The View From Mount Clarence

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

George Cheyne and The South Coast Fishery

Originally Published  30 April 2014:

Battle of Vinegar Hill

Above: The Battle of Vinegar Hill, Co Wexford, Ireland, 1798. George Cheyne wasn’t there, but his brother John was. “Charge of the 5th Dragoon Guards on the insurgents – a recreant yeoman having deserted to them in uniform is being cut down” (William Sadler II)


The Cheynes were mostly medical men.  Surgeons and Druggists from Edinburgh. The wider clan claimed prominent churchmen, merchants and military officers as well; one or two gentlemen in there too. In short, they were a numerous and generally successful middle-class clan of their times.


George’s father, an only child, married and sired sixteen, of which George was fourteenth in line. Having said that, six of his siblings died infants so George’s position wasn’t quite as precipitous as the list suggests. His father, John, was a surgeon.  His oldest brother, William, went into the army and became a Lieutenant Colonel. William got the inheritance but the brother of interest here is George’s second eldest, John Jnr.

Dr John Cheyne
Dr John Cheyne, RCS, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland

John Jnr found his way into medicine and then, via the army, into Ireland. He was at two crucial battles in the 1798 Irish rebellion, Vinegar Hill  and New Ross  Later, Dr John Cheyne joined the College of Surgeons in Dublin, ultimately achieving the highest (British appointed) medical rank in the country, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, before retiring.  All very commendable, I’m sure, but what’s important to our conversation is that two of his sons, George McCartney Cheyne and John Cheyne, took off for the colonies with their uncle Alexander (a brother somewhere in the middle) at the invitation of their favourite relative, good old Uncle George.

I couldn’t find anything about George’s life before he was forty, except to say he looks to have done very well for himself. Quite how isn’t clear, but he wasn’t short a few bob. By 1830 he was in London where in December (well into his 41st year) he married Grizzel Melville, a fellow Scott, and promptly high-tailed it to the Swan River. The couple arrived into Fremantle on the Sterling six months later, George loaded with bags of money and a mass of cargo, including livestock (rabbits amongst them) and not one but two Swedish-made pre-fabricated wooden houses.

I’d love to know the story of the wedding, Grizzel barely had time to breathe before they set sail and I genuinely wonder, was she carrying a child at the time? There’s no evidence of a child I can see, but Merle Bignell (The Fruit Of The Country- A History of the Shire of Gnowangerup) suggests there’s record of it somewhere. Perhaps she’s mistaken? There were a few Cheyne children born in Albany, and one who died, but they didn’t belong to George and Grizzel.

The Sterling arrived into Gage Roads, outside Fremantle, in June 1831 with just 23 passengers. The ship originated its voyage in Sweden (making it a fair bet Cheyne’s pre-fabs weren’t the only ones aboard) and come via Portsmouth. She was the 37th arrival at the Swan River and by that stage things were pretty much at their worst. Four thousand men, women and children had taken up Stirling’s emigration challenge but over half were to pack-up and move on. As far as land was concerned, the entire river frontage was taken. At the same time, the settlement was going through its very first experience as world’s most isolated capital. The place was in crisis. There was no money and nothing it could buy anyway, not labour nor food. The Cheyne’s looked around and took a very deep breath, wondering what to do next. Their dream new life, to Grizzel anyway, must have seemed like the mother of all mistakes.

Eliza Currie - Panorama of the Swan River Settlement

Above: Eliza Jane Currie, Panorama of the Swan River Settlement (Fremantle) 1831: There was no protected harbour at Fremantle until 1897. Ships had to anchor at sea and lighter their cargoes ashore until a jetty was built. In 1831 the Swan River colony was deep in crisis, crops were failing and live-stock levels were too low to support the population. Incoming food ships were rare.


Within a couple of months the Cheynes learned the colony’s leading officials, James Stirling and John Septimus Roe, were to board HMS Sulphur, out of Madras bound for Hobart Town, which was to deliver them to the recently vacated military settlement at King George’s Sound. Stirling, I can just imagine, wrapped an arm around the disillusioned couple and talked them into a look there, which they duly decided to take.

Contained within Stirling’s original prospectus for the establishment of the Swan River Colony was the idea of a fishery. Sealing and whaling would make a contribution to the economy as it did for New South Wales, he had said. Fully two years into the venture, he was still trying to find a way how.

