John McKail and George Cheyne: From the Swan River to The Ship Inn, Cape Riche and Eticup
In the continuing search for Ngurabirding we complete the background to John Maher’s 1854 arrival at Albany with a look at the activities, enterprises and connections of the disputatious pair John McKail and George Cheyne. These two figures headed-up influential family groups which ran maritime related businesses in the town while seeking to exploit land-based potential outside it and through their stories we gain a deeper understanding of how things were at Albany during this time.
I’ve covered much of George Cheyne’s background already so will only include what’s relevant here. Go to George Cheyne and the South Coast Fishery for information on the Cheyne family presence at Albany, including both George’s direct relatives as well as his wife Grizzel (Grace) Melville’s. For more on how the cash-starved Cheyne managed to claim Cape Riche from under the nose of the surveyor Henry Ommaney read George Cheyne and the Quest for Cape Riche.
In this post we also explore the working class elements of Albany society in the years leading up to the establishment of the Convict Hiring Depot in 1851. This element comprised sealers, whalers and town labourers, including a handful of well-known Menang men who interacted with the moneyed settlers by way of employment and by frequenting some of their more notorious drinking establishments.
The Inimical John McKail
Above: An 1838 view of Perth from the brow of Mnt Eliza. Just after advertising he was about to leave the colony, John McKail was living in a makeshift house at the foot of the slope this image presents. While there McKail brought his unhappy stint at the Swan River to a derisory close by shooting a Noongar youth in the leg. Gogalee died from the injury and McKail then had no choice but to commence a whole new life elsewhere. Image: ‘Perth from Mount Eliza 1838’ by C.D. Wittenoom. Lithograph from Nathaniel Ogle. 1839. The Colony of Western Australia: A Manual for Emigrants to that Settlement or its Dependencies. London: James Fraser.
George Cheyne aside for the moment, the story of John McKail sits in contrast to a fellow Albany settler of his, Stephen Knight. Both Knight and McKail were original Swan River settlers, arriving on Sir James Stirling’s 1829 chartered command ship Parmelia. However, while Knight’s story turns out a straight-forward one of exemplary civil service, McKail’s is knotty and uncertain, though all the more interesting for it.
Heretofore regarded a hero of early Albany, McKail’s name is as well-known as those of Cheyne, Spencer, Hassell and Taylor. But was he deserving? John McKail was certainly prominent but his true history is as difficult to make out as his famously tangled business affairs. That the proceeds of his substantial estate took decades to extricate is reflection of his tempestuous, even mercenary conduct.
Apparently born the son of a Naval Architect by the banks of the river Thames in London, John McKail also appears descended from both the Scottish and English aristocracies. The McKail’s were at times politically dissident university, medical and church men from Scotland, a line of which entered the Royal Navy and settled in London around 1740. Nathaniel McKail, John’s father, was born in Antigua, West Indies in 1776, and John back in London in 1808.
An off-hand, unqualified remark amongst the McKail papers collected by descendant Cecily McKail and published in 2003 as Reflections on the McKail Family, indicates Nathaniel McKail was married twice and that his second wife, and mother to all his children, was the illegitimate daughter of the 7th Earl of Scarborough. The Earl, who was 20 and unmarried at the time of his daughter’s birth, didn’t give her his name. Instead, the little girl was brought up Mary Belcher, very likely part of another naval family of the era, or at least one paid-off to handle the indiscretions of Royalty.
I take a calculated risk in saying that John McKail grew-up disgruntled, but it appears to me he was likely shaped by the combined forces of the intellectually rebellious Scots McKail streak and a deep-rooted sense of injustice at being the disenfranchised product of the Peerage. McKail didn’t like authority and his early years in the colony were fraught with conflict and grievance.
According to McKail family documents John was installed as an apprentice ships carpenter at Deptford Dockyards where his father held a senior position in naval architecture. The latter half of the 18th Century was when the Royal Navy fully asserted itself over the French and Spanish fleets largely by way of superior design and his father, presumably, had an eye on his second son’s career. But ship-building at Deptford (too far up-stream to remain viable) ceased in 1821 and McKail’s apprenticeship was served maintaining existing vessels. As the decade rolled on it became clearer Deptford’s future was bleak and this seems the likely reason John McKail sought opportunity elsewhere.
McKail and a couple of other qualified tradesmen, including fellow carpenter Stephen Henry Knight, arrived at the Swan River aboard the Parmelia in 1829. McKail was 22 years old and Knight 29. Their passage will have been paid for by way of contract and their positions as Colonial Artificers of some privilege and potential, though they were, simply put, plain indentured tradesmen to the colony. Nonetheless, given his appointment, it almost goes without saying that John McKail’s father and James Stirling were acquainted.
Popular records of the Parmelia’s passenger list don’t include the names Knight and McKail. This is because they were forgotten, or disregarded, when the disembarkation list was made. However, their names are included in No.7 of the so-called Swan River Booklets of 1938 which explores that particular sailing of the Parmelia, and also there is plenty of other supporting evidence to uphold the belief they were indeed on that famous voyage.
The pair came through the worst of the deprived times at the Swan but it isn’t known to what extent they mixed, other than through their work. Knight was seven years older and what information there is doesn’t suggest a particularly close friendship, their characters being quite different. Knight was married in December 1835 and seems to have come to Albany a few years after McKail, taking up government administration positions from 1839, where as McKail arrived in 1835 and went into private enterprise. However, by 1848 both had employed their trade skills in a dedicated effort to complete work on the much-anticipated St John’s Anglican Church, for which they are perhaps best remembered today.
McKail’s business legacy gave rise to the established thinking he was self-capitalised on arrival but that is proving difficult to determine and, for now anyway, it looks more like he turned up in Western Australia with little other than a box of tools and a few belongings. McKail did not travel with family and arrived at the Swan early enough to have been granted land along the river had he invested, as most of the big hitters did, but in his six years at Perth he appears only to have owned a small dwelling and allotment set back from the Perth Water foreshore near the corner of Mill Street and Mounts Bay Rd. Lot L22 and 1/2 on the old town plans.
McKail’s behaviour aboard the Parmelia may have set a precedent for his experiences at the hands of the Perth officials, including his omission from the passenger list. Let’s not forget, Parmelia carried the Stirling and Roe families as well as the families of the Colonial Secretary, Colonial and Assistant Colonial Surgeon, Assistant Surveyor, Colonial Engineer, Colonial Harbour Master, Colonial Botanist, Colonial Storekeeper and Colonial Stock manager. It was no ordinary sailing, McKail was voyaging in an atmosphere charged with grand ambition, with authority and political allegiance. No place at all for an argumentative upstart. There is nothing revealing in the ship’s log but when the passengers eventually made it to the Swan River mainland McKail’s precious box of tools went missing and no one, bah McKail, seemed very much concerned.
The passengers and crew of the Parmelia had been forced to set up camp for two months on Garden Island as Stirling in his haste had nearly caused their wreckage on arrival by trying to land them at the river mouth. The ship was damaged and forced to ride out the winter at Careening Bay off-shore where the elite Colonial establishment built a camp. Eventually the group made it to Fremantle and from there to Perth where in February 1830 McKail and Knight were tasked by Colonial Engineer Henry Reveley to begin construction on the first of the government buildings. Records show that James Morgan, Colonial Storekeeper, had the job of delivering McKail’s tools to him which, presumably, had been packed among the government stores due for transfer from Garden Island. But Morgan, or his charges, didn’t deliver McKail’s tools. Instead, they left the box somewhere for McKail to collect and when he got there of course it was gone.
