The Shadow of Misfortune
Two weeks after the discovery of wreckage erased all doubt that Koombana had foundered, the Adelaide Steamship Company received a cable from its agents in London. They had been contacted by Alexander Stephen & Sons, the ship’s builders, who wanted to know if the company had any objection to their engaging in discussion with the Government of Western Australia regarding the cost of replacing the ship. It was a strange request. At their regular weekly meeting, the Adelaide Steamship Company’s directors decided that nothing was served by withholding consent. They advised accordingly.
Although it may seem strange that one of the hardest players in a hard game should offer a helping hand to a new competitor, the company did not give its blessing with magnanimity. It recognised that times had changed and that the case for building a vessel like Koombana could no longer be made.
* * *
It is never easy to pinpoint the beginning of a long drought. At Carnarvon, in March and April of 1911, no rains fell. But then, none were expected. The winter rains were about half of what the wool growers considered reasonable, and the showers of spring scarcely moistened the soil. Here, at the southern limit of the tropical monsoon, it was reasonable to hope for summer rain, but none came. And the great storm of March 1912, which might have delivered relief in the wake of destruction, brought only the news of disaster.
It is difficult to know when the locals began speaking plainly of drought. When the state government’s Commissioner for Tropical Agriculture, Adrian d’Espeissis, visited Carnarvon in the first week of November 1911, there was lamentation of the dry season but no despondency; indeed, the visiting expert had much to say that the residents were delighted to hear. He declared that the alluvial land on the banks of the Gascoyne, for fifty miles from the river’s mouth, were perfectly suited to intensive p262irrigation farming. Local bank manager Edwin Angelo accepted that assessment at face value; with the help of an irrigation specialist from the agriculture department, he established an experimental ten-acre plot. With water from four shallow wells, the irrigation farm on his property “Leura” was an immediate success, and when Minister for Public Works Bill Johnson visited the town in May 1912, the Angelo brothers were able to show a fine crop of tomatoes, vegetables, Japanese millet and lucerne. It is not surprising that the little farm was chosen as the showpiece for the minister’s visit. It was almost the only good news the town had to offer.
1911 would turn out to be the first of three punishing seasons. At the end of 1912, the pioneers declared they had seen nothing like it. The 21-month drought of 1891 and 1892 was drier, but on that occasion the preceding seasons had been splendid, and the grass cover so heavy that stock never ran short of dry feed. This was different: in many places all pasture disappeared, and cartage costs doubled as the roads along the Gascoyne and Lyons rivers were reduced to furrows of windblown sand. The 1912 Crop and Live Stock Return, compiled by the police officers of the various districts, made sobering reading:
The Minilya, Lower Gascoyne, and Wooramel portions of the Gascoyne district, and also the town of Carnarvon, experienced an exceptionally dry season, in places the squatters having had little or no rain. The country throughout is looking very dry and bare, the stock having had nothing but scrub to subsist on for the past 12 months. The losses of stock have been very heavy throughout the district, and unless a good fall of rain is registered within the next few months, the future will be disastrous. The losses of stock in and around Carnarvon have also been very heavy, practically all the stock on the Carnarvon Commonage have perished, many of them through the scarcity of water, which has proved a great drawback in Carnarvon for some time past.
At 2 a.m. on Tuesday, May 27th, 1913, one Carnarvon resident woke to what he later described as a weird crackling sound. In half-sleep, he thought the rain had come. It had not. Flames had engulfed the Carnarvon Hotel and the town had come out to watch. “The sight was magnificent,” said one enthusiastic spectator, “the various colors thrown out by the burning iron and matchwood creating a beautiful effect.” For a town suffering both drought and a rat plague, there was another aspect to the entertainment. The same gentleman would recall:
An enormous quantity of rats was destroyed in the two large trees in the courtyard. These could be seen working their way out on the branches until, overcome by the heat, they fell into the flames. This must have gladdened the hearts of our local health board as they certainly saved the bonus which is now being offered. A couple of dogs enjoyed themselves catching the strays which endeavored to escape, greatly to the amusement of the large crowd that had collected by this p263time.
Although the night was mild and the breeze soft, there was never any possibility that the fire could be suppressed. The local council had baulked at the cost of providing a dedicated water main for fire fighting, and a local volunteer brigade, after early enthusiasm, had lost cohesion. Antiquated hoses and reels, rented from a government department, had recently been packed up and shipped back to Fremantle.
In the days after the fire, the town was rife with rumour. Perhaps the gossip was symptomatic of hard times, but two unusual circumstances should be noted. The hotel was about to be sold; in fact, the final pre-sale inspection was completed just a few hours before the fire broke out. And in the ashes of the hotel office, the safe was found to be open. Retiring manager John Murphy explained that after discovering the fire he rushed to retrieve the takings from the safe, only to be driven back by the heat before he had time to close it. With his hair singed and the soles of his feet scorched, he had been taken to the local hospital. Resident Magistrate Charles Foss conducted an inquiry into the blaze but found no evidence of arson and remonstrated with his fellow citizens for rumour-mongering.
Six weeks after the fire, the rains came. On July 13th and 23rd, 1913, good falls were registered everywhere: in the town, and at almost every station from Yaringa in the south to Yalobia in the north. “The country has been quite transformed,” declared The Northern Times. “Feed is springing up everywhere, and all the pools are full. The Wooramel River ran twice and the Gascoyne again flowed into the Doorawarrah country. The drought is now completely broken.”
To imagine that a drought may be broken in a day or a week is greatly appealing. More often, relief is neither dramatic nor definitive, and the end of a drought may be as difficult to fix as its onset. Unfortunately, dry conditions returned; only after a cyclonic inundation in February 1914 did the squatters decide that their long ordeal was over. And for many, the drought’s ill effects did not end with the greening of the land. Heavy debts were carried into better years.
* * *
Onslow had long lamented its lack of shipping facilities, but when the drought came, the town’s campaign for a new deep-water jetty and stock race assumed new intensity. The Ashburton River pastoralists found themselves unable to respond to the dry conditions; they could not reduce their stock numbers by selling what the land would no longer support. By the spring of 1911, even the ‘overlanding’ of wool had become difficult. There was so little feed and water along the tracks to Carnarvon and Point Samson that only camel teams could make the journey without p264distress. Some of the growers simply withheld their clip at a time when wool prices were high and their need for cash greater than ever.
As drought took hold in the north, the Labor government of John Scaddan came to power in the capital. To the residents of Onslow, Scaddan’s new Minister for Public Works, Bill Johnson, seemed the right kind of target for a deputation. Within weeks of his elevation Johnson had condemned the previous government’s neglect of the Nor’-West. Things would be different now, he promised.