Both Stirling and Roe may have been pre-occupied with the dire state of the Swan Riversettlement, but when they made for the Sound for their summer sojourn of 1831/2, one on the list of jobs-to-do was a coastal reconnaisance. They needed to do this because the idea of whaling, something neither government nor settlers had experience of or could afford, was frustratingly attractive. I’m sure they wanted to measure the level of foreign activity going on and even though the seal colonies had shrunk dramatically, there was still that business to consider as well.

Adding to that, the two will just have wanted to familiarise themselves with the area. There were reports of some beautiful places and they were almost certainly thinking about future settlements in the area. HMS Sulphur departed soon after arriving at the Sound leaving the Cheynes behind but bringing Stirling and Roe a hundred miles east, as far as Matthew Flinders’ Doubtful Islands.


Two People's BayAbove: Idyllic Little Beach at Two People’s Bay. One of Australia’s top five hidden locations.


One of the more picturesque places Striling and Roe will have inspected on the way east was Two People’s Bay. Both knew of the 1803 French – American encounter near the Sound which gave name to the ‘Port des Deux Peuple’s’, Roe doubtless able to recall it from time spent studying the coastline while aboard the Mermaid. Of that Franco-American encounter the French were part of Nicholas Baudin’s expedition while the Americans, in the brigUnion, were one of the earliest sealing venturers to arrive in West Australian waters.

The last voyage of the brig ‘Union’ is another fantastic tale in Albany’s rich maritime catalogue. The story harks back to earlier posts in this series regarding the make-up and activities of the sealing gangs which came to roam the coast between Bass Straight, Kangaroo Island, Middle Island and King George’s Sound. During the 1830’s similar gangs were still in action, so much so in fact that Sarah Hay, an Esperance based novelist, wrote Skins the story of Dorothea Newell and the notorious Negro sealer, Black Jack Anderson. Skins was first published in 2002 and reprinted in 2005.

Dorothea Newell was a member of James Newell Senior’s convict family, who arrived on theAmity with Lockyer and was granted permission to stay when the garrison was disbanded.  Dorothea’s younger brother, Jimmy Newell, along with James Manning – as a wider part of that story- walked from Cape Arid back to Albany in 1835, becoming the first Europeans to cover the distance. A significant early survival story in itself.

Postscript: 09/03/2021 – Go to Jimmy’s Harbour – Newhill or Newell? Part 1 to get the full story of Dorothea Newell and her family. Dorothea’s father, James Newell, was not a NSW convict but an immingrant English farm labourer from Elstead, Surrey. The story of both the Newell and Newhill families helps describe early settlement at Albany and the evolution of local myth.

Another well-known sealer involved in that drama and who came to live on Bald Island, close to Two People’s Bay, was Bob Gamble whose life and times would be terrific to read about in greater detail.

Postscript 09/06/2015 – Go to Campbell Taylor and the Cape Arid Connection – Part 3 for a comprehensive look at the sealers who impacted on the history of South Coast between 1824 and 1850.

So Stirling and Roe went to Doubtful Island Bay some time over the summer of 1831/2 (probably not on the Sulphur but on another vessel which had called in to the Sound) on what turned out to be an uneventful and largely inconsequential sight-seeing trip. Roe giving name to Bremer Bay the most notable outcome. Nothing happened because the colony was economically paralysed and the South Coast didn’t offer up any means of curing it.

Nonetheless, the Cheynes decided to stay. George commenced a merchant trading business with his store of imported goods and also applied for, and was granted, a liquor licence. But there was no one in Albany to sell to and he was in competition with Digory Geake who had established the Commercial Tavern. He spent his money over the coming years on town lots, buying twelve in all, knowing his investments would (or should) turn a profit as the population grew and demand increased, but also knowing that each Pound he contributed to the new economy by way of  those purchases would be matched by Stirling’s land grant scheme. By the time Collie, John Henty and Manyat returned from the Porongurups once again in 1832, or soon after, Cheyne had spent enough to entitle him to those 15, 000 acres.

Cheyne Cottage

Opposite: Cheyne Cottage at Albany from the Norman House website. Cheyne lived here from the time it was built in 1832 probably until he moved to Cape Riche in  about 1837.