McKail was outraged and said to have resigned but this was probably refused on the basis of his contract to the Colony. However, he also filed for compensation. Stirling recognised the fault and sent him £5.00. Upon receipt McKail returned the money, enclosing a rude retort saying the tools were worth more than £20 and if £5 was all they thought he was worth they could do without him altogether. This boorish offhand challenging of authority continued and through it we begin to see how McKail in some circles was marked as a dissident troublemaker while in others a firebrand social radical.
In Cecily McKail’s Reflections on the McKail Family there are unreferenced paragraphs relating to political conditions in England at the time of McKail’s youth, suggesting he was an urban literate who had become a union man politicised by the suppression of civil liberties (austerity) caused by the Napoleonic Wars his father’s ship designs had eventually helped win for the British at Waterloo. John McKail, rather than work his way up through the Navy ranks to his father’s level, chose to represent the tradesmen and labourers he no doubt felt more of an ilk with, at the time, and instead went out to the colonies in league with them.
So McKail’s stint at the Swan did not get off on a solid footing, his popularity with the colonial elite probably never more than shallow. When he came to Albany Sir Richard Spencer recorded his name in the census of 1836, marking him down as a lowly labourer. Cecily McKail’s research suggests McKail had been to Albany between 1830 and 1835 carrying out contract work and that he had also spent a short time working on Major Irwin’s house in St George’s Terrace, Perth, but there is the question of what else he did and here it seems McKail may have become acquainted with another Londoner, ex-Navy seaman turned businessman, Anthony Curtis.
Now, there is also another side to McKail’s character which rather than paint him as romantically anti-establishment shows he was caught up in the racial conflict of the period as well.
McKail may have been part of a group of young men who formed a rowdy and sometimes violent gang which assumed ownership over the streets of new Perth around 1832 when tensions between the settlers and Aborigines were very much on the rise. There are reports of parties fighting and causing trouble between Perth and Fremantle, particularly over the summer of 1832/33. (PG 19.1.33) Among that gang, which drank at Louis de Mayo’s Perth Hotel and a Barrack Street premises run by convicted wife beater Thomas Dent called The Happy Immigrant, were friends or associates who became victims of the Swan River’s militant Noongar responses to attack and displacement.
At this time, Aboriginal father and son Midgegooroo and Yagan were battling to retain their lands and status in the face of settler invasion and were becoming ever more warlike in their stance. Their killing of the Velnick (Velvick) brothers at John Randall Phillips’ Maddington Farm at Cannington early in 1833 was a turning point.
I say this because the Velnick murders tie in with other incidents relating to McKail’s contemporaries, including a drunken attack John Velnick led against a group of Asian labourers (Afghan/Pakistani or Indian origin) on Christmas Day 1832. I take another risk here, but by virtue of McKail’s age, nature, associations and place of living, he is implicated with this group, leaving the impression he was not a conscientious intellectual rebel but emotionally volatile and prone to wild antics, including violence.
Nine months after the 1832 Christmas Day brawl, for which Velnick was sentenced to three months hard labour, McKail was gaoled for leading another disturbance on Perth’s streets. The protest, involving around 40 people, saw the lighting and kicking around of an effigy in front of the 63rd Regiment’s barracks around ten o’clock on the night of September 29th. The effigy was of none other than Major Frederick Irwin, Acting Governor of the colony and Commander of the 63rd Regiment. The archives don’t detail why McKail led the protest but the timing of the event is telling.
Irwin had been placed in charge of the colony while Stirling went to get his knighthood in England and during his tenure had ordered the capture and execution of Midgegooroo, Yagan and another Aborigine named Munday. This was in the wake of the Velnick murders at Cannington at the end of April 1833.
The Velnick killings have been held up by the Noongar community as an act of war, which they were, but also their choice of target, contrary to being being random, is seen as a result of the brothers’ unsavoury character. John Velnick had been convicted of racially motivated violent assault and as the Aborigines are now not noted for having made unprovoked or strategically pointless attacks, it’s very likely his singling out occurred because of another under or unreported act of violence led by he or his brother. Perhaps a wanton attack upon the natives on the road between Perth and Fremantle just three months previous.
I couldn’t find anything to substantiate it, but McKail could have joined one of the volunteer posses which sought to track down Midgegooroo, Yagan and Munday for killing the Velnicks.
The capture and landmark execution of Midgegooroo was comparatively swift, occurring in front of the Perth lock-up just three weeks after the Velnicks had been taken out. Seven weeks after that the charismatic Yagan was betrayed and killed by the Keats brothers near Guildford. These resounding events are core happenings along the timeline of Aboriginal history of Western Australia.
Now, before the end of July, on account of the severity of the settler retribution, Munday, last remaining of the three Noongar fugitives, came in and proposed a truce to Major Irwin. Irwin, aware Yagan’s death was treacherous and underhanded in nature and that the execution of Midgegooroo (which he had summarily ordered) was not universally well-received, lifted the bounty on Munday, allowing him to go free. On September 29th (PG 5.10.33), the very night of McKail’s effigy burning protest, Irwin left the Swan River, leaving it awash with social turmoil, knowing he would have to explain himself to the colonial authorities in London.
Irwin’s departure furthered the leadership vacuum at Perth leaving the threat of social disorder higher than ever and it was this threat which was to determine McKail’s first arrest. It’s worth pointing out here something the surveyor Philip Chauncy said when remarking upon the Aborigines of Western Australia in a paper he submitted to a Victorian publication in the 1870s. Chauncy, when retrospectively discussing Yagan (who he described as a daring patriot), referred to ‘a period when a mortal feud. . . existed between some of the settlers and the Aborigines.‘ (Robert Brough; The Aborigines of Victoria; 1878; Appendix: Pg 277). Chauncy’s comment here indicates the authorities were less in control of the conflict than they might have liked and that a gang or particular body of settlers were acting of their own accord.
In any case, in what was clearly a drunken display of dissatisfaction with the authorities, McKail’s antics look suspiciously linked to Irwin’s decision not to pursue Munday. No sooner had Irwin set sail when McKail and his gang danced around the barracks in the dark, kicking and hurling the flaming figure (PG 12.10.33), resulting in McKail being seized by soldiers and thrown in the lock-up.
Upon release McKail issued civil court proceedings against acting Government Magistrate John (James) Morgan (Colonial Storekeeper who had dumped his tool box in the sand) for unlawful imprisonment. McKail claimed £100 in damages but George Fletcher Moore, who heard the case and dismissed it, said Morgan had acted entirely in accordance with the law and that McKail was lucky he had not suffered more than mere imprisonment for so provocatively dishonoring the 63rd’s Commanding Officer. This left McKail to pay the costs. McKail didn’t or wouldn’t pay and eventually, in April 1834, Morgan recovered the debt by forcing the sale of McKail’s small house and allotment on Mounts Bay Rd (then Bazaar St) through bailiff seizure and public auction. (PG: 29.3.1834).
Above: McKail’s small waterfront Lot L22&1/2 located at the bottom of Mill Street was seized by the Civil Court Bailif, Lawrence Welch, and sold by him at public auction on 5th April, 1835. Afterwards, McKail squatted in a makeshift hut on the slope of Mnt Eliza. Image: Item 342 – Perth 18/31. Little plan of The City of Perth copied from original 21/11/1894 showing City Lots Courtesy State Records Office of W.A.
Now, to put things in perspective, the newly knighted Sir James Stirling arrived back at Albany in the James Pattison a month later (May, 1834), but didn’t reach Perth until September. The following month, briefed on all that had taken place since his departure, Stirling (and Roe) led the newly arrived 21st Regiment’s Noongar put-down at Pinjarra while making their way overland to King George’s Sound in an attempt to determine the route of the planned Perth-Albany road.
The consequences of the Pinjarra Massacre were devastating to the Murray River Noongars and once again escalated tensions in Perth. In the meantime, the severely chastised McKail fashioned himself makeshift accommodation in another nook on the Mounts Bay slope, and, it would seem, began contemplating his future elsewhere.
