History of West Australia/Dennis Joseph Doherty

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AUSTRALIA is so young and so large that there are immense areas of her country unsettled, and even unexplored. In the north of Western Australia, in the Northern Territory of South Australia, and in remote Queensland, there are expansive stretches still hid in their primal gloom. No white man has trod these wastes, no pathfinder has picked his curious way through these tropical regions; the natives—the children of the bush—remain lords of their primeval birthplaces. When taking Australia in a comprehensive bird's-eye view comparatively few and isolated settlers will be seen—an infinitesimal number according to the laws of population. In the old world population is in places reckoned at so many people to the acre; in Western Australia it is approximately eight square miles to one white man.

Dennis Joseph Doherty HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

Much of the country in the Kimberley division of this colony is substantially unchanged from what it was a hundred years ago. The white man has no footing there; eternal stillness is not broken by the songs of commerce, the language of cattle and horses and sheep; the black is undisturbed and holds his corroborees beneath the mangrove. News comes to him at times by means of rumours carried from tribe to tribe that white-skinned people have been seen to the south, but he gives them little thought and is quite oblivious to the pathetic doom which is daily drawing upon him. The writing is on the wall; natural law will not be circumvented; he shall soon be known no more.

As yet the northernmost station is that owned by Messrs. Connor and Doherty—the "Newry." It lies somewhat west of Wyndham, and comprises 1,200 square miles of excellent grazing land. Beyond Newry in almost every direction there is good country to be taken up, which in days to come will undoubtedly prove an invaluable asset to Western Australia.

We are referring in another page to the career of Mr. Francis Connor, M.L.A., of that enterprising firm of pioneers and civilising couriers of which Mr. D. J. Doherty is the other member. Dennis Joseph Doherty was born at Newry, in Ireland, in 186l, and there obtained the foundation of a strong and hardy constitution; the pioneer of Australian "back blocks" requires an iron constitution. He attended St. Coleman's College until 1876, and had as a fellow-student his present partner, Mr. Connor. The two boys played together and studied in common, and roamed the environments of their native district in each other's company. The most prophetic soul then watching them would not have imagined a future career in such strange comparison, as was actually to take place.

Upon leaving school, young Doherty entered a linen spinning factory, while young Connor was associated with his father in an auctioneering business. For five years Mr. Doherty puzzled his mind in watching the ingenious process of linen manufacture. Soon after the notorious Phœnix Park murders he left Ireland, and found his way to Sydney, New South Wales. His colonial career began in a comparatively modest capacity under a firm of general importers in that city, with whom he remained for four years. Meanwhile he was delighted to welcome to Australia his old school chum, Francis Connor. The young men wisely put their heads and bodily vigor and capital together, and determined, in 1886, to come to Western Australia. Attention was at that period being gradually attracted to the Kimberley Gold fields, which rumour said contained some promise. Not averse to "roughing it" in the sparsely settled parts of the continent, they embarked in May of that year in the Afghan, the first steamer sailing for north west ports from the eastern colonies. They took merchandise with them which they hoped to sell at a substantial profit, and landed in Cambridge Gulf at what is now well known as Wyndham. There they opened a store in a tent, and while Mr. Doherty looked after this, Mr. Connor procured teams and carted provisions to the fields at Hall's Creek. Needless to say, both gentleman were thrown into the vortex of vicissitudes and were put to many inconveniences and trying labours. Their venture succeeded, as such bold enterprise was bound to do, and the profit on their original shipment of stores was encouraging. They sent for further consignments, and in course of time the store of Connor and Doherty became the best known in that part of Western Australia. It was so firmly established that, still in existence, it is now recognised as indissoluble with Wyndham and the surrounding country. So well did the store prosper that the firm turned its mind to other industries. The early training of Mr. Connor encouraged him to enter into pastoral pursuits. Cambridge Gulf is in closer proximity to India than most ports of Australia, and because a lucrative industry in importing Australian horses was already established, the firm naturally thought there was a big opening for raising and despatching to India a good class of horses. About fifteen miles from Wyndham they took up 60,000 acres of land, and procured a fine strain of animals as a nucleus. But after a year's trial they observed to their chagrin that the country was unsuitable as a horse pasture, and they therefore had to relinquish their hopes of trade with India. But while this country is not congenial for horses, it is excellent cattle-grazing land. Bush and herbage, highly nutritious in fattening cattle, are there in abundance in good seasons, and Messrs. Connor and Doherty purchased 200 cattle and initiated an industry which has since made them among the best known cattle owners in the colony. The first station did not satisfy their demands, and penetrating farther afield than any other pastoralists they selected a station of 1,200 square miles on the Ord River. There the tropical growth of herbage is seen at its best. The soil to a considerable distance from the watercourses is very fertile, and grass literally springs up, attaining at times twelve inches growth in a fortnight. At the rear of the station is an impregnable range of hills or mountains which baffles stock to cross and makes a barrier as formidable as a Trojan wall. On the plains and in the ravines beneath, Messrs. Connor and Doherty fatten their stock; their enterprise is now widely affecting the Western Australian cattle market. In 1896 they shipped 8,000 fat cattle to Fremantle. The great steamships Liddesdale, Eskdale, and Tangiers were chartered by them in that year, and ran between Wyndham and Fremantle with valuable live stock. The firm despatch not only cattle reared on their own stations but those of other north-west pastoralists which they purchase. They now have over 3,000 cattle depastured on their Ord River run.

While devoting their energies to these pursuits they found time to interest themselves fairly heavily in mining at Kimberley, and among their properties is the Ruby Queen gold mine, which a company failed to make remunerative. The firm have invested much capital in development work, and have erected twenty head of stampers. Although they have largely devoted their attention principally to prospecting on the Ruby Queen, they have yet been able to make it pay its way, and are gradually bringing it to a profitable issue. Some years ago when there was an export duty of 2s. 6d. an ounce on gold they purchased very large quantities of gold at their Wyndham store. This gold was not published in the Government statistics of the output of the Kimberley fields, which suggests that the gold deposits were much more valuable than the declared returns led the public to believe.

In 1894 Mr. Doherty removed to Perth to reside, and the firm now conducts in addition to its other large interests a substantial and stable auctioneering, land agency, and shipping business. Mr. Doherty was married, in 1888, to a daughter of Mr. Cable, of Talbot, Victoria.

In a way necessarily discursive we have sought to show how rapidly the enterprise of Mr. Doherty and his partner in Western Australia was brought to its present important standing. The gold discoveries at Kimberley were primarily responsible for their coming here, and they have since bravely and energetically toiled and reaped. The climate of Wyndham is so generously hot that it needs courage to remain there any length of time, but those men who have not been afraid of this inconvenience, have reason to be proud of their hardihood. On their stations at the Ord River these pioneers have been brought into most unpleasant contact with the natives. As we have shown in our history, the natives in the north-west are most treacherous and difficult to control. Messrs. Connor and Doherty have found it impossible to civilise and tame these wild aboriginals, and the consequence is rather unhappy.

For their fearlessness in investing capital in northern Western Australia, the two old schoolfellows merit unstinted praise, for by these means the wealth of the colony has been considerably augmented; they have paved the way to the development of much hitherto waste country. A strong built man, Mr. Doherty's intelligence partakes of the hardihood and stability of his physique. Quick, enterprising, and wisely cautious, no better stamp of man for an advance guard of civilisation could be obtained. Truly he and his partner sowed in tribulation and discomfort, and they now reap in joy the rich harvests so carefully tilled.

[Since this sketch was written Mr. Doherty has been elected a member of he Western Australian Legislative Council, a position which he should fill with credit—Ed]