Whatley Park Pensioners

What I love about history is the constant opportunity to learn something new. Research is always vital however this can be difficult if you’re not sure where to look. This may especially be the case where buildings or infrastructure is torn down. Once the physical reminder of history is lost, it’s likely the memory of it will be lost too. Generations upon generations of people are born and what was once well-known to many can become forgotten. The same can be said for stories.

As is often the case, I came across Whatley Station and the Whatley Park Pensioners purely by chance whilst searching for something else. At first confused (where in the world was Whatley Park?) I began researching and found myself learning a piece of Bayswater’s history which seemed as though it had (perhaps unintentionally) been buried in the past.

Whatley Park was the name of an area of land which was located on the banks of the Swan River in Bayswater (near the bird sanctuary) and ran all the way back to the north of Morley Drive. For years it was owned by the Whatley family before it was eventually sold to Gold Estates, who then subdivided the land. The area itself is no longer known as Whatley Park and is now part of the City of Bayswater.

The area of Whatley Park circa 1913 courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 55/14/45). View the full map here: http://purl.slwa.wa.gov.au/slwa_b4502475_1

Running through Bayswater and the area which was once known as Whatley Park is the Midland Railway Line. The line still exists however what most surprised me was learning of a spur line (known as the Belmont Railway Spur) which separated from the Midland line between today’s Bayswater and Ashfield Stations. After separating, trains would travel across Guildford Road towards the Swan River (to the east of Slade Street) and would stop at Whatley Station. They would then continue onward, traverse a railway bridge over the river and eventually turn right to run parallel to Matheson Road where they terminated at Belmont Station in front of the Ascot Racecourse. The primary purpose of the spur line was to carry passengers to the races. A map of the Belmont Spur Line can be viewed here: https://flic.kr/p/6sr6gt

The stations, the railway tracks and the bridge were all demolished in 1957 which explains why the railway spur became a piece of ‘hidden’ history. It’s demolition also meant that another piece of history connected to Whatley Park vanished; the story of the Whatley Park Pensioners.

The Whatley Park Pensioners consisted of a group of elderly men who, rather than live an institution, chose to live in a camp on Government land near the Belmont Railway Spur and Whatley Station. Most were unmarried, often had no relatives in Western Australia and, in their younger days, worked on the railways or on the goldfields. They received a pension of £1 per week which they made the most of by living simply. A pensioner by the name of Stephen Rohan stated:

Whatley’s Grand Old Men, Mr Michael Collins and Mr Stephen Rohan.

I lead a pretty quiet life now… Just take my time to get a bit of firewood, carry water, and one thing and another, and go into Bayswater once a week to get my pension and a few stores. There is nothing like a little liberty.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 31 March 1930; Page 2; Village of Pensioners

They lived in humpies which were constructed from a variety of materials such as canvas, iron or bush boughs. Each home was kept clean and was surrounded by a small fence. Attempts were made to grow vegetables but they had limited success due to the harsh, sandy soil. It was acknowledged that some humpies were better than others however that difference generally came down to the person who built it and maintained it.

A New Zealander by the name of Thomas Henry Greer was considered to have the “neatest and most shipshape establishment of the colony” and his love of orderliness was said to have been inherited from his father who was a sea captain. Along with the usual implements for cooking and housework, his home was decorated with a variety of photos from the Victorian era.

His living-room is rather like a ship’s cabin. The fireplace, constructed with marvellous ingenuity, had a built-in camp oven. And around the cabin walls were old fashioned photographs of Victorian women with hats the size of a saucer, and of Thomas Henry as a boy. Many painted kerosene tins and tubs are carefully covered and stored with rainwater for the summer. There is the ‘laundry’ with flat-irons and ironing tables and a hard bed for afternoon lounging… All sorts of neat little contrivances are in the camps of these house-proud old colonists, while others flourish in luxurious grubbiness.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 3 December 1932; Page 10; “Castles” Near Bayswater
Mr T H Greer’s home at Whatley Park, an example of neatness and care.

Each individual cooked over an open fireplace with the food mostly consisting of vegetables. Like any other person, the men completed their chores and then turned their attention to recreational pursuits such as reading the daily paper, smoking, visiting others in the camp, having a yarn or simply sitting engrossed in their own thoughts. On Saturdays some stood on the Belmont Bridge where they had a good view of the races at Ascot.