On May 2nd and May 9th of 1835, a year after he lost his property, McKail advertised in the Perth Gazette he was leaving the colony and that all persons owing him money should pay-up forthwith. It’s likely at this stage his indentureship to the colony had expired and he had given up government construction work, possibly even having fallen in with businessman Anthony Curtis who had arrived in 1830 and established himself with property acquisitions, hostelry and at exactly that time, ship-owning and trading as well. Curtis ran the Stags Head Inn in Fremantle from January 1834 and had other properties where he may have merchanted goods. Late in 1834 he bought the 26 tonne cutter Fanny from Stephen Henty and immediately sailed to Java returning in March 1835. From May that year he commenced a coastal trading business between Fremantle and Albany, incorporating Leschenault, the Vasse and Augusta along the way.
Opposite: Anthony Curtis bought the 26 ton cutter Fanny from Stephen Henty late in 1834. From May 1835, he commenced a coastal trading business between Fremantle and King George’s Sound. When he advertised he was leaving the colony John McKail may only have been signalling his intention to move to Albany as agent for Curtis.
When people advertised they were leaving the colony, as McKail did in May 1835, it did not necessarily mean for good. McKail may have planned to go on an overseas voyage independently or as part of Curtis’s activities, or perhaps when he advertised he was leaving the colony he was in fact intending only to leave the Swan River? It seems reasonable enough, given the commencement of Curtis’s coastal trading enterprise at exactly that time, that John McKail had already decided he was going to make a new home for himself down at King George’s Sound.
However, a few weeks after running those advertisements McKail was still in Perth, apparently still living in makeshift accommodation on the lower face of Mount Eliza, and it was here, on the night of May 26th, that McKail returned from a friend’s house (George Mangles, Colonial Superintendent of Stock) to see someone running away from his hut, presumably having stolen from it. Very soon after, the enraged McKail burst in on a nearby Aboriginal camp, wrestled with and shot who he thought was the culprit.
Gogalee, 17 year-old son of Yellagonga, leader of the Perth Mooro tribe and a close associate of the surviving family of Yagan, died as a result. McKail said it was an accident, that he had raised the gun at Gogalee because he thought the boy had stolen flour from him. He said there was a struggle and that his finger accidentally pressed the trigger. (PG 30.5.35) Yagan’s nine year-old son Narral was hit in the lip by shrapnel and acted as witness at the hearing.
Note: McKail’s involvement in this regrettable incident has been obfuscated by his defending descendants. Cecily McKail’s Reflections on the McKail Family doesn’t hide the incident, mentioning it at various points, but the circumstances are related from family memory rather than the colonial records and the result is a watered down and false version of events implying McKail was justified in shooting Gogalee. It makes the assertions that had McKail shot the actual thief the incident would never have been recorded, that had he been a Bussell rather than a lone McKail the ‘mistake’ would have been buried, and that John McKail’s removal to Albany came about solely because of his political activism. It’s hard to determine exactly whose words or memories these are because Cecily McKail doesn’t reference them. Perhaps one of his grandsons? What’s doubly interesting is reference to the Bussell family apparently getting away with Aboriginal killings. This would refer to the incidents at the Vasse which I covered in Prelude and Postscript to a Wedding and Love and War – Henry Camfield’s View, where Camfield denounces the actions of the Bussell brothers and dissociates himself from the family before coming to Albany.
In any case, as a result of Gogalee’s death the settlement at Perth was thrust into another critical crisis of relations, threatening further bloodshed on both sides.
McKail formulated his defence, part of which entailed recruiting the assistance of Constable Thomas Hunt, to whom he reported the incident. Hunt, who looks to have been a fellow drinker at The Happy Immigrant and who bore a family tormented by misfortune and tragedy, had earned reputation as a zealous leader of the volunteer posses which set out to track down Midgegooroo and Yagan. (Chauncy’s feud.) Hunt not only supported McKail’s unwitnessed testimony but embellished it.
Stirling and his legal cronies hastily set about making reparations with the Noongar leadership while McKail was arrested and directed to trial. From the outset the charge was manslaughter. A non-hangable offence. They may not have liked McKail and he was likely considered a real danger to the community by this stage, but the establishment could not afford to convict him of murder of a native, nor any of their settlers for that matter. To do so would set a precedent none of them in those fraught times could accept. Instead, because there was no other settler witness to McKail’s version of events, the court decided Aboriginal evidence alone was not sufficient to warrant a conviction. The impending trial was cancelled and McKail was given a conditional pardon on the basis he distribute flour and blankets among the affected family and that he leave Perth for good. (PG 11.7.35)
This McKail did, probably aboard Curtis’s cutter Fanny, bound for King George’s Sound, on 8th October, 1835.
Opposite: McKail advertised his intention to leave the colony, probably temporarily, in the Perth Gazette newspaper on the 2nd and 9th of May, 1835. Within a month of placing the advertisement he had shot and killed the Noongar boy Gogalee after returning from a friend’s house late at night. After this McKail had no choice but to leave Perth for good.
When he came to Albany aged twenty-eight McKail was still a reckless, aggressive, headstrong individual with a whole lot more about him than he was able to contain. In his defence though, he was never again accused of violence or wrong doing toward the Aborigines.
Above: McKail came to Albany in October 1835 where he acted as agent for Anthony Curtis. Many of his early transactions were carried out in his own name but may have been under the auspices of Curtis, including purchase of the Ship Inn. There was a prolonged and influential American whaling presence at Albany from 1836 which local merchants and publicans gained good custom from. Many sailors jumped ship, some under encouragement, and were hidden away by those in need of labour or craft. But individual relations did not always run smoothly, especially where there were women concerned. Image: Sailors tattoo Rise and Shine from American tattoo artist Sailor Jerry
The Albany McKail Found
McKail may have first come to Albany with Stephen Knight on a stint constructing new buildings at the Old Farm and possibly the first customs house in 1831. There is no clear record but Stephen Knight is listed as returning to Perth from Albany on the Eagle in January 1832 and it seems likely McKail will have done the same or similar. This stint will have given McKail insight as to what to expect at the little settlement on the Sound, in particular the smaller scale three-way relationship between the establishment, working class (including soldiers) and Aborigines; not to mention the local fancy for drinking.
As we know, there were sealing vessels dispatching gangs along the South Coast well before and across the garrison era and it’s possible Albany’s early sealing fraternity, or certain of them at least, either pre-dated the settlement’s handover to the new Swan River Colony or returned after a period back East. These men, and whatever women they may have had with them, did not live on the mainland prior to free settlement. They lived on the islands. They were known to the Albany Aborigines, however, who though not shunning them completely, certainly mistrusted them.
Albany’s original Aboriginal group, the King Ya-nup, had long recognised the moral standards of the sailors in larger ships and uniforms, always maintaining much more dedicated relations in that quarter. Nonetheless, despite obvious differences, certain soldiers, sealers, labourers and Aborigines living at Albany were united in their fancy for alcohol.
From the mid 1830s, frustrated ship’s crews (increasingly American whalers) were given short bursts of freedom at Albany and many spent what money they had in the public houses which were beginning to spring up. These crews caroused with the publicans and that same small band of labourers, sealers (who then had cause to visit the place much more regularly) and associated Aboriginal men and women riding on the coat tails of their play. One of these drinking places looks to have been acquired by McKail some time after his arrival.
