Bush History

While the Phil has an interest in all bush history of WA, he has expertise in two areas:

  • Canning Stock Route (four books published)
  • Woodlines of WA (three books published)

Canning Stock Route - background

The establishment of the Canning Stock Route in 1906–10, was one of the great construction feats in Western Australia’s early history and rivalled other great feats, such as the construction of the Goldfields Water Supply Pipeline, Fremantle Harbour and the Rabbit Proof Fence.

The Eastern Goldfields gold rush was in full swing and state’s population had swollen fivefold to 161,500 by 1901.

There was a resultant shortage of beef and meat was being imported from as far as Queensland. The influential East Kimberley pastoralists had a ready market; however the cost of sea transport and the often poor condition of the cattle after the sea journey made it unprofitable. Once cattle tick (Boophilus microplus) established itself, pastoralists were prohibited from sending cattle by sea and faced ruin unless

they could send their cattle to the market by other means. The pastoralists lobbied strongly for a stock route from the Kimberley to the Murchison Goldfields and after much discussion and government buck passing, it was agreed that an expedition be mounted to determine if a stock route from the Kimberley to Wiluna was feasible. Alfred W Canning was chosen to be the leader of the expedition and Hubert S Trotman his second in charge. Canning had extensive experience in remote area surveys from his experience with the Rabbit Proof Fence. Trotman was Canning’s assistant on that project as well. Canning left Wiluna on 29 May, 1906 and led his party to Halls Creek, arriving on 26 October, 1906. After waiting out the summer they set off from Halls Creek on 27 February, 1907 and arrived again in Wiluna on 1 July, 1907. Canning found that by digging wells at intervals of around 15 miles a stock route from Halls Creek to Wiluna would be feasible.

Alfred W Canning

On the journey many Aborigines were used as ‘guides’ by Canning to locate waters, a number being chained at night to prevent them escaping. Despite initially being chained some when released to return to their country, indicated they wished to stay on with the expedition. Perhaps the benefit of easy meals was the great attraction. Aboriginal guides were rewarded with pocket knives, cloth and metal objects.

Without the knowledge of Aboriginal guides, Canning and his men would certainly have faced great hardship, taken much longer to complete the feasibility study and may have as explorers Wells and Carnegie before him, determined that the construction of a stock route between these centres was not have been feasible.

On Canning’s return journey Michael Tobin was fatally speared at Well 37, when he and a native surprised each other. At the instant the native threw his spear, Tobin fired his gun and both died. It was a tragedy and the only incident to spoil what was a most successful expedition.

The expedition’s cook Edward Blake on returnto Perth brought complaints against Canning and his men, implying that they had mistreated natives without the need to do so. A Royal Commission was established and extensive evidence presented. Canning and his men were exonerated and Blake was found to be acting out of malice.

Canning exploration party leaving Day Dawn 7 May 1906

Once exonerated of all charges Canning was appointed to lead the party to construct the stock route wells. Canning and his men set off from Wiluna on 29 May, 1908; when they returned to Wiluna on 12 March, 1910, the stock route was completed. Canning and his men had established 51 wells or waters. They returned to Perth as heroes.

Nipper, a member of Canning’s well construction party, was the first drover on the stock route. He was in charge of a herd of goats when left Wiluna on 29 May,1908. The first cattle drovers down the stock route were Thomson and Shoesmith in late 1910. The next drover, Tom Cole, came through 2½ months later and discovered their bodies partially buried at Well 37; he reported the find to the Wiluna police. The government responded by sending a police expedition under the leadership of Sergeant R H Pilmer to find those responsible. Pilmer was away 2½ months and when he arrived in Halls Creek he sent a telegram to his superiors in Perth saying they had reached Halls Creek and

‘… we dispersed 14 natives in the vicinity of the murder, all of whom were alleged to have been implicated in tragedy at Libral.’

The stock route was used sparingly to 1929, with three mobs in 1911 and one mob each year in 1917, 1921, 1922 and 1928. The initial lack of use was caused by fear of hostile Aborigines along the route, also many of the CSR wells had collapsed orbeen damaged, making it very difficult to bring a

mob of cattle south.

