The View From Mount Clarence

A look back at settlement along Western Australia's South Coast

Extended Interlude

Originally Published 26 July 2014:

Woodburn Farm 1913 - PorongurupsAbove:  Woodburn Homestead and Farm in 1913. The original dwelling is front and centre of the picture. By 1913 Woodburn had been sold to the Moir family. Photograph donated to the Albany History Collection by Gordon Norman.

Following on from last week’s post I wanted to look into the circumstances of John Dunn’s killing, more particularly when it was reported and what happened once it was. I won’t go into great detail about the background because it will be dealt with in later posts, but because of the jump in time I’m making here (from 1850 to 1880) some summary is needed.

James Richard Dunn married Elizabeth Henderson and in 1860 moved his young family from Albany out to the eastern end of the Porongurup Range, 25 miles inland, where he took up a 40 acre plot under a new government incentive scheme. Here, the Dunns commenced farming. James called the property Woodburn after his English hometown in the county of Kent.

At that time, James and Elizabeth had seven surviving children. Oldest son William was 14, John was 12 and younger brother James was 9. By 1874, commencement of the period we are interested in here, James Dunn was a year buried and eldest son William, now running the farm, was turning 28. John  was 26 and James, 23. Younger again were George; who was 19, Robert; aged 17 and Walter; 14. The girls were Margaret; aged 21, Eliza; aged 9 and baby daughter Amelia, who sadly died from a throat infection that year, aged just 6.

At roughly the same time as the Dunns turned Woodburn into a settler patch, John McKail had taken up a nearby lease which he called Bolganup (one of many Noongar name derivations whose meaning has been lost). McKail and his family do not appear to have lived at Bolganup but the family of McKail’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Jenkins, who was married to Thomas Meadows Gillam, did. Exactly which members of the Gillam family and exactly when they began living there is a little more difficult to determine, but Thomas Meadows is recorded as passing away there in 1874.

Details of the families of James Richard Dunn and Thomas Meadows Gillam can be found at the Great Southern Pioneers website operated by Ted Rastrick.

A quote from the research on Pyrmont, one time the Gillam house on Serpentine Road in Albany town, says the children’s mother didn’t move to Bolganup until her husband died. That same year six-year-old Amelia Dunn died and the Dunn’s and Gillam’s granddaughter, Grace, was born.

From the Pyrmont heritage document. . .

By 1844, Thomas Gillam held a slaughtering licence and was providing beef for ships calling at Albany for provisions.  In 1864, he is recorded as being the agent for the Peninsular and Orient (P & O) shipping line.10  Thomas Gillam and his wife had nine children, born between 1844 and 1863.  His eldest child was William Jenkins Gillam.  Both Thomas Gillam and his son William were members of the Albany Town Trust in the early 1870s.  When Thomas died in 1874, Elisabeth Gillam took her younger children and moved to the Porongorups, where she leased land from her brother-in-law, John McKail, and farmed.



Bolganup - modernOpposite: Not the original, but Bolganup Homestead as it stands today. Photo courtesy Wiki Australia Travel Guide

Eldest son, William Jenkins, lived and worked in Albany so all or any of the other Gillam brothers, Alfred, Arthur and Edward, may have helped work Bolganup prior to their father’s death. Edward Gillam later assumed the Bolganup lease, so perhaps he played the strongest role there.

In 1874 Henrietta turned 21 and was part of the sibling group that worked and lived at the Porongurups ahead of her mother’s arrival, either as sole female or with one or another of her closer sisters, Mary and Emma. In any case, the union of John Dunn and Henrietta Gillam occurred between 1873 and 1874, presumably at Bolganup on an occasion when John had come in from the bush. We can get a better sense of this by remembering what Mary Taylor said about Henrietta’s pregnancy in her diary. . .

“. . . a great sorrow has fallen on the Gillam family and the poor girl is much to blame, she has no doubt been thrown into circumstances that no girl ought to be placed in.”



John Dunn CocanarupOpposite: John James Dunn 1848-1880 Photo courtesy  Diamond State Data Services  website, taken around 1878 when he was about 30 years of age. Even in this grainy old Daguerreotype the appearance is striking. His eyes  fierce and hungry.