Digory Sargent Geake’s Albany Hotel was the first licensed premises at the settlement. Geake, with wife and daughter, along with John Laurence Morley and wife, and two other single men (possibly discharged convicts), arrived in April 1831 aboard HMS Sulphur, which was delivering Alexander Collie to his new role at the Sound as Government Resident. These were the very first non-indigenous people to populate the free shores of King George’s Sound. Morley was a builder so didn’t trade in liquor but later that year George and Grizzel Cheyne arrived (also aboard the Sulphur) and one of the first things Cheyne did was establish himself as a merchant and licensed spirits dealer.
From the very commencement of free settlement alcohol was a feature of commercial trade.
In 1831 there was literally nothing in Albany beyond the buildings of the military compound and Old Farm. By way of Europeans there may have been a few itinerant sealers, a couple of dischargees from the evacuated garrison (William Thacker and James Newell), a 30 strong detachment of the newly arrived 63rd Regiment (including four women and five children), and then just Collie, the Geakes, Morleys and Cheynes; forty or so people in all.
What business they did was conducted amongst themselves, with the government, or with visitors to the Sound who arrived by ship. Morley built houses in anticipation of the great influx they each were counting on. As many historians have pointed out, the little settlement did nothing by way of development but look out to sea for it until 1835 when the Spencers were forced to go farming upriver because not enough thrived well enough on the sand, gravel, granite and swamp that dominated the coast.
Late in 1833 two companies of the 21st Regiment arrived at the Swan River Colony, a detachment of which (1 officer, 21 rank and file and 2 women – PG 14.9.33) sometime soon after was posted to the Sound to relieve the 63rd. The Isabella was advertised to carry the soldiers to Albany in September, the same month the Buffalo disembarked the 22 strong Spencer entourage, increasing the population by a third. (Note: There was an intention for the 21st to relieve the 63rd at Albany via Isabella but this may not have happened until later via another vessel as Isabella was redirected from Hobart back to England in April 1834, having never left Gages Roads off Fremantle.
The arrival of the Spencer family changed everything at Albany, dividing the leadership as well as adding greater impetus. The Spencer presence fundamentally altered the dynamic between the Aborigines and moneyed settlers as they were not there solely as administrators but as commercially driven opportunists at the same time.
Also, because Spencer was both leading official and desperate to succeed in a commercial capacity he was pitted against his own kind. That is, his position of power afforded him the luxury of not only relating directly to the colonial command in Perth but of being able to appoint his own family members to government paid positions. This unfair advantage, combined with an autocratic leadership style, nettled George Cheyne in particular and, after the arrival of the James Pattison, Peter Belches and Thomas Sherratt too.
Cheyne could see where to make his money but within three years, rather than let Spencer tax him, began to move his business away from the settlement’s jurisdiction. This move also gave rise to Cheyne’s brothers and nephew and their families, who had arrived on the James Pattison, to lose confidence in their future and leave.
To be fair, Spencer was genuinely compelled to do his best for the settlement’s economic development and did hid best to promote it. His primary successes were convincing Thomas Lyell Symers and John Hassell to establish at the Sound instead of at Tasmania, the Bass Strait mainland or emerging South Australia. Symers had an immediate impact and instilled a lot of confidence but it was to be 1839 before Hassell was in a position to set up. In the meantime there were major disputes between Spencer and his foes which look to have poisoned the atmosphere.
As time progressed, Aboriginal/European relations at Albany appear to have endured both the uneasy and growing presence of the sealing fraternity as well as the relative influx of settlers provided by the arrival of the James Pattison. Some Aborigines were taking jobs as part-time domestic and civil servants and Spencer maintained the ceremonial distribution of flour around what became a bi-monthly occasion (every second full moon). In April 1839, a few months before Spencer’s death, two-hundred-and-eighty tribesmen descended on the town, reflecting the importance of the event within the Noongar world.
On the surface of things good will seems to have lasted well beyond Spencer’s death in 1839 when the attritional effect of the cultural mismatch combined with a sudden and quite dramatic increase in commercial activity. In terms of personnel, the further the administrative and Aboriginal leaderships moved from their original coupling, the looser and more distant the bind to their original arrangement became. At least from the administration’s point of view. The arrival and swift departure of George Grey in 1840 added another link to what was becoming a chain too heavy for the colonial officials to want to carry and though it was still there those iron links began to lay weighty and rust.
The Albany Aborigines had gained confidence and increasing degrees of positive notoriety outside their range by way of travelling to the capital on good will missions. In the early 30’s, while Midgegoroo and Yagan were pitting their resistance against the Perth settlers, two Albany groups went by sea and a third, led by Kartrull in 1835, journeyed overland spreading messages of harmony and co-operation. (See The Friendly Frontier Vrs The Not-So-Friendly Frontier). After this nothing else of note, either good or bad, happened. What was going on was going on in town, mostly matters of a lewd and lustful nature down at the waterfront. We know the first settler move away from Mokare’s kala (Albany town) met with conflict in 1838 (when Arthur Trimmer arrived) and isolated incidents continued as land was taken up along the Hay River, but within town there was no racial trouble to speak of until 1843.
Yet all was not as it has been perceived.
The smaller, necessarily more closely observed elements of life for the old Albany Aborigines during the post-garrison era has escaped attention over the years as interpretation of the colonial records has been largely drawn from publicity style newspaper reports or else the prosecuting authorities, who kept the most paperwork. This has led to a conveniently general assumption that the Albany Aborigines were to blame for their own undoing. But it is clear the King ya-nup had entered into a social bargain with the garrison leaders and this extended first to Alexander Collie, then to Sir Richard Spencer and even as far as John Randal Phillips who succeeded George Grey in 1840.
This unwritten agreement can first be seen by Sir James Stirling’s decision to take a 100, 000 acre grant around the Hay River, then by the establishment of the Spencer and Warburton Hay River farms on the kalas of King Ya-nup related people in the Mount Barker area, and further supported in 184o when the shepherd Charles Newell was speared at Hassell’s Moorilup farm, renamed Kindenup, and the offender was captued by local friendly Aborigines from ten miles away, also again at Mnt Barker in 1841 when Government Resident Phillips recommended dropping charges against Dandick (Bates’s Dangart), who he described as an influential member of a group of friendly Aborigines around Ungrup (Ongrup), Spencer’s upper Hay River sheep run. (See Part 2 – The Hay River Brigade). (Green: Aborigines of the Albany Region 1821-1898).
The social bargain Mokare’s leadership had bought so comprehensively into over the military era should never be underestimated. Permanent settlement initiated by the arrival of the Amity on Christmas Day 1826 was far from first contact. The King Ya-nup had been welcoming visitors to the Sound since Matthew Flinders two-week sojourn 25 years earlier. By the time Alexander Collie and the 63rd regiment took over in 1831, Mokare and his people knew very well the white presence wasn’t going away.
It’s important to talk about this for a moment.
Mokare’s leadership group had met with James Stirling over consecutive summers. First at the military compound prior to Barker’s departure in 1830/31, and then at the Old Farm with Doctor Collie the following year. On both occasions Stirling, who looks to have been averse to Perth’s heat, stayed three months. Barker talked at length about employment and Mokare even suggested to him his tribesmen would be willing to come in from afar to join the new movement while Collie spent hours, days and weeks trying to prepare those he felt responsible towards for the inevitable changes. By the time Spencer was in place the relationship was so well entrenched he was able to take up land at Chorkerup (Narikup) and Mnt Barker without problem because the places he had chosen were the kalas of Mokare’s relations.
Even though Mokare died in August 1831, it’s just not possible to think he, his brothers and cousins failed to grasp the European presence was permanent. Of course they knew and of course there was a price to pay.