In the first week of February 1912, Onslow’s advocates travelled south by steamer to plead for a new jetty. They left empty-handed. Johnson advised that the government simply could not afford to do what they asked. Part of the problem was that their preferred jetty site was west of the town, on the other side of the Ashburton River. The combined cost of jetty, tramway and bridge was estimated to be £70,000, which by coincidence was the amount included in the forward estimates for all Nor’-West projects. Clearly, a cheaper solution had to be found.
There was some room for optimism. A few weeks later the new government honoured one of its pledges: it appointed Edward Tindale as the first Resident Engineer for the North-West. The townsfolk decided that at the first opportunity they would work with—and work upon—the man sent to Nor’-West service. The Onslow correspondent for The Sunday Times welcomed the news that Mr Tindale would soon visit their town. “The people of this district are asking for a jetty,” he wrote, “they care not where, as long as it is a suitable place, to enable them to ship their stock.”
Engineer Tindale arrived at Onslow by the little government steamer Una on December 8th, 1912. Immediately, the residents felt that progress was being made. An extension of the existing jetty was quickly ruled out. Tindale estimated that to reach water deep enough for the steamers, an extension of more than a mile would be required. An alternative site, however, drew his attention. Twelve miles to the east of Onslow, at Beadon Point, there was deep water less than 500 yards from shore, and a reliable supply of fresh water. Tindale was so impressed by the possibilities that he set Una to work on a preliminary survey of the seabed.
The locals imagined that the lower cost of the short jetty would more than compensate for the additional length of tramway, but Tindale travelled the route with them and shook his head. He told the locals that the difficulties of running the tramway over marsh and mangrove outweighed the advantages of the new jetty site. The engineer may have thought that the matter would end there, but Onslow had one more card to play. The townsfolk declared plainly that if the town and the new jetty could not be connected, the town would pick itself up and move. A report published by The Northern Times on December 21st, 1912 marks an important moment in the history of the town. The Onslow correspondent wrote:
p265Mr. Tindale has not given us much hope of getting a tramline from the point to the town, as the country is too rough and it would cost a large sum of money. A road has been found through the marsh to the main road, and if a jetty is built at the point, it will mean that the teams and traffic will go that way, which will consequently be the shifting of the town of Onslow.
Onslow could not have demonstrated its commitment more forcibly. Engineer Tindale was enthusiastic about the jetty plan and greatly impressed by the town’s determination to see it realised. He told the grateful citizens that a survey party would arrive in about the middle of March.
In February 1913, summer storms delivered uneven rainfall across the district and set the Ashburton River flowing again, but the relief was short-lived. In the autumn the sky cleared and drought conditions returned. March came and went, but the promised survey party never arrived. Edward Tindale, it appears, was overruled.
Although the residents of Onslow could not have known it, their campaign had some way to run. Nine years later, on July 29th, 1922, The Northern Times reported:
(From our own correspondent)
Onslow, July 25.
Beadon at last! In five minutes after the receipt of a wire from Mr. Teesdale, M.L.A., stating that the contractor’s tender for the building of the Beadon jetty had been accepted, all Onslow was talking and drinking in excited groups, and vainly trying to realise the good news.
* * *
The residents of Cossack had long predicted that the Point Samson jetty, projecting boldly into open water, would fall to the first willy-willy that struck it. They were almost right. The cyclone that crossed the coast about thirty miles to the east in the early hours of Friday, March 22nd, 1912, delivered a glancing blow. The first inspection revealed serious damage to the ‘T-head’ and the loss of about fifty piles, although the water was left so opaque that it was impossible to say if the piles were gone altogether or merely knocked over. The Roebourne wharfinger, responsible for shipping facilities at both Point Samson and Cossack, telegraphed the chief harbourmaster at Fremantle, describing the damage done and outlining options for keeping some port facilities open. While the jetty remained out of commission, he said, the steamers would have no alternative but to anchor in the roads and deliver cargo by lighter to the wharf at Cossack. Both the main tramline from Point Samson and the spur line from Cossack had been damaged. Because Cossack would for a time be the only working port, he recommended that highest priority be given to the repair of that section of line.
p266On April 21st, 1912, the Minister for Public Works embarked on an extended tour of the Nor’-West. It was never intended as an inspection of the storm-ravaged centres; indeed, the minister’s travel plans were already in place when the cyclone struck. He would, nonetheless, visit the affected communities to see for himself what needed to be done.
When Bill Johnson stepped ashore at Cossack in the first week of May 1912, he was unimpressed. He could see no good reason why White Australia should tolerate an Asiatic enclave in which Japanese, Malays and Koepangers outnumbered whites by almost two to one. Of course, Johnson’s ministerial portfolio related to civil rather than social engineering, and there were other matters to be attended to.
After inspecting the damage to the jetties and tramways, Johnson took a view strikingly different to that of the wharfinger. He decided that the line to Cossack should be left unrepaired, and that all efforts should be directed to restoring the connection between Point Samson and Roebourne. He went further still, suggesting that if the tramway to Point Samson line were realigned, to place it beyond the reach of floodwaters, the line to Cossack could be done away with altogether. In Perth a few weeks later he reported on the progress of the tramway alignment.
This work is now in hand, and when it is completed there will be little or no danger of further washaways, and the result will be that there will be practically no further use for the line to Cossack. In these circumstances I have instructed that the Cossack portion of the line be lifted; portion of the rails used for the extra twenty chains required in the deviation, and the remainder stacked for transshipment to Onslow.
In Cossack and Roebourne, most residents considered the minister’s position absurd; they petitioned the government to have the decision reversed. But Johnson, unmoved, saw that his instructions were carried out. Three years later, in May 1915, the Adelaide Steamship Company’s marine superintendent James Crossley prepared for his directors a confidential report on the risks and challenges of the Nor’-West trade. Of Point Samson he wrote:
During the 1912 cyclone, this jetty was damaged and for several months vessels could not use it. The cargo was then lightered by the “Wester” to Cossack and thence to Roebourne by steam tram, but since then the Laborites and partisans of the White Australia policy persuaded the Minister for Works (when there on a visit), to have the tramway torn up. This was done and the rails thrown on one side. It would be interesting to see what happens if another cyclone visits this district, as if one does, it is sure to damage the Jetty again, and failing the Jetty, Cossack Creek wharf is the only landing place for cargo, and there is some distance (9 or 10 miles I believe) with bad roads between p267Cossack and Roebourne. The objection to the two places being connected by rail was due to the fact that there are so many colored people in Cossack (pearlers).
