Historical Snippets

A Story from a Photo

Often when I’m researching using the archives, I’ll look for what I need, then I’ll look at all the other pages. The Western Australian Police Gazette at the State Library of Western Australia is one such fascinating resource. While most of it consists of text, there are also photos: people recently discharged from prison, unidentified deceased people, and occasionally missing people. It was the latter category that immediately caught my attention many months ago. In front of me was a photo of a young man, wearing a hat, crouched, with his hands resting on two dogs. His infectious smile expressed joy and happiness. Yet, in late January 1930, he went missing from his farm at Mollerin. What was his story?

Frederick James Grainger was born in England in about 1899. In 1924, he immigrated to Western Australia and soon found work at Lake Brown as a clearer. By 1926, he bought a farm and moved to Mollerin. The property, 36 miles north of Koorda, was cleared and improved throughout the years.

At 10 am, on the 27 January 1930, Michael Costello and David Small visited Frederick at his home. He was nowhere to be found. He had not slept in his bed, he had left food and water for his dog, and his waterbag was hanging in the usual place. The fact that his truck was in the shed meant that he could not have gone far. Judging by how they found the property, Michael and David assumed he had just gone out.

Days passed before people realised that Frederick was not home at all. On 3 February, a report was made to Constable Leonard Potter of the Wyalkatchem Police Station. He investigated but found nothing untoward.

Initially, police assumed that Frederick walked off the land. That, however, seemed unlikely. They found his wallet, photos, papers, and his suitcase. His banking documents were in the house, and it was known he had recently sold some wheat. The next theory was that he could have had an accident.

On 12 February, Constable Lewis Polak searched the property on foot. Three days later, he held a meeting at Clyde Calderwood’s store in Mollerin. Those present decided to organise a search party. On 19 February, 28 men, including Constable Polak, formed a chain, with two chains separating each man, and systematically searched Frederick’s property.

It was in the midst of summer, and the heat was stifling. They began at 9 am and searched until 6 pm. The North-Eastern Wheatbelt Tribune reported that, “Every bush and tree on the missing man’s property was carefully investigated, warrens, burrows and all holes were examined but not a trace could be found nor could a single clue be picked up that would lend any assistance in unravelling what remains an absolute mystery.

The men were exhausted by the end of the day. Frederick’s body was not found, so the police discounted the accident theory. The way he left his home indicated that he intended to return. Did someone passing give him a lift? Was he forced into a vehicle? Did he meet with foul play?

Police were grateful to those who helped search, and the settlers were satisfied with the police investigation. By the end of February, a special correspondent for the North-Eastern Wheatbelt Tribune reported on the disappearance. They headlined the story ‘Missing Man Mystery.’ The mystery did not remain so for long. Although there was no follow up article, Frederick was eventually found. The original suspicion was correct; he had walked off the land.

Though Frederick was struggling, the people in the area thought highly of him and convinced him to stay. They helped by purchasing fertiliser and put in 320 acres of wheat. He got a good crop, but prices were low, and he lost money. There was too much debt, and in May 1930, his estate was sequestrated.

For two years after leaving the farm, he worked as a clearer. On 20 April 1932, his tale was heard before the Registrar in Bankruptcy. He stated that for a few years he had good returns from his farm, but he worked so hard that his health deteriorated. The purchase of a tractor and harvester “swamped him” and they were eventually repossessed. It was “optimism and an urge to acquire a home” that led Frederick to Western Australia. It was inexperience, machinery purchases, and drought conditions that led to his difficulties. He walked away disheartened.

Frederick no longer wanted to stay in Western Australia. His desire was to return to England, and he planned to sail within the week. Granted permission to leave, he left the examination room “with a beaming face.” Five days later, he boarded the ss Orama, and, on 26 May 1932, he arrived in England. While his story in Western Australia came to an end, his story in England continued. In the years to follow, he married and had a child. While we have no way of knowing Frederick’s feelings, it would appear that leaving was the right decision for him.


  • Western Australian Police Gazette; No. 9; Wednesday, 26 February 1930 (courtesy of State Library of Western Australia).
  • 1930 ‘Missing Man Mystery.’, North-Eastern Wheatbelt Tribune (Wyalkatchem, WA : 1926 – 1940), 28 February, p. 2. , viewed 14 Jun 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article251597565
  • 1932 ‘FARMERS’ HARD LUCK.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 21 April, p. 16. , viewed 15 Jun 2021, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article32636553

4 thoughts on “A Story from a Photo”

  1. Sadly, Frederick was, like many others, set up by the government to fail by being allocated marginal land that could never be productive enough to provide a reasonable return. This was a result of government policy for that period and before enough was known about the lack of minerals and trace elements in those soils.
    Love your stories Jessica and how they shine light on often little known details of WA’s past.


    1. Thank you for your insightful comment and your kind words. I’m glad you found the story interesting. I don’t know much about this particular part of WA farming history, but I imagine there must be quite a few stories like this one. I wonder how many people ended up leaving like Frederick did.


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