Originally Published 5 May 2014:
” The Cleveland was making its way across the Great Australian Bight, a bleating hulk reeking of sheep shit and urea, butting against the waves like an angry Highland Ram. “
The Cleveland was a transport ship hired by an icon of early Australian exploration, Edward John Eyre. He was 24 when he made the crossing from South Australia and familiarised himself with the far south-west corner of the continent for the first time. During that trip Eyre met a young Noongar boy whose name he recorded as WYLIE. Wylie went to Adelaide with Eyre when Eyre returned to South Australia six or seven weeks later, afterwards making the journey back to Menang Noongar country by foot; a walk which made both of them famous.
I didn’t want to write a story about that walk across the Nullabor Plain because it is already well known. I could have though, because the most critical point in it, where Wylie decides not to go with the two New South Wales Aboriginal boys, Joey and Yarry, but to stay with Eyre and continue westwards with him, symbolises Noongar European relations in the same way Alexander Collie’s decision to be buried alongside Mokare symbolises European Noongar relations at that juncture.
I’ve thought a lot about it and keep coming back to the notion that Wylie just wanted to go home, but funnily enough that’s not what matters. The reason why Wylie went with Eyre isn’t important, what matters is that he did and that the two of them survived. From that we not only have a story with a happy ending, but a story of powerful symbolic importance.
Eyre’s account of that expedition, like so much these days, is freely available on the internet.
As I researched around the story of Eyre and Wylie I could see the tie ups with Albany’s inner history. How the town’s leading characters would have been and were involved with Eyre’s arrival and departure. Mostly though, I found it intriguing that Eyre and Albany’s leading official of the day, George Grey, were both very young men meeting for the first time. I also noted that Eyre bought two town lots when in Albany and that Grey, who left Albany soon after, had married one of Sir Richard Spencer’s daughters the previous November. These things, I thought, were all pretty juicy ingredients for a story that could still carry forward the history I was interested in.
So, preceding the Cleveland’s long and laborious sea crossing a number of simultaneous occurrences took place, aligning the pieces of what was to become an epic and enduring tale of Australian companionship and survival.
First, on the evening of July 22nd, 1839, Sir Richard Spencer, Resident Magistrate at Albany since his arrival six years earlier, was ‘sitting, laughing talking in the midst of his family’ at the Strawberry Hill homestead when he took a fit of paralysis. It was serious, he’d been unwell for the past two years. His sons were sent for from the Hay River farm and two days later, aged 59, the ex-navy Commander who had seen so much action at sea, passed away.
The make-up of the Spencer family of Albany that winter was as follows;
Capt Sir Richard Spencer – aged 59 years – RN CB KCH
Lady Ann Warden Liddon – aged 44 years
Hugh Seymour Spencer – 24 years
Mary Ann Spencer – 21 years (married 3 yrs to Arthur Trimmer)
Edward May Spencer – 20 years
Augusta Spencer – 18 years
Eliza Lucy Spencer – 17 years
Horatio William Spencer – 15 years
Joseph Spencer – 12 years
Robert John Spencer – 9 years
Richard Augustus Spencer – 8 years
William Albany Otway Spencer – 6 years
The family closed circles and mourned their patriarch, burying him on the slope overlooking the house and farm, but the townsfolk didn’t exactly follow suit. Sir Richard had been heavily criticised over the time his health was failing, most notably by Sherratt, Cheyne and Belches. Much of the criticism stemmed from Spencer’s appointing of his son Edward to the Harbour Pilot’s position which the others had seen as a blatant act of nepotism. The accusation is hard to deny, Edward at one time concurrently held five government positions.
