Tom Zaunmayr digs into the unique history of Roebourne
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.