History of West Australia/Robert Edwin Bush

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THE grand old Dutch navigators when they sailed their small vessels near the north-west coast of Australia, were not prepossessed with the country disclosed to their view. They deemed it barren and desolate to a degree, and, in most of their reports, described the land as so much desert, notable for sandy reaches, containing sparse vegetation. Sometimes they saw thin grass and a few wild flowers. Sometimes, too, they had slight communication with the natives, whom they considered ugly, barbarous, and treacherous.

Robert Edwin Bush HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.
R.E. BUSH, J.P., EX-M.L.C.

And so it came to pass that for many long years the potentialities of this north-west country remained quite unknown. Marsupial and bird and native were allowed the whole use of the immense domain. It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that any serious effort was made to prove its latent possibilities, even though it was 300 years before that navigators had gazed upon its shore-line, hills, and small valleys, eager to find gold that would make them immensely wealthy. But when the country within easy reach of the Swan River settlement was colonised it became necessary for settlers to advance their frontiers, and from time to time parts of this north-west country, which had so long baffled civilisation, were brought within their enterprise. Thus the hunting grounds of the blacks were surveyed into pastoral stations, and many portions of that country which was considered so barren have been found to contain soils yards in depth, and as good as any in other extra-tropical regions. Now we find the gold-digger prosecuting his curious search, and obtaining the metal; thus fulfilling the prophecy of one of the earliest navigators; and we also find stations scattered over the land, and cattle and sheep and horses browsing on its vegetation, and white men moving in busy occupation amid its vastnesses.

Of those so engaged is Mr. Robert Edwin Bush, J.P. and ex-M.L.C. The navigators little imagined that these places would some day support men of their own colour, nor did some of them dream that the great south land would ever have within it the germs of an empire. Mr. Bush is the son of the late Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Bush, who was in command of a detachment of the Ninety-sixth Infantry, which did service in West Australia in the forties, and who returned to England in 1851, and settled at Redland, Gloucestershire, where his son, Robert Edwin, was born in 1855. When old enough Robert went to Clifton College, which was then under the headmastership of Dr. Percival, the present Bishop of Hereford. During his college career he, like his brother, Mr. J. A. Bush, who was a member of Dr. Grace's first eleven that visited Australia, was a prominent cricketer. He played with the college team, and was its captain in 1874 and 1875. He also played for the County eleven in 1874, 1875, 1876, and 1877. In 1877 he left the mother country to seek his fortunes in Western Australia. From his father he had obtained valuable information concerning the country, and on his arrival he went to the northern part of the colony. For two years he remained in the north-west, and in 1879 his attention was attracted to the Mauritius, where he was given to understand there was a likely demand for horses. With the object of developing this trade, he took a shipment of high-class animals from Cossack to Port Louis, but the venture did not turn out so well as he expected. Towards the close of 1879 Mr. Bush threw in his lot with Messrs. Walter Howard and S. E. Sewell, on an exploring expedition into the Gascoyne district. The party, which only consisted of the principals and two natives, was provisioned for three months, and entered into the then but little known Gascoyne district, travelling along the Wooramel, Gascoyne, Lyons, Minilya, Lyndon, and Yannarie Rivers. Their adventurous spirits took them further afield than they originally intended to go, and as provisions and water ran short terrible privations were undergone. With dauntless courage, however, they accomplished valuable pioneer work. As the days passed by and no news was received in Perth of the explorers, grave apprehensions were entertained for their safety, and when five months had elapsed without tidings, the Government equipped at Geraldton a party to go in search of them. This expedition was on the eve of starting when tidings were received of the safety of the party, and in due course the adventurers, travel-stained, weary, but in good spirits, reached Geraldton.