It sounds like Henrietta may have been on her own out there, or at least was very vulnerable.

John Dunn, being second son, was not to inherit Woodburn and on the strength of this knowledge and his father’s commitment to help all his sons get started on the land, was encouraged to work and explore from the time he left school. He sought to do this from perhaps 1863 when he was fifteen years of age by looking to join sealing and Sandalwood cutting parties that journeyed eastward along the coast from Albany.  The work was seasonal and organised into small parties or gangs.

By 1868 John had identified the Phillips River as an abundant source of Sandalwood and while working inland up the waterway, probably with his friend and contemporary John Moir, came across the site he decided would make an ideal sheep station. John will have learned the locality was in partial use as a staging post by the Dempster brothers who had settled at Esperance Bay, 120 miles further east. Nonetheless, he picked out 6000 acres and pressed his father into applying for pastoral rights. The locality was called Kukenarup by the local natives and through lease and licence applications the Dunn property subsequently became known as Cocanarup.

The Dempster brothers, one of whom had married Patrick and Mary Taylor’s daughter, Maggie, notoriously exercised both official and unofficial means of dominating the South Coast from the Phillips River east as far as Israelite Bay, so it was a brave move by John to settle on a location close to theirs, and evidence of his character that he persisted.

The Dempster brothers, James, Edward, Andrew and William, founded Esperance Bay Station in 1863, the site later evolving into Esperance town. I’ll give further background to the Dempsters in future posts when I cover the ground between 1850 and 1880 more thoroughly; the point being that by the time John Dunn was laying claim to the top end of the Phillips River he was one of a small group of contemporaries, all first-born sons of the colony and true pioneers, who were seeking to make their fortune in virgin country a long way from home.

You’d think they might have been glad to see one another.


                     South Coast Contemporaries of John Dunn

Name Yr of Birth Age in 1874 Age in 1880
Mary Margaret (Maggie) Taylor 1838 36 yrs 42 yrs
Edward Dempster 1839 35 yrs 41 yrs
Elizabeth Moir 1840 34 yrs 40 yrs
Albert Young Hassell 1841 33 yrs 39 yrs
Janet Moir 26 Apr 1842 32 yrs 38 yrs
Campbell Taylor 28 Dec 1842 32 yrs 38 yrs
John Moir 1843 31 yrs 37 yrs
Andrew Dempster 1843 31 yrs 37yrs
William Moir 1845 29 yrs 35 yrs
Stewart Symers 1846 28 yrs 34 yrs
Alfred Meadows Gillam 21 Oct 1846 28 yrs 34 yrs
John Dunn 20 Oct 1848 26 yrs 32 yrs
James  Roy Dunn 08 May 1851 23 yrs 29 yrs
Robert Dunn 1852 22 yrs 28 yrs
George Dunn 10 May 1855 19 yrs 25 yrs
Henrietta Gillam 02 Oct 1855 19 yrs 25 yrs
Alexander Moir 1855 19 yrs 25 yrs
Walter Dunn 1860 14 yrs 20 yrs


The Dempster brothers used the upper Phillips River as a staging post on their long droves between Buckland (the Dempster family headquarters outside Northam) and Esperance Bay where they had decided to build their homestead. The Dempster’s neighbouring Phillips River leases were given the names of Cocaneerup and Manyertup.

Regardless, John Dunn commenced work at his chosen site from 1869 with brother George, clearing the land and building a dwelling. Over the summer of 1871/72 they returned to Albany and bought livestock, driving the flock 160 miles from Woodburn through Chester’s Pass at the Stirling Range, past the Hassell Jarramongup Station and on to the upper Phillips River. Within a year the brothers realised the limitations of their 6000 acres, and sought 8000 more.  How much of the desired acreage was born of necessity and how much was speculative is hard to determine but reading through this period it’s not hard to get a sense of the opportunity these men thought they had in terms of acquiring future wealth. The pages are literally taut with the tension.

A meeting between the Dempster and Dunn brothers was held in1873 where it is thought agreements over boundaries were reached but the subsequent Dunn submission was refused by the Commissioner of Lands on the basis the Dempsters held existing leases which not only clashed with the new Dunn application but also held prior claim over the boundaries of the old one. The Dunn family saw this as foul play and a bitter dispute erupted.

