7["Disastrous Hurricane at the North-West Settlement", Perth Gazette and West Australian Times, Friday 24 May 1872, Supplement p1]


We have been favored with many personal descriptions of the fearful hurricane which ravaged and completely erased from the map of Australasia, our Northwest Settlement. We have little to add to the account of the personal sufferings of himself and family, so simply, and, so graphically told by Mr. Sholl, R.M., in his interesting and touching despatch. Flocks, herds of cattle, and horses were swept away in the terrible flood that covered the plain country for miles in every direction. The loss is variously estimated at from 12 to 20,000, and the question naturally presents itself--as this visitation has occurred twice, within two years, will the sufferers rehabilitate their ruined homesteads? Or is this once promising settlement for the future to become merely a pearling station?

It is some mitigation of the severe catastrophe to which the settlers have been subjected, that most of them were venturers in the far-famed mother-o'-pearl shell fisheries, which have proved this season, a great success, and that there has been no loss with one exception, of either life or craft engaged in the prosecution of that industry.

Government Resident's Office,

Roebourne, 26th April, 1872.


It is with sorrow that I have to report a serious disaster at this place on the evening of the 20th ulto., when a hurricane swept the district, levelled (with the exception of two outhouses,) every building in Roebourne, caused much damage to station property, and destroyed many large and small stock. The usual warning was not given. The daily average of the barometer from the 10th to the 3lst January was 29.82; for the month of February 29.82; and for the 9 days of March preceding the cyclone, 29.83. During this period we had showers, with occasional heavy, but steady rain, and congratulated ourselves upon the propitious season. Considering that it was the height of the hot season, the thermometer did not range high, but the heat was oppressive, and the atmosphere close and damp. On the 19th March the barometer stood at 29.78; no wind during the day, cloudy, and threatening rain. At 8 p.m. there was a moderate E. wind and rain, which fell steadily during the night. On the 20th, at 8.15 a.m., the barometer indicated 29.61; thermometer 79. (It was not lower than 78 throughout the day.) Wind, light, from S.E. At 11 a.m., barometer 29.58 ; raining heavily, occasional strong gusts from S.E.; river Harding flooded. At 1.10 p.m. barometer 29.50; wind from same quarter, but increasing in strength; river flood flood extending, and rain descending in cataracts. At 2.10 p.m , barometer 29.44--wind, flood, and, if possible, rain increasing. At 4.10 p.m., barometer 29.29; strong gale from S.E., heavy rain. At the Residency plaster falling in large masses from the rocking of the building. Portion of interior wall of kitchen damaged by wet. At 5.10 p.m., barometer 29.18; very strong S.E. gale with rain. Plaster falling from lee side of Residency. This is the last entry I made, as the rain and wind would not permit me to keep a light burning in the office, but I recollect that at 6.10 p.m., the barometer read 28.96. Shortly alter this mortar and small stones fell so fast in the office that I left it, getting out of a window facing north, fearing to open the doors, which all faced the gale. I had just got outside, when assistance being required at the Residency, I crawled across and attempted with Mrs. Sholl and the native servant to close the front hail door. This we could not do, but blocked it with chests and boxes. The interior walls were coming down so fast that we had to leave. Mrs. Sholl, two young children, the native, and myself accordingly left by a door facing north, which we opened with difficulty, the door being jammed by the settling of the house. The native went to the kitchen; we went to the bath brush house adjoining. Shortly the native came and said that the roof of the Residency and kitchen had been blown off, and that the walls were falling. We had pushed against the door, which faced the wind, and kept it closed, but felt the front wall of the place gradually yielding. The timber was blowing about us from the Residency, and fearing some of it might penetrate our frail screen, I proposed going to the offices, which still stood. The children went with me, but Mrs. Sholl distrusted the offices and remained. We reached the offices with difficulty, crawling on hands and knees! If it had not been for the native I should not have made way against the wind; the children managed better. We could not (luckily for us) enter the building, and got under the lee of the back verandah. In the course of a few minutes, during a fearful and continued gust of wind, the building was unroofed and we had to flee. I was scarcely outside when I was driven before the wind, knocked over, and rolled along, the roof of the office falling around me, and small pieces striking me. Here I must have been struck heavily, but do not recollect it. When I recovered from insensibility I was lying on my face with my fingers dug into the ground. I found I could not move easily, or without pain. Attempted to go towards the bush hut, but in the haze, and with the rain beating in my face, went in the wrong direction, and was finally blown back. As I was rolling along, caught hold of a rock, and with difficulty got to leeward of it. I was here several hours, several attempts to get to the bush hut being unsuccessful, with the gale still at its height, and in my disabled condition. During this time the wind had not abated, but had gradually shifted from S.E. to E., thence N.E., and later, to the northward, when it diminished in force. It was moonlight, but the dense clouds and driving rain rendered it impossible to distinguish objects within a few feet. When the wind had veered North, and there was a partial lull, the sky was sufficiently clear to enable me to see by the misshapen shadows in the haze that every building was down. Got to the bush hut, and found my wife and one child under its ruins. The roof had blown off, and the front wall, in its fall, being supported by a box, enabled them to obtain shelter. My youngest child and the native not there; but were supposed to be at the stable. I searched in that direction, but could not find them. Immediately after my return to the bush hut Mr. H. H. Hickes, p.c. Wansbrough, and others came, having heard from my native that we were buried in the ruins. They told me that every house in Roebourne was down. I also learnt from them that my boy had been hurt. The native had been with him until he was struck by timber and could not walk. The native was hit on the head, laid him down and crawled away for assistance. I found the child at the rear of the bush hut with his thigh broken. We took him thence to the ruins of the Police Station, and in a small room, which still possessed four walls, in the darkness, and during the pouring rain, set and bandaged his leg as well as we could. The next day the medicine chest was dug out and proper splints, &c., obtained. By daylight we found that he had also received two severe flesh wounds. According to my estimation it was 10 o'clock p.m. when we removed the boy to the station; and for about an hour afterwards there was a lull. The wind then shifted to the westward, and blew until daylight with great violence. It gradually veered South and moderated. At 8 a.m., on the 21st, it was calm.

