York – somewhere over the ranges

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The Ballardong people are a specific Noongar language group east of Perth (Boorloo). The Ballardong region includes the towns of Northam, York, Beverley, Goomalling, Cadoux, Koorda, Wyalkatchem, Cunderdin and Kellerberrin. There are a number of important Aboriginal heritage places in the York District, including the Avon River. Although fragmented by the effects of European settlement, Ballardong Noongar culture and identity survives and is gaining wider recognition within the community. Spiritual and traditional ties to Country continue to be deeply felt by Ballardong people today.

Exploration and First Settlement

John Septimus Roe

John Septimus Roe, who had been appointed Surveyor General, and Ensign Robert Dale of the 63rd Regiment, had almost been travelling companions to the Swan River Colony. Roe’s ship Parmelia and Dale’s ship Sulphur sometimes sailed so close together – at least for the first few weeks of their voyages of 1829 – that the passengers could talk to each other from the two vessels!

Ensign Dale was seconded as assistant to Roe, whose Survey Department was suffering under an extreme workload; Dale would spend four years with the department. In July and August 1830 he was the first to explore the country east of the Darling Range.

In October 1830 Lieutenant Governor Stirling, the Colonial Surgeon (Collie) the Colonial Chaplain (Wittenoom), some would-be land owners, an assortment of servants, horses and dogs accompanied Dale back to the fertile paradise over the range.

Largely as a consequence of Dale’s enthusiasm and Stirling’s agreeable visit to the area, land in the district was thrown open for immediate selection by Government Notice dated 12th November 1830. In December Stirling (because he could) allotted 250,000 acres, and in January 1831, 80,000 acres. Before the end of 1831 a further 6,030 in small lots had been taken up. All of it without survey and before many of the grantees would have even seen it. But Stirling had a problem – in 1830, twenty emigrant ships had arrived in the Colony, all those on board with a lust for land. The ‘land rush’ in the 1830s was as frenetic as the WA gold rush at the end of the century.

During August 1831 Dale spent two weeks with ‘Mr Brockman’ (most likely William Locke) on another expedition heading east over the range. Dale mentions in his diary that they were accompanied by ‘a soldier’ and a storekeeper. No soldier is recorded in the Pay Lists as being on this expedition. However, a number of 63rd privates were detached to the Upper Swan at this time, thus it may have been one of them. It was on this expedition that Dale named Mt. Bakewell ‘after a friend’. The party was back in Perth by 15th August that year.

So far – possibly because of winter rains – few of the settlers had seen their land. But on 6th September 1831 Dale was off to check out the country fifty miles north and south of Mt. Bakewell and on this trip he was initially escorting a group of about 20 of York’s first settlers, along with 63rd Regiment Private Terence Sheridan.

Private Sheridan is recorded as being ‘On Command to the Eastward of Darling Ranges’ in September and remained until December. He is also recorded as an affable Irishman trundling along always in good humour. Sheridan the irrepressible was there trundling a sort of perambulator arrangement for the purpose of measuring distances and cheerily singing ‘ta-rumpa-ti-tum, ta-rumpa-ti-tum’ as he brought up the rear. Privates Patrick Clinton and James Flack did not make an appearance in York until October 1831 and remained in the new settlement until June and July respectively, the following year. Private Henry Young joined them in November 1831 but only for one month. He makes a reappearance at York in 1833.

Dale wrote letters to Surveyor General Roe in September and October 1831 and mentions a ‘soldier’ assisting in his explorations around Mt Bakewell with George Moore and Douglas Thompson after ‘settling the settlers’ in York; the soldier may well be Terence Sheridan – using his ‘perambulator’ to measure distance.

Engraving by Robert Havell from sketches by Ensign Dale

There is no definitive list of those who first walked across the Darling Range to settle York, but an intelligent guess may have included William Locke Brockman; Revett Henry Bland; George F Moore; brothers Arthur and Spencer Trimmer; William Heal and family; brothers Joseph and John Hardey; Michael and John Smith Clarkson; their cousin Douglas Thompson; possibly Du Bois Agett and his family; William P. Muston, Benjamin Robins and John Banks. Some were landowners, others servants and farm labourers.

Five years after the initial land release, the biggest landholders in York, judging by a Plan of proposed boundaries adopted in the Executive Council on 19th April 1836, were M & J S Clarkson, W L Brockman, W & A Trimmer and F H Byrne. [Plan numbered York 14F Cons. 3868-428]. While Dale was given the honour of founding York, this plan indicates he was allotted only 2,560 acres. The smallest allocation of the other gentlemen named above was 11,000 acres.