This was all well and good for George except that his money was now almost entirely asset bound. He must have been trading to some extent with the ships which came in to port (about one a week) but life was hardly hectic in the free town newly renamed Albany.

People were still leaving the Swan River rather than arriving and Stirling himself was forced to return to England to try and change opinion and re-kindle interest. If people stopped coming then all would be lost.

Cheyne recognised this too and sent a message back home encouraging his brother Alexander to come and out and take advantage of the fine weather and opportunities, and while he was at it wouldn’t it be great if a few of the nephews came too.  And so, as Stirling returned in June 1834 on the James Pattison, which we already know carried Taylor, Belches, Sherratt and James Dunn, it also bore Captain Alexander Cheyne and the two aforementioned nephews, the sons of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 24-year-old George McCartney Cheyne and his newly married younger brother, John.

John and Ann (Lavina Forrest) Cheyne arrived with their newborn baby boy, John William, but the lad was not to survive. He died in March 1836 at Albany at two years of age. John and Ann Cheyne stayed long enough in Albany for that to happen but also in the meantime for their second son George to arrive in 1835 and then for Ann to fall pregnant again and deliver a daughter in July 1837.  John and Ann Cheyne farmed around the Oyster Harbour area, possibly Lower King, but eventually moved the family to Sydney.

Postscript 15/2/15 – Cheyne acquired a 300 acre holding at Lower King applied for by James Henty late in 1831. Henty sold it to Cheyne sometime between 1833 and 1835 as the family extricated themselves from their West Australian affairs. The Hentys went on to settle at Portland Bay, Victoria, from 1834. Cheyne held on to the property until the 1850’s. It seems very likely that it was this plot, which John Henty (18 yr old younger brother of James) had built a small house upon, where John and Ann Cheyne lived between 1834 and 1838.

Postscript 04/03/15 – In 1838, an American whaler, the Gratitude, Cptain Fisher out of New Bedford, spent the winter working off Cape Riche. The ship later arrived in Southern New Zealand with four families aboard desiring to shift their quarters from King George’s Sound. They consisted of the Cheyne family (probably John, Ann and family), the Skinner family, and Messrs. Townshend and Robinson. The families, it is thought later made their way to Sydney. Source, The Old Whaling Days, by Robert McNab. Chapter XIX On-line version courtesy Victoria University of Wellington Library.

Postscript 25/10/2022 – Baron Von Hugel describes meeting Cheyne and wife, along wth their two nephews, one with wife, at Cheyne’s cottage close to the Albany foreshore in January 1833. This predates the James Pattison which contained on its passenger list Alexander Cheyne and John and Wife and child. This would mean one of the two nephews in place at Albany by January 1833 was George McCartney Cheyne  It is very difficult to know who the other was, other than he was married by that time.

Captain Alexander Cheyne was made an official by Stirling (as the ex-mlitary were) becoming the superintendent of Mounted Police, of which there may have been two. He also acted as a surveyor. He left Albany in November 1835 and went to Tasmania.

George McCartney Cheyne got the job as Government Auctioneer during 1834/5 but looks like he might have upped-sticks with his Uncle Alexander late in 1835 and gone off to the eastern colonies where the pay was better and there were (a whole lot) more people.

There was also George’s younger brother Bruce. He came out to the colonies on the Asia which sailed from Leith (Edinburgh) to Port Phillip (Melbourne) via Sydney, arriving in December 1841. That Bruce didn’t come to the Swan River first suggests word really had got around there wasn’t much doing out west and down Albany way. He did eventually come over because he’s recorded as having died of heart failure at Albany in January 1856.

So George and Grizzel did it all pretty much on their own, until George figured if the Cheyne’s couldn’t work together perhaps it was worth giving Grizzel’s side of the family a try. As things improved during the 1840’s George got his determination back and started writing to Grizzel’s sisters, telling them all about the opportunities he could offer.

I don’t know why George and Grizzel couldn’t or didn’t have any children of their own. There’s no evidence to suggest the cause except that the Cheyne family bears more than a few single and childless branches.

All of this information is accessible through The Cheyne Family Website ; a thorough, well organised and very helpful resource for those researching old Albany.