How long they’d been living there wasn’t really touched upon in the newspapers however statements made by the men indicated that some of them had been there since the late 1900s. It would also seem that as economic times worsened, the camp and it’s occupants increased. In 1932, during the Great Depression, it was noted in one paper that there were up to 80 men living there while another stated the number to be as high as 120.

Mr N Fitzpatrick in 1932. At the time the photo was taken he had lived at Whatley Park for 14 years.

In the 1930s romantically written articles about the Whatley Park Pensioners and their utopian camp were often printed in the newspapers. While they highlighted the happy, carefree stories of the men quietly going about their lives and making the best of what they had, they failed grossly in pointing out the desperation and suffering that was also present.

Their ages varied but most seemed to be over the age of 60. Combining that fact with a lifetime of hard work meant that unexpected deaths were common. Men were often found in their beds after not having roused from sleep or were discovered lying in the bush after dying suddenly from various causes.

Accidents were also a regular occurrence which again may have been a reflection of their age and the slowing down of their faculties. They lived very close to the railway lines and were often seen crossing them as they went about their business. Though many of the pensioners were no doubt careful, one wrong move or a misheard sound meant disaster. One of the most reported cause of accidents or death was being hit by a train.

In 1933 Michael O’Donnell (aged 70) was returning home after collecting bags from the Cresco fertiliser works when he was hit by a train. He was careful and waited at the crossing for the train travelling to Midland to pass but missed the approach of the train travelling to Perth. He received extensive injuries to his head, arms and legs and died at the scene.

Their open fireplaces were also potential death traps. Many men were reported to have accidentally fallen into the fires and suffered terrible burns as a result. Unfortunately, fear of having their freedom taken away from them also meant that some pensioners tended to their wounds themselves and did not visit a doctor or the hospital. This had dire consequences for those who had severe burns.

While some of the pensioners (such as the ones interviewed) seemed to be comfortable with their lot in life and remained positive, there were also others who were deeply unhappy with their situation. Sadly, that unhappiness resulted in a number of suicides within the camp.

There were also run-ins with surrounding residents. For many years the people living nearby accepted the pensioners however, during a meeting of the Bayswater Road Board in 1934, 32 ratepayers put forward a petition requesting that the makeshift homes be demolished and the men removed. They felt that progress and the value of properties in Whatley Park was greatly affected by the presence of the pensioners.

Their main concern was the lack of sanitation however it was later proved that it only applied to the few and not to the many. Other residents didn’t mind the pensioners and were empathetic to their plight. A letter written by Mrs M Benn to the editor of The West Australian in the same year is one example. She declared that, “These are mostly old men who have taken part in the development of the State; and if they prefer their present freedom to the restrictions of some more formal establishment, then their will ought to be respected.

In the end, the pensioners were not removed from their camp at Whatley Park. They continued to live there throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s. By the late 1940s and 1950s however, all mention of them in the newspapers ceased. Either they continued to live there and were not referred to in the papers or, they were requested to move on. It’s also possible that their numbers decreased as they passed away over the subsequent decades.

When I first came across the Whatley Park Pensioners I was immediately drawn to them. They were miners, navvies, labourers, people from all walks of life who arrived in Western Australia in the 1890s and played a role in the State’s history. Many were without family which often means that their lives, their stories and their contributions are the first to be lost.

There are so many stories in this world and only a small amount are told. More often than not they are the stories of people who did great things or rose to power and prominence. While those stories are interesting, it’s the people like the Whatley Park Pensioners who attract my attention the most. They may not have been wealthy or prominent individuals but they still played a part in our history. Regardless of their social standing, they should not be forgotten.

Sources:

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5 thoughts on “Whatley Park Pensioners

  1. See my entry on the Whatley pensioners at Busselton Family HIstory Society facebook page. I was unable to share to your fb page.
    Lesly Admin

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great story we would love for you to join us at Bayswater Historical Society and give us a talk .sometime about your research ..
    Eddie Marcus .. we have a tour there tomorrow and we mentioned these men .. We grew up with prop men, copper and metal collectors and people looking for work ., who would come and sell door to door .. and My Mum would make them a cup of tea and sandwiches.. the new English neighbours told not to encourage them … that was in the 50’s early 60’sv
    Great story

    Like

    1. Thank you. 🙂 I’d love to Lynn. Though I’d want to conduct more research, perhaps some profiles of the men themselves, before I commit to a date in the near future. Please feel free to contact me via email (jessicabarratt@outlook.com) with any further information.

      Like

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