The social bargain the Albany Aborigines bought so comprehensively into was heavily economic. The exchange was cooperation and acceptance for the benefits of technology which came in the form of guns, tools, blankets, matches and preserved foods such as salted meat, biscuit, flour, rice, sugar and tea. Alcohol as well. The daily records have been largely interpreted to show the Aborigines were greedy for handouts and not concerned with the Europeans beyond using them to make their lives easier, but this is unfair. There were difficulties with the Aboriginal interpretation of the bargain, particularly the employment equation, and the newcomers didn’t appreciate the concept of sharing built into Aboriginal culture either, but ongoing Aboriginal claims for rations stemmed from what the King Ya-nup understood to be their half of the exchange.
The Aborigines understood they had a deal with the settlers and their behaviour was a result of it. Remember the Spencer 2nd full moon flour handouts?
Major Lockyer had applied restraint and demonstrable justice after the spearing of the blacksmith Dineen in retaliation for the kidknapping and murder carried out by sealers in 1826, and Captain Barker, through his diaries, showed how he used the dispensing and withholding of rations as a means of schooling the King Ya-nup in his own personal style of honorable conduct. The dialogue between settler and King Ya-nup leadership groups was continuous and this led to a binding arrangement in the minds of the early Albany Aborigines that as long as the settlers were there they would teach and exchange their technology in return for acceptance and cooperation. Thus, the goodwill missions to Perth and subsequent (unwritten) Hay River land agreements.
Here we begin to understand not only the reasons behind the breaking down of the ‘Friendly Frontier’ but how it came into being in the first place.
McKail’s experience at Perth highlights the us-against-them gang mentality which existed at the Swan River on account of the number of economically driven settler arrivals concentrated into such a short period of time and then distributed over an ever widening area. At Albany, the pace of settlement was snail-like, to be generous, and for the first nine years, until Spencer moved upriver, barely strayed from the immediate environs of Stirling Terrace and the waterfront. And even then nothing remotely threatening occurred for another three years.
Baron von Hugel, an Austrian noble, army officer, diplomat, botanist, and explorer, toured Western Australia between November 1833 to October 1834, during which he spent time at the Sound. Von Hugel wrote of his experience there, saying the place consisted of…
… 60 people, including 20 solders, who have a hard life. There is nothing in the wide
world for them to do, and instead of being employed in some useful task, their one
object is to get enough money together to get drunk … Mr Cheyne has been here the
longest … His occupation seems to be that of a merchant or retailer … Sir Richard
[Spencer] and his family make up a third of the population, 21 persons, and he,
together with Mr [Alfred] Hillman … is the only one who really cultivates the soil and
can be called a settler. Apart from these, the settlement comprises Mr Liddleton the
doctor, Mr Morley, the Superintendent of Stores, and a very few tradesmen. When
one considers how far from home these few individuals are … one must in all honesty
admire their courage.
(As quoted in D R G Sellick (comp), First Impressions: Albany, Traveller’s Tales 1791-1901, pgs 73-74)
By contrast, McKail had lived in Perth the first six years of its colonial existence, all of which had been consumed by debilitating economic woe while the second half was a frightfully degenerative period fraught with killings and counter-killings compounded by Stirling’s absence.
After all he’d been through at Perth, McKail must have thought Albany a pliable paradise where he could indulge his twin thirsts for alcohol and dissident politics without fear of reprisal for Gogalee’s death or running into too much trouble with the leadership.
But all along the King Ya-nup’s economic bargain was falling lopsided. This happened by way of the corrupting effects of commercial settlement and the inability of the newcomers to comprehend and prevent two core aspects of traditional Aboriginal culture; the practice of moving about their considerable range at short notice and the application of the so-called ‘payback’ system of justice.
Infection was one of the lifestyle corruptions. Illness swept through the King Ya-nup regularly, killing Mokare himself in 1831. Barker noted an epidemic in the region of the Farm in 1829 and over the winter of 1843 Magistrate Phillips listed 18 Aborigines as having died in the months of June and July alone. The variance of years and number of dead in 1843 serves to indicate the worsening effects of contagion as well as the number of Aborigines outside of the King Ya-nup’s core descendants who migrated to the town’s environs.
The high and abnormally young Aboriginal mortality rate of the early period is seldom discussed in texts, by way of how the Aborigines felt or responded. For the settler leadership it meant on-going and widening distribution of costly rations, something repeatedly mentioned in the archives. For the Aborigines, it was the distress of witnessing the passing of so many young lives.
Local spearing incidents vexed the settlers. Though many understood the belief one Aboriginal death was to be avenged by another, there was also the belief it was arbitrary as to whether or not the payback actually happened. A great deal was made of the fighting between Aborigines and of the deaths that occurred, but the deaths were not significant in number when compared to incidents of violence and murder among the settler group during the convict era, or between the settler group and the Aborigines whose casualties in that regard far outweighed those of the Europeans. There are plenty of examples of death by spearing among the Aborigines themselves during the early period but they are small in relation to the number of reported or observed spearings per se. (John Host, It’s Still in My Heart; pgs 24&25)
As settlement progressed at Albany the world’s of both parties appear to have uncoupled and become aloof to one other’s internal politics. Certainly, after the time of Barker and Collie the archives reveal few attempts by the settlers to involve themselves with the Menang leadership to anywhere near the same extent. Aboriginal personalities were known but the bond which existed up until the death of Collie was lost.
What appalled the settlers most, as in the case of Cardid (alias Billy) in January 1842, was when a vengeance killing occurred inside the town and the victim turned out to be a defenceless child. To the settlers, whose own system of law and capital punishment sought to protect children, this proved incomprehensible and intolerable.
As the little coastal settlement’s population grew, employment initially implored upon the Albany Aborigines due to lack of labour began to be redirected toward working-class settlers. This employment, mostly domestic aid in the form of delivering written messages, minding and locating horses and supplying water, wood and sometimes fresh game, was mostly paid for with food and as it dried up contributed toward Aboriginal deprivation, fostering resentment in the process.
James Browne, the son of the Commissariat store manager, recorded his experiences in Albany as a teenager between 1836 and 1838 . In his important writing he notes the prevalence of hunger among the Aborigines and puts it down to the lack of meat in the area due in part to proximity to the coast but also to the amount of shooting and skinning that went on and the effect this had on reducing the availability of animal food. Browne said that the Albany Aborigines were weak by physical comparison to the inland groups and that by the time he and his family left the numbers of Albany Aborigines ‘could not muster more than from twenty or thirty souls‘. (Browne: Aborigines of the King George Sound Region 1836-1838)
Patrick Taylor was one of the few who understood and accepted the long term need to maintain this employment and factored it into his cost of settlement right up until his death in 1877. Most of the other settlers, including Taylor’s wife Mary Bussell, did not.
By 1844 the remnants of Mokare’s leadership group look like they had no choice, by way of hunger as much as principle, but to reinforce their presence and bring to light the social bargain they felt both parties were still bound by. They did this, probably on the back of the previous year’s devastating epidemic, through a series of large scale food thefts.
The Albany Aborigines knew well the moral wrong of stealing, but yet were forced into it as a means of demonstration. Even the most adaptable and loyal of Bobbies (the tag given to early male Aboriginal servants at Albany; i.e. Neill’s Bobby, Gordon’s Bobby and Candyup Bobby) joined the protest. The point, however, was entirely lost on the settlers who cracked down on the perceived lawlessness by making arrests and seeking harsh punishments. The Albany food thefts of 1844, in part reminiscent of the Irish famine conditions John Maher was enduring as a boy, were put down by the overwhelming threat of lethal response.
(See Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection – Part 2 for more detail on the 1840s period in Albany and specifically Politics, Civil Service and Resistance within that post for a look at the food protests and Aborigines involved.)
Above: Mokare’s King Ya-nup tribe had been engaging with visitors to the Sound for a quarter century before theAmity sailed in. In this image made by Louis August de Sainson of the l’Astrolabe, whose crew spent two weeks mending sails on the harbour shore in October 1826, there is an obvious sense of openness, even camaraderie, between both parties.