As to the fishery, there was still nothing anyone local could do about the whales they saw spouting off the coast during winter except watch the occasional foreign ship pootle between the government jetty and various bays along the coast. Cheyne would have witnessed two men from Perth whaling unsuccessfully off Middleton Beach in 1833 but they, like most everybody else, were under-capitalised, under-equipped, lacking in knowledge and just too darn remote to be able to do anything about it.

Roe visited Albany again late in 1834 as he continued south after the Pinjarra massacre, exploring the country via its waterways from Bunbury inland to Kojonup (noting the good grazing there) and then south to the coast at Albany. He stayed over the Christmas and in the New Year of 1835 explored the Sleeman and Hay Rivers, taking a close look at Collie’s rapturous Moorilup find at the same time.

Later that year, he and Stirling undertook the ‘Great Southern Expedition’ in an effort to decide the actual route of the now decided upon Perth-Albany road, their southwards journeys forming something of an end of year pattern at this stage, making me think an escape from the summer heat of the west coast was now very much part of his agenda.

When they got to Albany, Stirling and Roe met with a band of hungry settlers with whaling on their minds and went with them on the Government hired vessel Sally Ann eastwards again as far as those Doubtful Islands. The settlers, their numbers bolstered now by the arrival of the James Pattison, didn’t like the idea American and French whaling ships had begun to appear in number, apparently hiding in the bays and coves along the coast for long periods then coming into the Sound to let their crews off for a spot of R&R. The whales were theirs, the settlers said, the foreigners were catching them literally just off-shore and they wanted the government to help them set up their own enterprise. But they weren’t just foreign ships. The more economically advanced colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales were also active and the earliest settlers knew well of the opportunities Hobart Town could offer. In fact, Mary Bussell (not yet Mary Taylor) wrote to England from theVasse River on Boxing Day, 1835, commenting on that very excursion.

“Whaling is now almost as great a mania as sheep. . .  Is this not tempting? A whaling station is talked of for Doubtful Island Bay which the Governor and party have just been down to explore beyond King George’s Sound.” (Marnie Bassett, The Henty’s, pg 364)


Postscript 15/2/15 –  Doubtful Island Bay was recognised as one of the most sheltered and accessible sites along the South Coast at this time. The presence of a fresh water well close to the beach and the islands themselves being a breeding haunt for lucrative fur seals, meant it was probably visited annually be sealing gangs and occupied by off-shore whaling crews every winter for around 15 years, beginning in the early to mid 1830’s. The Henty family were offered a tract of mainland there in exchange for their unwanted 20, 000 acre Leschenault grant prior to the Roe/Stirling visit, reflecting Stirling’s attempts to keep the Henty money in the colony. Stephen Henty, who soon after bought the Sally Ann, was part of that excursion party (as was Henry Camfield, George Cheyne and Thomas Lyell Symers. Manyat was also present) but decided against taking up the offer because he felt the land wasn’t good enough.

It was a critical period. The Americans were beginning to gather again, appearing in fully fitted factory ships this time. Enough of them had been active between Fremantle and Albany to alert everyone to the profits being made. The whalers didn’t only lurk, they came in and made contact at the various points of settlement around the south-west corner, including Albany, Augusta, Leschnault (Bunbury) and Fremantle. Their crews needed time ashore, they needed fresh water and meat and fruit and vegetables, and they needed wood for their fires. There was business to be done. The ship’s captains weren’t just whalers either, they were traders too. They’d take seal skins and sandalwood cargoes and trade them at Canton, a place they were well  acquainted with since China had opened up to them with the fur trade in the 1780’s.

Whale Migrations Graphic

Above: Southern Right whales calve during the winter months in sheltered bays off the southern coast of Australia. Humpback whales are present but more associated with the warmer western and eastern coasts. Both species feed off plankton in the Antarctic during summer. Sperm whales were sought after but are more deep sea dwellers.


The settlers wanted to take up whaling themselves but the specialist equipment had to be imported and costs were prohibitive (there really was a massive lack of cash). Plus, the expertise simply wasn’t there. The settlers considered the whales theirs but had no way of efficiently (or safely) catching them, let alone processing them, so they demanded the government do something about it. Stirling took action by raising harbour taxes and setting a three-mile coastal limit in an effort to restrict the kills, but there was so much coastline it was impossible to police. Plus, the Americans actually wanted to make friends.