By 1929, many of the wells were in disrepair and through pressure from Kimberley pastoralists, the government decided to refurbish the wells along the CSR. In 1929 a contract was given to William Snell, a Wiluna district cattleman and bushman, to carry out reconditioning of the CSR wells. Snell and his men were unable to complete the upward leg of the well refurbishment project before hot weather set in, so they returned to Wiluna.

Drovers on CSR in 1957

During the lay-over period, the government investigated Snell’s work and felt it wasn’t up to standard, so Canning was called out of retirement to lead the 1930–31 well reconstruction project. Canning had to redo all of Snell’s work, Snell had not used the specifications as laid out by the Public Works Department.

Although the stock route was used regularly from 1931 up to 1959, over the years a number of wells caved in, some needed to be dug out, others had a poor supply and timbers had either rotted or were burnt by fire. It was up to CSR drovers to keep up basic maintenance to many wells or they wouldn’t get their mob down.

When Darwin, Wyndham and Broome were bombed during WWII, Australian army authorities set about upgrading the CSR wells to facilitate the droving of vast numbers of cattle out of the Kimberley in case the Japanese cut off sea transport. Also should there have been a need for an emergency evacuation of people from the Kimberley; the CSR was to serve as a backup escape route. The well reconditioning work was completed in early 1944, but by this time the Japanese had been pushed back and there was no longer a threat to the Kimberley or other northern parts of Australia.

In the mid to late 1950s trucks were being used to transport cattle. Initially, there were many injuries to the cattle, and old drovers and cattlemen such as George Lanagan resisted the change; however truck drivers soon learned how to truck cattle and droving was phased out.

The last mob came down the CSR in 1959, with Mal Brown as boss drover. Brown left Well 51 on 9 June 1959 and arrived at Wiluna on 13 August 1959. After droving ceased, the stock route fell into disrepair. In the 1950s and 1960s, many survey and oil exploration parties used the CSR as an access route, then crisscrossed it with survey and shot lines. Interest in relocating and visiting the wells from a tourist/historical perspective commenced in the late 1968 when government surveyors, Chudleigh, Wenholz and Kealley, travelled the length of the CSR from south to north, visiting each of the wells.

Four wheel drive vehicles were in regular use in on the stock route by the early 1970s. Vehicles had replaced cattle and the use of the stock route changed from one for transporting cattle, to one where tourists were actively travelling the CSR, as were scientists, geologists and prospectors.

Well 40

The CSR nowadays is seen as a ‘must do’ four wheel drive adventure and is being traversed by hundreds of vehicles each year; including convoys of vehicles up to ten in number. The track is now heavily corrugated in places, there has been damage and vandalism to well infrastructure, firewood is in short supply and new tracks are being cut by travellers.

Native title has been established over the stock route and permits are now required to travel the CSR. Some areas cannot be visited because they are nominated sacred sites and others can only be visited with a permit.

Some have said the Canning Stock Route was a white elephant; others have argued that the cost of construction and maintaining the stock route was not matched by its use, that it was a waste of public funds and very few Kimberley pastoralists having the benefit of its use, due to cattle movement restrictions caused by diseases such as tick and pleuro pneumonia.

That may be so from a droving point of view, however, Alf Canning and the government of the day could not have foreseen future benefits including:

  • providing an access route for Aboriginal people in travelling across the desert, to visit other communities, to visit family, attend funerals and to conduct ceremonial business,
  • providing ready access to water
  • providing ready access for mineral and oil exploration companies, scientists and others, to visit vast tracts of land along and on either side of the stock route
  • the growing state, national and international status of the CSR
  • the tourism potential of the stock route and the mystique, which travelling the stock route creates.

The CSR was once the longest and toughest stock route in the world, because of its length and isolation it is the most challenging four wheel drive adventure in Australia, attracting travellers from all over Australia and internationally. Canning could not have envisaged this back in 1910, when he telegraphed H S King from Wiluna, with the words, ‘Work Completed, Canning’.