From this we begin to get a sense of the rivalry. The Dempster brothers were the original settlers east of the Gairdner River; John Hassell and John Wellstead taking up more-or-less along it at Jerramungup and Bremer Bay respectively, around 1850. The four Dempster brothers came to maturity post that period. In 1863, primed and ready to go, they took advantage of liberalised land rates which had just come into play in the newly designated Eastern District. Initially, amongst others who failed to  live up to the terms of the regulations, they claimed two 100, 000 acre lots, one at Esperance Bay and the other along the Lort River at Stokes Inlet (30 miles to the west of Esperance), having scouted the coast by sea and land as best they could in the Autumn of that year. The brothers moved quickly and were squatting with the first of their driven livestock near to Esperance Bay within twelve months. From April 1864 they travelled extensively still trying to weigh up where within that vast region the best land lay, all the while fearful other settlers might stumble in, apply and deny them. Before long the Dempster Brothers  were cheaply leasing in the region of a million acres spread among many millions more.

There were genuine advantages in being the first to open-up new country during that era and the Dempster brothers were forceful in asserting their right to them.

The upper Phillips River area was not part of the so-called budgeted Eastern District but it was deemed by the Dempster family as valuable, if not for the water and grass then by way of strategic location, and they weren’t about to let it go. During this period the Dempster brothers developed reputations as capable and determined men but were equally brutal, effectively defending as their own the entire swathe from the Phillips River all the way to Israelite Bay, parts of it over a hundred miles inland. I’ll present evidence of their behaviour in future posts but to show I’m not just making a story of it readers can consult an 1868 letter of complaint (which I’ll reproduce in at least some detail later) written by one of the Dempster shepherds, James Smith, about the conduct of the brothers when Smith lost rations to a native raid. The document can be found in the State Records Office; reference C.S.R. Vol.62, Folio 107.

Another letter, James Dunn’s 1873 complaint to the Commissioner of Lands about the Cocanarup dispute (which Rica Erickson quotes from in her outstanding but pro-settler 1978 work, The Dempsters) shows I’m not the only one to have spotted the defensive unpleasant nature of the Dempster boys.

Dunn accused them of underhand methods, and said he had renewed his lease before it had expired ‘knowing the men we have to deal with who would go to any lengths to annoy their neighbours’.

Through the obvious sense of intrusion, what this bears out is the apparent disregard the Dempster brothers had for the scale of the territory and their ability to bring it under control. It highlights the massive lack of suitability the land offered for pastoral purposes and the exaggerated sense the settlers had of being outdone by one another. In an area crudely spread over roughly 15,000 square miles, two of only four small settler groups were squabbling over 10.

Apart from isolated patches the South Coast was not pastoral country.


Culham InletAbove:  The South Coast towards Culham Inlet, looking east from East Mount Barren. The Phillips River empties into Culham Inlet from the north. Early explorers followed the waterways inland in search of pastures, minerals and Sandalwood. In 1868 there were only two active pastoral holdings beyond this point, at Oldfield River and Esperance Bay. The country is vast in terms of acreage but sparse in terms of pasture. The upper Phillips River area where John Dunn wanted to establish his station was bitterly disputed between himself and the Dempster brothers who claimed it as their own, despite leases of hundreds of thousands of acres elsewhere. Early pastoralists relied on natural grasslands and some kind of fresh water source but the south coast was barely viable, most rivers being misnomers, little more than salty chains of ponds. Pastoral leaseholders controlled enormous tracts but most of the land was useless to their needs.


I made a point some time ago in the first of the Rough Men In Small Boats posts about European names given to the main points of reference along the coast, most of them bestowed by the early navigators and others some years later by the explorers and early settlers. These points of reference which consist of visually identifiable headlands, bays, inlets, points, hills, ranges and rivers are relatively few compared the very great number of localities retaining native identity. I want to raise this again as the names Porongurup, Bolganup, Mongup, Needilup, Jarramongup, Qualup, Corackerup, Jackup, Cocanarup, Manyutup, Jerdacuttup, Kepa Kurl, Mandurbanup and Balangap gain usage in these pages, as it helps to illustrate the importance of localised site knowledge held by the Aborigines and the way that knowledge was usurped by the settlers.