Robert Dale, the 22-year-old explorer, surveyor and founder of York, who also identified for future settlement Beverley, Toodyay and Northam, purchased his lieutenant’s rank in November 1832. In 1833, he went on leave to England, taking with him the smoked head of aboriginal leader Yagan. Dale sold his commission, and inherited from his grandfather sufficient capital to start a timber business where he promoted WA’s Jarrah timber. He died of tuberculosis in 1853.

The Clash of Cultures

In view of what was to soon transpire in the Avon District, I wondered about Dale’s lack of comment about the ‘natives’ on his travels. This is the only overt remark I discovered. To J S Roe on 20th October 1831, following the Mt Bakewell explorations, he wrote: It may also be worthy of remark, that numerous parties of natives were seen, and in no instance was any molestation offered, and in general they evinced a very friendly feeling.

The first three people sentenced to death in the Colony were not judicially executed, their sentences commuted: the bondman (convict) Richard Rielly, in 1837; Helia in 1838 who was gaoled at the Round House and one of the first ten prisoners to be sent to Rottnest Prison; and Webau in 1839. However, the first to be hanged in the Colony were Doodjepwirt and Barrabong who committed their crime about 13 miles south of York, were tried in Perth, but hanged in York on 10th July 1840. These men were hanged for the murders of Sarah Cook and her infant daughter and the burning of their home.

Prior to the Cook murders which were regarded as the most heinous of all crimes, there had been a number of incidents involving spearings by the blacks and shootings by the whites. Very often the soldiers were involved – usually in the arrest and guarding of the perpetrators and acting as witnesses in court.

Private Isaac Green, 21st Regiment, received three spears in his back at the property where he was billeted with settlers George Sewell and Samuel Parker, 40 miles south of York. Green stayed alive for 48 hours and was lucid enough to make a deposition. It was thought to be a revenge killing.

The Soldiers

As the soldiers were in York more or less at the same time as the first settlers they would have had the same accommodation problems. By October 1831 it was all shoulders to the wheel as the first homesteads would be built – possibly with the help of two soldiers who had to sleep somewhere; barracks were a secondary consideration and it is likely they camped out with the settlers. Just two 63rd Regiment soldiers (not always the same men) were on post each month but come April 1833 the number doubled. Some kind of arrangement would have been made about who went where among the settlers. The last five soldiers in York from the 63rd were Privates Broughton (#261), Grady (#350), Thomas Grimes (#398), Wallace (#612) and Young (#353) … mostly those who had been in York the previous two years.

It should be understood that soldiers detached to York may not have spent all their time there; it was often just a convenient base while they went further into the ‘interior’, for example, assisting with survey work.

It was the 21st Regiment troops serving September 1833 to July 1840 who bore the brunt of the Avon Valley clash of cultures. Lieutenant Henry William Bunbury arrived in the Colony on 26th March 1836 from Launceston via Port Philip, and very quickly took steps to increase the number of soldiers at York. In 1832 there was a minimum of two soldiers at any one time, rising to ten by 1835 – but only rank and file. However, by 1837 Lieutenant Bunbury himself, a sergeant and 35 rank and file were at York. For a view of ‘both sides now’ click here.

By the time the 51st Regiment troops arrived in 1840, the numbers of troops on post were starting to decline. For the next four years a maximum of eight and minimum of six soldiers were at the York Post. In the years 1844 to 1847, the remainder of the 51st tour of duty, it rose once more to ten or eleven. The 96th soldiers arrived in early 1847 and nine troops were sent to York; they left in 1849.

The Barracks and other buildings

There are many clues, but nothing of substance, about the ‘Barracks’ at York. For example, Government Notices from the Commissariat Office called for tenders for fresh meat (York and other barracks) and furniture (unspecified barracks) in October 1833. In October 1837 another tender (right) called for the building of a ‘store’. In 1838 …. A barrack constructed of mud was built at York on the east side of the Avon [Deacon:48]. Surely, Bunbury’s presence with so many troops around this time must have called for some building work.