(Extracted from introduction to author's book Work Completed, Canning).

Biographical notes Alfred Wernam Canning’s descendants

(Due to space restrictions in the book Work Completed Canning, a number of sections were removed, one is the biographical information on A.W. Canning's descendants.)

Much has been written about Alfred W Canning and his exploits in Western Australia; very little however is known of his descendants.

Canning and his wife Edith had one son Robert. Robert and his wife Frances, had a son Peter and Peter and his wife Naomi, had two sons Torquil and Ambrose.

Peter, Ambrose and Torquil have travelled the CSR and have had a great interest in its history and the legacy left to them by Canning.

Canning, Robert Wernam (1885–1923)

Robert Wernam Canning was born at NSW in 1885. He married Frances Elizabeth Lecky on the 16 September 1914, at St Mary’s Church, West Perth WA. Frances was born on 2 November 1887 and died on 13 February 1968. They had one child, Peter Alfred Canning.

Robert’s schooling was at Christian Brothers College, in Perth WA. In December 1901, at the presentation of prizes to students of the senior class at the Christian Brothers College, Robert was second in mathematics and fourth in religion.[1]

While at the Christian Brothers College, he also studied external subjects through the University of Adelaide and in December 1901 passed the third class examinations.[2]

Canning then went to the Workingmen’s College, Melbourne, where he attended a three year course in electrical engineering. He then went to England and spent three years at the Central Technical College, London, where he obtained the Diploma of Associate of the City and Guilds’ Institute in Electrical Engineering.

He spent a year with the Lancashire Dynamo and Motor Company of Manchester on construction and general testing work. He returned to Australia due to ill health and he was appointed Electrical Engineer, at the Golden Horseshoe Mine, Kalgoorlie. Showing a preference for teaching electrical engineering, he became a lecturer at the Perth Technical College.[3]

Canning was a founding member of the Institution of Engineers Australia in 1919. In January 1920, he was appointed a joint lecturer at the University and Technical College, Hobart, occupying the position of lecturer in mathematics and electrical engineering at the University and lecturer in electrical engineering at the Hobart Technical College.

Robert Canning died at Hobart on the 15 December 1923, of Bright’s disease.[4]

Canning, Peter Alfred (1915–1990)

Peter Alfred Canning was born at Perth WA on 18 September 1915. He married Naomi Jane Wolfhagen[5] on 13 October 1956, at St Stephens Church Sandy Bay, Hobart. They had two children Ambrose and Torquil. Peter commenced his schooling in Perth, and then in Hobart at Apsley House and Hutchins School. His engineering training was at Hobart Technical College and the University of Tasmania.

Peter A Canning, 1975. Courtesy Ambrose Canning.

His first job was with the University of Tasmania, as a laboratory technician. he was a cadet engineer with the Hydro-Electric Commission (HEC) in Hobart, Tasmania from 1934 to 1937. Peter started work in the Electrical Engineering Branch drafting office on 24 May 1937. He stayed with the Electrical Engineering Branch all through the busy construction years of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. At the time of his retirement in 1976, he was the Transmission Line Engineer and the Department’s Manager.

During the devastating bush fires in 1967, Peter’s home at Fern Tree was completely destroyed on 7 February 1967. It was in this fire that all records and journals of Alfred Canning, held by the family, were destroyed.

Peter knew of Alfred Canning as a surveyor and of being involved with the CSR, but had assumed that the CSR had been consumed by the desert and had disappeared. Because the family moved to Tasmania and Peter was young when his father died and not having nearby by relatives, he knew very little else about the CSR until by chance he read of the 1983 CSR Well 26 reconstruction. Now aware the CSR existed he became passionate about it and travelled the full length of it six times.

