History of West Australia/Alex. Robert Richardson

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HON. ALEX. ROBERT RICHARDSON, M.L.A.

THE MINISTER OF LANDS.

THE historical portion of this work sets out in as clear language as we could command the very considerable land resources of Western Australia. The outside world has implicitly believed the general report that this colony possesses few, if any, advantages of soil and climate. Such people are ignorant of the fact that while there are large areas of poor land, desert tracts that suffer by intermittent rain-falls, there are also several districts containing very large areas of soil capable of producing the best agricultural, horticultural, and fruit products, and fitted and destined to contribute by export to the requirements, in cereals, fruits, and wines, of other countries. In the far north there are areas of pastoral lands equal in fertility to the best portions of Queensland and New South Wales. They may be visited by spasmodic droughts, but as a rule not more so than the mother-colony. Moreover, in point of healthiness for sheep, cattle, or horses northern country is unsurpassed. For man also this is remarkably true, considering the heat of a tropical sun. In the south-west there are splendid tracts of wheat land. As to the horticulturists, if they strive more strenuously to acclimatise foreign plant life, they shall hybridise new varieties in consonance with the surroundings. This has already been largely done in the eastern colonies, and now that prosperity and general activity seem to have permanently settled on this colony, we shall yet witness a production of fruits, wools, and cereals that the world shall hear of. But this is not the place to dilate on the land resources of Western Australia, except so far as to show what an important office the Minister for Lands has to fill.

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HON. ALEX. ROBERT RICHARDSON, M.L.A.

This position is held by the Hon. Alexander Robert Richardson, M.L.A. By reason of his knowledge of most industries relating to the soil in Western Australia, Mr. Richardson is well fitted to supervise such an important colonial department. He enterprisingly went into undeveloped districts of the far north and settled among the blacks. He experienced the dangers and hardships inseparable from the life of a pioneer who would render habitable the waste lands of the earth. It was therefore but in the natural order of things that a man of his observant mind should place his large and varied experience at the disposal of the Government of the colony. Mr. Richardson should be intimately acquainted with the agricultural, pastoral, and horticultural resources of Western Australia, and with his knowledge of the advanced methods of the eastern colonies, his occupancy of the high office may be viewed with hope and confidence. Western Australia is not likely to fall into the errors of the other Australian colonies in their illiberal land laws. They strove to make as much as possible out of the sale or rental of Crown Lands, and instead of stimulating, crippled, what is always the backbone of a country's prosperity. The present is the moment when universal interest is taken in this colony, and, given encouragement to settle capital and labour on the land, the strong basis of a permanent good will be laid.

