The Countess of Bumbinoo

In 1894, a traveller to the Murchison goldfields would board a train at Geraldton headed for Mullewa. They were likely one of many passengers, from the well-dressed new chum to the experienced prospector, all with the same purpose in mind: gold. 

The train arrived early and, at that time, stopped well outside the town. Passengers faced waiting a few hours until sunrise. Once it was morning, they could find some breakfast in town. Perhaps they visited John Judge’s Royal Hotel or Thomas Sorensen’s Mullewa Hotel, which was the first building visible from the road. 

As there was not, as yet, a train to Cue, the next stage of the journey was often by coach. Travelling on the road to the Murchison, the next stop was at the eight-mile well. It was considered in good working order and had a trough, bucket, and chain attached. Then came the 18-mile well, followed by a stop at Isaac Wheelock’s station at Carlo. In the evening, the coach arrived at Bumbinoo. 

A map showing the route from Mullewa to Bumbinoo (spelt Bumbinu). Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (9022.M95P2).

Bumbinoo was located about 56 km northeast of Mullewa. At Bumbinoo was a rough-looking wayside house established in the early 1890s that consisted of a store and hotel. The store displayed reasonably priced goods available for purchase. The hotel provided meals and drinks as well as a comfortable bed for the night. The drawcard was that everything was at Geraldton prices. 

Although Mr. Sievewright’s premises are not very extensive, the great desideratum of the weary wayfarer, in the shape of comfortable bed and a good square meal, are to be had at Geraldton prices.

Victorian Express (Geraldton, WA : 1878 – 1894); 15 June 1894; Page 3; Eastward Ho!

Run by David Sievewright, it was known as the Traveller’s Rest Hotel. Ruling the roost, however, was his wife, Lillias Sievewright. Such was her prominence on the Murchison goldfields prospectors called her Mother Bumbinoo. She was also known as the Countess of Bumbinoo. 

Lillias, the Countess of Bumbinoo, was a Scottish woman built like an Amazon. She had muscles like a boxer and was as strong as any man. She reportedly could drive a team, kill and dress a sheep, and “poleaxe a bullock.” 

She ruled the Traveller’s Rest Hotel and frequently threw out noisy, drunk men. Yet, at the same time, she was kind to those who visited her establishment. Future newspaper articles were peppered with stories of people’s interactions with her. 

Lord Percy Douglas (who eventually became the Marquess of Queensberry) visited the Traveller’s Rest during winter in 1894. After eating corned beef, dessert was an enormous plum pudding. The Countess of Bumbinoo ensured he had a huge slice and then wandered around the table with a large jug filled to the brim with sauce. Instead of addressing him as his lordship, the countess simply asked, “Juice, sonny?” Surprised, and before he had a chance to answer, sauce flooded his pudding. In the years that followed, and well after he returned to England, he was said to be quite fond of regaling the story to anyone who would listen. 

Because the countess was so direct, prospectors often liked to play tricks on her. One cold morning, everyone disembarked from the coach except a figure with long hair, reading a book and wrapped in a cloak. “Won’t you take the young lady a cup of tea?” said one cheeky prospector. Ever hospitable, the countess ran outside to offer the tea. She went back inside, looking bewildered. The longhaired person on the coach was actually newspaperman Frederick Vosper. Perhaps he had a stern word to say to her because all she could explain to the people inside was, “Dom it, it’s a mon.” 

Food at Bumbinoo was simple and nearly always consisted of roast mutton, potatoes, tinned peas, and some kind of pudding. Eggs in the middle of the outback were scarce and expensive, so the countess loathed to part with any. Coachman, Jack Collins, knew how to get around her. He lied that the eggs were for a sick prospector, and the countess would hand some over, hoping they would help. It was said that people knew Jack had been at a camp by the eggshells they saw lying around. 

The Traveller’s Rest Hotel was one of the last outposts on the old road to Cue. It was a place where people gathered to eat, drink, and yarn. They were not short of music, and people spent many an evening dancing al fresco under a starry sky to the strains of a concertina. 

As transportation changed and the construction of the railway to Cue started in 1896, many people expected that traffic on the old route past Bumbinoo would decrease. By October 1896, the countess had left the Traveller’s Rest Hotel and relocated to another goldfield at Stake Well near Nannine. She again opened a store and hotel and was helped by her daughter Maggie. 

Times had changed, and the family was said to miss the old days at Bumbinoo. Lillias Sievewright and her hospitality was never forgotten by the old Murchisonites. She died in West Perth on 6 September 1909 aged 74. Often, when recalling the early days of the Murchison goldfields, people shared their memories of the Countess of Bumbinoo. She was “the heroine of yarns innumerable, that probably linger round the camp-fires unto this day.” 

Sources: 

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