His trips included:

  • 1984, Peter travelled with Amesz Charters, south to north, completing a full traverse of the CSR,
  • 1985, Peter with his wife Naomi, again with Amesz Charters, travelled south to north, completing a full traverse of the CSR,[6]
  • 1986, Peter with Breakaway Safaris (Peter Vernon) on 38 day trip ex Melbourne, of which 20 days was on the CSR, they visited every well,
  • 1987, Peter, Ambrose and Torquil, again with Breakaway Safaris (Peter Vernon) on 49 day trip ex Melbourne, which included Flinders Ranges, Simpson Desert, Bungle-Bungles and the CSR from north to south; during which they visited every well including Separation Well. They also walked cross country from Well 36 to relocate Bungabinni Well,
  • 1988, Peter assisted with Peter Vernon’s run up the CSR. On this trip Peter walked the 30km cross country between Wells 37 and 38,
  • 1989, Peter with Vernon and others, took a large load of fuel to the Bungabinni area in preparation for subsequent Peter Vernon track scraping trips.

Following Robert Canning’s death Peter and his mother remained in Hobart, where his mother worked at the Hobart University Library; they lived in various boarding houses around Hobart. Peter was a very keen sailor; in his youth sailing dinghies of various classes on the Derwent River, in Hobart and at regional regattas and continuing to sail and race a single-man catamaran regularly right up until he died. He was also a keen bush walker and in winter a skier, being 1938 Tasmanian slalom ski champion.

Robert Canning. Courtesy  Mavis Marshall

Robert Canning. Courtesy Mavis Marshall.

Ambrose and Torquil Canning and mother Naomi Canning.

Canning, Torquil Charles Wernam (b.1962)

Naomi Canning still lives at the family home in the foothills of Mt Wellington. Peter Alfred Canning died at Fern Tree on 19 August 1990.[7]

Canning, Ambrose Robert Boyd (b.1959)

Ambrose Robert Boyd Canning was born at Hobart, Tasmania on the 22 August 1959. He married Gabriela Joan Kley at Ambrose’s family home on 8 December 1984. They have one child, Elisia Maria Kley Canning born on the 12 October 1979. They also have one grandchild, India Joan Wadley, born on 5 February in Hobart. Ambrose commenced his schooling at the Fern Tree Kindergarten; he then attended Princes Street Primary School, Friends School, Hobart Matriculation College and finally the University of Tasmania where he completed a Degree in Mechanical/Electrical Engineering in 1983.

He spent one year in the Royal Australian Navy, 1984. In 1985 he was employed by the Hydro-Electric Commission, which then became Hydro Tasmania, then Hydro Tasmania Consulting, which was rebranded Entura. He still works with Entura and is the Principal Consultant, Mechanical, Asset Engineering Team in the Water and Environment Group. His work mainly involves hydro-electric power stations, dams and water irrigation schemes. Work locations include Tasmania, Australia and overseas in roughly equal proportions.

Ambrose has travelled the CSR on a number of occasions including:

  • A trip down CSR (north to south) in 1987, together with his father Peter and brother Torquil, as part of a trip organised by Peter Vernon.
  • In 2003, Ambrose travelled by himself in a borrowed 4WD and travelled up the CSR and participated in Well 12 reconstruction, organised by Ken and Sue Maidment.
  • In 2008, Ambrose and Gabriela drove their own Nissan Patrol, a 1991 diesel, on a trip up CSR together with Ken and Sue Maidment and friends, for completion of Well 12. All other vehicles returned east from Well 33; they continued on alone to the top of the CSR. At Well 49 they met a party on camels heading south.

Ambrose is a keen snow skier and cyclist and is passionate about bonsai, he is:

  • Vice President of the Southern Tasmanian Ski Association, (his parents were founding members),
  • Secretary/Treasurer of Dumtichmill Ski Club,
  • Vice President of Bicycle Tasmania and past Membership Secretary,
  • Vice President of the Bonsai Society of Southern Tasmania.[8]
Gabriela and Ambrose Canning (grand parents), India Wadley, Elicia and Cam (parents), 2012. Courtesy Ambrose Canning.

