History of West Australia/James Broun Roe

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James Broun Roe HOFWA.jpg
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IN the annals of Australian history the name of Roe will ever occupy a prominent place, for few men have done better work for Western Australia than the late Captain Roe, R.N., Surveyor-General of the Colony. Nearly seventy years have passed since this gallant officer threw in his lot with the fortunes of the few adventurous spirits who settled in the land of the Black Swan, and laid the foundations of the present great colony. That man of energy and scientific turn of mind, who previously accompanied the navigator King in his explorations along our coast, accompanied Governor Stirling when he landed in Western Australia in 1829. It is not, however, of the famous sailor that we have now to deal, but with the career of his son, Mr. James Broun Roe, the principal sheriff of the Colony.

In the whole of the Public Service there is, perhaps, not a more arduous and responsible position, requiring, as it does, a man of iron nerve, a good disciplinarian, and a capacity to manage men. Such accomplishments in Mr. Roe's case are probably hereditary, for from boyhood he was noted for these qualities—qualities which, when he was a lad, were absolutely necessary to a man who was to act as a leader of men. This, Mr. Roe, like his father, has had to do nearly all his life, only the son's task has been harder, if anything, than the father's, for whereas the captain had to deal with the well-disciplined sailors of a man-of-war, the son, in his capacity of Inspector of Prisoners and as Sheriff, has had to deal with some of the worst characters in the community. Mr. J. B. Roe was born on the 11th of May, 1833, in Perth, where he passed his boyhood. When old enough to commence his studies there were few opportunities for a boy to attend school in the settlement, so his elementary education was received from the Rev. J. Burdett Wittenoom, the first chaplain in the service of the colony. From that gentleman he obtained the foundation of a good education, which was completed at the schools which he subsequently attended. In 1851, on the 1st January, the young Australian launched out for himself, receiving an appointment in the Survey Department as junior clerk. Promotion came rapidly to Mr. Rowe and he soon rose to the onerous position of recordkeeper. In those days but little was known of the interior of the country, and the Government were anxious to obtain reliable information as to its quality and suitability for settlement. Exploring parties had ventured into the bush in various localities, but what was required was a thorough examination of the country in the region of the Murchison. A Government party was organised, and placed under the charge of that well-known explorer, Mr. F. T. Gregory, Mr. Roe being second in command, with instructions to penetrate into the little known plains to the north. The trip was attended with considerable danger, for not only were the aborigines known to be very fierce and warlike, but there was the chance if the blacks were overcome that the fearful foe, Thirst, would claim its victims. With these dangers to face, it was incumbent that the greatest discretion should be exercised in the selection of the members of the expedition. To the young record clerk the prospect of adventures to be obtained on such an expedition had an irresistible charm, and his inclusion in its ranks was greeted with delight. Another prominent member of the party was Mr. William Dalgety Moore.

The expedition started away in the spring of 1858, and steered straight for the Murchison River, which they followed for several hundreds of miles. Thence they struck across to the Gascoyne, and followed it to where Carnarvon now stands. The party were very successful in discovering good country, but were hampered in their work by the natives, who evinced a decided objection to the presence of the whites. One tribe, numbering between sixty and seventy members, were very wroth at the invasion of their territory, and attacked the party no less than three times. Their bark, however, proved worse than their bite, as their fear of the guns and horses was so great that they did not approach near enough to the party to do any harm. They followed them, however, for days and days, refusing to be dismissed, and proved a menace to the safety of any one who left the precincts of the camp. After this had been going on for several days, the blacks seemed to have worked themselves into a frantic state of excitement, and made a most determined and furious attack. They rushed on the little band with the most fiendish yells of defiance, throwing their spears, but at the first volley from the guns, which were fired over their heads, their courage evaporated; they wavered and a second volley sent them flying helter-skelter, with cries of fear, into the scrub.

It was not considered safe, however, to light a fire at night after this for fear of attracting them to the camp, and many a weary and cheerless vigil did the members of the party have to keep during the remainder of their stay in the locality.

An end comes to all things, however, be they pleasant or otherwise, and at the end of three months the work of the party was accomplished, and they were soon homeward bound to prepare the reports of their discoveries for the guidance of settlers.

Mr. Roe went back to his desk in the record office, and discharged the duties of that position until 1865, when he was gazetted as Registrar of Births, Marriages, and Deaths. In 1877 he was appointed Sheriff, and in 1886 the duties of Inspector of Prisons were added. During the time he has been associated in his official capacity with the criminal classes, he has attended no fewer than twenty-two executions. Mr. Roe, who is married to Miss Alice Stone, daughter of Mr. G. F. Stone, at one time the Attorney-General, and father of the present Mr. Justice Stone, has had a variety of experiences in the several capacities which he has from time to time filled. He has seen the Public Service grow from diminutive proportions to its present magnitude. Necessarily, many interesting incidents have been crowded into his busy official life, and when he strikes the reminiscent vein he is a charming raconteur. A keen student of human nature, his position has enabled him to study the many phases of mankind, and his graphic descriptive powers throw luminous side lights on the criminal annals of the colony.