John Dunn’s site choice was probably influenced by the Phillips River’s relative proximity to Mary Ann Haven, a local harbour just east of Culham Inlet where shipping could anchor safely. Coastal settlements and known whaling and sealing locations brought sea transport which the pastoralists could use for the delivery of supplies and equipment.  Mary Ann Haven was later renamed Hopetoun.

Worth noting here too is the Oldfield River, a small leasehold about 30 miles east of Mary Ann Haven held by George and Andrew Moir (nephews of George Cheyne’s wife, Grace) since 1865. In 1868 it was being managed by another Albany pioneer, Campbell Taylor, second son of Patrick and Mary. Taylor, who through the marriage of his sister Maggie was related to Edward Dempster, bought the lease from A&G Moir in 1870 then promptly moved 80 miles east of Esperance to a place known as Thomas River where he established his Lynburn homestead. Taylor kept a small run at the Oldfield River freehold and was known to spend time there.

Twenty miles on from the Oldfield River was Stokes Inlet, originally claimed by the Dempsters but quickly abandoned in favour of land closer to Esperance Bay. Dunn’s friend John Moir, (a nephew of A&G Moir) who helped he and George drive the first stock to Cocanarup in 1871/2, went on to squat at Stokes Inlet with his brother Alexander. These Moir brothers officially acquired the lease in 1873.

So you can see the pattern developing, the South Coast was being claimed by the sons of original settlers out to establish themselves in heretofore unknown country which was for fundamental reasons accessible in places by sea. Other settlers began to arrive from around 1872 including the Muirs, McGill and Kennedy brothers at Eucla (way out to the east and another frictional rivalry) and Ponton and Brooks at Israelite Bay, beyond Thomas River.

It is staggering how minuscule the settler presence was in comparison to the enormous wilderness they attempted to tame and how, despite it, some fought among themselves.


South Coast Distances - Goog EarthAbove: Early South Coast pastoralists didn’t seem to recognize the distances they were faced with, locating themselves in extraordinarily remote places. This bravery and willingness to endure and overcome hardship is the hallmark of the Australian pioneer spirit, but it wasn’t always friendly and closer inspection reveals disagreeable behaviours.


Now, back to the story of John Dunn.

From 1837, when settlers first began moving east along the coast from Albany occupying favoured spots upon the rivers and creeks along the way, they tried to meet their labour requirements by employing the invariable native presence. While Aboriginal female labour in the form of domestic support probably fared better than the men, insurmountable cultural differences prevented a great majority of these working relationships from developing along conventional European lines. Settlers repeatedly made the mistake of indenturing Aboriginal help on the same basis as they did European or American men without realising the near impossibility of it. When their workers left them settlers used the police to have them arrested and charged with absconding, many instances of which resulted in gaol detentions and imprisonment sentences. The police record books contain many complaints, details of arrests and incidents relating to absconders of both European and Aboriginal origin and also of abuse and violence. (Remember, we have jumped from 1850 to 1880 in these Interlude posts. I’ll be providing detail of the mis-integration of regional natives into station/farm life between Albany and Esperance when I go back to covering stories 7; William, John And Alfred, 8; Empty and 9; What Happpened to Bobby Roberts in coming posts). We are discussing story 10 here, an occurrence twelve years after John Dunn first laid eyes on the locality still referred to within Aboriginal circles as Kukenarup, where Aboriginal/Settler relations along the South Coast reached its darkest point.

On March 20th, 1880, John Dunn was at work in the yard at his sheep station homestead with his ex-convict stonemason employee Thomas Riley when he was approached by a native later identified as being one of two men; either Dartambam, aka Jumbo, or Yungala, also known as Yandawalla. Marian Brockway describes the scene in The Dunns of Cocanarup . . .


It was about five o’clock that afternoon when an Aborigine cooeed to John to attract his attention. He was in the blacksmith’s shop and Riley was on the scaffolding of the shearing shed, which was under construction. John went across to the Aborigine and the two conferred for some fifteen minutes, drawing signs on the ground.


Then John, in his shirt sleeves and without a firearm, went off with the Aborigine. As they left, Riley heard John say: ‘You are the man I want’. John Dunn was never seen alive again.


