History of West Australia/Edward Horne Wittenoom

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THE mining industry is assuming such remarkable proportions - in Western Australia that the administration of the Mining Department becomes more and more difficult. A few years ago, although minerals were known to exist, their production was so limited that they had very little influence over the colony's prosperity. But a wonderful change has taken place. To-day we have substantially the eyes of the world attracted as by a magnet to the mineral fields of the colony. Mines exist over immense areas, and nearly every day their number is being added to. The discoveries have been nothing less than sensational, and territory which, up till the last four years, was deemed valueless, now promises to be the richest in the whole land. In every colony gold forms an excellent beginning; let its production but be encouraged and stimulated by the Government, and prosperity must smile on every other industry. By gold capital and population are attracted, and by facilitating the application of these two primary agencies the basis of a brilliant future is laid by Government. For attention shall soon be diverted to other and surer channels of enterprise, and a prosperity shall be ensured in a year or two which would take a quarter of a century in realising without the yellow medium.

Edward Horne Wittenoom2.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

It was very necessary that as the various fields were opened up laws and regulations should be enacted to at once assist and protect the mining industry. These rules had to be subject to the peculiar conditions existing on the fields, and the work of the Administration was indeed difficult and fraught with keen anxiety. Then so many other departments were naturally severely tried that the difficulty of the situation grew apace. The Forrest Government, as a whole, and the Minister of Mines in particular, has sincerely endeavoured to rise to the occasion. Since the Hon. E. H. Wittenoom took office in 1894 the greatest progression on the fields has taken place; the hon. gentleman, after recondite study, formulated his schemes—his rules and regulations. Some of these did not meet with the support of all the goldfields residents, but by full consideration of their views Mr. Wittenoom has given way to them where he thought it was to their interests.

The conduct of the Mines Department is in itself sufficient labour for any man, but add to it the control of the Postal and Telegraphs Department and the Education Department and his capacity for hard work must indeed be infinite. The great influx of population, caused by the gold discoveries, occasioned an intense strain on the Postal and Telegraphs Department, and the old rules and appliances were quite inadequate. Here, too, great alterations and additions had to be made, and the problems of the Minister of Mines were consequently materially augmented by his problems as Minister of Post and Telegraphs. The Hon. Mr. Wittenoom is thus fully occupied, and he has done his utmost to level all the difficulties in his way. Perhaps he has not mastered them all, yet no man could in so short a time, but as soon as reforms he has initiated are completed a new face will be shown, and his departments will run on smoother lines.

The first clergyman who entered Western Australia was the Rev. John Burdett Wittenoom, who for many years laboured among his flock, while the pioneers prosecuted their labours in winning the lands of West Australia from their virgin state. He taught them religious peace and consolation when their work was put aside and they rested from their toil. His son, Mr. Charles Wittenoom, soon engaged in agricultural pursuits in York, and a second son, Mr. Frederick Dirck Wittenoom was at one time sheriff of the colony.

The Hon. E. H. Wittenoom is a son of Mr. Charles Wittenoom, and was born at Fremantle in 1854. His infant days were passed at York and Fremantle, and when old enough he attended the Bishop's Collegiate School at Perth. Trouble early fell upon him, for in 1861 his mother died, and in 1866 his father was also taken from him. Left alone thus early he concluded his studies when fifteen years old, and proceeded to Geraldton, where on the Bowes Station, owned by the late Mr. T. Burges, he gained his first insight into pastoral pursuits. For five years he remained on this station in that field of life which ever has an unspeakable charm for the young Australian. He loves to canter on his favourite horse in those places where the weird, solemn, bush holds silent sway, to roam unobserved over the huge stretches of pasturage, seeking for some flock of sheep or herd of cattle. And when the night comes he sits in his modest hut, or in the mess-room, listening to strange stories from those nomadic men who come from the Rising Sun and disappear in the Twilight soon afterwards. Mr. Wittenoom had a natural predilection for pastoral pursuits, for the rearing of the woolly sheep, and at the end of the five years he was possessed of the requisite knowledge to enable him to branch out on his own account. In 1874 he and his brother, Mr. F. Wittenoom, secured the lease of a large station on the outlying parts of the Murchison district. Their run—the Yuin—comprised 300,000 acres, and upon it they placed 15,000 sheep. These young men worked energetically to reach prosperity, and their efforts were not unsuccessful. They did considerable pioneering work, and explored several localities near by, hitherto unknown to white men. Much severe toil resulted, and in common with all pioneers they had to "rough it" to use a colloquialism—on their "way back" stations. The country in those parts is very erratic; droughts, alternating with floods. Sometimes they were in considerable danger of dying of thirst, and on one occasion were within an ace of death; at others they were compelled to climb trees out of reach of the flood waters which roared beneath them. But the floods were more welcomed than the droughts, for after them came green rich pasturage, upon which flocks and herds soon fattened. The growth of herbage in the Murchison district after a downpour of rain is abnormal, and it only takes a few days for the face of the whole country to be changed under such conditions. For three years the brothers E. H. and F. Wittenoom conducted this station, and when only twenty-five years of age Mr. E. H. Wittenoom was created a Justice of the Peace. He became a member of the Murchison Roads Board, and for nineteen successive years occupied the position of chairman. When the partners relinquished the Yuin Station they took a lease of the Bowes Station, and also opened up country which they named the Murgoo, Boolardy, and Nookawarra Stations. The land on these contained excellent salt-bush, while some of it was covered with the common mulga of the West. The stations were capable of keeping one sheep to ten acres all the year round; precarious rainfall being the difficulty. The soil was of a most healthy description, and given sufficient rain it would prove a highly valuable asset to the colony, and would carry one sheep to every two acres. These three stations embraced altogether 2,000,000 acres, and the brothers needed the aid of natives in negotiating the work on their immense runs. They found the aborigines of material assistance, and their experience proved that kind treatment would work wonders with the poor unfortunate ebony race. The flocks of the firm were now increased to 30,000, also they ran 1,000 head of cattle on their land. Subsequently they cut up their immense holdings and sold them in parts to Walsh and Sons, E. Lee Steere, and Holmes and Maloney. While Mr. E. H. Wittenoom supervised Bowes Station, upon which he gained his first pastoral experience, his brother managed the properties further north. On the Bowes Station were 25,000 sheep, besides cattle and horses.

In 1881 the firm purchased White Peak Station, a beautiful estate near Geraldton. It derives its name from a coastal range of hills running at the rear of the homestead, upon which stand bright white cliffs, easily seen from the decks of ships out at sea. Here the brothers established a stud sheep farm, and introduced rams from the noted strain of merinos owned by A. D. Murray of South Australia. The wool obtained by them at this station was quite noted, and their last clip, before parting with the run some time ago, was reported on in London as the finest produced in Western Australia. Mr. E. H. Wittenoom during his career has been considered the best judge of sheep in the colony. His extensive experience is probably answerable for this, while the deep interest he has always taken in this primary Australian industry has proved to him how necessary it is to have the best animals.

During all this time Mr. E. H. Wittenoom had been gaining experience which would prove of great advantage to the old Legislative Council, and in 1883 he was elected a member for the Geraldton district. The duties of his position he filled for but a short time. At the end of 1883 he resigned and went to England and the Continent. Late in 1884 be returned to the colony and took up his residence at his home at White Peak. In 1887 the firm opened a stock and station agency business in Geraldton, which thrived so well that it grew to enormous proportions, and their customers were scattered over a very large portion of the north-west. In 1892 they erected large business premises in Marine Terrace, Geraldton, and Mr. E. H. Wittenoom built a fine residence out of the town. Eventually the stock and station agency became so large that it was sold to Messrs. Burns, Philp, and Co., of Queensland. Mr. E. H. Wittenoom thereupon retired from active business life. The brothers still own the Boolardy and Nookawarra Stations of 1,000,000 acres. There they run about 20,000 sheep, 1,000 cattle, and 300 horses.

When the Hon. Mr. Wittenoom removed from his more northern stations to live near Geraldton he became a member of the local Roads Board, and for nine years occupied the position of chairman. It would be idle to say that they gave him useful experience. After his return from England in 1884 he was again elected a member of the Legislative Council, but his increasing business duties compelled him to resign in 1886. For a number of years he remained unconnected with political affairs, but in 1894 he was so earnestly requested to stand for the Legislative Council, under responsible government, in the interests of the Central Province, that he consented. In July of that year he was elected. It had been his intention to take an extended tour to Europe and Great Britain, but in December, 1894, he was asked by Sir John Forrest to take the position of Minister of Mines, &c, in the Cabinet. It was a distinguished compliment to his ability that only five months after entering Parliament he was requested to take charge of a Government Department.

Mr. Wittenoom, before deciding to accept the offered portfolio, visited his constituents to seek their advice as to his taking office. As a result he accepted, and on the 19th December, 1894, he assumed control of the Mines, Postal and Telegraphs, and Education Departments of Western Australia. The work before him was by no means easy, for in 1895 the goldfields largely increased in dimensions, and the population was materially augmented by a constant stream of arrivals from all parts of the world. Arrangements had to be immediately made to meet all the requirements, and Mr. Wittenoom was kept exceedingly busy. In the 1895 session of Parliament he had a Mines Bill carried through both Houses, which was calculated to satisfy all demands, and which in its working has since greatly reduced the chaos before apparent on the goldfields. The whole Mining Department was placed on more definite lines to secure the proper government of the enormous industry at stake. The new Act has had a most beneficial effect, and is now working with slight friction in such a rapidly growing department. Several new mining districts have been proclaimed, over each of which a staff of officers and men is appointed so as to facilitate registration and secure fair play and uniformity. The Hon. Mr. Wittenoom has charge of the mining districts of Coolgardie, North Coolgardie, East Coolgardie, Murchison, East Murchison, Yilgarn, Yalgoo, Dundas, Pilbarra, West Pilbarra, North-east Coolgardie, Mount Margaret, Peak Hill, Broad Arrow, Dandalup. To these he has appointed wardens, registrars, and their assistants.

Then in the Postal and Telegraphs Department he has made many changes, the principal of which are the removal of the construction branch of Telegraphs from the Public Works Department to the control of the Telegraphs Department itself, and the giving of increased facilities in mail arrangements to the many goldfields at the chief centres of population. One primary feature of his administration was the authorisation of the construction of the Coolgardie to Eucla telegraph line, completed in four and a half months. In the Education Department also many important changes have been made, and new schools opened.

In common with the heads of other Government Departments, the Hon. Mr. Wittenoom may be said to be a true son of Western Australia. Possessed of strong sense and an intimate knowledge of his native land he renders the colony his best services. In pastoral pursuits he often led the way in advantageous departures from the beaten track, and gave a good example for others to follow. He has facilitated and assisted wool and other industries in business, and his services to colonial politics have been conspicuous.

[During the absence of Sir John Forrest in England to attend the celebrations of 1897 Mr. Wittenoom was acting Premier.—Ed]