Now, in tandem with this process of physical and cultural appropriation came the insidious effect of profound diet change. Foods such as salt, flour, sugar, rice and domesticated animal fat had never been part of the Aboriginal intake. The early records relating to settlement at Albany are littered with reports of native illness. How much this can be attributed to existing maladies versus imported disease is hard to tell, but the effects of diet, including commonly distributed alcohol, played a pernicious part.
Ardent spirits, which had been introduced but strictly rationed by the military, took a heavy toll once the merchants and publicans controlled supply. Consumption was prevalent. Getting hold of alcohol demanded an economic requirement which only some of the Aborigines, through their greater means of adaptability, were able to meet. These men, including Manyat, Wylie, Norngern, Lindol and Katrull, were prominent personalities who had emerged from the garrison period as young adults (Manyat was older). They formed strong alliances with key settlers who continued to support them through local employment (domestic tasks and -later- bay whaling). The Aborigines tended to share their income, when it came, and spent it on trips to the taverns or retail merchants as opportunity afforded . Others, however, fell to the curse of alcohol more fully and took desperate measures to get it.
In the absence of anyone else, whaling crews on liberty at Albany (the number of which boomed between 1836 and 1842) exploited Aboriginal women, either by way of the women’s own decisions or those imposed upon them by their controlling men. Prostitution became a significant problem in the town, as evidenced in the below extract of a letter William Nairne Clarke wrote to Governor Hutt in March 1843.
C.S.R. Vol. 116 Folio.224-229
My Lord, I stated to him the startling fact that King Georges Sound was a great resort for American Whalers and the crews on their days of liberty ashore had connection with the native women around the settlement, and with very young girls tempted by the sight of what they call “white money”. His Excellency admitted that he had heard of this before, and yet writes to your Lordship that a protector is not required! I can assure your Lordship that great debasement exists amongst the female native population around Albany owing to their intercourse with sealers and whalers frequenting the Port, and that the males are getting gradually initiated into the vices of drinking and smoking being the wages for the prostitution of their wives and daughters.
The venereal disease has likewise been prevalent there amongst the Aborigines, owing to their intercourse with the scum of ships. . .
Alcohol ravaged Aboriginal/Sailor conduct and rankled conservative settler attitudes. As a result the town’s administrators imposed dress and behaviour standards which meant the Aborigines had to wear shirts and trousers and to leave their spears and kylies behind if they wanted to remain within the settlement’s commercial and residential environs. Brought about as much by a desire to repair the visual aesthetic as it was to try and absorb the Aborigines into their own way of doing things, these further impositions were not met amicably. Nor were they accepted. As late as at least 1877, Albany’s old Aborigines performed traditional dances and weapons wielding demonstrations to visitors arriving into the town by ship, using the practise as a means of expressing cultural identity while reaping economic reward; little though it may have been.
Albany’s core Aborigines might have considered leaving the town and returning to traditional ways of living distant from the European influence but this would have amounted to a surrendering of their kala which they were not at liberty to do. Neither by principle nor practical means. There was a clear drifting of regional Aborigines towards the settlement which interested writers have agreed on over the years, and this would have troubled the local leadership a great deal, forcing them to stay regardless. In addition, during the 1830s and 1840s it’s likely Albany’s original Menang leadership, especially after the settler alliances they had made and used against their northern foes, would not have enabled them to be accepted elsewhere.
History shows the Albany Aborigines never gave up their place and still live in the town today. Beyond all aspects of the accommodation they gave to the settlers, one thing the King Ya-nup never held up for negotiation was leaving.
Above: Fifty years after commencement of permanent settlement, despite ongoing imposition of conditions and restrictions, a small band of men and women proudly continued to present themselves to Albany’s visitors as the locality’s original dwellers. Image: Remnants of Mokare’s King Ya-nup readying for a corroborree in 1877 by Gustav Adolf Riemer, held at the Mitchell Library, Sydney. This version drawn from John Dowson’s Old Albany photograph book.
So, during the period the recalcitrant John McKail was establishing himself at Albany, the social picture comprised three frames.
In the first were the Aborigines, increasingly maligned and distanced from their original shared heads of importance, struggling with an increasing number of outsiders and the influence of vice while suffering from multiple forms of deadly infection, the combination of which impacted heavily on their survival as much as their leadership and traditional code of living. The King Ya-nup were very much at large but battling the degrading effects of neglect and imposed lifestyle changes.
In the second were the town’s leading settlers whose primary modus operandi was to establish master/servant relationships between themselves and everybody else. Within this group there were certain more Christian-minded individuals willing to support and provide for the Aborigines by way of continuing domestic employment (eg. Patrick Taylor), while others sought more skilled labour and assistance by encouraging sailors to abscond and join the local economy (eg. George Cheyne and John Hassell). Combined, this group administered the town’s colonial ambitions of social respectability and economic growth.
In the third frame was gathered the so-called labouring classes. This group was made up of the largely unoccupied and all too frequently drunk soldiers; imported European indentured labour, much of which served its time then joined the self-employed aspiring middle-class ranks (eg. the Spencer household staff); imported foreign labour from India/Pakistan/Afghanistan, China and Singapore, many of whom served their time and went home; the mariner fraternity, commonly known as the sealers, whose mixed-race children became of such concern to George Grey from 1839 he wrote to the Colonial Secretary about it; and the illegal, influentially but far from exclusively American, jumpship brigade who took up work on offer, some of whom joined Aboriginal families outside of town and some of whom eventually became well known settlers in their own right.
And the cauldron for this unique blend of social fusion was the town waterfront, in particular The Ship Inn, a notorious public house built as a cottage and acquired by John McKail.
Above: John McKail’s whitewashed buildings on Lot B15 (centre foreground) housed the Ship Inn from at least 1836. Image: Albany Foreshore, February 1858, by Arthur Onslow. Source: McArthur Album at the Mitchell Library, Sydney. This version scanned from John Downson’s Old Albany.
McKail, Curtis, Baker and Dunn
According to McKail family documents on arrival John McKail bought and took up residence in a cottage on Stirling Terrace belonging to a Sergeant Philip Baker of the 21st Regiment. The cottage was located at Lot 36, close to the western junction of York Street. Again the McKail documents don’t readily equate to other evidence as that location for many years afterwards does not appear to have belonged to anyone else but the Bakers.
The source for much of the following information regarding Philip Baker is Conquest and Settlement; the 21st Regiment in W.A. 1833-1840, by Albany born researcher and writer Geoff Blackburn), while research on the life and times of Anthony Curtis was provided by Cara Cammilleri in a paper entitled Anthony Curtis Merchant and Trader 1830-1853, an edited version of which was published by the RWAHS in their Early Days Journal; Vol 6, Pt 4, 1965.
So, in 1833 two companies of the 21st Regiment arrived at the Swan River Colony, a detachment of which was posted to the Sound to relieve Major Irwin’s 63rd. A second detachment, which included 30 year-old Sergeant Philip Baker, was sent from Hobart aboard the Caroline early in 1835, disembarking them directly at King George’s Sound.
Records show that Baker’s wife and mother to his surviving children was a woman known as Sophia Points, probably companion to a young mother who located to Albany at the same time. The Perth gazette of 28 Feb 1835, records that Mr A Smith, wife and child also disembarked the Caroline along with two other women and children. The following year Spencer recorded a Mr and Mrs Smith with children John (3 yrs) and Charles (1 yr) living at Albany. Mr Smith was aged 25, from England and his occupation given as Merchant. Mrs Smith was aged 23 and from Van Dieman’s Land. Spencer also recorded a Sophia Baker, domestic servant.
