Historical Snippets, WA History

The First Death at Paynesville

In February 1899, the Leighton brothers were progressing with the erection of the Tremayne Mill at Paynesville. To get the mill running, they needed more water and, thus, it was necessary to deepen the water shaft of the Lady Maude mine. Three shifts were put on to carry out the work. 

Locality Plan showing Paynesville. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S2168- cons5698 1354).

On Saturday, 11 February 1899, Ernest Harbordt was working the night shift in the water shaft with his mate, Edmund Lowrie. Ernest was at the bottom of the shaft, while Edmund stood at the top on the brace. 

At about 1 am, Ernest sent up a bucket. Not long after, Edmund heard something fall and then a splash in the water. He looked down and noticed that the candle at the bottom had extinguished. He called out to Ernest, asking if he was okay. When he received no response, he yelled for help. 

The owner of the mill, Christopher Leighton, was closest. He arrived at the mine, and Edmund lowered him down into the shaft. At the bottom, he found Ernest on his knees, lying with his head in the water. He pulled him up, bandaged his head with a handkerchief, and heard Ernest question, “What struck me?” He then lost consciousness and never spoke again. 

Charles Leighton and Thomas Duncan arrived to help. Using a rope, Charles lowered himself down into the mine to assist his brother. He tried giving Ernest some brandy and water to revive him, but it did not work. Having moved Ernest to a corner of the mine, Christopher called out to the people at the top to send down a sling. Ernest was then brought to the surface and, while everything possible was done to try to save him, he died two hours later. 

Ernest’s death was the first at Paynesville, a town that was only surveyed in the previous year and had not yet been gazetted. On 13 February, an inquest was held. Edmund testified that after Ernest was brought to the surface, he noticed there was a depressed wound on his head. He believed it would have been caused by a “severe blow” and certainly caused his death. 

Christopher gave evidence that he noticed a long cut on the top of Ernest’s forehead and a depression on his head, half an inch deep. As there was no indication that there had been a fall of earth, he presumed that a stone had dislodged from the wall, fell, and hit him. 

Ernest Harbordt’s gravesite at Paynesville.

Thomas Duncan and Thomas Payne (for whom the town was named) also gave evidence. Once the witnesses were heard, a verdict of accidental death was given, “with no blame attachable to anybody.” 

Ernest was buried one and a half miles southwest of the Magnet Road. He was 24 years of age and was originally from Hawthorn in Victoria. He had only been in Western Australia for three years. As a mark of respect, the Paynesville Progress Committee wrote a letter expressing their condolences to his mother. 

Over the next seven months, the people of Paynesville, coordinated by Mr Finch, raised £15 to pay for a headstone and railing for Ernest’s grave. By the end of March 1900, the iron railing set in stone was placed around the grave, and an iron tablet was erected at the head of the grave. All were painted in a “sombre hue,” and his name and age were recorded on the tablet with raised white letters. The Mount Magnet Miner and Lennonville Leader noted that Ernest’s friends and family in Victoria expressed their sincere thanks for the gesture. 

The iron tablet

Today Paynesville is a ghost town. Located on the Mount Magnet-Sandstone Road, about halfway between Sandstone and Mount Magnet, there is not much to see of the town. All that remains is the cemetery, with the gravesite of Ernest Harbordt (withstanding the test of time for over 100 years) being the only one with a monument within it. 


  • Locality plan showing the location of Paynesville. Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia (AU WA S2168- cons5698 1354).
  • 1899 ‘The First Death at Paynesville.’, Mount Magnet Miner and Lennonville Leader (WA : 1896 – 1926), 18 February, p. 2. , viewed 02 May 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155979118 
  • 1899 ‘General News.’, Mount Magnet Miner and Lennonville Leader (WA : 1896 – 1926), 9 September, p. 2. , viewed 02 May 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155979804 
  • 1900 ‘General News.’, Mount Magnet Miner and Lennonville Leader (WA : 1896 – 1926), 31 March, p. 2. , viewed 02 May 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article155980535  

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