Second, news of Spencer’s passing soon reached Perth where John Hutt had replaced the retiring James Stirling as Governor at the beginning of the year. Hutt had to find a replacement Resident Magistrate as a matter of priority and would have looked at appointing someone local in the ‘acting’ position, but not knowing much of the characters at Albany consulted with his Surveyor General who did. The irascible nature of relations between Albany’s eligible candidates was problematic so Hutt and Roe allowed their eyes be drawn by a young army officer named George Grey who had brought considerable attention to himself over the previous year-and-a-half. Grey was plum-full of the possibilities and responsibilities of British colonialism and eager to make a name for himself in that regard so the two weighed up the idea of sending him down to Albany where his youth might inject both energy and a renewed sense of optimism into the troubled town.
Grey was a young idealistic army officer who had somehow survived two fundamentally naive expeditions in the North West. The first was during 1838 when he led a completely inexperienced party to the Kimberly region for the purposes of seeking a site for the exclusive settlement of Irish peasants (which the British Government financed from London ). At Hanover Bay he was speared by Aborigines, became critically ill from infection and ended up recovering in Mauritius. The second adventure was in the early part of 1839 after he hitched a ride back to Western Australia and took ten men to explore the Shark Bay area. There, he lost almost all their supplies in the first two weeks then tried to sail in three whaleboats 400 miles back to Perth. The boats made it 100 miles before being wrecked by surf when trying to land and the party were forced to walk the remaining distance. They became separated, their leader pushing ahead on his own. Exactly one week after his 27th birthday Grey staggered back into Perth and raised the alarm. Good old John Roe mounted up and brought in all but one of the others.
Grey was both hero and villain, but in those early days when explorations often met insurmountable difficulty heroics bore greater weight, especially when the failure was viewed through the expedition leader’s own report. Grey was rewarded not only with an army promotion to Captain but the job of Resident Magistrate at Albany as well, which he took as a filler on his way to bigger and better things.
Grey arrived at the Sound at some stage in August where he paid his respects to the Spencer family and whereupon his eyes met those of the deceased Sir Richard’s seventeen year old daughter, Eliza Lucy. Grey took up his position with gusto, combining his work with increasingly frequent visits to the Strawberry Hill homestead. His star was in the ascendancy and he knew it, very soon he’d be recalled by the army to England so George Grey proposed and on November 2nd, within three months of meeting, he and Eliza were married.
Grey’s idealism (and career drive) had him penning a thesis on the urgent need to civilise the natives which he thought should be carried out through compulsory assimilation. At Albany he went to work on this while also taking up the mantle of chief promotions officer by writing letters to the eastern colonies advertising Albany as the ideal landing place for livestock bound for the expanding West Australian flock.
One of those letters arrived in Adelaide at a most opportune moment.
Now, (third) on the other side of Australia another young man of equal energy and ambition had been engaged in a race to be the first to drive livestock from Sydney to Adelaide. Edward John Eyre , the son of a Yorkshire vicar, had come out to New South Wales as a seventeen year old six years earlier with £400 in his pocket and immediately begun to make his fortune buying and selling sheep. Eyre discovered the trick of buying young animals in well-stocked areas at a low price then driving them into more recently opened areas where supply was poor. In the process he also discovered the value of buying property in the underpopulated newer areas and selling them later when demand had increased. Eyre got to Adelaide first in 1838 and then again, with a second overlanded livestock shipment in February 1839, turning profits on the two ventures of around £2700, on the way to half-a-million Australian dollars today based on the same Standard of Living Conversion I used to calculate Patrick Taylor’s fortune in previous posts.
In 1839 Eyre was still only 24. He had driven livestock from Sydney to Melbourne and from Sydney to Adelaide twice, on each occasion being amongst the very first to do so. His overlanding (pathfinding) experience put him in the same category as the much lauded explorers of the time and he began to see himself as one of them. When he got to Adelaide the second time he bought himself a house and improved it with the idea, perhaps, of making the town his home. From Adelaide he developed plans to investigate the still unknown central interior of Australia, the explorers great prize because of the belief an inland sea or great lake existed there, but being in line to be the first to cover the entire continent overland, Eyre explored what later became known as the Eyre Peninsula (Port Lincoln to Port Augusta) and immediately upon return from there made plans to sail to Albany.