Gabriela and Ambrose Canning (grand parents), India Wadley, Elicia and Cam (parents), 2012. Courtesy Ambrose Canning

Canning, Torquil Charles Wernam (b.1962)

Torquil Charles Wernam Canning was born at Hobart Tasmania, on 14 February 1962. With his partner Alice Marcella Ryan, they have a daughter, Greta Cordelia Ryan Canning born on 10 November 2000. He also has a step daughter, Eleanor Claire Ryan born on 22 January 1996. Torquil commenced his schooling at the Fern Tree Kindergarten; then attended Princes Street Primary School, Friends School, Hobart Matriculation College, Burnley Horticultural College (Melbourne), University of Tasmania (Fine Arts Degree) and Tasmanian Polytechnic (Diploma of Building Design & Technology).

Alice Ryan, Torquil Canning, Eleanor Ryan, Greta Canning, 2012. Courtesy Ambrose Canning

He worked (self employed) in landscape design and construction, for twenty five years and now works as a landscape and house designer. He designed the memorial to the Port Arthur massacre on the Tasman Peninsular (2000). He built his own house out of stone, which won (for the architect) an award in residential architecture (1996). This interest in owner-building led him to study building design in 2009–2011. He spent a period as an author, writing a book on the 1967 Black Tuesday bushfires that burnt southeast Tasmania (to be self published 2012), and also a literary novel set in Tasmania (unpublished).

In 1987 Torquil travelled the CSR (north to south) together with father Peter and brother Ambrose, as part of a trip organised by Peter Vernon.

Torquil is a keen gardener and is interested in sustainable design.[9]

[1] Western Mail, 4 January 1902, p.35.

[2] Western Argus, 18 December 1900, p.38. From 1896 The Christian Brothers College conducted examinations for secondarystudents under the auspices of the University of Adelaide. David Mossensen. State Education in Western Australia. 1829-1960.UWA Press 1972, p.104.

[3] Perth Technical College was the foremost education institution in WA at that time. From 1905 Perth Technical College taughtunder licence University of Adelaide university level subjects; there being no university in WA at that time. J P Dunne, I Will Arise.History of Perth Technical College 1900–1980, Perth Technical College 1980, p.5.

[4] Various emails from Ambrose Canning to the author between 21 February and 5 March 2012.

[5] Naomi Jane Wolfhagen was born on 4 April 1925.

[6] Eric and Ronele Gard were driver and cook on the tour. Email from Ambrose Canning to the author dated 26

February 2012.

[7] Email from Ambrose Canning to the author dated 21 February 2012.

[8] Email from Ambrose Canning to the author dated 21 February 2012.

[9] Email from Torquil Canning to the author dated 29 February 2012.

Woodlines of WA - background

I have always had a fascination with Western Australian history and in particular exploration and goldmining history. It was during the numerous trips to the back blocks of the Eastern Goldfields that a special interest in the woodlines developed. Remains of railway formations, old dams at the base of rocks, rotting sleepers and tree stumps, rusting pieces of rail line or old bolts, showed me that in days gone by this had been a large industry.

Books such as Timber for Gold by Bill Bunbury and Woodline by Larry Hunter concentrate in the main on the woodlines after WW II. Very little has been written about woodline history and development prior to that period.

My upbringing around timber and my interest in the woodlines led my colleague Peter Bridge of Hesperian Press, to encourage me in preparing this book. This book would not have been possible without Peterʼs valuable help and the mine of information he has collected over the years and without Ray Toveyʼs photographs, research and contacts.

When reading the history of gold in Western Australian and in particular the Eastern Goldfields, we hear of rich gold finds, deep mines, so many ounces of gold per ton, booming towns with numerous hotels, breweries, stock exchanges and newspapers and lucrative profits for mine owners and investors. None of this would have been possible without:

  • Wood to fuel steam boilers and gas producers for engines, lighting, pumping, ore treatment.
  • Wood to fuel the Goldfields Water Supply pumps to bring the preciously needed water to the goldfields.
  • Timber used in construction of buildings and railways and for structural supports in mines.

Kennedy Williams, in his book, Mullock, Mulga and Memories - Tales of Leonora and Gwalia provides first hand information on the Sons of Gwalia mine woodlines. The locomotives used to bring the fuel wood back to the Sons of Gwalia mine were miniature by today’s standards. The track gauge was 55 centimetres and the rail weighed 5.5 kilograms per 30 centimetres. These locomotives were fuelled by firewood and each train consisted of thirty or so trucks, along with a water tanker and a goods van for delivering provisions to the woodcutters.