From what I can learn it appears that all the buildings in Roebourne were destroyed within half an hour of each other. No matter how they were built, or what material, they went in the direction of the wind. As a general rule the roofs were the first to yield. My watch broken by the fall of the office walls, had stopped at 6.55 p.m., and at, or about that time, the ruin of Roebourne was effected. We removed to the room whither I had conveyed my child on the following morning; a neighbour, Mr. J. Brown, having kindly lent a tarpaulin for roofing. The total loss to the district is estimated at 12,000 at the very least. The general estimate is 15,000, and some make it as high as 20,000. But before I detail the losses I will mention the amount of personal injury sustained, which, providentially, is much less than could have been anticipated. The most serious injury was that sustained by my little boy. Mrs. Withnell had her wrist cut open. A native lad had his arm broken and was much contused. Mr. Mickes, contused knee. Mr. Fauntleroy, much bruised. Others received injuries of no very serious description. The blow which I received on the right leg has proved troublenome in its effects, and I cannot yet bend my knee. There were some hairbreath escapes, that of Mr. McLeod being the most wonderful. He was at the Nickol, and was blown towards the river, then overflowing its banks. He lay flat, and clutched the ground with his hands and toes, but was driven to the river, which at last was within a few feet of him. He is a strong-built young man, otherwise he must have perished: once in the river, nothing could have saved him.

I will now attempt to give you a detailed account of the damage done during the cyclone, beginning at Roebourne. The Residency, built of sundried bricks, mahogany roof, weather-boarded, and shingled, completely destroyed, with its contents. Public offices, built of stone, with clay cement, similar roof to Residency, levelled to the ground; contents, for most part, destroyed. Kitchen attached to Residency, built of mahogany, weather-boarded, with clay interior walls, roof, battens, and shingles, quite a heap of ruins. Tool-house, and other out-houses, either blown away or blown over. Government store and Police Station (a wooden building under one roof), roof blown away, walls partially blown down. Lock-up, roof blown into the river and floated away, walls down and scattered about the townsite. This was a temporary structure, with weather-board roof and sides. The flagstaff fell early in the day. The stable, a primitive structure, with brush roof and sides, yet strongly built, was not injured, nor some loose spinifex thrown over the roof, stirred. A cart close by was not moved. It would appear at this particular spot - a hollow - the wind had no power. Mr. Thos. Brown's house, recently erected, and but just occupied, substantially built of mahogany, with interior walls of clay, was destroyed, with the adjacent out-houses. Mr. Spencer's public-house, built of pug, and weather-boarded, with bush verandah around, was thrown down, and the flood from the river completed the work of destruction. The out-houses (on higher ground) remained both partially injured. Mr. Withnell's house and store, (the latter occupied by Messrs. M'Rae & Co,) built of stone, with clay cement, the former with shingled roof, and the latter thatched, were unroofed, the dwelling-house destroyed; portion of the stonework of the store blown down. A house, the property of Mr. Padbury, built of unburnt bricks, was completely destroyed. Mr. Fisher's weather-boarded cottage was unroofed, and the building canted on one side. Mrs. Fisher and a newly born infant were exposed to the rain and wind during that dreadful night. The child died. When the roof fell it was supported by the top of the iron bedstead, thus saving its occupant and others in the room. A weather-boarded cottage, recently built by Mr. Fauntleroy, and occupied by Capt. Miles, was literally blown away. Capt. Miles had a narrow escape; Mrs. Miles was not in the house at the time. Mr. Stewart's public house, with out-buildings attached, was prostrated; and a number of huts and shanties scattered over the townsite were blown over the country. The flood was higher than has yet been shown, not only at Roebourne, but throughout the district. Much damage was done by the overflow of the rivers. The water was a foot high in the stable near the police station.

I now come to the port--Cossack. Here the gale blew with great violence, and although it was neap tide, the water in the inlet swept over the bank and was eighteen inches high in Mr. Howlett's store. Had it been spring tide, all buildings, not on the sandy ridge, would have been swept away. As it was, the store of Messrs. McRae & Co., was unroofed, and the walls shaken; the verandah was blown down. This was a weatherboard mahogany house, with shingled roof. Mr. Stewart's proposed public-house, recently erected, made of mahogany timber, with zinc roof, was twisted out of position, and the roof lifted from the plates. Mr Howlett's store, built of pine timber, with iron iron sides, was partially unroofed. The houses of Mr. Chadman, Mr. Best, and Mr. Phillimore, built of light timber and thatched, were thrown down.

At both towns much loss was sustained by the inhabitants by the destruction of stores, furniture, clothing, &c. At the Upper Landing, the flooring of the jetty with rails, &c. was carried away, leaving nothing standing but the piles and caps. The heavy timber for platform cranes was also washed away. All these materials have been seen, and are recoverable.

Before I give a statement of the station losses, I may state that, as on former occasions, the cyclone did not extend in force beyond the Maitland to the Westward, nor did it reach the DeGrey to the Eastward. At Condon there was a strong gale a few days earlier (March 16), which, had it lasted, would have sunk, or blown ashore, many of the pearl boats, but happily no mischief was done. Going Westward, the first place where stock were depastured is the Nickol. Here there was a flock of Mr. Venn's in charge of Mr. MeLeod, who was dressing them for scab. At this place 2,200 sheep were swept away; also, three mares, two foals, one gelding, one horse, cart, harness, two tanks, materials for sheep dressing, rations, and stores. Only 60 sheep were saved. At the Maitland, Mr. Venn lost 60 ewes; loss of large stock not known, the state of the country not being favorable for search ; and this remark will apply to every other station. Mr. R. L. McKay lost 1,500 sheep. His house, with contents thereof, was carried away. Proceeding East and South, Mr. Withnell lost at the Eastern Harding 600 wether sheep; he also lost some horses in the neighborhood of Roebourne, where Mr. Fisher lost two valuable cart horses. At the Pyramid station, Mr. Richardson lost 1,100 sheep and 200 rams; one horse known to be drowned, and several horses and cattle missing. The houses on the station were much damaged. Mr. Viveash's stock not injured, but a house in course of erection was blown down, and a tank washed away. At Messrs McRae & Co's Mill Stream station, 300 sheep were killed, and a substantially-built wool and shearing shed blown down. At Mr. Hickes' station, Table Hill, the loss was heavy, comprising 700 sheep, 50 horses, and 50 head of cattle; house, yards, sheds, and wool press, all swept away. Messrs. A. Howlett and J. Lockyer lost between them, at or near the same station, 250 sheep. Mr. Hancock, at Nudover, lost 300 sheep; house down with the exception of one small room; wool press and shearing shed blown down. The Government lost 2 cart horses. I have lost one cart horse and a foal.