Then in 1842 Magistrate Henry Bland suggested that a house be built for Mr J N Drummond, the Policeman, which could also serve as a place for the conduct of public business and petty sessions; in other words, it was really to be the first courthouse. It had nothing to do with soldiers but all to do with issues brought before the magistrate, e.g. trespass and breaches of contract; routine public business to do with the issue of various licences, survey, dog taxes etc. The specifications were, One room 14 feet square; one room 14 feet by 10 feet. The walls to be 8 feet above the same. Doors and window frames of sawn timber, the roof of poles and thatched with blackboys. Floor of clay and the building to be plastered inside and out; a fireplace to be put in the large room; two large doors to be fixed and properly hinged. A Mr H Hill constructed the building for £40. The magistrate succeeding Bland, Richard Goldsmith Meares, arranged for another builder (Blasdell) to build an additional 14 feet square room with fireplace for £29 [Deacon:116-118].

A Townsite Plan of York dated 1849, partly shown here, describes a number of buildings on lots between Avon Terrace and Low Street – Courthouse and Survey Office (Lot 6), Stable (Lot 7), Commissariat and Store, Gaol, and Barrack (Lot 8). There is no indication of when these structures were erected but they sound suggestive of the work undertaken in 1837 (store), 1838 (barrack), courthouse and addition (1842).

Let it be said here, that I distrust plans that have been used over and over again, with streets and buildings added and subtracted without the amendments being dated. It leaves me wondering what, when and why. It is quite possible that all the buildings featured on Lots 6-8 could have been added a decade or more after the Townsite Plan dated 1849; as could the similar outlines present on this Plan dated 1842.

Interestingly, the Heritage Council’s Register of Heritage Places, mentions the York Police Station, Courthouse and Gaol Complex dating from 1852, without any reference to the buildings erected from 1837 to 1842.

One thing is certain: troops from the British Army regiments were not using any of these buildings after 1849. The last detachment to be posted to York was on its way to Calcutta, India on 18th May 1849, and York was about to host a different breed of men altogether – the Convicts, Sappers and Miners, Enrolled Pensioner Force and Warders who would soon populate the Convict Hiring Depot and the buildings associated with it.

Dead Soldiers

Of the many British soldiers who arrived in Western Australia, 76 died in service in the Colony. Some of those who died had been serving at the York Military Post.

Many causes of death among the military went ‘unrecorded’, but of the total number, over 22% were drownings. We forget that ‘swimming’ was not the recreational sport in the 19th century that it is today and most soldiers would not have been able to swim. Nonetheless, perhaps Private Denham may have been an exception since he was ‘diving’ (see left).

Wikipedia, Wikipedia Commons.
WO12 Muster & Pay Lists (see Table of Troops), National Archives Kew.
CSO Monthly Returns [Whiteley:84].
WO17 Monthly Returns, National Archives Kew 1837-1849.
Not An Idle Man, Biography of John Septimus Roe, J L Burton Jackson.
State and Position, Western Australia, Captain Frederick Chidley Irwin.
A Colony Detailed, the First Census of WA 1832, Ian Berryman.
Conquest and Settlement, the 21st Regiment in Western Australia, Geoff Blackburn.
The Military Establishment in Western Australia 1829-1863, ESW & CGS Whiteley.
A Survey of the Historical Development of the Avon Valley, John E Deacon 1948.
Dictionary of Western Australians, Vol. 1, Early Settlers, Pamela Statham.
Legal Executions in Western Australia, Brian Purdue, Foundation Press 1993.
Journal of an Expedition under the direction of Ensign Dale August 1831.
York in the Illustrated London News, Rob Garton Smith, York Society Inc. 2020.
Letters from Ensign R Dale to J S Roe Esq. 19th September and 20th October 1831, J Cross, Holborn, London 1833.
The York Road, Early Days, vol. 1, part 6: 1-16, Mrs T Pelloe, 1929.
Centenary of York by Polygon (Paul Hasluck), 1931.
Register of Heritage Places (No. 2852), Heritage Council Permanent Entry 16 Dec 1994.

Boundary Plan of York 1836, surveyor unknown, Cons 3868-428 WA State Records Office.
Avon District 1842, A Hillman & R Ray, Cons 3868-426 WA State Records Office.
Townsite Plan of York 1849, Philip Chauncy, Cons 3868-525 WA State Records Office.

Perth Gazette 2 Apr 1836.
Perth Gazette 3 Jun 1837.
Perth Gazette 29 Jul 1837.
Perth Gazette 07 Oct 1837.
Swan River Guardian 16 Nov 1837.
Inquirer 20 Oct 1847.
West Australian 12 Sep 1931.

Sally Kenton, my 63rd Regiment guru; Garry Gillard, ‘Fremantle Stuff’ for First People’s place names;
Rob Garton Smith, President and Jackie Phillips, Archivist, York Society Inc. thank you for taking an interest in my ‘project’.


© Diane Oldman 2022.