Woodcutters lived and worked at the end of the railway line. After they felled the trees, they had to deliver the chopped wood to the railhead, where it was stockpiled for loading onto a truck. The most popular method of delivering the chopped wood was by horse and cart. These carts were specially designed and were short enough to allow them to be tipped backwards using a lever, so unloading by hand was eliminated.

Large quantities of firewood were being used annually. In Kalgoorlie in 1901 mines were using 350,000 tons per annum, by 1908 fuel wood consumption was up to 558,000 tons per annum.

Lane Poole, the Conservator of Forests, during his 1919 tour of the Eastern Goldfields was told that since the commencement of mining, at total of 45,000,000 tons of timber had been used and that for every ounce of gold won, one and a quarter tons of timber was required, or, for every pound sterling won, a ton of timber was required for fuel, legs, sills, caps and other underground work.

The trees used for fuel wood and timber were salmon gum, gimlet, mulga and morrell. Salmon gum and gimlet were also used in mines for structural support and morrell used to produce sawn timber.The need for timber and fuel wood provided opportunities for companies such as; the West Australian Goldfields Firewood Company, Kalgoorlie and Boulder Firewood Company and the Kanowna woodline, to commence operations. The largest of these was the West Australian Goldfields Firewood Company.

Mr W N Hedges. Managing Director of the WA Goldfields Firewood Supply Ltd., in an interview with the The Sun on 27 January 1929 indicated that the company had been in operation since 1899 and that figures placed before the Royal Commission on the mining industry in 1925:

  • Showed that the total tonnage hauled over the companyʼs line was 7,189,712 tons, of which firewood comprised 5,189,712 tons, the balance being mining timber, sleeper timber for the companyʼs use and for trains used to cart water and general haulage for the companyʼs requirements.
  • The total length of plate laying done by the company amounted to 1475 miles, not including sidings and temporary shunts. The head of the woodline is now is about 90 miles, but we have had to go out as far as 112 miles for wood for the mines. The output now averages about 250,000 tons annually, including mining timber and wood for domestic purposes.
  • The woodline company has its own stores, bakes its own bread and runs its own sheep and cattle. Sleepers for its lines are made from salmon gum logs and figures show it has carried more tonnage over its woodlines than the State small railways have hauled in wheat over its many miles of lines over the past 20 years.

On the other side of the woodline story are the wood cutters, the navvies, train drivers and loaders to name a few. This book concentrates on the wood cutters and their trials and tribulations in the bush, forgotten by the government and its services, and left to the mercy of the sometimes tyrannical companies, suppliers and contractors. The WA Goldfields Firewood Supply Ltd in its very early years of operation, whilst appearing to provide all the services and supplies that would be needed by the timber cutter in the bush, was making a substantial profit from doing so. The provision of services and supplies to these timber cutters was an industry in itself.

Wood cutters, starved of access to basic services and recreation, as enjoyed by city people, were easy prey to bum boat suppliers and sly groggers. Some of the concoctions served up as grog would probably be classed as poisonous today.

The important and crucial role the wood cutter played in the gold mining industry can be shown by the 1911 wood cutters strike in the Eastern Goldfields, when more than 6000 men in the gold mines were to be thrown out of work if the strike went ahead. In the 1944 strike, all the gold mines in Kalgoorlie were to closed down when the firewood stock-pile ran out.

Migrant wood cutters made their own fun and carried out their religious and ethnic traditions regardless of where they were in the bush. They observed Sundays and religious feast days such as Easter and Christmas as days off, they brought spaghetti, wine and piano accordions to the bush and they worked harder and longer than your average Britisher or Aussie. They wanted to make a go of it, earn money and establish themselves in Australia.

Directors of WA Goldfields Firewood Supply

Stacked and ready for loading

Mobile Police Station Lakewood Woodline