I once asked my father where his family had originated. He said his father was born in Perth, Western Australia but he didn’t know where his family originated and there were definitely no other family members besides his sisters, brother and my cousins. This converation was the start of my four-year quest to discover my family’s history. I found out Dad was wrong. There’s lots of our family living in Australia.
One of the people I went to for historical stories was Dad’s sister, my Aunty Joy, who was born in Perth, Western Autralia in 1922. She told me stories that were told to her as a child, but she had no idea where her ancestors came from, either.
I later discovered that Joy was a fourth generation Australian; the great-granddaughter of a Cornish tin miner named William. The photograph at the top of this story is the property my ancestors lived in, in Cornwall, and was taken in 2005.
William was 23 years old when he took a ten-week sea journey, travelling 15,000 kilometres from Cornwall to Melbourne, landing in October 1853, hoping to find gold… and a future. He was the first in his family to come to Australia and his brothers and cousins quickly followed, bringing their families along.
Shortly after he arrived in Melbourne, William travelled straight up to Spring Gully in the Victorian Gold Fields, where he made a good living. Like all the other miners, he first lived in a tent, then a cottage and finally a house.
In 1855 William married Charlotte, who had originated from his hometown in Cornwall and, as “Early Australian Pioneers”, they raised 11 children amidst hardships where there were no hospitals, a reliable water supply or proper law enforcement. Four of their children didn’t survive childhod. In 1895 William passed away from stomach cancer at his home in Eaglehawk, Victoria, aged 68. He left 700 pounds in assets to be distributed evenly between his wife and children.
William’s eldest son was a mine manager and soon married a local dressmaker in Fryerstown in 1881. They soon began their own family but the area had been mined dry and the town held no future prospects. By 1895 Joy’s young grandfather moved his family 3,000 kilometres across the country to the newly discovered goldfields in Western Australia, where his brother, Thomas, had secured him a job as a mine manager.
The young couple’s youngest son, Jack, was born in Western Australia in 1900 and he was my Aunty Joy’s father.
The day Jack was born was New Year’s Day, 1900; and his older sisters remembered what they thought about that day.
“Fourteen year old Eva and eleven year old Mary were playing on the street outside their house in Boulder, Western Australia, when the doctor came out of the house carrying his large, carpet bag. The two girls went inside and, to their surprise were told the doctor had delivered a baby. They didn’t see a baby with the doctor when he arrived – so speculated that the large doctor’s bag must have been used to carry their new baby brother to the house.”
Twenty-two years later, baby Jack grew to be a married man; he was the father of my Aunty Joy. Her stories are her experiences of historical events from an era which is now mostly forgotten. Following is a transcript of Aunty Joy’s narrative about the Kalgoorlie Race Riots, which she witnessed in 1934.
“When I was about 11 years old we went to live in in a tent at Kalgoorlie, which used to be called Boulder City, where Dad was born. Our tent was on a grassy area outside a hotel with lots of other tents and they were all about 20 feety x 20 feet. When a room at the hotel became available the next person on the list was offered the room. I think the government provided the tents and we lived in ours for about eight months.
It felt normal to live like that… in a tent. Dad thought he could get a job at the mines, but there were no jobs anywhere, because of the Great Depression. Dad said, “One in four people are out of work but it feels more like nine out of ten.” The other reason there was no work anywhere was that the Italian migrants had offered to work in the mines for lower pay than the miners and the mine owners jumped at the chance… you know, for cheaper labour. The Italians were good workers and really smart business people; they had all the mine work and owned almost all of the businesses, restaurants and residences for rent. Everyone in town hated the I-ties (Italians) but Dad said they’re people just like us who deserve a go just like we do.
One hot day in January an Italian hotel owner accidentally killed an Australian when he tried to evict him from the hotel. The Australians got really mad about it and held a meeting, saying that the Italians were taking over the country. They decided to blow the place up and set off to get gelignite from the mines. Oh they were serious, they were out for blood.
The mob spread the word for the Aussies to get out of town by 8pm because they were going to blow the place up – you know, the Italian houses and businesses. Once the Italians got wind of the plan they ran away. Whole families went and lived out in the bush until they felt it was safe to come back. Then the Australians walked into the shops, emptied the tills and smashed the shops up.
The street was full of Australians – just like it was on New Year’s Eve. We had moved from our tent by this stage and we were in the hotel, which was owned by Australians – so we felt safe. Dad had us all together in our room, upstairs, watching the street below. We saw some Italians being beaten and others running out towards the bush, scared for their lives, and I don’t know if they ever found their way back. I think they died out there in the desert. My two sisters and I were scared by all the sounds and Mum and Dad must have been scared too because they brought their friends up out of the tents to stay with us in our room. After dark we lay in bed listening to buildings burning, glass breaking, bricks collapsing, men shouting and screaming and the strangest, spooky, crashing bang sounds. Earlier in the night we could hear women crying but it didn’t take long before we only heard male voices.
Dad said that what happened to the Italians was a disgrace because they were good family men and hard workers, no different than us. They just didn’t deserve what they were getting. The next day we went for a walk and saw ransacked shops, and buildings still smouldering. The spooky bangs we heard throughout the night turned out to be pianos falling through burning floors of the pub down the road. All the pianos and iron beds ended up in a pile on top of one another on the ground floor.
There would have been less damage if the fire brigade could put the fires out but the Australian men cut the hoses, leaving the Italian businesses and homes to burn to the ground. Kalgoorlie was a frightening place to be for the three days it took for police to come up from Perth and quieten everybody down. The police couldn’t arrest the whole of Kalgoorlie so everybody got away with the part they played in tearing the town apart.
When Dad said it was safe my older brother, Jack, and I walked through the rooms of the smashed up shops, picking up gold coins, lollies and even ice cream. Jack kept the coins and I kept the lollies. We didn’t think it was stealing but now I know it was. A man called out, “Hey, they might be poisoned!” and Dad wouldn’t let me eat any more lollies.
I think the Government paid to rebuild everything that the Italians had lost. Those were very difficult times. Nobody had anything and without the shops, we all had even less.”
After the 1934 Kalgoorlie Race Riots Joy’s family moved away from Kalgoorlie to a railway town called ‘Zanthus’. Living in Zanthus was an exceptional story of survival in the tough life of early Australia. I will write it soon.