Town re­mem­bers

Tom Zaun­mayr digs into the unique his­tory of Roe­bourne

Pilbara News - - News -

Ier­a­mu­gadu, a pas­toral set­tle­ment, a pearler’s out­post, a min­ing town, a re­gional cen­tre, an indigenous com­mu­nity and an his­toric set­tle­ment. These are not seven dif­fer­ent towns, this is one town.

This is 150 years of chang­ing faces which has cre­ated one of the most unique towns in WA. This is Roe­bourne. For 40,000-odd years there was lit­tle change.

The Ngar­luma peo­ple call the area Ier­a­mu­gadu. It was a ground for hunt­ing and gath­er­ing, a meet­ing place, a place of sa­cred sites. A flow­ing river by the hill which pro­vided for the peo­ple who pro­tected the land. Then the 1860s hap­pened. In 1864 John and Emma With­nell chose the base of Mt Wel­come to build a pas­toral life in one of the most iso­lated patches of land on earth.

There was no 16-hour drive to Perth be­cause there were no roads, no gravel tracks and no cars.

Two years af­ter the With­nell’s ar­rived, the pop­u­la­tion around their homestead had grown to about 200, drawn by the prom­ise of fer­tile land made by Fran­cis T. Gre­gory in 1861 and a fledg­ling pearling in­dus­try at Cos­sack.

On Au­gust 17, 1866, gov­ern­ment res­i­dent Robert John Sholl de­clared the camp the first town of the North West.

Roe­bourne was now a town but ser­vices were scarce, with sup­ply ships of­ten months apart.

Pyra­mid Sta­tion man­ager and lo­cal his­tory buff Glenn Connell said the old sta­tions which still stand to­day — Mt Wel­come, Pyra­mid, Sher­lock, De Grey — were a suc­cess, but hid­den within their bound­aries were many forgotten sto­ries of fail­ure.

“Its amaz­ing how many sta­tions were set­tled that just aren’t known of. Ben­more Sta­tion is one, it’s right next to this wa­ter­hole ... but the ac­tual land it­self is ac­tu­ally no good,” he said.

“They al­ways picked land where they had some­where for their horses. A lot of places were cho­sen for that, but this one, the area had a lot of spinifex. Af­ter a short pe­riod of time they would just walk off the prop­erty, they just couldn’t make it work.

“Next door, here, could make it work be­cause they did have good grass so they bought Ben­more out and be­came big­ger. That’s where a lot of dif­fer­ent sta­tions dis­ap­peared.”

Be­side sta­tions swal­low­ing each other up, the big­gest change in the in­dus­try was the move from sheep to cat­tle.

A mix of poor profit mar­gins, high ex­penses, prob­lems with wild dogs, low wool prices and en­vi­ron­ment paved the way for the new norm we know to­day.

Roe­bourne has lit­tle rel­e­vance to the pas­toral in­dus­try to­day, but it was the most im­por­tant town for the in­dus­try for the best part of a cen­tury as a ser­vice cen­tre.

Through the mid 1900s, Roe­bourne grew to be­come a true fron­tier town.

He­li­copter pi­lots would park up on the main road be­fore head­ing off on the search for min­er­als.

Gov­ern­ment staff would sit along­side pas­toral­ists and gold min­ers at the Vic­to­ria Ho­tel.

Roe­bourne was a hive of ac­tiv­ity.

Res­i­dent of 55 years Ruth El­lis said Roe­bourne was much like any other coun­try WA town dur­ing her teenage years.

“In Roe­bourne there were two Chi­nese shops, there was a bank, we had a butcher, a pizza place, a hair­dresser, we had Homeswest, we had the Shire here, the hos­pi­tal was fully staffed,” she said.

“The Roe­bourne Speed­way was run­ning; it was called the Roe­bourne In­ter­na­tional Speed­way, although it wasn’t in­ter­na­tional.”

While the town mo­tored along as a re­gional hub, a big de­ci­sion out on the land meant ev­ery­thing would change again.

The Pil­bara Strike, from 19461949, meant indigenous peo­ple could no longer be ex­ploited for cheap labour by pas­toral­ists, and for many this meant be­ing un­able to re­turn to their coun­try as pas­toral­ists could no longer af­ford to have them.

Over the com­ing years they moved into re­serves at re­gional cen­tres such as Onslow and Roe­bourne. Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple had gained rights but lost home.

Ngar­luma el­der Pansy Hicks said de­spite hav­ing so many dif­fer­ent tribes in the one place, fond mem­o­ries were held of the old Roe­bourne re­serve.

“We were all mixed up in the old re­serve that was pushed from the sta­tions,” she said.

“They was all happy, all happy. We shared the place.”

The land where Roe­bourne sits is Ngar­luma but one of the big­gest mobs in town to­day is Yind­jibarndi.

Yind­jibarndi el­der Toot­sie Daniels said there was some­thing spe­cial about Roe­bourne which even­tu­ally drew her there for work.

“I al­ways used to hear of my

A Cos­sack tram in front of a roof­less Vic­to­ria Ho­tel, Roe­bourne, in 1901.

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