As Walter Dunn told the story at the Supreme Court trial, he had come home from working elsewhere on the property and was not disturbed to find that his brother had gone off with an Aborigine. He thought that probably the Aborigine was telling him of some strayed sheep he had found– a reward was offered for finding sheep.


Next day, when John still had not come back, he and Robert set out to find him. They followed tracks, lost them; found them again. It was two days before they came upon John’s body and signs of a scuffle. The body had a spear wound in the neck and bruising on the arms as though they had been held. There was a great deal of blood about a metre from the body. They brought him home in a cart and buried him by the river, carving a simple wooden cross for the grave. The subsequent inquest confirmed that he had bled to death after being stabbed in the throat by a sharp instrument.


I’ll explore the trial transcript and provide further important background in my next post but for now want to concentrate on how and when the incident was reported. I’m doing it this way because the trial collapsed due to conflicting evidence. The identity of the native who went with John Dunn into the bush could not be conclusively determined. Even though, as it turns out, they eventually brought the right man to trial, the evidence against him was not reliable. By writing the story, The Lost Love Of Henrietta Gillam, I’m approaching it from the view-point of someone who wasn’t there.

The Albany Police Occurrence Books for the time are available to researchers and I can present here the entries relating to the reporting of what happened and the official procedure which followed. The entries below do their own explaining, representing everything recorded about the event between March 19th and April 30th. There are many other entries in the books which give insight into the daily operations of the Albany Police Force at that time; among other things, local arrests for drunken and disorderly behaviour, the reporting of lost property and theft, observations of suspicious persons, police court proceedings, cautions, the coming and going of the mail van between Albany and Perth and the arrival and departure of shipping. In 1880 the telegraph line between Albany and Esperance was only three years in operation and through the following reports we can see how important it had become to coordinating police activity between Kojonup, Albany, Bremer Bay and Esperance.

Albany Police Occurrence Books; March 19th – April 30th, 1880

April 1st 1880
William Dunn reports this morning his brother John Dunn left his station at Cocanarup on the 20th ulto along with a native named Jumbo and he was found dead on the 22nd about three miles from the station with a spear wound in his throat and it is supposed the native speared him.


April 1st,Telegram Forwarded at 10.00am
Station Master Bremer Bay. Please tell me if there is a native named Geordie about Bremer.
Sd Philip Furlong
Sgt of Police


April 1st, Telegram Received at 10.30am
Sgt Furlong, Geordie arrived here from Cocanarup some time ago and was employed by Wellsteads. I will enquire if here still and will wire positively during day.
Sd G.P. Stevens


April 1st, Telegram Forwarded, 12 noon
Charles Howard Esq, Inspector of Police, Kojonup
John Dunn is supposed to have been speared by a native named Jumbo at the Phillips River on twentieth ulto, his body found on twenty second. Can Coppin be spared to send to make enquiry. Please reply
Sd Philip Furlong
Sgt of Police


April 1st, Telegram Received, 12,15pm
Immediate, where is Truslove now.
Sd Charl Howard
Inspector Kojonup


April 1st, Telegram Received at 12.15pm
Sgt Furlong, Geordie left Wellsteads this morning with flock of sheep. Will be at Gairdner River nine miles from here about week or ten days.
Sd G.P. Stevens


April 1st, Telegram Forwarded at 12.45pm
Charl Howard Esq, Insp Police Kojonup
Left on Tuesday last to visit settlers on the Fraser Range. Will be absent about fifteen days
Sd Philip Furlong
Sgt of Police


April 1st, Telegram Received at 3.50pm
Sergeant Furlong, P.C. Coppin will leave here tomorrow morning to proceed to Phillips River. let P.C. Wheelock stay in to accompany him. They will require four horses, two of which will be brought in from Mount Barker. Have your horses shoed in readiness and get a good native. I shall be in with mail tomorrow evening.
Sd Charles Howard


April 1st, Telegram Forwarded at 3.55 pm
Charles Howard Esq, Insptr of Police
Will I send in to Mount barker for the horses or will you instruct Coppin to bring them in
Sd Philip Furlong
Sgt of Police