Grey’s leaflet extolling the virtues of King George’s Sound as a landing place for livestock convinced him to hire a ship, the Cleveland, and fill it to bursting point. An entrepreneurial expedition to the Swan River colony would not only add to his wealth but help introduce him to the appropriate people who might enable the second greatest exploration challenge he could imagine, an overland expedition from Adelaide to Perth. On January 30th, 1840, The Cleveland set off and for a full month battled the opposing winds sweeping over the Great Australian Bight, arriving into Albany a reeking hulk stuffed with a thousand ewes, four hundred and fifty lambs and seventy head of cattle.
I wanted to explore the idea of these guys (Eyre and Grey) meeting. Both were not only armed with the confidence of youth but were at times in their lives when their trajectories were most forceful. Grey had married a seventeen year old girl and was in the throws of his nuptial ecstasy while Eyre was single and though not keen to marry (he had too much to do) was nonetheless excited by female company. I couldn’t resist the idea of Grey’s wife, Eliza, introducing Eyre to her sister, Augusta, at Sherratt’s Family Hotel.
” The three Spencer girls each wore their hair short and were refreshingly forward in personality. Mary Ann’s blonde waves settled kindly over a pale face and somewhat saddened, or at least resigned, pair of wide bright eyes. Eliza’s hair was fair too, her commanding demeanour illustrated by high cheeks and thin lips, but what she lacked in plump attractiveness there she made up for with the fullness of her hips and breasts. Augusta’s hair was dark, her face small and her mouth heart-shaped and expressive when she spoke. Her chin was firm but elegantly crafted, leading down to a slender, elongated neck accentuated by slim shoulders and the high cut of her hair. Eyre’s fingers danced involuntarily as he imagined running them about her nape. “
In story five of the OUTDONE collection, Taking Advantage, I’m interested in courtship, in sexual drive and energy between young couples, and in the competitive nature of men during times of high achievement. In the story, Grey has introduced Cheyne to Eyre. . .
‘Like I say,’ said Cheyne, ‘my own business is with the sea. Presently, I’m engaged with an enterprise outside of the Sound, at a place known as Cape Riche. I have a little holding there and need to put more capital into boats and buildings. I have enough livestock for my own needs, you understand.’
‘Go on,’ said Eyre.
‘You could do a lot worse than buy land here,’ said Cheyne.
‘Ha,’ laughed Eyre. ‘I thought I was the one selling.’
‘I have a prime acre lot,’ said Cheyne. ‘Undeveloped, just along from here.’
‘And eleven others.’
‘Yes, but not for sale.’
‘Why this one?’ said Eyre. ‘Off centre, is it? On the wrong side of the street?’
Eyre bats off the challenge but Cheyne isn’t easily defeated, eventually persuading Eyre to meet him in the morning so he can show him the town lot and introduce him to a local native boy who might serve as guide.
Cheyne produced a copy of the town plan and looking about the two men discussed its layout, the houses in view and their various locations. Eyre found it hard to argue, Cheyne’s block was impressively sited.
‘How much?’ he asked.
‘Two hundred and fifty pounds,’ said Cheyne.
Eyre was taken aback. ‘Too much.’
Cheyne shrugged. ‘That’s what it is.’
‘It’s too much,’ laughed Eyre. ‘No one lives here.’
‘Yet,’ said Cheyne. ‘It’s two hundred and fifty pounds. That’s the price of it.’
Eyre felt the same intent Cheyne had displayed at the function. ‘It’s too expensive,’ he said finally. ‘I doubt you’ll find anyone at that price.’
‘It’s not so much,’ said Cheyne. ‘You’ll get it back, and more.’
Cheyne introduces Eyre to his Noongar shepherd boy Wailibanginy and sees that he wants the boy to come on the drive, so turns the heat up another degree.
. . ‘He’ll go, but it’ll cost you more if he stays on.’
‘Is two hundred and fifty pounds not compensation enough?’ said Eyre.
‘It’s expensive here,’ replied Cheyne. But you’ll find land costs you more again on the Swan River. It’s two fifty and it’s not much to me.’