In the convict days in Tasmania the Rev. Thomas Elliott Richardson, the father of the Hon. A. R. Richardson, after his term of a student's life at the Glasgow University, in which he obtained the degree of M.A., officiated as clergyman under the Presbyterian denomination. He there had many varied experiences, and late in the forties returned to his native land. Before this, however, he married in Tasmania. His wife, Jane Anderson, had accompanied her father, a yeoman farmer of Fifeshire, to Western Australia not many years after it was settled. While still a girl, in 1839, she went with her father to Tasmania, where she subsequently met her future husband. The Rev. Mr. Richardson and his young wife, some three or four years after marriage, decided to take a trip to the old country, which, with two young children, was then a difficult and important undertaking. They did not remain long at home, but voyaged again to the Southern Hemisphere, on this occasion landing in Melbourne. Later on they went to Portland, where the pastor was given a charge. In those far-off days, when Victoria was chiefly an unsettled and uninhabited country, the life of a pastor in a country district somewhat resembled that of an explorer. He had to make long and dangerous horseback journeys in the bush, possessing neither roads nor bridges, and ofttimes had to swim swollen rivers to reach lonely and isolated homesteads and stations. The Rev. Mr. Richardson followed the life of a pastor for many years in Victoria amid general respect. Eventually his religious opinions underwent such a change that he resigned his position as a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He afterwards purchased a newspaper in Portland known as the Portland Guardian, which he edited for many years. The old newspaper still exists. A little over twelve months before the Rev. and Mrs. Richardson left Great Britain, Alexander Robert Richardson was born (in 1848), at Islington. There were five children in the family—three daughters. The eldest, a son, is the Hon. John Elliott Richardson member of the Legislative Council of Western Australia. The boyhood of the Hon. A. R. Richardson was spent in Victoria, and there he received an excellent education at different schools, and a splendid grounding of character from his mother and father. In the sixties his father and his uncle, Mr. Thomas Anderson, were in correspondence with Mr. Walter Padbury, a well-known West Australian pioneer. From this correspondence was gleaned news of the explorations of the late Mr. T. F. Gregory in the Roebourne district of this colony, and of the rich pastoral lands lying idle there. Such a strong effect had the information contained in the letters on the minister's sons and three of their friends that they enterprisingly yearned to face the difficulties of early settlement, and the romantic life among the aborigines. After much careful deliberation their parents were not averse to gratifying their adventurous wishes, and preparations were soon energetically made for their leaving for Western Australia. Mr. A. R. Richardson was then but seventeen years old, and just the age when the adventurous instincts are strongest in youth. His stamina was soon put to the test. In 1865 the five young men—the brothers Richardson, Edwin Anderson, Mackenzie Grant, and John Edgar—left Victoria. They had chartered the ship Maria Ross, and taking with them 1,600 ewes and necessary provisions they sailed for the scene of operations. On the 2nd April, 1865, they landed at Tientsin Harbour, now called Cossack Bay, the port of the Roebourne district, where they secured a lease of over 200,000 acres, and gave to it the name of Pyramid Station, and spread their sheep over the good pasture land. Then followed many years of secluded life, with no companionship but that of a few brother pioneer settlers and the natives. Prominent among the neighbouring settlers were several young men now well known in Western Australia:—Mr. Chas. Harper, M.L.A., Mr. H. Venn, M.L.A. (late Commissioner of Railways), Mr. Robert F. Sholl, M.L.A., Mr. H. W. Sholl, M.L.A., Mr. E. T. Hooley, M.L.A., and Mr. D. N. McLeod, M.L.A. (for Portland, in the Victorian Assembly). All these gentlemen became old and tried friends amid the hardships and vicissitudes of pioneer life in North-Western Australia. The party worked laboriously to improve their property, and the flocks fattened and multiplied. Each season proved that their enterprise was well-founded. They had their daily round of duties; they had their difficulties with the natives; they had their shepherding and fencing and other work incidental to early pastoral pursuits to attend to. And then the shearing time—the squatter's harvest. This provided the greatest excitement of the year, and it was not always an easy matter to obtain sufficient labour to remove the golden fleeces when after a few years the flocks had largely increased.

After four years of varied success the partnership was dissolved by Messrs. Grant and Anderson separating from their companions. These two gentlemen took their shares of the stock and started to travel them to Perth. It proved an exceptionally dry season and their efforts resulted disastrously. They were not to be daunted, for, returning to the north again, they settled on land which is now widely known in the colony as the De Grey Station. When the partnership was dissolved, Mr. A. R. Richardson took the management of the Pyramid Station. At that time he was but twenty-one years old, which shows that he must have had a wise head on his young shoulders. But his four years' training proved all sufficient, and his interests became more and more extensive. It would be impossible to mention in this pen sketch all the difficulties passed through. Some of them were sufficient to daunt many men. The climate, in the first place, was excessively trying at certain periods of the summer, but Mr. Richardson being naturally of a strong and robust constitution suffered little on that score. Many times the provisions on the station (so far away from any town) were so limited that the party were reduced to most unpleasant straits. For instance, once they were compelled to live on a quarter of a pound of barley, ground in a coffee mill, a day; and on many occasions on a quarter of a pound and half a pound of flour. Then they were often without tea and sugar—much loved luxuries on the back stations. These difficulties were caused by reason of ships trading from Fremantle and other ports being overdue. The following is an instance of what early settlers had at times to contend with, when, for business or health, voyages were undertaken to the settled and more civilised south. Mr. Richardson, in order to proceed to Fremantle, on one occasion stepped on board a fore-and-aft schooner of 80 tons burden. The little craft, baffled with adverse winds and gales, was blown some 1,100 miles offshore, and after 47 days reached Champion Bay, 700 miles from their port of departure—Cossack. The rations were nearly absorbed, and latterly were allotted in the smallest quantities. At last those on board had neither food nor water, but happily eighteen hours after this happened they made Champion Bay. I was a cheerful sight to them—that of the port and the few buildings near the beach.

