I have long been of the opinion that those who are the most interesting and who have the most interesting stories are often people who lived with nothing during their lifetime. Unfortunately, this fact also means that it’s their stories which tend to be forgotten first. But, with a little digging and the help of Trove (it is Trove Tuesday, after all) a lot can be uncovered about Perth’s past identities who otherwise would’ve remained hidden by the passage of time.
On the eastern side of Perth there is a bridge called ‘The Causeway’ which crosses the Swan River and under this bridge is Heirisson Island. Due to dredging and land reclamation Heirisson Island is now one island but, in the past, it consisted of several islands and mud flats. Living on these islands (throughout the early 1900s and up to the 1920s) were many old age pensioners with the most notable being Edwin Wilcocks (sometimes spelt Wilcox) who became known to everyone as ‘Old Ned’.
Edwin was born sometime in July 1830, most likely in England (he referred to himself in one article as an Englishman). While the exact date and place of his birth and when he came to Western Australia is unknown, it appears he was definitely here by the turn of the 20th Century.
In the early 1900s Old Ned was in the Police Court a couple of times for minor offences such as being on premises unlawfully or obscene language but generally kept out of trouble.
He was homeless and received a pension but also tried to increase his income by doing odd jobs around Perth. Old Ned (like many other old age pensioners) refused to be sent to the Old Men’s Home in Claremont as he wanted to retain his freedom and independence. Instead of going to the Home, he chose to live in a humpy on one of the islands under The Causeway.
It would appear that he started off living on the island in a tent and suffered a setback in 1910 when it accidentally burnt down. Such incidences amongst shanty towns of the homeless were a common occurrence due to the open air fires that they used for cooking. Old Ned lost all his property which was worth a total of £8.
After the destruction of his tent, he built himself a humpy (most likely out of scraps he found around Perth). In May 1919 he answered a knock at his door and was hit over the head with a piece of wood by a woman he had known for several years. While he was receiving treatment for his wound in Perth Hospital, the woman returned to his home and stole some of his belongings.
By the 1920s, Old Ned had reached the age 90. His advanced age and his homelessness meant that he became a source of fascination for journalists. His image was printed in the paper as well as anecdotes relating to his life.
He was said to have fought in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 under Sir Colin Campbell and served in the Royal Navy for over 20 years. A separate article however lists his service in the Navy as being about 60 years while another states that he fought in the Crimean War.
Sailors were real sailors then – they knew how to wear a beard!
He drew an Imperial Pension which kept “him in beer and and ‘bacca and an occasional feed, and at infrequent intervals allows him to indulge in the luxury of a housekeeper” however it was also stated that he drew four pensions from different sources.
Edwin Wilcocks was described as a widower who, over the years, had fathered 13 children (seven girls and six boys) but the names of the children were never divulged.
At the outbreak of WWI, Old Ned was said to have been very concerned. He was over 80 years of age but reportedly volunteered his services, taking great offence when his offer was rejected due to his age.
Living on an island in the Swan River meant that he was at greater risk of falling into the water (especially if he’d consumed a drink or two). This was said to have happened at one point but luckily for Old Ned, a couple of tramway men pulled him out and rescued him. After one of the men described the accident as ‘a narrow escape’ Ned scoffed and retorted:
Don’t you believe it, my son. I’m not goin’ aloft till my hundredth birthday.
In July 1920 when the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and then the Duke of Windsor) was visiting His Majesty’s Theatre for the returned soldiers reception, Old Ned was the first to shake his hand. In response to the Prince’s “How d’you do, old veteran?” he went on to say:
Pretty good, me boy, but not quite as young as when I shook hands with your great grandmother!
By 1924 Old Ned had become unwell and after a long visit at Perth Hospital it was suggested by the authorities that Ned be taken to the Old Men’s Home. He was still against the idea but this time he consented. His initial reluctance however soon turned to acceptance and he began to enjoy his time at the Home. He became the oldest and the most interesting character there.
In February 1924 he celebrated his 94th birthday at the Home with two other Veterans, Vincent John Helier (90) and Charles Denham (88). A concert was held and food put out for all to enjoy. Interestingly, the celebration’s occurrence in February was at odds with his statement in a previous article of his birthday occurring in July.
Sadly, Old Ned’s statement that he would live to the age of 100 never came to be. On 30 July 1924, five months after the above article, he passed away at the Old Men’s Home in Claremont. He was buried with full naval honours in the Anglican section at Karrakatta Cemetery (the gravesite has since been renewed) and three days after his death a large feature article was printed in the Mirror.
Everybody who lived in the vicinity, everybody who travelled over the Causeway, everybody who knows Perth, as a matter of fact, knew Old Ned.
He was said to have lived in his humpy under The Causeway for about 24 years without charity but received a “liberal pension”. Described as a good cook, he could also “polish off a pound of steak with the best of them.”
Old Ned smoked a black pipe and enjoyed a pot of good ale. He was quite proud of his hair and beard which were both extremely long and white and was glad that they helped him maintain a patriarchal appearance as well as prove his age when doubters suggested he’d added a few years.
Edwin Wilcocks was a storyteller right up until the end and became famous for his anecdotes (although they sometimes strained the truth). He was a poor man but a photo of him in his later years (sans beard due to his illness) nevertheless made the front page of the Mirror. A rather fitting tribute for a man who was described as “Perth’s Most Picturesque Veteran”.
Note: the above information has come directly from newspaper articles printed in various Western Australian newspapers throughout the years. Some of the facts appear to contradict each other and while it’s possible most of the stories told by Old Ned were true, it’s also possible that many were exaggerated.
- 1924 ‘HIS LAST FIGHT FOUGHT: THE LATE EDWIN WILLCOCKS.’, Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), 7 August, p. 25. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37625621
- 1909 ‘PURELY PERSONAL.’, Truth (Perth, WA : 1903 – 1931), 30 January, p. 4. (CITY EDITION), viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article207400067
- 1923 ‘A CAUSEWAY IDENTITY.’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 30 September, p. 11. (Second Section), viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58074433
- 1910 ‘BRIEFLETS’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 14 December, p. 9. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76826674
- 1919 ‘EDWIN OF THE CAUSEWAY’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950), 21 May, p. 6. (THIRD EDITION), viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article81389272
- 1920 ‘AN INDIAN MUTINY VETERAN.’, The Australian (Perth, WA : 1917 – 1923), 16 July, p. 8. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article210245848
- 1923 ‘PEEPS at PEOPLE’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 7 October, p. 2. (Third Section), viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58074725
- 1924 ‘”OLD NED”‘, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 13 April, p. 17. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58065120
- 1924 ‘LOCAL HAPPENINGS’, Sunday Times (Perth, WA : 1902 – 1954), 24 February, p. 14. (First Section), viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article58070090
- 1924 ‘” OLD NED”‘, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 2 August, p. 1. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76439361
- 1924 ‘”OLD NED” OF THE CAUSEWAY’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 2 August, p. 7. , viewed 29 Mar 2016, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article76439400