Not when you’re out to steal a fortune, thought Eyre.
‘If he stays with you, as you seem confident he might, Mr Eyre. I’m afraid you’ll have to take a second block off me.’
Eyre shrunk at the Scot’s abrasion.
‘Larger, but it’ll cost you less,’ said Cheyne. ‘If the boy’s gone, what good is he to me? I’ll have no shepherd, no mitigating force against the tribes myself.’
Eyre is bothered by Cheyne and his pushy deal-making but is distracted by the idea of spending time with Augusta. James Dunn, the gaoler, leads him to the Spencer home and along the way Eyre learns that Grey and Cheyne are in cahoots. By the time he meets Augusta he’s fuming.
Augusta Spencer left the room with an excited smile and Eyre finished his tea. A plate of cucumber sandwiches sat on a tray alongside the teapot and condiments. He had already had one and knew he shouldn’t take another, but a belligerent hunger came over him and he reached forward. Augusta Spencer was even more appealing than he remembered, but something inside pressed him to disregard all courtesies and take what he wanted. ”
At the beach Eyre’s frustration mounts.
” ‘You’ve been very patient,’ he said later. ‘That wind is like a furnace. How did you manage to walk the beach and back in all those clothes?’
They were on the blanket eating fingers of shortbread.
‘The entertainment kept me going, she said. ‘It wasn’t half as bad as you think.’
‘Yes, but in all that ribbon and tulle,’ said Eyre. ‘Surely you must be dying to . . .’
‘Dying to what, John?’
‘You know,’ he said.
‘I don’t,’ she replied. ‘Do you mean, lessen their weight?’
‘Yes,’ said Eyre. ‘To take them off.’
‘It might be more comfortable, John, but you’re allowing your thoughts to get away from you if you think there’s the slightest chance I might.’
‘But Augusta,’ said Eyre. ‘Come on, let’s walk on the rocks, over there. It’s more. . . secluded.’
Augusta keeps him at bay but Eyre’s lust is wanton.
‘You are pressing, John Eyre. Augusta replied with finality. ‘Another word of it and I will ask you to take me home.’
Eyre bit his lip. If he was not to get his kiss then he would return to Sherrat’s Inn. ‘You’re right,’ he said. ‘We should go. It’s much more pleasant indoors.’
‘I didn’t mean right away, John. Are you offended?’
‘No, I’m not offended Augusta. Of course not, how could I be? It’s just so bloody hot and uncomfortable.’
Eyre knew that his tone had changed, that his frustrations had got the better of him and that Augusta would now be the offended one. If his intent hadn’t been obvious earlier, then it most certainly was now. ‘Come along,’ he said, resigned to it. ‘Let’s go.’
Augusta sat upright, straightened her dress and looked quickly around. Then leaned in and placed her lips on his.
Eyre’s reaction was instant.
Eyre’s passion, his want and desire, drown all else and he swamps her with his physicality. When it was over. . .
Eyre stuttered an apology. Said he had never done such a thing before.
Augusta’s silence held but ended when the faint smile which had appeared at the corners of her lips suddenly erupted. ‘Bloody hell,’ she laughed. ‘I dare say we won’t make mention to mother about that!’
But Eyre was sullen. In the buggy on the way back he said he needed to attend to the livestock, to make sure preparations were going smoothly. He didn’t sit so close and didn’t offer his hand, but thought of Wailibanginy and whether he might be able to persuade the boy to come to Adelaide, to leave Cheyne altogether and go overlanding with him.
Taking Advantage carries themes of sexual and political power but the motivation behind it was to continue the story of Albany’s Noongar/Settler relations. Wylie’s decision not to abandon Eyre on the plateau behind the Nullabor cliffs, although probably a very simple one for him, is an undeniably powerful symbolic gesture. Possibly the most powerful in the shared history of the two peoples.