A very brief rest was sufficient to fit Mr. Bush for the road again, and he started out to take up land on the Gascoyne, which he then stocked with sheep, and subsequently with cattle and horses. The venture prospered, good seasons followed each other with fair regularity, and thus the famous Clifton Downs Station was founded. On the vast area of one million acres that Mr. Bush took up there were many difficulties to contend with. The succulent mutton was more to the taste of the aboriginal than the flesh of the kangaroo, and war raged between the intrepid squatter and the natives. The latter were very numerous and bold in this district. Large numbers of sheep were speared and driven away, and in the encounters civilised natives employed on the station and also white men were killed or wounded. In the course of time these troubles passed away, and Mr Bush grew so rich in worldly goods that when Mr. John Sydney Davis' magnificent Mount Clere Station, of one million acres, adjoining Clifton Downs, was put in the market, he became the purchaser, and thus increased his run to the enormous dimensions of two million acres. In 189l the station was stocked with 75,000 sheep; and then came the terrible drought of 1891 and 1892, and in less than four months 54,000 sheep died. Mr. Bush, with that persistency that has characterised him through life, did not lose heart under this blow, but fought on against the heavy odds, and re-stocked the land. He imported a valuable Vermont ram from America, besides several high-class shipments of ewes and rams from the eastern colonies, and formed the nucleus of a strong healthy class of animals, valuable both for fleece and mutton. He has at the present time 50,000 sheep, 1,200 cattle, and 300 horses on the station, and hopes to have before many years are over 200,000 sheep, besides cattle and horses, depasturing over the immense runs which he is now so busily improving and developing. His horses are of a very superior class, and find a ready market on the goldfields.

During the years that have come and gone since Mr. Bush took up his abode on the banks of the Gascoyne, in a modest little paper bark hut, many changes have taken place. The homestead is now an ideal country residence, set in flower and vegetable gardens. The shearing shed is deservedly recognised as the most complete in the colony, with its steam engine, shearing machines, wool presses, and dumper; its wool-scouring apparatus, its circular saws, and punching appliances. The land through which the Gascoyne flows for 200 miles is divided into numerous paddocks by over 300 miles of substantial fencing, and the back blocks are watered by wells with windmills. These are not the only changes, for Mr. Bush, who is a great authority on all matters concerning the natives, has by a system of justice, combined with firmness and kindness, induced the descendants of the tribes of blacks, who a few years ago harrowed his flocks and herds, to become his most useful servants, and they now perform, with great cheerfulness and dexterity, most of the station work, including shearing and fencing. Clifton Downs was the first station in West Australia to shear by machinery.

Mr. Bush was married in 1893 to the third surviving daughter of the late Mr. Francis Lochee, so well known as the manager of the Western Australian Bank for a period of over forty years. His wedded life was very brief, however, for within three years his wife was dead. For some years Mr. Bush was a nominee member of the Legislative Council after the introduction of Responsible Government. When the Legislative Council became elective the great drought was worrying the minds of the squatters, and Mr. Bush like his neighbours in misfortune was too much occupied with his private affairs to take a prominent part in politics, and he retired and refused to allow himself to be nominated as a candidate, although repeatedly requisitioned to do so. He is still a member of the Upper Gascoyne Roads Board, of which he was the first chairman, is also an honorary Inspector of Stock under the Government, was the founder and first president of the Northerners' Association, and has been a magistrate of the colony for many years. Mr. Bush is an enthusiastic sportsman, and takes a keen interest in both cricket and racing, in fact of all manly sports. The years of toil and hardship in the bush have not impaired his cunning with the "willow," which he still wields with no mean skill. He organised the annual matches between representative teams of the Northern and Southern districts, and has always played with much success in these events. From his father, who was one of the founders of the Western Australian Turf Club, and who raced horses with much success in the old days, he has inherited a love for equine sport. He is a steward of the principal local club, and also of the Murchison Amateur Racing Club, and vice-president cf the Gascoyne and Victoria Turf Clubs. He has owned and raced some good horses, and is an excellent four-in-hand whip.

For many years Mr. Bush has been a firm believer in the mineral resources of the colony, and has been interested in several prospecting parties, but so far his enterprise has not met with the success it deserves. He was one of the very first to personally prospect and take up leases at Golden Valley, Yilgarn. Mr. Bush is a fair specimen of the gallant body of landed proprietors to whom Western Australia owes her present position. He has great determination, keen business instincts, and a genial disposition.