In the Footsteps of the Pioneers – Perth WA

PerthPerthis the most remote city around the globe and ‘a world unto itself’. If Aus’ is to be considered as sparsely populated then Western Australia holds the crown amongst the States of Australia. Western Aus’ is more than 3½ times bigger than Texas and is the 2nd largest state/province in the world. It is 33% of the Australian continent. It has barely 10% of the Australian population and and 92% of this population live tucked into the SW corner of the state.

Perth was established in 1829 as the Swan River Colony and until they adopted the iniquitous convict transports in the 1850’s the place struggled for survival in those early years. Without convict and native labour the whole place would have ‘curled up its toes’ quiet early in Australian history.

toodyay shackels - native cellThis convict workforce saved the small colony. It was the backbone for the development and survival for the colony from 1850 until the cessation of transport in 1868. The convict transports bought approx some 10,000 labourers to the small settlement that had barely 6,000 settlers in 1850. While the tribal natives of the SW corner of Aus’ were estimated to be around 15,000 strong and were dispersed clan groups at the time, some who gravitated towards the new colony seeking a different life and many becoming convicts themselves in their struggle to live with the whitefellas.

Our pioneers were amazing people and I don’t only mean free settlers. I mean the pioneers who built the society and country we enjoy today. I refer to the convicts, the settlers and the countries first peoples. Those adventurer’s who bravely stepped out (or were thrown out) from within their own cultures to build the touchstones and to do the groundwork for the birth of a new nation.

Pioneers cottage at Toodyay

Pioneers cottage at Toodyay

Each of these groups paid a heavy and costly price, mostly not entirely voluntarily. We often forget the amazing things that they achieved and some of the most difficult conditions. Even our education system neglects to recognize the wonderful achievements of our pioneers in favour of the deeds of those from other lands who came for glory and quickly moved on.

We stepped out (drove mostly) from Perth in the footsteps of these pioneers, following the paths they took out of the new colony on the Swan River, following the Avon Valley through the Darling Range or Scarp better known as the Perth hills. This was the pioneer’s path, it was also the path taken by the tribes to cross the mountains that hem Perth to the coastline. It was also the path the gold prospectors took at the very end of the colonial era in Australia’s last great gold rush of the 1890’s which bought many more men and families into the colony.

Indian pacific railThe Great Southern, or Indian Pacific railway line follows this route too, one forged in legend by the Dreamtime creatures of Aboriginal Lore, spoken about in songs older than the country itself.

Discovering the rest stops and camps they would have used along the riverside was a special delight though many are now no longer available to the traveller as an overnight stop but can be found to be a merely a rest area for todays traveller. At one, Noble Falls, it is easy to imagine the travelling carts and horses gathered around the fresh water there.

Noble Falls Pioneer route

Noble Falls, rest stop along the Pioneer route

The main highway west no longer follows this ancient path through the Avon Valley, but has forged a newer route over the Darling Scarp at the back of Perth. This is a good thing though as it means the old route is quieter, not clogged with trucks and the towns are quaint and full of history undisturbed by ‘progress’ largely.

Colonial street of Toodyay

Colonial street of Toodyay

Pioneer Australia was a place of struggle for survival and evidence of this can be found in the old colonial township of Toodyay along the trail. From the colonial country cottages to the stark and minimal gaol cells which held the convicts and natives in the old gaol museum. Originally a convict depot known as the ‘Newcastle Depot’ it was a place like so many others of the day where convicts could be hired out for their labour. Toodyay in now heritage listed and one of the many delightful towns to be found along the old trail. Visiting the old gaol is a special delight and something every visitor should take the time to explore.

As with all settlements, our colonial bushrangers also ranged through the nearby hills. The most notorious of these local to the region was Moondyne Joe. I enjoy discovering the histories and exploring the lives of many our colonial bushrangers as they were often ordinary young men under extraordinary conditions who were struggling to survive in a wilderness. It was a world away from everything they knew. The English rule of the day was commonly inhumane to both natives and convicts and it was noted that ‘English convicts were worse off than negro slaves’ as quoted from a Parliamentary paper known as the ‘Molesworth Investigation’.

Children, even as young as 9yrs, were commonly transported for trivial offences and it is often forgotten that offences such as ‘vagrancy’ were met with punishments like transportation. Under the English ‘Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars’ act of the day a vagrant was defined as a person who refused to work for statutory wages or was poor and homeless. Ie: those self-employed or unemployed. Anyone who chose to leave the servile employ of a ‘noble’ landowner was defined as a vagrant or beggar. The English law of the day sent these people into servitude and transported them to the other side of the world for simply trying to exist in a society which valued slavery and servitude for the ‘commoner’ over freedom. This largely explains why landownership was, and remains one of the primary motivators to the Australian people. Particularly for those with ancestors from the colonial era.

StrandedThese same children of the convict age found themselves often alone and destitute in an unfamiliar land once their sentences were served. They were left without family or resource when they attained their ‘ticket of leave’. It is no wonder that Aus’ has such a rich bushranging history.

I once wrote about the experience of one of my own ancestors, which you can read in the ‘You Have Mail’ blogs. This is the tale of a child who found himself in this exact circumstance.

Lucky DevilsReturning back to England for convicts was out of the question. Most convicts were bound by a law dictating that they would be ‘hung’ if they attempted to return to England and they were required to obtain special leave from the Governor if they wanted to return to their families. This was the only recourse they had and this was to be at their own expense, after they had paid back the cost of their transportation. Both were a cost commonly well out of their reach as they could barely manage to feed themselves in what were commonly starving and hungry colonies and settlements, particularly in those early decades of colonial history.

When the convicts were thrown into the hulls of the hulks, those which were moored about the British shores as movable gaols, they knew that their fate lay in distant lands and that they would never see their families again if they survived at all.

Australia’s pioneering history is unfortunately not taught to our kids, and this is the greatest shame of our education system. We are taught more about history of Britain and British rule rather than the history of Australians. I simply hope one day that this will change. It was these same kids, these convicts, emigrants and settlers, who were the adventurers of another era. They, who were seeking new lives governed by new rules. It was they who built the foundations of the society we enjoy today and it had little to do with anyone else who came and went from that small island across the seas that sits a world away. We are told that our history is the same as those rulers who once exercised an inhumane law over those who were to become an Australian people. What we should be taught about is the history of the Australians who sacrificed so much to build what we have today and yet we scarcely hear of them in our world today.

Travel well.

Deserts of Gold

Jan is an Author and Traveller. You can read more about her experiences in the pioneering gold town of Kalgoolie in
‘Deserts of Gold’ available in e-book.

Find out more about her novels on Ancient Aboriginal Lore at

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