It makes you wonder what they thought of the Swan River Colony and its short-numbered frustrated residents waving their fists at them from the beach. On the east coast the economy was far larger and whaling was advancing to the point where the Australian fleet could compete. Out west though, the impoverished coastal colonists struggling to come to terms with their harsh unyielding environment, simply stamped their feet, bit their nails and wished for more.

Out of sight, the Americans flouted the three mile limit and on the surface of things the harbour tax imposition didn’t seem to trouble them too much either. Life aboard those vessels was pretty tough and the promise of pay for the lesser hands wasn’t enough to stop many of them from deciding a new life in a far-flung place was the better option. The deck hands were indentured to the ship owner (usually the captain) and jumping was a serious offence, punishable by flogging, so it was important for the jumper to make sure he wasn’t caught. The presence of coastal towns was seen as something of a threat to the ship’s captains in that regard, which is perhaps why they preferred to anchor in the bays and coves beyond walking distance from the settlements. After all, who would want to jump ship in such a wilderness?

These awkward balancing forces made it difficult for both the Americans and the settlers, but eventually tensions gave way to resolutions. In a democratic free-enterprise kind of way, through the recognition of mutual benefit, partnerships began to form. Ship’s captains realised they could help fund and train shore-based stations and at the same time avoid punishing harbour taxes at established ports. Right whales calved in the bays along the west and south coasts during winter. Through shore based partnerships the captains could simply sail in and pick up the oil at the end of the season, or else spend the time ashore themselves. It meant they carried less human cargo and could diversify their trading interests. These ideas were being discussed amongst the settlers, outside of government earshot, from around 1835 onwards.

American Whaling Ship

Above: An unsigned painting of a 19th C. American whaling ship.  Image from the public domain.  Albany was just one place along the entire western, southern and eastern coastlines of Australia to be exploited by the 19th C. whaling industry. The Americans were rampant in West Australian waters for 10 years from  around 1835, persisting in lessening degrees until the 1880’s.


So when Roe was approached by the settlers at Albany in December 1835 asking would he come with them on an excursion off-shore to the eastwards, I’m not sure exactly how the conversation went. My feeling is the settlers wanted the Government to press ahead with coastal policing stations at Doubtful Island Bay, Cape Riche and Two People’s Bay because a  year and a half later the Governor, Sir James Stirling, in his report for the year ending 30th June 1837, recommended;

‘The provision of a military establishment, consisting of a captain, four subalterns and 50 rank and file for Albany and its subordinate stations, comprising the Kalgan, Nornalup Inlet and Doubtful Island Bay.’

Stephen Henty, part of a Swan River settler family who went on to establish Portland, the original Victorian settlement at Bass Straight, had his ship the Sally Ann ready and waiting. Those who went aboard with Henty and Roe were; Henty’s equally disillusioned and subsequently wandering friend, the lone Henry Camfield (later to befriend Patrick Taylor and to serve a term at Albany as Resident Magistrate), the ubiquitous Lieutenant Peter Belches, Captain Thomas Lyell Symers (an interested but not yet committed settler with his own ship), George Cheyne Esq (who had been with Roe and Stirling on the February Moorilup/Hay River trip), and someone else I’ve mentioned but haven’t had great cause to discuss yet, another of the James Pattison arrivals, Thomas Brooker Sherrat.

Manyat, reflecting his status amongst the settlers and also, probably, reflecting his knowledge of the Noongar families living along the coast east of Albany, also went for the ride.

Whether that Doubtful Islands trip ever amounted to anything on an official level (other than Stirling’s recommendation) is redundant anyway because the very next season, Winter 1836, Sherrat went into business with William Lovett,  A Van Diemen’s Land whaler who arrived with his own boat and equipment. The partnership lasted at least two seasons.

Cheyne couldn’t sit idly by and became the first South Coast settler to form a foreign partnership when he teamed up with 39 year-old American whaling master, Captain Francis Coffin of the Samuel Wright the following year.  Sherrat complained vociferously, campaigning to put a halt to the treason but quietened down when Captain Coffin agreed to buy his and Lovett’s oil.

