Bushed – Australia’s Horror

On 21 January 1896 it was reported that the remains of a man were found lying alongside the overland telegraph line, about five miles from Coorow. Police Constable Simpson of Geraldton was sent to investigate and near the body he found a swag and a bible held open with two sticks. He could not find a waterbag and the absence of such an important item resulted in the assumption that the man died from dehydration.

While it was generally reported that the man was unknown, a piece of paper held the tiniest of clues; written on it was the name ‘R. Bell’. Despite the existence of the name there was not enough information to absolutely confirm his identity. With such a hopeless case, it was noted that the man was “another victim added to the long list of those who have perished in the dreary bush.

The tragedy of R. Bell’s story and the circumstances in which he was found was read in the newspaper by illustrator, Walker Hodgson. At the time he was travelling around Western Australia with the writer, Albert Calvert, and he was so obviously moved by the nightmarish situation, that he drew (from his imagination) a scene showing a man lost in the bush. It was labelled, ‘Bushed – Australia’s Horror‘. The haunting image was published within Albert’s book, ‘My Fourth Tour in Western Australia’.

Bushed

For many people the bush was a place of inspiration and great beauty however as much as it was admired, it was also revered. Becoming lost was a horror no one wanted to endure. Taking a wrong turn off the track could be disastrous and while police and Aboriginal trackers were quick to start searching for lost people, it was often the case that when they were found, it was much too late. R. Bell was far from being the only person who became ‘bushed’ in 1896.

On 13 February 1896, Annie May Olive Christmass wandered away from home and disappeared into the bush at Clackline. A search was instigated when it was noticed she was missing and police and Aboriginal trackers from Northam later became involved. No trace of the eight year old girl was found. Her father, William Christmass, offered a reward but it did not help. After a week the search was abandoned without having found the whereabouts of Annie.

The remains of a miner named John Saul Turner were found in the bush in March 1896 by a group of prospectors. He had left his camp on 10 February riding a donkey to Pennyweight Flat near Pindinni (south of Laverton). It would seem he was confident making the journey as he took no food or water with him. Somewhere along the way he wound up on the wrong track and began travelling towards Mount Margaret. It was on that track that he passed away.

Miner Perishes

A swag found several miles out of town was brought into Yalgoo on 8 October 1896. With it was a sugar bag used to hold a small amount of tea and sugar as well as a receipt and a miner’s right in the name of ‘Ward’. Upon investigation, Ward was a man better known to the people of Geraldton as ‘Bricky’. He had travelled there from Mingenew but as he was prone to excessive drinking, a subscription was raised in order to help him leave. He left Geraldton with the intention of travelling to Yalgoo to find work.

…it is now thought he wandered into the bush and became lost. It was generally thought he went on to Yalgoo and was working there, but as the swag was found in a somewhat opposite direction to Yalgoo, grave doubts are felt as to his safety.

No update was printed as to whether Ward was found.

On 7 December 1896, a hotel-keeper named John McInnes travelled from Donkey Rocks to Menzies to renew his wayside hotel licence. He attended the Licensing Court, received the renewal and, at lunch time on the following day, left Menzies and headed back to Donkey Rocks. He was never seen or heard of again.

The Niagara police began searching for McInnes but were unable to find him. Described as a good bushman, later news revealed that he had taken a shortcut on his way to Menzies and it seemed likely that he had taken the same shortcut on his way back to Donkey Rocks and became lost. By the end of December, and with heavy rainfall wiping out all tracks, the search was abandoned.

Willett

Thankfully, not all ‘bushed’ stories have unhappy endings. Despite concerns for their welfare and after exhaustive searching, people were sometimes found alive and well.

In early February 1896 John Barnes left Shea’s leases near Feysville and went off into the bush for a stroll. He never returned and police were alerted. Constable Riddell and an Aboriginal tracker began searching and followed Barnes’s tracks to the condensers near Hannan Lake. They spoke to men there who saw Barnes and they advised that they directed him to Boulder.

For days the police continued searching but found no trace of him. About a week later John Barnes sent a letter to his mates at Shea’s leases. He explained that he had lost his way from Shea’s, walked all night to within four miles of Boulder and then continued on to Coolgardie. With no intention of returning to work, he asked them to send his swag. Understandably, the police had mixed feelings about the news.

…while the police are glad to know that the man is safe, they feel very much annoyed at the wild goose chase over the country which he has caused them.

Barnes provided no reason for his sudden and inexplicable disappearance and many people put it down to his eccentric nature.

On 16 December, Matron Gertrude was working at the Sisters of the People Hospital in Menzies when Mr Burrowes requested her assistance for a man who was ill at the Royal Group mine (south of Menzies). She agreed to help and accompanied him in his sulky. During the journey they deviated slightly from the track and after an hour (when they should have arrived at their destination) they realised they were lost.

Mr Burrowes spent the rest of the day trying to find the track but, at 7 pm, decided they had better camp for the night. They had gone most of the day and the night without food and water.

Gertrude

Luckily, while Matron Gertrude and Mr Burrowes were traversing the outback, Mr Strickland of the Royal Group mine grew concerned that Burrowes had not yet returned. Fearing that something had happened, he travelled to Menzies and alerted the police. Mr Strickland then went out to search for them. He found their tracks, followed them and at 4 am found them both preparing to retrace their steps.

Matron Gertrude returned to Menzies and while she was exhausted, she eventually recovered from her ordeal.

Fears were held for Archibald Orr when his swag was found on the road to Kalgoorlie on 19 December. Ten days earlier, Orr had left the Exchange Hotel in Kanowna intending to travel to Coolgardie. He was seen at a lime kiln near Kanowna where he obtained a drink of water and was then seen at a cool-drink shop on the road. After the last sighting he disappeared and when his swag was found, police became involved and began searching the bush. Despite concerns that something had happened to him, Archibald Orr eventually turned up at Coolgardie.

Orr

The stories of people who became ‘bushed’ are not only limited to the year 1896; a search on Trove shows that they extend across all years and occur all over Western Australia and Australia as a whole. One can only imagine the total number of souls lost in the bush and the impact it had on their families and friends as they were left to wonder what became of their loved ones.

Sources:

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