As I said, I didn’t want to write yet another account of what happened out there on the Nullabor but it’s impossible to ignore the significance of it either. Historically, the context of Eyre’s visit to Albany in March 1840 is just too loaded to pass over.
- Eyre, accompanied by a friend on the trip, Alfred Mundy, stayed at Sherratt’s Family Hotel located at the corner of York Street and Stirling Terrace. Eyre’s plan was to sell the sheep at Albany if he could, and if not to drive them to York where the market was more developed.
- The route to York had been pioneered but not fully tested and the prevalence of poison bush (which I’ll elaborate upon in another post) wasn’t known.
- Captain Hassell had bought both Cheyne’s and Morley’s Moorilup grants and combined them to form his Kendenup station. He was away at the time having set sail for the east coast to buy livestock himself, but his wife Ellen and her brother Fred Boucher were there.
- Of the three Spencer sisters, the eldest, Mary Ann, had married an alcoholic official named Arthur Trimmer (later Sub-protector of Aborigines). The youngest, Eliza, had recently married George Grey, while middle sister, Augusta (later to marry George Egerton-Warbuton), was single.
- Cheyne had been developing his business at Cape Riche and was in the process of securing full title to the 1200 acre lot. He had employed Aboriginal shepherds and probably domestic help as well. One of the shepherds may have been the boy Wylie. Being early Autumn, George and Grace (I reckon) were in town.
- George Grey made a name for himself as an austere financial governor and was eager to stimulate Albany’s weak economy of the time. Cheyne, meanwhile, was still asset-bound by his twelve town lots while Eyre was cash rich.
- James Dunn, who (like Roe) is peripheral but important to much of this history, had been appointed constable and town gaoler in the aftermath of his hand injury suffered late in 1837 when the canon he set off to welcome the newlyweds Patrick and Mary Taylor back into town, failed. Dunn married a domestic servant, possibly from the Spencer household, Elizabeth Henderson, in 1843.
- Eyre left Albany with his stock and made it to York but lost at least 250 sheep along the way to the effects of poison bush. He still made a profit. He had brought two Aboriginal boys from New South Wales with him, Neramberlin (about 13) and Cootachabm (about 11). These were the same boys who shot Eyre’s expedition overseer, John Baxter, at the cliffs a year later.
- On returning to South Australia, Eyre brought with him the Noongar boy Wylie (about 15) who was later to help guide him back to Albany, after the shooting, on their long and famous walk.
- Grey wrote to the South Australian Register newspaper (28 March 1840) publishing his thoughts on the practicability of an overland stock route between South and Western Australia. This was in immediate response to the presence of Eyre in Albany and the conversations they must have had.
I deal with the subject of Eyre and Wylie again in story number six, The Gun, posts about which follow.
As a post-script to this piece, Grey and Eyre’s lives crossed again, first in South Australia and later in New Zealand. Grey had a long and distinguished administrative career, though his marriage suffered difficulties after he and Eliza’s only child, George, died aged five months the year after they left Albany (1841). Grey accused Eliza of neglect and after a period they became estranged. An official couple up until 1860 when Grey was Governor at the Cape Colony (Sth Africa), they split when Eliza (not yet 40) and Admiral Henry Keppel overstepped the boundaries while the three were on a journey (via Sth America) back to the Cape. Grey had his wife unloaded at Rio de Janiero and they remained separated for another 36 years, reuniting in the final year of both their lives, 1898.
Eyre took up official positions in South Australia and New Zealand, both appointments made by Grey. They fell-out over a pay and allowance issue (Grey was a domineering boss) and never reconciled. Eyre resigned and moved to the West Indies where in 1864 he became Governor in Chief of Jamaica. Negro uprisings threatened colonial rule and Eyre authorised the putting down of the rebellion which resulted in over six hundred deaths and 600 more floggings. In Jamaica he was regarded a saviour but back in England the view was that he was a heavy handed monster. They recalled him and he lived out his days fighting law suits, seeking claims and hiding away from public view. He married Adelaide Osmond in 1850, when in New Zealand. They had four sons and a daughter.