Sherrat looks to have been what you might call a ‘Rule-book Rory’, he played by the official rules not daring to distance himself from the law, but complained profusely and bitterly of the frustrations. Of the partnership with Lovett, Sherrat’s books show the 1836 take amounting to £630 in value. When compared to the number of whales taken (7), its less than half what it should be. This, to my mind, shows that Lovett either didn’t declare his share or hid a good portion of the haul from Sherrat, only declaring a portion of what they ought to have taken. Sherrat wasn’t present at Doubtful Islands during the season, having appointed  25-year-old John McKail as his manager. McKail, if he knew anything, kept a very good secret.

House Beach 1913, Doubtful Island Bay
House Beach at Doubtful Island Bay in 1913. This was the site of the Sherrat/Lovett 1836 whaling station. The picture comes courtesy of the outstanding Herberle Fishing website

Cheyne probably met Coffin through his Albany merchant business but quite why they chose to anchor off Doubtful Island Bay and compete directly with Sherrat and Lovett the following year is hard to understand.  Sherrat persisted but ultimately gave up trying to make money from whaling, declaring in 1842 that;

“. . . a man must be a fay idiot to fish with a land party if foreignors are allowed to come into this port, take our men, proceed to the bay…and blockade the land party.” (taken from The Shore Whalers of Western Australia by Martin Gibbs.)

Cheyne didn’t have the equipment to whale, he provided labour for Coffin’s ship. There’s no record naming who made up that labour but it’s not unreasonable to think that some of the Albany or Cape Riche/Doubtful Islands Aborigines began the practise at that time. Cheyne was five years at Albany by then and will have known many of Tiffany Shellam’s King Ya-nup.

It seems to me that 1837 was probably the year Cheyne realised the relationships which existed between some of the Aborigines at Albany and their extended families living eastwards along the coast, and that through this understanding he was very probably the man who helped familiarise them with the work of whaling, which, because they were good at it, suited both parties.

Certainly, this was the time Cheyne decided not to live and compete at Albany, but to establish himself alone, away from the bickering competition and eyes of the officials, where he could take advantage of a well known coastal shelter and set about trying to make something of his decision to emigrate. His brother Alexander and nephew George McCartney had left a year or more earlier and it’s likely John and Ann (who had their third child in July of that year) were thinking of moving on.

Cheyne might have been able to do more with his whaling partnership but the coastal land east of Albany hadn’t yet been designated for sale and he was still tied for cash. Nonetheless, he decided to squat at Cape Riche, knowing there were plenty of ships around which he could sell wood to and provide labour to and supply with fresh meat and  fruit and vegetables, once all was in place and once they knew he was there.

Cape Riche Homstead from FT Gregory Fieldbook 4, (550x322)
A cut from the survey map of Cape Riche made from the field notes of F.T. Gregory in 1850. Cheyne squatted on the western bank of what later became known as the Eyre River, from 1837. He eventually bought the land with capital freed from the sale of his Moorilup grant, through separate deals he did with Henry Bull and W.H. Drake.

Cheyne was a formidable character, not the recluse Patrick Taylor became, retaining strong relationships with the town and its leading citizens despite the distance. Gaining ownership of the 1200 acre Cape Riche lot took a bit of time and negotiation but he pulled it off with the Moorilup sale to Captain Hassell in 1839. And so began the South Coast’s first private port. Cheyne built a house and farm buildings, officially moving-in  in 1842. He bought sheep, cattle, pigs and goats, cultivated crops and grew vegetables. He employed Aboriginal labour as shepherds and probably helped some establish themselves in the whaling industry.

Postscript 15/2/15: The late 1835 visit to Doubtful Island Bay by Roe, Stirling and the potential investors failed in regard to the development of that site because of the poor quality of the surrounding mainland. Due to the fertility and aspect of nearby Cape Riche however, competition to secure that tract of land commenced immediately, and it was Cheyne who won the day. For more on the intricacies of that land deal see Campbell Taylor and Cape Arid Connection, Part 1, under the subsection; 1830’s.

2 responses to “George Cheyne and The South Coast Fishery”

  1. Jennifer Avatar

    Do you know any more about John and Ann cheyne stay in new. I’ve heard they were rescued from an island nearly starving. Interesting article. Thank you. Jennifer Cheyne

    1. Avatar

      I’m afraid I don’t Jennifer, other than I believe they eventually made it to Sydney via New Zealand. Best wishes…

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