Happily, with one sad exception, there has been no serious loss among the boats. The 'Bonnie Dundee,' 'Squire' and 'Compass,' a boat belonging to Mr. D. McKay, and the 'Maggie,' were at anchor in Butcher's Inlet. The first-named lies ashore half-a-mile from her anchorage, the second 2 miles in the direction of the Upper Landing both irreparably damaged. The third has not been found, and the last recovered not much damaged. According to native evidence the 'Nellie,' with two men on board, Peter Lynch, and a man of color named Joseph Henry, was lying in Flying Foam Passage during the night of the cyclone. One native diver, apprehending a gale, left her during the afternoon, and slept ashore. She has not since been heard of, although thorough search has been made along the coast and among the islands. I fear she is lost. The 'Mary' from Fremantle and Champion Bay arrived on the 21st ult., having happily escaped the hurricane. She was between the Montebellos and the Fortescue, and even there experienced a heavy gale. On the 22nd my son, with Corpl. Vincent and p.c. Glover, came, and, for the first time, we had assistance. In a few days a framework was erected, covered with a sail kindly lent by Mr. Littlejohn, master of the 'Mary,' to which covering we removed, and there we are still living.

The police, under Corporal Vincent's orders, and, with his customary ready and efficient aid, began at once to clear away ruins, and thus succeeded in saving much property, public and private, which must otherwise have perished. I take this opportunity of bringing to the notice of the Governor the services they have rendered in this respect. Their attention to my family, and gentle kindness to my sick child, I can never forget. The native assistant "Curly Wig," who remained by us during the trials of that night, I also beg respectfully to recommend to the clemency of His Excellency the Governor. The native is a prisoner of the Crown.

On the 28th inst. at 2 a.m , we had a sharp thunderstorm, which lasted for about two hours. As no one had a roof over him capable of resisting the storm, every one in the town was drenched, and, worse, the wretched remnants saved from the wrecked houses were again soaked. Our sail covering was no protection; but Corpl. Vincent lent a tarpaulin which he had brought per 'Mary,' and with the assistance of my son and the police, the disabled child was saved from wet. As far as the limited supply of labor at our disposal would admit, much has been done.

I have accepted a contract to rebuild and enlarge the store aud police station. This work will be completed in a few weeks. I shall then occupy it for public use. It will be a store, office, Court-house, &c., until temporary offices can be erected. The police will, after the departure of the 'Mary,' occupy the tent now in use by my family. Mr. Brown has rebuilt his house so far that the rafters are in position. Mr. Withnell has rebuilt the walls of his store with stone and pug. Mr. Fauntleroy has the studs and plates of his cottage fixed. Mr. Stewart has re-erected his public house so far that the roof is paitially weather boarded. The shanties have sprung up almost as fast as they went down. We scarcely know how to build; for houses built of every sort of material, and of various degrees of strength, equally suffered. As a rule the new buildings are of less height, and the pitch of the loof is less. The Government store and station will be 7 feet high with a roof pitch 3 feet 6 inches. The temporary offices will be of equal height and pitch. Stone and clay will be generally discarded.

I am glad to state that the pearl boats, now flocking into harbor, have generally done well, and I believe the 'Mary,' 'Mary Ann,' and perhaps a pearl boat or two, will will take between them 70 tons of shells, being the take since Christmas. The 'Xantho,' steamer, daily expected from Condon, will, I expect, take shells to Fremantle. I should have written this before, but I had no office until the 22ud ult., and have since had to collect the debris of the Government papers and stationery. Most of the latter is defaced, and many documents destroyed. The chest was safe, but half full of water. I cannot tell as yet what we have lost. In conclusion, I cannot forbear to inform His Excellency the Governor that our heavy affliction has been borne by the settlers as Englishmen should bear it--with manly fortitude. I have seen no despondency, I have heard no querulous repinings. With self-reliant energy they have set to work to reconstruct; and I have no doubt, that in a very short time, Roebourne will--with the exception of the Government buildings--present its usual appearance.

God grant it may be long ere we have a visitation of so awful a nature.

I have &c,


Government Resident.

Hon. the Colonial Secretary, Perth.

AB notes:

There is much of interest and quotable in this account, eg.

"We scarcely know how to build; for houses built of every sort of material, and of various degrees of strength, equally suffered. As a rule the new buildings are of less height, and the pitch of the loof is less. The Government store and station will be 7 feet high with a roof pitch 3 feet 6 inches. The temporary offices will be of equal height and pitch. Stone and clay will be generally discarded."