Sergeant Baker, whether married to Sophia Points (Baker) before arriving at Albany or soon after, looks to have got busy quickly once he arrived. By the time his discharge was granted at Perth on 31st July, 1840, he had fathered four and lost two children and also come to own three properties in the town. Baker’s oldest child died aged two from scalding, while the fate of his second prematurely deceased son is unknown. Baker’s properties were at lot B15 along the foreshore, at lot 36 on Stirling Terrace and another much larger block at lot 53 on Duke Street. The Duke Street lot was vacant but both the others had cottages built upon them.
Eliza Baker, oldest surviving child, in an interview given in 1926 to the RWAHS when she was 88 years old, said she was born in 1838 in a cottage made of wattle and daub built by her father near the beach at Albany. Eliza Baker’s date of birth was in fact August 1837 but the house and location she describes is almost certainly Lot B15.
Now, according to Donald Garden, in 1835 three individuals in Albany converted cottages to drinking establishments, having being granted licences to sell liquor on-premise. The first of these Publican’s General Licenses was issued on June 29th to James Elphe, recorded by Spencer in his 1836 census as a 40 year-old labourer from England. Elphe’s place was called the Waterman’s Arms and was located on the foreshore, the exact location not given. Stipulations of the license included not permitting drunkenness or disorderliness, nor allowing notoriously bad characters to assemble there, nor to knowingly suffer any lawful games or any gaming whatsoever therein. The cost of the license, issued for one year, was £7/10/-. (Albany Advertiser, 18/5/1944)
Baker probably established the Ship Public House soon after he built it, living there with his young and poorly looked after family. A document I found in the Albany Library states McKail acquired the Ship Inn from Baker more or less on arrival, though this would conflict with Eliza Baker’s testament and official documents which state Baker sold the premises to McKail in 1840.
If Baker’s quick transfer to McKail is believed it suggests a couple of potential scenarios. Either Baker couldn’t afford or didn’t want to run the place and was happy to let McKail run it (under lease perhaps), or else he lost control of it by means of illegal gaming. That is, in a bet.
The dubious Albany Library document saying McKail took over the Ship Inn on arrival is nothing more than an unsigned, undated hand-written note. There is nothing official prior to 1840 which substantiates the means by which McKail acquired the pub. Later documents show legal ownership became his on 23rd October, 1840, and that McKail was licencee for only a couple of years afterwards.
To give an example of costs, in June 1835 Patrick Taylor bought his double lot (44 & 45, nine blocks west of Baker’s Stirling Terrace lot 36) complete with house, fences and sundries, for £300. In my estimation, this gives Baker’s single waterfront lot a value of absolutely no less than £150.00, and probably much closer to £200, given the boom in maritime traffic by 1840.
In any case, the burning questions here are two fold. How did Baker, a non-commissioned officer from within the enlisted ranks, have the facility to buy three properties at the Sound? And secondly, considering his apparent impoverished state in Perth, how did McKail not only acquire the Ship Inn from Baker but establish himself as a merchant, publican and contractor pretty much all at the same time?
Cecily McKail’s family history refers to earlier generations telling of John bringing out a fair amount of capital and coming in for considerably more when his father died, and Cecily does quote a list of lot numbers associated with McKail which could relate to land applications at the Swan River, but once again these aren’t clearly referenced and my own enquiries to this point are yet to yield a result. But, as we have seen McKail does not show signs of having much money when in Perth and his father, Nathaniel, didn’t pass away until 1854 (so no inheritance until after then). Of course McKail could always have had a reserve of capital somewhere, perhaps tied up in England or Scotland, and gained access to it as and when he needed, but this doesn’t seem to fit with the emerging story.
Postscript 11.10.2016: Enquiries with the State Records Office reveal more than 40 land transactions under the name John McKail, plus others of a shared or probate nature. The lot numbers Cecily McKail gave are in fact memorial numbers (title deeds). These microfiched memorials are located at the State Library. They come from a series of registry books numbered 1 thru 22 (originally in Roman Numerals). The first three memorials under McKail’s name can be found in Register Book 1, commenced January 2nd, 1832. The memorial numbers are 965, 984 and 1119. From this we can say McKail made three purchases in relatively close succession, these purchases being the 965th, 984th and 1119th registered in the Swan River Colony. Another two can be found in Register Book 2. The most he made in a single period was twenty one, which can be found in Register Book 6. I don’t have the dates, locations or prices of these conveyances because they cost nearly A$30 each to have extracted. However, I think we can safely surmise McKail’s three early conveyances will have been Perth lots (among them L22&1/2) made in 1832. Those in Book 2, probably also at Perth before October 1835. By my reckoning, the 21 conveyances listed in Book 6 will not have occurred until the 1860s or later. From this information McKail’s wealth looks to have multiplied at an impressive rate, but not until well after he had arrived at Albany.
Reasoning also suggests Sergeant Baker of the 21st Regiment may have been Anthony Curtis‘s initial agent at Albany, established when the coastal trading venture first commenced, and that McKail came down to succeed him. There are numerous references to McKail being Curtis’s agent and I’ve found enough evidence to show that he was, but whether he lent Baker and McKail the facility to establish themselves as well as they did are other matters entirely.
Perhaps Baker became indebted to McKail/Curtis by way of victual and alcohol supplies?
Curtis was a notable businessman who traded between Fremantle and Albany between May 1835 and about 1840 when he went whaling off Fremantle instead, but as we are asking questions as to how Baker and McKail got their money we should also ask the same of their go-getter associate. Curtis ran away to sea as a Navy cabin boy at a very young age. His mother was a London shopkeeper who couldn’t afford to take him back when he returned one day years later so the young man returned to sea, eventually arriving at Fremantle in July 1830, aged 34 years, aboard the Medina and upon which he was employed as a steward.
So Curtis himself also arrived with little or no apparent financial means, though also on Medina were Perth businessman John Bateman and the infamous Fremantle and Rottnest Island gaoler Henry Vincent, both of whom (apparently) Curtis was associated with for many years afterwards. Curtis began to accumulate property at Fremantle from 1832, at an initial cost of upwards of £150. Curtis’s untimely death 21 years later (aged 57) revealed a substantial estate bound by the actions of his will’s sole executor, Mr W.E. Oakley (also a grocer and general trader at Fremantle) who failed in his responsibility to a miserable degree, thus leaving open the very clear suggestion of either manipulation and exploitation on the part of Mr Oakley or such a tangle of affairs Oakley was unable to do anything about it.
It will probably prove impossible to get to the bottom of this, but what we begin to glimpse here are the murky waters of flimsy, exploitative and outright illicit commerce. Not wholly on the part of the entrepreneurs either as lawyers and money lenders took full advantage of anomalies, bleeding the probate process for all it was worth.
To my mind, Baker’s waterfront cottage looks to be the place where the sergeant and his family lived until they moved to Perth when seeking discharge from the departing 21st Regiment in 1840. That is, at the same time offical documents support the sale to McKail. But Spencer’s census shows Baker’s wife was employed as a domestic servant while Baker himself (according to the Dictionary of West Australian’s) was listed elsewhere as a carpenter and practicing shoemaker and, when he got to Perth, as a carter of goods.
But why did Baker decide to live in Perth when he still had two properties in Albany, the one on Stirling Terrace a ready made home for his children?
Baker’s children’s birth registrations aren’t clear. The W.A. BMD index shows Perth as their place of entry to the world, where as Geoff Blackburn claims the first four were born in Albany, which appears to make more sense. Certainly Eliza Baker said she was born at Albany. Perhaps when he got to Perth, where his second son soon died and third, born January 1840, also died two and a half years later, made the prospect of an arduous return journey all too difficult?