* * *
The loss of Koombana hit Port Hedland hard. It was not that many from the town were among the missing; rather, it was the loss of a friendship that had grown between a town and a ship. In a sense, it was an accidental intimacy. Twice each month for three years, Koombana had tied to a jetty in the middle of the town, and by the combined mischief of tide and sandbar had usually stayed overnight. It had become the habit of crew and townsfolk to socialise, either in the ship’s saloon and smoke room, or in homes and hotels on shore. And the town’s welcome was extended to Koombana’s passengers, especially those of the far north who passed through the port regularly on their seasonal migrations.
When Bullarra and Koombana left Port Hedland on Wednesday March 20th, 1912, almost the whole town turned out to watch. It was a light, bright distraction from what was shaping as a very bad year. Thirteen days later, when the Blue Funnel liner Gorgon brought undeniable evidence of Koombana’s loss, the news swept through the town like a chill wind, leaving behind a yearning for answers that no court of marine inquiry could relieve.
By the middle of 1912, the lamentation of two dry seasons had given way to the direct confrontation of drought. Although the port was unusually busy with large stock shipments, the bustle did not speak of prosperity. Pastoralists were reducing their stock numbers and garnering cash for whatever lay ahead. More than any other town on the coast, Port Hedland had nailed its colours to the mast of progress. That mindset could be traced to 1906, when the town was selected as the starting point for the Pilbara railway. For six years—three of anticipation and three of construction—the residents had believed that upon completion of the line their town would become a thoroughfare for miners and prospectors making their way to the interior. Port Hedland, they predicted, would become the unofficial capital of the Nor’-West—if it was not already.
Perhaps the townsfolk were unrealistic, or perhaps the tide of fortune turned. When the railway reached Marble Bar in July 1911, the boost to Port Hedland was noticeable but not dramatic, and the bloom did not last. By the winter of 1912 the mining centres of Marble Bar and Nullagine were surviving rather than thriving, and the lack of water was proving as great a problem for the miner as it was for the pastoralist. In March 1913, station owner Tom Anderson wrote in his diary:
The outlook in this State is not too good owing to the Banks & all business people pressing those who owe them money. . . . Our Premier (Scaddan) is away in England trying to borrow £5,000,000. The State p268debt is already £90 per head. Our population being 300,000. If he fails to get it which is likely then pressure all round will continue. If he does get it; then greater pressure later on. 300,000 people cannot pay interest on unlimited millions badly spent. Still on we go!
Not everyone in the Nor’-West laid blame for the downturn at the feet of John “Happy Jack” Scaddan; indeed, Port Hedland with its miners, shearers and railway workers was broadly sympathetic to the Labor government. That is not to say that Port Hedland’s dealings with the Public Works Department were any more satisfying than those of Onslow or Cossack. In March 1914, the town had its own little stoush with Minister Johnson and his staff. The department had built a new school for this, the hottest of all coastal towns, but the design included neither windows nor ventilation on the ocean side. A few days into the school year, the classroom proved so suffocatingly hot that the parents, united, withdrew their children.
In more amiable times the problem might have been solved quickly and quietly. On this occasion, however, the official channels were tested. Having declared their objections, the parents proposed a solution: for less than £5, a competent local carpenter would install floor-level ventilation on the sea-breeze side. For reasons that may never be known or understood, the Public Works Department declined the offer, insisting that its own man would attend to the matter when he called by in two or three months. As if to add insult to injury, the department then suggested that the problem had arisen because the parents had fallen under the spell of an activist headmaster.
A few weeks later, when the Singapore-bound steamer Charon arrived, passenger A. T. Saunders (a first cousin of Koombana’s late master Tom Allen) observed that a broad malaise seemed to have gripped the community. He wrote:
This is clearly a decaying town. Many shops and houses are empty, and there are announcements in some windows of departures from the town. It is hard to say what keeps the place alive, except the shipment of stock and wool and the forwarding of stores to the inland stations. . . . I understand that there is only one train a week, and that sometimes, though the steamer may arrive a couple of hours after the train is timed to depart, the departure is not delayed, and consequently the mails for the interior are left to lie at Hedland for a week or so. I can hardly believe that this is true, but I am assured that it is a fact.
As the water situation became worse, the town became very quiet indeed. Even the shipping of stock became difficult, there being nothing at all for animals to drink after their arrival at the yards. The late arrival of a steamer, by as little as a day, could mean high mortality. It was a risk few p269stock owners were willing to take. Intermittently, the town well began running dry. Thereafter, drinking water was brought twenty miles by rail from Poondina. The locals had no alternative but to buy what they could not do without, at five shillings per hundred gallons.
Perhaps the lowest ebb was reached in the early hours of June 15th, 1914, when Dalgety’s Building caught fire. It was the first serious fire in the town’s short history. With no water for firefighting, the townsfolk simply stood and watched as the warehouse and its contents were destroyed. At least there was no suspicion of arson. To the building’s owner, it was “just one of those things.” He shrugged his shoulders and wondered if the rats had got into the matches.
By October 1914 the Hedland-based pearling boats had begun mixing fresh and brackish water, to remain at sea a little longer. The recent take of shell had been excellent, and not even the outbreak of war could suppress the stubborn optimism of one pearler. The market for his product had all but vanished, and yet he declared: “If this war does not last long, there will be a large number of pearlers making Port Hedland their headquarters next year.”
* * *
In Broome, the tragedy of Koombana fell upon a deep, pre-existing pessimism. The great source of consternation was the Australian Government’s edict that after 1913, the use of indentured coloured labour would no longer be permitted. Nor’-West newsman Walter Barker wrote:
The unrest occasioned by the cloud which threatens the pearling industry has resulted in a poor display of interest in local public matters. The impression conveyed to visitors is that there exists a feeling which says “Oh, let it slide until we are sure that they are not going to close down the industry!” The splendid streets of three years ago have been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that it will now tax the resources of the municipality to bring them up to their erstwhile state of perfection.
Much had occurred in the space of a few months. On October 26th, 1911, in the federal parliament, Queensland member Fred Bamford formally moved for the appointment of a royal commission to inquire into the conduct of the pearling industry. Among those who rose to speak was John Forrest, formerly Premier of Western Australia. Forrest supported the motion but recommended that commissioners be chosen from outside the parliament. He argued that the work of the commission would require extensive travel to remote places, including Broome. It would be impossible, he said, for any member to meet the demands of the commission and still fulfil his obligations to the parliament. Although Forrest’s argument was reasonable, his ulterior motive was to p270have the commission chaired by someone other than Bamford, whose uncompromising White Australia views were well known. Indeed, Bamford had been elected to the parliament in 1901, after campaigning for the elimination of Kanak labour from the Queensland sugar industry.
Fred Bamford prevailed. On February 29th, 1912, he was chosen to lead the Royal Commission on the Pearl-shelling Industry, with six parliamentary colleagues comprising his panel. Although the make-up of the commission did not augur well for the future of Broome, some in the town remained optimistic. If the commissioners were to visit Broome, and see at first hand how the industry was run, dispensation would surely be granted. An early concession seemed to support that view. The commission recognised that it could not complete its work before the pearlers made their labour arrangements for the 1914 season. The deadline for the use of coloured labour was extended by a year, to the end of 1914.
February 1912 also marks the beginning of the so-called “white experiment,” sponsored by prominent members of the Broome Pearlers’ Association. On February 4th, Perth’s Sunday Times both explained and hailed the initiative.
WHITE DIVERS FOR THE PEARLING INDUSTRY
An Interesting Experiment
An important step in the direction of settling the vexed question of white divers versus Asiatics was taken on Feb. 1 with the arrival of 12 experienced divers from England with their necessary tenders.
It will be remembered that the Pearlers’ Association of Broome, in order to thoroughly test the question whether white divers are capable of performing the arduous work of finding pearl shell in deep water, arranged to set apart a certain number of luggers, to be manned by white divers and tenders, these men to be employed for a sufficient time to decide the point beyond the shadow of a doubt.
In order that none but the best and most experienced men should be obtained, the matter was placed in the hands of Messrs. Siebe, Gorman and Co., the celebrated manufacturers of diving gear, in conjunction with a committee of Broome pearlers now resident in London, and the 24 men now arrived are those chosen by the selectors.
The whole of these interesting immigrants are ex-naval divers, that is, men who have not only a practical experience of the work under all conditions, but who also have a thorough knowledge of its scientific aspect. They are, in addition, imbued with all the traditions of a service which imposes so high a standard of duty that the idea of shirking or evading either danger or responsibility is an impossibility. Under such conditions as these, the experienced body of men may be relied upon to give the Pearlers’ Association loyal and active support in their attempt to solve the problem that lies before them, and it only p271remains for the association, on the other hand, to see that the test is carried out under absolutely fair working conditions, and that no unconscious bias in favor of the Asiatic diver is allowed to interfere.
The experiment did not begin well. When Minister for Public Works Bill Johnson visited Broome on May 17th, as part of his Nor’-West tour, the pearlers made the mistake of admitting that they did not expect the white divers to succeed. Johnson’s conclusion, shared with an enthusiastic audience in Carnarvon three weeks later, was that the pearlers did not want the experiment to work and were actively undermining it. The pearlers of Broome, he said, needed to understand that the day for coloured labour had gone. The crowd cheered.
Johnson’s speech was reported in The Northern Times, the circulation of which extended to Broome and beyond. The master pearlers were not impressed. They knew how much the experiment was costing. Not only were the English divers paid at several times the going rate; they demanded better equipment, took more time to set up, and insisted upon longer breaks. All of the sponsors understood that no first-time pearl diver would match an experienced hand in his first year, but none had anticipated how great the associated loss would be. The London market had never been stronger, and with each jump in the price of shell came greater frustration at the white divers’ failure to deliver.
Without doubt, the divers were under extreme pressure. There was pride at stake also, especially for those among them who had confidently predicted their own success. After a few weeks at sea, some were pushing the limits of diving safety. It is perhaps not surprising that the first casualty was William Webber, the spokesman and unofficial leader of the group. On June 7th, off Cape Latouche Treville, Webber remained on the seabed too long and returned to the surface without any of the recommended intermediate stops. Aboard the lugger Eurus he lit a cigarette, sat quietly for a few minutes and then collapsed backward onto the deck. After being undressed and carried to a bunk, he sank into a coma.
Marine engineer Jim Low had been responsible for installing new engine-driven compressors on the white divers’ luggers. After going out with the boats to ensure that the equipment ran smoothly, he returned to Broome convinced that the white experiment was pure folly. To his sister Jane he wrote:
One of the white divers one of Siebe Gorman’s crack men died of paralysis last week, he wouldn’t work to the scientific method and refused to be recompressed after the attack. He was of the old school who had made a name for himself in the diving world, recovering treasure from wrecks, went with the McMillan expedition through Central Africa bringing up specimens out of the deep potholes somewhere or other and now has finished up here. He wouldn’t let p272them save his life because he didn’t believe in the method. They could have forced him down but couldn’t keep him down, or so he told them.
Tomorrow I go out again with another engine and air compressor to start two more of the white men, but I am going to keep them near Broome this time . . . I know a place where shell is mighty scarce but every one has got something in it, baroque or pearl; we’ll practise there. I have never seen or heard of the last crowd I was out with since I left them, nor has anyone else. They are off quite on their own somewhere or other. Their engine must be going all right or the Malay child has killed them all, one or the other.
A few weeks later, a Broome pearler noticed an odd coincidence. In a short, sharp letter to the editor of The West Australian, he declared:
The irony of fate! At Carnarvon on June 7 the Minister for Works (Mr. W. D. Johnson), with the confident assertiveness begotten of utter lack of power to grip the complexity of the subject, let himself go on the pearling industry. He assured his audience that “white men were able to escape the dreaded paralysis and would prove more capable than colored divers. The difficulty facing white divers at present was that they were not being shown where and how to find shell. That would be soon overcome and the experiment would prove wholly successful.” Throughout the same day, on board a lugger between La Perouse and Broome, the tide of life of William Webber, a white diver, was slowly ebbing away under the influence of the diver’s dread disease—paralysis. What a terrible answer to the irresponsible vapourings of a mere mortal!
On July 4th, 1912, Jim Low wrote again to his sister. Now he railed against the dogged stupidity of it all.
Two of the white divers have got “fed up” and shook the sand of Broome from their feet; there is now only five left. I am afraid “white diving” is doomed. Meg says that “Diving” was to be included in the Ordinary School curriculum or that there was a rumour to that effect, owing to the actions of the Australian Government. I call that planting unhealthy seeds of false romance in defenceless youngsters’ brains, their imaginations fired with visions of monstrous jewels of fabulous value waiting to be picked up off the ground floor of Fairyland. And the rotten tucker and the roaring sou-easter and the little craft with the contemptible dog kennel misnamed a cabin where you get gyrated and bumped like a spud in a patent rotary peeler in the unstilly watches of the night and pray for daylight on the arrival of which you crawl thence with contorted anatomy and a feeling in your inside as if somebody had been mixing you up with a porridge p273spurtle, and the snarling cockeye and the raving typhoon that catches you and dessicates. ’Tis the true romance when you’re ten thousand miles away but it isn’t known by that name here.
The master pearlers allowed another month to pass before answering the criticism of Minister Johnson. When the time came, the facts spoke for themselves.
The result after five months’ work is that Mr. Piggott has lost £500 over the experiment, besides his outlay in plant, etc. One of the divers is doing odd jobs round Broome; two of them have left for Fremantle, calling it a “dog’s life”; the fourth is in the Broome Hospital suffering from divers’ paralysis. Mr. Stanley Piggott’s two divers are still at it; they have up to the present got 5 cwt. of shell. Mr. Piggott is £400 out of pocket so far, and both of his men have expressed their determination not to stop at it when their agreement is up—they call it “scavengers’ work.” Messrs. Robison and Norman’s men have up to the present got 5cwt., and R. and N, are out £400. Both their men have also expressed their determination not to stop any longer at it than the year. Messrs. Moss and Richardson’s diver lost his life whilst working in 19 fathoms off Wallal . . . The statement of Mr. Johnson that the men have not been shown where to get the shell is untrue in every particular, as in all cases the white divers have been sent out with the rest of the boats belonging to their respective masters, except in the case of Mr Sydney Piggott, who sent an old Manila diver out with his boat. They have worked the grounds with the Asiatic divers all round them picking up shell, and we cannot do any more. We have put them where the shell is, and if they cannot learn to pick it up themselves we cannot teach them. As far as Broome is concerned, the whole experiment up to the present has been a howling failure.
After eighteen months the royal commission had taken evidence at Cairns, Thursday Island and Melbourne, but had still not travelled west to the undisputed headquarters of the Australian pearl-shelling industry. Recognising that they had little to show and much yet to do, the commissioners proposed a further extension of the existing arrangements. The end date for the use of indentured coloured labour was set back a further two years, to the end of 1916.
In the first week of August 1914, the news of war in Europe passed through Broome like a shock wave. Suddenly, the three great centres of the pearling industry in Europe—Paris, Berlin and Vienna—were fully enveloped by conflict. It seemed that the industry, if not killed off altogether, would remain suspended for the duration of the war. For a few weeks the shipping of shell continued, but in October the London distributors announced that they could accept no more. They were p274holding a thousand tons: sufficient, they said, to supply all of Europe for a few months after the end of hostilities.
Most of the crews saw out the 1914 season, with the knowledge that the next lay-up would be like no other. When the fleet came in, boats were stored, lent, given away, and in some cases simply handed over to creditors. Indentured workers were sent home and their erstwhile masters went south to enlist.
In May 1916, more than four years after its proclamation, the royal commission arrived in Broome. It found the town’s remaining pearlers united in their conviction that white diving would never be reconsidered. The commissioners faced a stark choice. In their final report to the governor-general, in September 1916, they admitted to a great deal of soul-searching and ultimately to a change of heart.
Since presenting the progress report the opinion of your Commissioners has undergone a change of considerable importance, particularly in regard to the labour question. Having carefully weighed the evidence and having no reason to doubt the credibility of those who were examined on this point, and further having visited the principal centres of the pearl-shelling industry in Australia, and noted the conditions under which it is conducted, your Commissioners have decided that diving for shell is not an occupation which our workers should be encouraged to undertake. It may be urged that Europeans have successfully undertaken the work of diving for shell, which is true of the past, but the European diver is non-existent at the moment, and boat owners who have dived in shallow or comparatively shallow water dive no longer, but employ the Asiatic, who cheerfully takes the risks and puts up with the consequences.
* * *
Derby and Wyndham, at opposite ends of a vast, rich beef province, proudly declared themselves the capitals of West and East Kimberley respectively. They had much in common, but by the tragedy of Koombana the two towns could not have been treated more differently. Because Koombana’s run only extended to Wyndham on alternate months, the last outpost was spared all casualties, although many of the lost were well known there.
At Derby, by contrast, the loss was intense and personal. From a white population of about ninety, a dozen close friends and relatives were stolen: Louise Sack, Dean Spark, Captain Pearson, Frank Buttle, Fred Clinch, Rob Jenkins and his daughter Edith, George and Ally Piper, the Gilhams, and Jim Ronan’s nephew Will Smith. Years later, Tom Ronan would write:
It is one of the most complete sea tragedies in history. It was when word came through that the search for the Koombana had been abandoned that I first saw my mother in tears. Will Smith was no blood kin of p275hers, but he was the sort of lad who won the hearts of everyone, from children like Trix and me to toughened old bush battlers of the sort who worked with him on Napier. I can remember him as being tall and darkeyed, with the assurance of a man and the gusto of a boy. Seldom as we saw him, our little world seemed smaller when we knew he had gone from it forever.
For three years Derby, like Port Hedland, had enjoyed great rapport with the ship and her crew. It was an unusually equal relationship, the town and ship having similar populations. And the two populations were never entirely distinct; rarely did the two come together without some exchange of faces. Here, the loss of Koombana was both tangible and intangible: an overwhelming sadness and an inexplicable vacancy, as if a constellation had vanished from the night sky.
The two Kimberley ‘capitals’—one in mourning, the other in sympathy—continued to prosper through 1912. The far north was largely unaffected by the drought proving so debilitating further south. A few weeks before Christmas, a Fitzroy River squatter delivered a cheerful end-of-year report to The Northern Times.
The wet season has opened auspiciously: good early thunderstorms and heavy rains, with every appearance of a splendid season. Already it seems that there will be a record wool clip next year, and the fat oxen that delighteth the heart and other parts of Perth people and the dark men of Java and Singapore most probably will go away next year in greater numbers than ever before, thereby making Derby a flourishing seaport, which is a consideration for the capital city of—not Australia, but the new State of North-West Australia (though I believe Port Hedland sees herself in that light). The quiet season is now with us; all teams except Gogo are painted and put away for next year, all droving is finished, and, incidentally, all the surplus men are sacked to save a few bob, though when the 1913 season starts there will be the same cry as in 1912, for more labor. If Premier Scaddan passes his Bill for the abolition of aboriginal labor, things will be turned upside down. The Kimberley landowner loves black bruther because he is cheap, and at present he doesn’t see how he can possibly get on without him. The price of wool has caused these owners to smile this year, and some splendid prices have been realised; also the price of fat stock—both sheep and cattle—has been good, so everything in the garden is lovely.
The summer rains did not quite match the cattleman’s expectation—but then, they did not need to. Even in a dry year, the land bred more cattle than could be shipped. Indeed, it could be argued that the region had been drought-proofed by government inactivity. Without the promised p276freezing and canning facilities, demand would never match supply, even in a dry year.
The need for beef processing at Wyndham or Derby had been recognised for a dozen years, but planning had been interrupted by several changes of government. The pastoralists were optimistic that the new Labor ministry, seeing the possibility of a profitable state-run enterprise, would move quickly. After all, the new Minister for Public Works, Bill Johnson, had been a member of the royal commission that had specifically recommended the establishment of freezing works at Wyndham.
It was not to be. When Johnson visited the town in May 1912, he changed his mind. He decided that the people of Perth could have their meat from the Murchison and Ashburton districts, which had hitherto been shut out of the trade by big players who chartered steamers to carry their stock to Fremantle direct. The magnates of the far north, Johnson decided, could make their money by shipping live cattle into Asia. “The people of Java and the Philippines,” he declared, “even the coloured races—who have previously subsisted on rice—are now looking for a supply of beef.”
Upon his return to Perth, Johnson reported the outcomes of his Nor’-West tour. When he declared that the construction of a freezing facility at Wyndham could not be justified, the Kimberley cattle-breeders were incensed. Frank Connor, whose company held six million acres of prime Kimberley land, shared his thoughts with readers of The West Australian.
It is generally estimated that works can be erected in Wyndham for £100,000. Now, for the sake of argument, let us double this cost and make it, say, £200,000. At 4 per cent the interest will be £8,000. Now at least 20,000 cattle can be put through these works at a saving of, say, £2 per head, or, to give Mr. Johnson plenty of margin, say £1 per head, £20,000, plus the canning and marketing of another 20,000 head that are rotting on the plains of Kimberley every year because they would not pay to freight here or elsewhere. Why, the whole position is too absurd for words. . . . If Mr. Johnson is right the whole of America and New Zealand are fools, the commercial world is an ass, and Mr. Johnson is the commercial Messiah who will lead the people to the land of promise and cheap meat.
There was never likely to be agreement between Connor and Johnson. The magnate and the minister were glaring at each other across a great ideological divide. The cattle king saw a profitable venture going begging; the minister, with an aversion to doing anything that would increase the wealth of the already wealthy, saw an opportunity to level the playing field and supply the workers of the capital with cheaper meat.
The Kimberley cattle kings were not averse to expanding their live exports into Asia; indeed, it was they who had established the trade, p277and with very little assistance from government. Already, 1200 head per month were leaving Wyndham for Manila, and shipments to other destinations were being negotiated. And it was Connor who in October 1912 sealed the largest-ever single contract for the supply of live cattle: 23,000 animals to be shipped progressively to Manila. To the press, Connor declared proudly that there were now 13,000 American troops in the Philippines “all fed on Australian beef.”
While accepting congratulations, Connor warned that change was inevitable and that the state government needed to be wary. He knew for a fact that Dr John Gilruth, the administrator of the Northern Territory, was negotiating to increase the live cattle trade out of Port Darwin, even offering to establish processing facilities there if a demand of 10,000 head per annum could be guaranteed. If the Territory plan went ahead, Connor hinted, Wyndham could kiss its future good-bye.
Events did not play out exactly as Connor had predicted, but his warning was timely nonetheless. Toward the end of 1913, rumours circulated that British and American interests were seeking to acquire Kimberley cattle runs. January 1914 brought the news that a British firm, the Union Cold Storage Company, had purchased the entire station portfolio of Copley Brothers and Patterson, one of the largest Kimberley landholders. In a single transaction, seven million acres and 140,000 head of cattle changed hands.
It was immediately obvious that business in the far north was to be conducted in new ways and on a different scale. The Union Cold Storage Company, established in 1897 by brothers William and Edmund Vestey, was a pastoral, processing and shipping conglomerate with interests spanning four continents. There were refrigeration and meat processing works in China, Russia and Argentina; agencies and offices in Britain, Europe and Russia; and the Blue Star line of steamships. The purchase of Copley’s Kimberley assets was little more than the opening gambit of the company’s Australian game. In a few months, it secured further properties and extracted federal government concessions for the establishment of its own processing works at Port Darwin.
When word of a meat works in the adjacent territory reached Perth, The Sunday Times launched a blistering attack on the Scaddan government. Under the banner “Good-bye to the Kimberleys” it declared:
Are we at this moment losing the Kimberleys? According to the very best information the whole of that immense and rich province which forms the northernmost portion of this State is already gone . . . Port Darwin will become a great tropic port, because the centralisation of the cattle trade will give it the required stimulus to progress. Wyndham, on the other hand, will be suppressed, annihilated . . . If the State had installed freezing and chilling works at Wyndham two years ago instead of p278wasting the money on a State steamer that they are now anxious to sell, the Union Cold Storage Company, which is master of the situation, would probably have fallen in with the channel thus created. If the Government had provided a good supply of water at Wyndham instead of specking in marine derelicts, the chances are that Wyndham would have been saved.
One of the strangest elements of this story is that the Scaddan government did eventually commit to the building of a freezing and canning works at Wyndham. Of course, with an aggressive competitor over the border to the east, the business case was not as strong as it once was, but most believed that a beef-canning business would never fail while the troops of the empire remained at war.
Construction of the Wyndham facility proceeded neither smoothly nor quickly. After a much-publicised falling-out with the firm engaged to build the plant, the government undertook to complete the project itself, using a day-labour workforce. Four years and £600,000 later, the plant commenced full production. The year was 1919 and the armistice had already been signed.
* * *
When The Sunday Times attacked the Scaddan government for “specking in marine derelicts” rather than providing for the future of Wyndham, it was firing two arrows from the one bow. The newspaper’s opinion of the government’s entry into the shipping business was well known to its readers, but there was paradox in its choice of illustration. It was the Kimberley pastoralists, in partnership with the residents of Broome, Derby and Wyndham, who in December 1911 had petitioned the government for a state-owned steamship to be placed on the Nor’-West run.
In the beginning, the petition had nothing to do with beef cattle. It related only to the extreme isolation of Derby and Wyndham, and the treatment that residents had from the commercial shipping lines. The petition began:
We, the undersigned residents of East and West Kimberley, and the North-West, do humbly petition the Government to put into commission a State boat between Fremantle and Wyndham. The reasons for making the petition are:—
(1) That the services as carried out by the steamship companies are not run in the interests of the North-West nor of the State;
(2) That twice during the past twelve months the residents of Derby and Wyndham have been reduced almost to a state of famine, both as regards supplies for human consumption and fodder for stock, not to mention the inconvenience occasioned by the irregularity of the mails.
p279The first instance of serious neglect had occurred in December 1910, when a northbound steamer bypassed both Derby and Wyndham and overcarried all pre-Christmas supplies to Singapore. Four months passed before the ship returned. Needless to say, no perishable cargo survived, and little of any value was delivered.
The second instance, in November 1911, related specifically to Koombana. The protracted firemen’s strike, which delayed the ship’s departure from Fremantle by twenty days, affected all towns from Shark Bay to Wyndham. In the tropical heat of the far north, where perishables could only be ordered in small quantities, the situation quickly became serious. Derby and Wyndham ran short of flour, tinned milk, butter, potatoes, and onions. Also long overdue were supplies for the general stores and much-needed fodder.
According to local newspaper reports, the petition was signed by “practically everyone in Derby” and by “every adult person in Broome, with the exception of about six.” When the Broome and Derby copies were sent south to the capital, Wyndham’s petition was still doing the rounds of the backblocks. By the time it reached the premier’s desk in June 1912, the State Steamship Service was already open for business. The government had purchased the 2,900-ton steamer Darius and immediately renamed it “Kwinana”. To experienced observers, the 24-year-old ship was not the ideal platform for a leap into the competitive world of commercial shipping, but at least a start had been made. Five months later a second vessel, faster and somewhat younger, was purchased. The 2,800-ton Mongolia, built in 1901, was renamed “Western Australia.”
To manage the steamship service, Colonial Secretary John Drew hired a thirty-year-old former Adelaide Steamship Company accountant, Walter Sudholz. At the outset the new business had neither structure nor procedures; to place it on a secure footing was a daunting assignment. And daunted the new manager would be. By the end of 1912, rumours of bungling and inefficiency were rife. Four months later, the management of the service became a full-blown public embarrassment.
On April 22nd, 1913, The West Australian published a long article by a journalist who identified himself only as “Observer”. After failing to secure an interview with either the colonial secretary or Walter Sudholz, “Observer” speculated that the true financial position of the steamship service was being concealed, and that losses for the 1912–13 year would far exceed the figure of £6,500 being touted as a reasonable first-year result. After detailing breaches of contracts, instances of undercharging, and damage to lights and jetties for which the service would ultimately be held liable, he predicted that the real working loss for the year would be at least £20,000. In what amounted to a direct challenge, he suggested that the colonial secretary either did not know the financial position or was reluctant to reveal it.
p280The article brought an immediate and angry response. For a few days, “Observer” and John Drew exchanged claim and counterclaim in letters to The West Australian. Significantly, while “Observer” remained detached, Drew became insulting and dismissive, but left the charge of financial mismanagement largely unanswered. The brief exchange generated great public interest, and set the stage for an even more pivotal contribution. In the first week of May 1913, former state parliamentarian Joseph J. Holmes entered the fray, also through the agency of The West Australian. Holmes did not attempt any overview of the State Steamship Service; rather, he confined his comments to a single voyage of the Kwinana in which he, as shipper of livestock, had a particular interest. He began by making a frank admission.
Naturally when these steamers were purchased I made it my business to watch their movements very closely, and I found there was useful space available the value of which the Government did not seem to appreciate, and I frankly admit that I stepped into the breach with two objects in view, namely:
(1) To utilise this space at a profit.
(2) To show that those who were endeavouring to control these steamers were absolutely incompetent.
When I relate the following facts I think it will be admitted that I have succeeded on both points.
With precision and panache, Holmes recounted a comedy of errors. His credibility was greatly enhanced by the fact that he was in no way a conscientious objector to the state’s entry into the shipping business. He was a moderate supporter who limited his remarks to his own recent dealings with the steamship service, and with manager Walter Sudholz in particular. For John Drew, the Holmes letter was a turning point. He must have realised that the information he had been receiving from his manager was neither complete nor accurate. He acted swiftly and made no effort to conceal the fact that his hand had been forced. He announced the appointment of a royal commission, “to inquire into the allegations made by Mr. J. J. Holmes and published in the ‘West Australian’ of May 6, and generally into the management of the service.” It was possibly the first time ever that a royal commission had been established, declaredly, on the strength of a single letter to the editor of a newspaper.
The royal commission, which commenced in the Fremantle Local Court on June 4th, 1913, was a fiasco. The experienced Joseph Holmes presented his evidence systematically and well, but Walter Sudholz was in difficulty from the start. After struggling through two sessions of cross-examination, Sudholz was warned by Commissioner Alcock that the allegations made against him were serious and that he needed to get his facts together. Next morning, a correspondence clerk from the shipping p281office came to the court to advise that his manager was too ill to attend. The commission was adjourned. After ten days, Sudholz returned to the witness stand but fared no better. After a request to be excused was denied, he broke down and left the court. A medical certificate, tendered later, indicated that he had suffered a nervous breakdown.
In the course of the next six weeks, Colonial Secretary Drew made three controversial decisions. Sudholz’s resignation was expected; the surprising postscript was that the government had agreed to his request to remain in the service as chief accountant. Next came the announcement that the royal commission had been abandoned, and would not be required to submit any report. Drew argued that the manager’s resignation had made the inquiry unnecessary. Few agreed; the popular, cynical view was that the colonial secretary, having shed all blame to Sudholz, wanted the matter closed.
Had the government appointed a new manager with sound industry credentials, criticism of its other decisions might have been blunted. It did not; it announced that responsibility for the running of the steamship service would be assumed by the head of the Fremantle Harbour Trust, and not as a full-time commitment but as an additional duty. For the usually respectful Western Mail, this was the final insult to intelligence. On Friday, August 29th, 1913, its searing editorial began:
From first to last the history of the State steamships almost suggests that the Government is bent on a demonstration of how a public enterprise should not be conducted. However this may be, it is certainly a fact that the steamships venture has been characterised by a series of blunders so egregious as to be calculated to wreck any project no matter how intrinsically sound in itself. Every step taken so far has been demonstrably the wrong step, and each act of policy more fatal than its predecessor.
The first full-year financial statements of the State Steamship Service were tabled in parliament on December 16th, 1913. The declared loss for the 1912–13 year was £19,365, very close to the figure that “Observer” had arrived at eight months earlier. Some commentators noted that even this poor result had only been achieved by placing an unrealistically high value on a decrepit fleet, and by underestimating depreciation and outstanding liabilities. One commentator put the true figure at closer to £50,000.
Heavy losses notwithstanding, John Drew never wavered in his defence of the State Steamships initiative. After things had settled a little, he told a reporter from The West Australian:
The Kwinana and the Western Australia were purchased with a two-fold object—first, to assist the producers in the north west of the State; and, second, to reduce the price of meat to the consumers in the metropolitan area. Both objects have been attained. . . . One certain p282effect must be the advancement of the pastoral industry, and the utilisation in the near future of vast areas of grazing land not now taken up. The consumer has also benefited materially. The Government opened cash meat stalls at Perth, Fremantle, and Subiaco, reducing the price of meat on the average 3d. per pound. These stalls have been extensively patronised, and have shown a good profit. They have had a wonderful effect in steadying and regulating the price of meat. More than this it is not the desire of the Government to do.
While many admired the Scaddan government’s perseverance, lampooning the State Steamship Service remained a popular diversion. In February 1914, one Shark Bay squatter shared his Kwinana experience with the readers of The Sunday Times.
I took the Kwinana for a very good reason—she was the only boat I could take. I booked first saloon and was told nothing about berth accommodation. When I boarded the boat they quietly told me that the berths were full, but after a bit of trouble an official very obligingly arranged a stretcher shake-down for me in the best part of the ship. At least I think it is the best part on ordinary ships, but if it is the best on the Kwinana I should like to see the worst. On the same deck and next door were a mob of sheep being brought down; on the other side was a prisoner condemned to death for murder. So you may judge that pleasant surroundings did not make up for my failure to get a proper berth. That wasn’t all. There must have been somewhere in the region of 40 people in the saloon, and in the dining room there were only 16 seats. As there were some seven officers who used to roll down regularly to meals you can judge for yourself how a man would feel who didn’t get in the first sitting. The food? It was good and plain food, particularly the latter. During the time I was on the vessel I could never locate the simplest conveniences, so I presume there were none.
Perhaps surprisingly, the institution would have the last laugh. The State Steamship Service would survive war, depression, and many changes of government. It would outlive all of its early advocates and critics. It would win begrudging respect, later loyalty, and even a little affection along the road to an honoured place in the coastal life of Western Australia.
* * *
On April 9th, 1912, seven days after the fate of Koombana was placed beyond doubt, the Adelaide Steamship Company instructed its London agents to arrange for the collection of insurance. Koombana had a nominal replacement value of £100,000 and was insured for 75 per cent of that amount. Had replacement been contemplated, the company would certainly have lamented the £25,000 shortfall. But in a climate of p283pessimism, the loss of the ship was not a financial disaster; indeed, there is a sense in which the disappearance of the ship relieved the company of an intractable problem. Allowing for depreciation, Koombana’s insured value and ‘book’ value were similar. The company was almost certainly satisfied by its insurance settlement; indeed, had an offer of £75,000 been made for the ship in the weeks before her loss, her owners might seriously have considered it.
How quickly conditions had changed. Through 1910, Koombana had dominated the Nor’-West trade, with heavy passenger demand in both directions, consistent southbound loadings of wool, cattle and pearl shell, and an invaluable, year-round backload of rails and sleepers for the Pilbara railway. By February 1912, however, all revenue was under threat. The rail work had all but ceased. With drought gripping the wool districts, the company recognised that even its share of the wool trade was at risk. Pastoral conglomerate Dalgety’s represented all of the opposition ships, and the word was about that its local agents were demanding shipping loyalty from all those to whom credit had been extended. Cattle-industry prospects were not much better; in a trend unlikely to be reversed, the magnates were chartering their own vessels. And who could say if Broome, the prosperous showpiece of the Nor’-West, was about to be flattened by the White Australia juggernaut?
The greatest uncertainty attached to the state government’s entry into the shipping business. At first the commercial operators did not take the move seriously. The popular view was that the government would learn, at great expense to the taxpayer, that the industry was “not all beer and skittles.” The expectation was that the venture would fail and that the Nor’-West trade would revert to the familiar two-cornered contest between the Adelaide company and the Singapore line. Only after two state ships had been placed on the run did the commercial operators recognise that their loss of business would not depend to any great extent on whether the government managed its ships well or badly. The coast simply did not provide sufficient revenue to support a third competitor, especially one willing to run its ships at a loss.
For the Adelaide Steamship Company there was an added impost. Its contract for the carriage of Nor’-West mail was due to expire on the last day of February 1913. It seemed inevitable that the next three-year contract would be handed to the State Steamship Service. With a view that can only be described as fatalistic, the company scouted for a vessel well matched to its diminishing prospects, and available for a year of service in the west. It was soon announced that the S.S. Allinga would take up Koombana’s Nor’-West running.
Allinga, built in 1897, was slow, stuffy and hot, and had a habit of discharging discoloured water from her rusty pipes, but she was perfectly capable of delivering the mail and handling what remained of the p284company’s Nor’-West business. State manager William Moxon did his best to present the replacement in a positive light, but his praise of Allinga as “a fine serviceable steamer” was difficult to sustain. Indeed, company secretary P. D. Haggart was probably more amused than troubled by a report he received from marine superintendent James Crossley.
“Allinga”. This steamer I regret to say is not making a good name for herself as far as passengers are concerned. This is due to her speed. The Nor’westers refer to her as the “Lingerer”, although the people who do travel by her (and who are not pressed for time) speak well of her.
In a matter of months, the Adelaide Steamship Company saw its market share carved up between competitors. Although Koombana had set new standards of luxury and comfort, there was no loyalty that could reasonably be transferred to Allinga. Almost overnight, the West Australian Steam Navigation Company’s Minderoo and the Blue Funnel liner Gorgon became the vessels of choice for Nor’-West passengers. Anticipating further decline, the Adelaide Steamship Company brought the smaller, cheaper Bullarra home to Port Adelaide for refurbishment.
As anticipated, the Nor’-West mail contract was lost. In the first week of March 1913, the Adelaide Steamship Company announced that Allinga would be withdrawn from Nor’-West service. Interviewed by The Western Mail, William Moxon insisted that the decision should not be put down to ‘sour grapes’ but to simple commercial reality. The state’s vessels, he conceded, had taken a large slice of the trade, and while he felt no rancour, there were unfortunate consequences. None of the commercial operators was doing well enough to offer a better class of ship. There was now no possibility, he said, that “boats of the Koombana type” would be placed on the run.
* * *
It was in these harder times, in the shadow of misfortune, that the mystique of Koombana began to take root. There was a feeling that when Koombana vanished, the good times vanished with her. A year after the disaster there were more ships on the Nor’-West run than ever before, but none could compare. All struggling to turn a profit, they seemed unrefined and unkempt.
After the outbreak of war, Koombana stood yet further apart. She belonged to another time, perhaps to a world that no longer existed. In April 1909, when Koombana entered Port Hedland for the first time, Walter Barker had written: “The wildest dreams of residents in this climate, who contemplate a comfortable sea trip, are here realised.” That was five years ago. It seemed like ten.
In popular imagination, a paradox became Koombana’s pedestal. Considered unlucky and accident-prone in her working life, and unquestionably ill-fated at the last, she would ever after be associated with a brief period of optimism. Conceived in prosperity, she was the product of p285a business opportunity astutely recognised and firmly grasped: a vision, a challenge, a response, a reward. The “beautiful ill-fated Koombana,” Harriet Lenihan called her.
* * *
For a couple of years the Adelaide Steamship Company found enough Nor’-West work to keep Bullarra busy, but in January 1915 a Japanese firm made an offer for the vessel and a deal was quickly done. After twenty years of coastal service, ‘the old Bull’ steamed away.
To fill the vacancy, Allinga came west again, but she did not linger. War made her attractive; in December 1915 she too was sold away. There was no scramble for a replacement this time, and no announcement to the press. The Adelaide Steamship Company, accepting the inevitability of its Nor’-West demise, quietly withdrew.