While Mr. Richardson was managing the Pyramid Station he was married, in 1874, to Ellen, daughter of Mr. John Wellard, an enterprising and widely respected colonist. Some months before the advent of Mr. Richardson and party, Mr. Wellard chartered, fitted out, and despatched a ship—the Tientsin—with a cargo of sheep, cattle, and horses for the Roebourne district. He personally accompanied the expedition, superintended the landing of the stock, placed Mr. Shakespeare Hall, also a worthy pioneer, in charge of his party of men, and returned to Fremantle. Mr. Wellard was therefore one of the earliest pastoralists in the Roebourne district. Mr. Richardson continued to reside in the Nickol Bay (now Roebourne) district until 1876. By this time he naturally desired to get nearer civilised parts, more especially for the sake of his young wife. His brother and Mr. Edgar were still in partnership with him, and with their consent a manager was appointed to the station. Finally, the Hon. J. E. Richardson took the management of the partnership concerns. Mr. Richardson now purchased the Serpentine Farm, at Serpentine, from his father-in-law, and there took up his residence. He set himself the task of improving and developing the estate. By much industry, practical knowledge, and the judicious outlay of a good deal of capital, he has cleared thick forest lands and subdivided them with wild dog-proof fencing. Thus he converted an area of land, which formerly carried, indifferently, about 300 head of cattle, and on which he was informed that sheep could never thrive, into its present capacity of 250 cattle, 3,000 sheep, and 80 horses. What is of more consequence, he furnished to the colony an object-lesson as to the wise utilisation of much of its waste lands.

In 1880 Mr. Richardson was impressed, after a careful perusal of the reports of Mr. Alexander Forrest, M.L.A., on his explorations in the Kimberley and surrounding districts, that there was a good opportunity for successful settlement on the Fitzroy River. Repeating the example of his earlier life, he, with two or three friends, determined upon giving an impetus to the opening up of the rich lands Mr. Forrest had described. A company was formed, stock was procured, and a grant of land obtained on the Fitzroy River. Mr. George Patterson, a partner in the undertaking, was placed in charge, and here Mr. Richardson was instrumental in being one of the first to stimulate the opening up of land which is destined to prove very valuable to the colony. On the Fitzroy is magnificent country, capable of carrying much stock, and of producing any tropical fruit or plant. The subsoil goes down to great depths. The stock for this property was landed at Beagle Bay, where Mr Julius G. Brockmann, now a leading settler in the Gascoyne district, had a few months previously taken up his abode.

To turn to Mr. Richardson's public career, we find that when residing in the Nickol Bay, or Roebourne district, on his station, he took some interest in local affairs. He was a member of Northern Roads Boards, and for terms was chairman of them. Meanwhile, by being observant, he gained an understanding of the requirements of the country, which has served him on many subsequent occasions. Upon making his home nearer to Perth, at Serpentine, he took a more active interest in politics, and eventually essayed to enter the old Legislative Council. He was a candidate for the suffrages of the Northern district, which included Nickol Bay, and with his later colleague in the Government, the Hon. S. Burt was duly returned. That was in 1887. His political leaning was soon made manifest, for on all questions dealing with the pastoral and agricultural interests he spoke with authority. At the inauguration of responsible government, when the Legislative Assembly was constituted, he stood for, and was elected a member of, the De Grey electorate which still embraced the country where his earlier pioneer efforts were made. He continued such an active exponent of wise land legislation that, on the retirement of the Hon. W. E. Marmion from the portfolio of Minister of Lands, Sir John Forrest offered him the office. In December, 1894, he began his duties, and he has continued to perform them with some success since then. During the agitations of 1896 against the Forrest Government, Mr. Richardson's department was spared adverse criticism, and his administration seems to have given satisfaction.

The Hon. Mr. Richardson has inaugurated many useful features in his department. Among the different enactments and regulations that he is to be credited with is the Width of Tires Act, which at the time was a much-needed measure in the colony for the preservation of streets and roads. Much useful and practical legislation now in operation owes its initiation to him, or received his support, in advice and criticism. Mr. Richardson has made a close study of the land laws of his country, and, owing to his own extensive interests and his acquaintance with so much Western Australian country, it may be confidently hoped that he will place the affairs of his department on that basis which is so needful. He has also made himself acquainted with the advanced legislation of other countries, and it may be depended on that he will strive as much as possible to encourage the settlement of a thriving people on the land.

A man of much sound judgment, and ever possessed with a desire to do his duty courteously and comprehensively, the Hon. A. R. Richardson enjoys the esteem of people scattered all over the colony. We have shown what are his commercial recommendations to the control of the Lands Department.

[This sketch was written in 1896; early in 1897 Mr. Richardson resigned his portfolio and his seat in Parliament.—ED ]