth on the 12th day of August in the year of grace one thousand eight hundred and one less than thirty, many good citizens gathered together unto themselves and said, “We must have a city.”

Forthwith they repaired to Governor Stirling, whom they found on his back on the floor of his coach-house endeavouring to repair the differential of his coach and pair.

“We good citizens and true wish to have a city,” they told him.

“The devil you do,” spluttered Stirling as he rose to his feet and adjusted his knee breeches. “Then a city you shall have.”

For the next few days there was great to-do in the new colony. Several good ladies immediately commenced making clothes for the natives in case they desired to attend and drink the King’s health and beer.

At last the great day dawned. The settlers cleaned up their huts and photographers adjusted their easels and paint pots. They came from far and near and further than that and flags flapped and skirts trailed in the dust as the colonists assembled round the Union Jack.

There was a rousing cheer for Governor Stirling as he began to speak: “This city we are founding today,” he said, “is destined to be the capital of a State of great potentialities and possibilities.” (Cheers from the bystanders and groans of “We’ve heard that one before” in the language of the blacks). “Here we will build a city that will one day be great. Along the track where Mrs Jones’ goat goes to call for the paper every morning we will make a street and call it Hay Street.

“Down here we will make Murray Street. From here Harry Boan will sell his third floor specials. Down further we will have Wellington Street, called after the Great Duke. The railway will be right next door. An ideal site this, ladies and gentlemen, for an advertising sign or a fruit barrow, think you not? And let’s have a market here! And a hotel or two.

“Come with me in imagination up this hill to the West. One day people will be able to travel there in trams or Government cars where we now ride in imagination. Here I beg you to tread quietly lest you waken those who will one day sleep there. Here will ambition be born and die, characters be made and lost; this will be Parliament—not the cemetery.

“Out yonder far beyond Harry Boan’s duckpond and Perry’s lane and Ginger’s hansom cab stand we will have a place for the dead. And on festival days and sundry Saturday afternoons the crowds will foregather. And behold their lamentations will be loud and their tears many when they see the dead. This my friends our children and grandchildren will call Ascot.

And forthwith the guests had afternoon tea while the settlers who had not been invited sat on one side and snarled and the natives threw boomerangs at the big sign that had just been erected on the site of the new city: “Eat Bullpup’s biscuits to prevent ingrowing toenails.”

Two men who were unemployed attempted to secure afternoon tea but the police—both of them—turned them away.