April 1st, Telegram Received 4.10pm
Sergeant Furlong
P.C. Coppin will bring them in
Sd Charles Howard
Insptr Kojonup


April 1st, Telegram Forwarded at 7.00pm
Mr Wellstead, Bremer Bay
Could you possibly arrange for us to have Geordie for a few weeks to assist in tracing the murder of John Dunn. Pls reply.
Sd Philip Furlong
Sergt of Police


April 1st, telegram Forwarded at 7.00pm
Charl Howard Esq, Insp of Police
Please instruct Coppin to bring in Dempster also as Dr Rogers is going and will require a horse
Sd Philip Furlong
Sergt of Police


April 4th; P.C. Coppin
Arrived from Kojonup at 4.00pm with horses to make preparations to start for the Phillips River to make out the circumstances of the murder of John on the 20th.


April 4th, telegram Forwarded at 6.00pm
Station Master Bremer Bay
Please inform me if Mr Wellstead has returned as I have received no reply to my telegram about Geordie
Philip Furlong
Sergt of Police


April 5th, Telegram Received at 8.00am
Sergeant Furlong
Wellstead arrived last night. His reply is. if Geordie is willing to go and is replaced by a native who can take charge of a flock of sheep.
Sd G.P. Stevens
Station Master


April 5th at 12 noon
Doctor Rogers accompanied by P.C. Wheelock departed for the Phillips River via Porongurups to investigate the circumstances of the death of the late John Dunn by holding XXXXX
Police horses Dempster and Blondie


April 5th
P.C. Coppins and special native left at 2pm for the Phillips River and Bremer Bay to exchange native with Mr Wellstead at the Gairdner River and then proceed on to join Doctor Rogers and P.C. Wheelock


April 8th, Telegram Received at 8pm
Sergeant Furlong
Just arrived, horses alright. Likely to have day delay getting Geordie in.
P.C. Coppin
Bremer Bay


13th April, Telegram Received at
Sergeant Furlong, just returmed.
Sd Geo Truslove


13th April, Telegram Forwarded at 10am
Constable Truslove
Look out for suspicious character travelling eastward he passed the Gairdner few days ago
Philip Furlong
Segt of Police


28th April, Telegram Received 8.30pm
Reported man by name of John Green one of Moirs shepherds has shot and severely wounded native child two years old about fortnight ago. No further particulars known. Will get native and start in morning early.
Geo Truslove
Esperance Bay


April 29th, Telegram Forwarded 10 am
Detective Sergeant Row, Perth
Reported last night by P.C. Truslove that a man named John Green one of Moirs shepherds has shot and seriously wounded native child about two years old about a fortnight ago. No further particulars known. P.C. Truslove left this morning to make enquiries. Sd John Raftery a coxwain as sergeant absent



Albany to CocanarupAbove: In 1880, Cocanarup Station at the top end of the Phillips River was 70 miles from its nearest fixed neighbour, Albert and Ethel Hassell’s Jarramongup Station. Esperance Bay, where there were police and telegraph outstations, was 120 miles to the east. Bremer Bay telegraph station was closer to Albany but about the same distance away, around 120 miles. Oldfield River Station was small and not reliably staffed.  On horseback, a man familiar with the country might cover 70 miles in around 12 hours. Jarramongup was a well known breeding station where fresh horses could have been gained but it was nine days from the time John Dunn’s body was found until it was reported at Albany in person by John’s brother, William. The police party and Doctor Rogers from Albany exhumed the body when they finally arrived at Cocanarup on or before the 10th of April.


The first point of interest arising from this reading is that it was William Dunn who made the report. William was in full control of Woodburn at that time, his father having died sevens year earlier, and had come in the 25 miles to Albany to make the report. I wondered how William got the information and why it had come from Cocanarup to Woodburn and on into Albany rather than from Esperance or Bremer Bay via telegraph, those two places being significantly closer to the crime scene.

Thinking about that made me realise either one of the Dunn brothers or Thomas Riley, their employee, must have come from Cocanarup, almost certainly via Jarramongup Station, to bring the news to Woodburn. Or, the news had been transferred from Jarramongup by someone there if the Dunn brothers based at Cocaranup had decided to return there and wait for the police to come. Either way though, it was April 1st when the report was first made, John Dunn’s body having been found three miles into the bush and brought back to the homestead on the 22nd. This means it took nine days for the news to come from Cocanarup to Woodburn, assuming William Dunn left Woodburn on March 31st to make the journey into Albany.

In that era distances were covered slowly by foot and on horseback, 30 miles generally being regarded as a solid day’s travel. However, a man on horseback could cover up to 70 miles in about 13 hours, barring incidents, if the horse was in good condition and the man familiar with where he was going. Jarramongup Station was a well-known horse-breeding business with plenty of stock. Getting there along a well-forged track from Cocanarup would not have been difficult. A night’s sleep, fresh horse gained and travelling on to other out-stations on the upper Pallinup River, and from there through the Stirlings to Woodburn with overnight stops, would have taken two more days (again, without incident). With urgency, the news would have realistically arrived in Albany direct from Cocanarup by April 26th or 27th. Instead, it arrived five days later.

John Dunn was dead rather than injured and rescue wasn’t required so it is understandable there were no blue lights flashing, but still, five days suggests someone was dragging their feet. Evidence of the time frames involved can be seen from P.C. Coppins reports which show he left Albany at 2.00pm on April 5th, arriving at Bremer Bay, after riding steadily, at around 8.00pm, three days later, on April 8th.

You can see that the police response was instant, Sergeant Furlong immediately employing the telegraph system to co-ordinate an investigation. Interestingly, Furlong’s first response was to telegraph Bremer Bay to ask was the native Geordie there. Furlong’s intelligence would have informed him that Geordie was well-known in the wider Phillips River area as a so-called special native, native tracker or native assistant. This is because there had been several incidents of violence in the years leading up to 1880 and the police had been active there both in terms of general coverage by the Esperance out-station’s staff (P.C. Truslove) and in terms of specific needs. Furlong’s first thought was to get out there with native assistance so they could try and determine what happened from the natives themselves and Geordie was well-known to the Kukenarup tribe/families.

Sergeant Furlong also knew there was nobody at Esperance Police Station because P.C. Truslove had gone out to the Fraser Range, an outstation of the Dempster Esperance Bay conglomerate, as a matter of general business because security there was a problem. (Fraser Range station -east of where Norseman is now and located on the East-West Eyre Highway- had been the scene of native resistance for some time.) I’ll give more detail about that and about the different Noongar sub-nations which existed more fully then and how differences within them probably affected the thinking and actions of some Aboriginal people, in forthcoming posts. For now though, it’s enough to know that all was not and had not been well east of the Gairdner River for some time.

Thus we have a scenario where the death of John Dunn was reported by delayed proxy to the Albany police ten days after the the body was found. Coordination of the police response, including the provision of a doctor to determine the means of death and native assistant to help gain native information, took another eight days just to reach Bremer Bay, two more in all likelihood to reach Cocanarup. A round period of three weeks.

When statements were taken from Riley and the Dunn brothers at Cocanarup none of them co-ordinated. Marian Brockway summarised in The Dunns of Cocanarup. . .

Police correspondence, April 1880 to January 1881, reveals the efforts made to identify the murderer of John Dunn.48 Contradictory allegations were made on every aspect of the case– the person who killed him, the reason for the killing, the weapon used. There was even a suggestion that it might have been suicide!


Within Aboriginal memory John Dunn was killed because of transgressions committed, probably collectively, by the Dunn brothers and their white employees at and around Cocanarup Station. The offences were sexual and probably committed over time but culminated in March, 1880.

The incidence of John Dunn’s death in that remote place provoked a much stronger reaction from the surrounding settler group which in part was probably instant but which, when the trial collapsed, regained momentum and played out over future years. While the police occurrence books tell of native raids and attacks on the Cocanarup property and its settler personnel, within Aboriginal memory this period is known as the Cocanarup Massacre.


Dunns of CocanarupAbove: The Dunn brothers and sister, Eliza, probably taken around 1900.  Front row seated – Eliza, William & James.  Back row; Walter and Robert. The photograph comes from the Ravensthorpe Historical Society webpage on Cocanarup but is also to be found on the Diamond State Data Services  Dunn Family Group Sheet webpage 

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