Baker’s tragic family life at Albany and later at Perth draws parallels with that of McKail’s friend at the Swan River, Constable Thomas Hunt. Whatever way those two families went about their living meant surviving childhood under their guidance was a long way from certain.
What’s also revealing is that Baker himself died young. In fact, he was only 38 when on 11th June, 1843, he succombed to ‘dropsy on the chest arising from intemperance‘. Dropsy on the chest, sometimes described as a waterlogged condition, is olden day speak for odema (swelling) and subsequent failure of the heart and lungs caused by malfunction of the kidneys and liver. Baker, as it turns out, was an inveterate alcoholic.
The Stirling Terrace lot, adjacent to where the London Hotel is now, has been cited as where McKail lived during the latter 1830s, however in 1851 when Philip Chauncy was making his detailed Albany Town Survey, the location was still registered under Baker’s name, indicating no official change to the records.
The two lots remaining in Baker’s name after his death help explain a couple of things. First, why Baker’s widow and children returned to Albany to live, and second, the dubious nature of legal ownership during the period. It’s worth asking at this point, how was ownership legally transferred if something such as a block of land or cottage on a block of land was won or lost by means of gaming?
Above: A cut from Chauncy’s town survey of 1851 showing two lots belonging to Philip Baker. The Stirling Terrace location reveals the cottage building where both Baker and his family as well as McKail were said to live during the latter 1830s. In a revealing act likely reflecting Sophia Points Baker’s punishing experience as wife and mother to his children as well as dubious ownership, she and second husband, John Uglow, donated lot 53 to the Methodist Church in 1862.
McKail got busy when he came to Albany, way too busy for the lowly Indian born labourer Richard Spencer described him as the following year. In February 1836, less than five months after arrival, he landed a shipment of undeclared alcohol, either for his quietlty assumed public house or as part of his business with Curtis. In any event, he was caught and fined £20 for it. Once again McKail could not or just did not pay. There was no police force and no gaol in the town then, just a terrifying military confinement called ‘the black hole’ where offenders were kept while awaiting trial, which took weeks to organise. When Spencer had him locked-up this is probably where McKail was put and what caused him to be so apologetic afterwards. (Garden Pg 54.)
That McKail didn’t obey the law and the harsh penalty that resulted, is a measure of the conduct of a lot of traders at the time. There was a distinct shortage of cash in the colony and deals of all kinds were made between various parties according to what they promised rather than what they delivered or could actually pay for. Those new and on the up, such as Curtis and McKail, much more likely to push their luck.
McKail was only becoming acquainted with Albany when he sold a number of barrels of salted pork to wealthy local resident Thomas Brooker Sherratt. These goods were the property of Curtis for whom McKail was acting as agent. Sherratt paid over £36 and added the product to his stores, later discovering the meat was rotten. McKail (and Curtis) refused to reimburse Sherratt stating the buyer was advised to inspect the meat before purchase. Sherratt mentioned the transaction in a letter to the Guardian newspaper on January 12th, 1837, to which a mocking reply was made claiming Sherratt had subsequently resold the meat at a profit to the Commissariat Store to whom he had become allied by way of his appointment as Government Auctioneer. Whether or not the counter-claim is true I can’t prove here but T.B. Sherratt was regarded a soft touch at Albany. He probably wasn’t of the soundest mind anyway but was eventually driven mad by a persecution complex, result of the many who had bullied and tricked him into a long list of loss-making deals. (See Early Settlement and its Strain on Mental Health from An All-Australian Story for more on Sherratt and his mental health problems.)
In 1836 McKail also worked another deal with Thomas Brooker Sherratt, this time to run a joint shore-based whaling enterprise a hundred-and-twenty miles east of the town at Doubtful Island Bay. I mentioned in George Cheyne and The South Coast Fishery that Sherratt’s calculations behind the declared success of that whaling venture revealed a shortfall of more than 50% in the expected oil yield, which suggests either they weren’t very good at what they were doing or that McKail had a parallel deal of some kind going with William Lovett, the Hobart based whaler Sherratt had joined forces with. Lovett was also mentioned in dispatches relating to the rotten pork transaction, the purchase possibly being made to help ration that whaling venture’s workforce.
To my reckoning, the value of the oil short-fall, which I accept could have been accounted for in any number of ways, was in the region of £600, just a portion of which would have helped McKail on his way. Now, ahead of the following season, which he will have known the two whalers were bound to return for, McKail applied for and was granted a lease covering the wider Doubtful Island Bay locality, meaning Sherrat and Lovett were forced to come to him before they could commence their work.
I don’t know the finer details but we can see here that McKail was not at all afraid to muscle in on opportunity.
Also in 1837 McKail applied for and was granted, in association with contemporary and fellow carpenter James Dunn, a jetty building contract at the foreshore. This was the original Town Jetty built to the east of the now demolished second one, and was located at Point Wakefield. The contract was put out to tender a couple of times as the returns were far more expensive than Spencer had originally bargained on and in the end McKail and Dunn were granted the work. Ordinarily this would require proof of starting capital equivalent to a chunk of the contract’s overall value, but there is nothing to say how much surety, if any, was asked for. The value of the contract was £100.00
During the period the original Town Jetty was built McKail is believed to have shared accommodation with James Dunn, this is given in the McKail family papers as at Lot 36. Unfortunately for Dunn, his time on that project was not only inconclusive and extraordinarily short-lived, but because of his association with McKail, his life and livelihood were changed for ever.
Above: The original Town Jetty, contracted by James Dunn and John McKail between 1837 and 1838 was located at the bottom of what is now Bridges Street, close to Point Wakefield. McKail also acquired property adjacent to this jetty (but not until September 1850) which gave rise to much confusion over the actual location of the Ship Inn. Image cropped from Chauncy’s 1851 Survey.
When Patrick Taylor and Mary Bussell arrived back in Albany on the Champion after being married at Perth in September 1837, McKail and Dunn saw the ship entering the harbour. Work on the jetty had barely begun, the tender not having been granted until at least mid August. In high spirits they went to the newly installed town cannon and in celebration of the honeymooner’s return set about trying to fire it. Whatever way they went about it though (were they drunk?), the mechanism exploded and James Dunn lost the use of his hand.
Dunn was only 24 and though he recovered and bravely worked on, he faced clear manual difficulties and ran into other problems relating to his and his family’s lasting reputation. See The Supporting Cast for detail.
For McKail, from that point on things appear to have settled down, though his energy and confidence never really abated. The lurking question being at what point he went from being agent for Curtis to independent self made businessman?
McKail’s working class affinity allowed him to mix with the labouring classes at Albany and he doesn’t appear to have been put off by the seedy side of the maritime trade down at the waterfront, while his literacy, education and family heritage probably kept him well in with the town’s leading citizens. As a result, he was able to play both sides of the social and commercial game.
In May 1839 McKail honored his trade and working class sentiments by taking the hand of sixteen year-old Henrietta Jenkins, daughter of yet another wood-worker, one who had brought their family out to King George’s Sound as indentured servants to the Spencers. Henrietta had two sisters, one of whom, Elizabeth, married Thomas Meadows Gillam (also a carpenter and shipwright) a year or so later. Soon after that, James Dunn, struggling with damaged hand in his new capacity as town gaoler, married Elizabeth Henderson, a domestic servant.
Those three unions and their ensuing families then formed an alliance apparently led by McKail. All three became forever bound with the Porongurup Ranges after McKail took a speculative punt and leased the entire range from 1859, soon after buying off the best located 40 acre parcels about it, one of which he set his wife’s sister’s family up on. The Dunn family, either independently or with his help, also began farming at the Porongurups from around 1860. This was after James Dunn had spent time in the 1850s as a publican himself, I suspect most likely supported by McKail.
This post is continued in Part 4 (b) following: