The View From Mount Clarence

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

Interlude Pursued- Part 3

Originally Published 31 August 2014:

And the Dunns of Cocanarup;

What do we know about John, James, George, Robert and Walter?


Dunns of CocanarupAbove: The Dunn brothers and sister, Eliza, probably taken around 1910 – After the death of brother George in 1907.  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

In the novel Parallel Campbell Taylor has been badly injured and is in transit, en-route to Albany hospital. While his transport, the coastal steamer Rob Roy, is loading at Esperance he spends a couple of nights in a proper bed at the town’s infirmary. In the excerpt below his wife Charlotte is sitting with him when he is visited by an old friend and one time employee of the Dempster brothers, Stewart Symers. While he sleeps, Charlotte and Stewart talk about the years Campbell had spent running sheep along the South Coast, and of the deaths of two of his contemporaries at the hands of the Aborigines.


‘So the problem wasn’t the natives?’


‘Frustration,’ said Stewart. ‘Lack of progress.’


She faced him. ‘The murders,’ she said, ‘ You’re not suggesting?’


‘Nah,’ said Stewart. ‘Natives did it but Cocanarup and Fanny’s Cove were a long way from anywhere, and bitter and bored men all on their own aren’t much fun.’


‘I’m not sure I understand,’ she said.


Stewart laced his fingers behind his head. ‘No religion,’ he said leaning back.


His voice filled the room, echoed out of its high corners and she waited for the emptiness to reclaim the silence it demanded.


‘No religion,’ he said when it came, ‘no mother and no law.’


John James

John Dunn CocanarupAbove: John James Dunn 1848 – 1880


We already know John was second eldest of the Dunn brothers, that he worked from an early age towards establishing himself as a landowner in his own right and that he began this through taking on sealing and Sandalwoood cutting jobs which led  him to the Phillips River district. John had an out-of-wedlock daughter with Henrietta Gillam whom he seems not to have encouraged to join him at Cocanarup. John and Henrietta were engaged for six years before his death but there were never any signs of a pending wedding. John did not spend his entire time at Cocanarup. We know the year his daughter Grace was born he explored the coast eastwards as far as Eucla.

Below is passenger list from the S.S. Siam, dated 10th October, 1877. The list carries the name John Dunn, ‘a farmer from this district,’ disembarking at Albany. The list shows he joined the ship at Adelaide. In a 1942 newspaper clipping I found on-line, a nephew of the Dunn brothers (a son of Margaret Dunn and Alfred Gillam) said John had also spent time shearing in the eastern states and that he even traveled as far as New Zealand.  It’s possible, even likely, therefore that John continued on to Port Augusta and Adelaide after crossing the Nullabor.

When John returned to Cocanarup he appears to have resumed the mantle of boss. Reading between the lines, it’s possible John had also been absent in the period leading up to March 1880. Walter said during the trial that he had known Dartambaum four years but that as far as he knew John had only met him once. This reinforces the notion John may not have been specifically targeted by Dartambaum, but that he was simply the brother who happened to be at the homestead at the time.

Either that or John Dunn did something particularly offensive upon his return.


John Dunn - SS Siam Passenger ListAbove: The passenger list from the S.S. Siam, which landed at Albany on October 10th, 1877, showing John Dunn as disembarking from Adelaide.


In March of 1877, just six months before John Dunn’s return from Adelaide, his friend John Moir was murdered at Fanny’s Cove by natives Tampin and Bower. Bower  (aka Joe Finnerty or Fennatty) was hunted down and shot on the run but Tampin escaped, later to be caught and hung. The pursuit of Tampin is reputed to have ranged from Wagin to Coolgardie.

On August 16th, 1877, apparently while Cocanarup (50 miles north west of Fanny’s Cove) was unoccupied (Police Gazette 17/10/77 – the brothers were building a shearing shed near Mary Ann Haven/Hopetoun), the homestead was broken into and robbed of a large amount of goods, hundreds of pounds in weight of flour and sugar included. The robbery was reported by telegram from Bremer Bay to the Albany Police, a transcript of which was published in The Police Gazette, 19 September 1877. The telegram was received by Sub-Inspector Findlay, Albany, on 27 August (11 days after the robbery), from Messrs Dunn Bros. It read;

“Shepherd and station robbed by wild natives; shepherd also cautioned by my native; life in danger; property stolen, valued (pounds) 50; natives armed with shear blades , stopping within three miles of station; went after natives to recover stolen property; found them; told them to stop in native language , continued running, property with them; fired , wounded one, arrested two; have them chained up, want to know how to act, want them punished.”


The Police Gazzette, on October 10th 1877, the same day John Dunn disembarked the S.S. Siam from Adelaide, reported seven natives found in possession of stolen goods had been arrested at the Phillips River on September 10th by P.C.’s Barron and Coppin, for the robbery and that they were brought before the court at Albany and sentenced two weeks later, on September 25th. From the various sources it appears the natives were caught by the Dunn brothers themselves and that they were chained up at Cocanarup until the police constables arrived. Anecdotally (Keith Bradby – A Park In Perspective – 1989), there was the suggestion the Aborigines involved had come from the east and gone as far as Jarramungup Station. That the telegram uses the term ‘wild’ indicates they were so-called Bardocs, men from the inland/desert culture.

Robert Dunn later admitted shooting dead one of these natives when he and his brothers came across them (see Sunday Times excerpt under Robert’s entry below) at the site where Ravensthorpe town was later built. This was about ten miles from the Cocanarup homestead. The natives must have been held in chains at the homestead lock-up from the time they were located (between August 16th and August 27th) until the police arrived on September 10th, then marched in chains to Albany (about 200 miles) arriving on or before September 25th, when they were charged and sentenced.

John Dunn looks to have been away from the Phillips River during all this time.

18 months after his return, in April of 1879, Tampin -who was involved in the killing of John Moir- was spotted in the Phillips River/Fanny’s Cove area and arrested. He was sent to Rottnest Island in May and appeared at the Supreme Court in Perth on July 5th where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Tampin was hung at Rottnest Island before all prisoners at 8.00am on Saturday 19th July, 1879.

John Dunn, probably in an unrelated incident, was killed by natives at Cocanarup eight months later.

James Roy

James Dunn JuniorAbove:  James Roy Dunn 1851 – 1926. Jim Dunn was a surviving twin, his brother Richard passing away at birth.


As with the rest of his brothers there is very little information about the life of James Dunn prior to him going to Cocanarup in 1874.  James was born in 1851, the surviving twin to his brother Richard who died at birth. He was three years younger that John, aged 23 when the decision was made to go out to the Phillips River with Robert and Walter. Photographs of him (two) reveal a different visual character to his bothers. He was slightly built and of a softer, more gentle countenance, especially when compared to John.

James was badly beaten by Aborigines in 1885 and took a long time to recover. The beating reflects the ongoing hostility between the Dunn brothers and Aborigines in the wake of John’s killing and of the brothers post-trial retributive actions. The Aborigines concerned were believed to have come from the Norseman area, yet another link between the inland tribes and Phillips River area.

The Dunns of Cocanarup; 

In September 1885, James was tracking some horses, which had wandered off, when he came upon an Aboriginal couple. He spoke to them, and without warning was attacked by the man, beaten unconscious and left for dead. Hours later he regained consciousness, managed to struggle on to his pony, and somehow negotiated three gates and rode three kilometres home. Robert set his broken arm and stitched up his wounds, but James was many weeks recuperating.56


The following day, Robert, anticipating further trouble, checked the area round the homestead. A group of Aborigines approached, talking excitedly. He hid and, having knowledge of their language, heard them speak of James’s supposed death and the planning of his own. Confronting them, he opened fire before they could throw a spear, killing two Aborigines and wounding three.57 There is no other information available about this incident.
Eliza Dunn, then a thirty-one-year-old spinster, decided to join her brother James at Cocanarup. She and her three year old niece, Amy Clarice (Clarrie) Dunn, daughter of oldest brother William, left Albany on the first-class passenger steamer McGregor, 256 tons, which traveled regularly between Albany and Israelite Bay, on 26 May 1896. They were put ashore at Mary Ann Haven, where James was waiting with a wagon ready to transport them to Cocanarup. Little Clarrie didn’t return to Woodburn and her parents for five years.


James Dunn is credited with discovering the first payable gold in the Ravensthorpe area in 1898. The Dunn brothers were granted a reward lease in 1899, which they called Jim Dunn’s Wonder. The mine, however, was not profitable and was eventually abandoned, though it was this discovery which caused something of a gold rush to the district. Within a year there were ten goldmines and five copper mines in operation, and a tent town had sprung up causing the subsequent gazetting of the Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun town sites in 1900.

ter the sale of Cocanarup in 1911, James and Robert worked a property known as Park Farm nearer to Ravensthorpe.

The Diamond State Data webpage given over to the Dunn family contains comments on some of the brothers by Nell Erikson, a descendant of the family interviewed by Marian Brockway during the time she wrote her paper, The Dunns of Cocanarup.  On James Dunn’s page Nell Erikson says that he wished to marry Henrietta Gillam, but that it was a pairing Mrs. Dunn Snr. was very much opposed to.

Regarding Henrietta; my sympathies, for some reason, seem to lie mostly with with her. That she fell pregnant out-of-wedlock at that time was bad enough but then to see John killed and to have the boy’s mother prevent her from marrying his brother is tragic. Marrying James would have made her daughter, Grace, legitimate, in name at least, and given her some inheritance rights. Fortunately for Grace she married and went on to have her own family but poor Henrietta was left alone, dying in her early 60’s probably from lack of will to continue.

We know the Gillams were neighbours to the Dunn family at the Porongurups and from what can be determined it was there in 1874 (after George took the wool clip to Albany and decided not to return) that John came in to Albany himself. Mary Taylor’s diary tells of his return, via Candyup, on April 16th.

 “Dunn came, he seems far from well; learnt from him that Sherratt’s boat three weeks ago was in Fanny Cove still on the way down, this intelligence has indeed been a great relief to my mind though it is but a slight circumstance to think of it.” The next day she added; “I talked a long time after breakfast with John Dunn but it is very heavy work, he feels ill but has no definite complaint, he can neither eat nor sleep.”


Bear in  mind, that news of Henrietta’s pregnancy had broken just two months earlier.

“. . . 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.”


So, in April or May 1874 the decision was made to send the three other boys out to Cocanarup. Also, and critically, John then went off on his journey to the eastwards. James Richard Dunn, the boys father, had died in June the previous year and Thomas Meadows Gillam, Henrietta’s father, was literally dying there and then. He passed away at the Porongurups in May 1874. It is believed that Henrietta’s mother then brought her remaining children out to the Porongurps from Albany to live. Remember, the Gillam’s were running Bolganaup farm, at that time owned and leased out to the Gillam family by Henrietta’s mother’s brother-in-law, John McKail.

To my mind, Elizabeth Dunn’s decision not to allow her son James to assume a relationship with Henrietta in the wake of John’s death speaks volumes. Why wouldn’t she allow it? It seems to me a cruel thing. I think Elizabeth Henderson Dunn, the boys mother, may have exercised control over Henrietta. It was one thing for the Dunn men to have relations with native women, but quite another for a settler girl from a reputable family to allow herself into such a situation. John Dunn and Henrietta Gillam were engaged six years before John was killed on March 20th, 1880, and in all that time there was never any sign of a pending wedding.

I think it was probably Elizabeth Dunn who insisted and maintained the couple would marry and who insisted that Henrietta journey out to Cocanarup with her and Eliza after the court case failed in October 1881. That Eliza Dunn (who penned a memoir aged 82) returned to the area in 1896 when the mining boom was taking effect without Henrietta is also telling. Henrietta was still single, her daughter Grace by that time in her early twenties and not far off marrying herself. Perhaps it was Grace’s impending wedding that prevented her? Perhaps it was that she had become disassociated with the Dunn family by that time or perhaps it was that disapproving old Mrs Dunn was still alive and kicking that she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

It’s hard, probably impossible to know now.



There are no known photographs of George Dunn in the public domain. George was seven years younger than John, yet they worked together during the earliest period of clearing at Cocanarup Station. By mid-1871, when George turned 21, enough had been done to commence stocking the property and the brothers returned to Woodburn where arrangements were made to transfer stock. Using pack horses and bullock drays, John and George set off in November to drive their flock through Chester’s Pass in the Stirling Ranges, on to Jarramungup and on again across virgin bushland to the new pasture at Cocanarup, 170 miles to the east.

It was February 1872 by the time they arrived. They set to work erecting shelters, sowing pastures and continuing the clearing, while still shepherding their flocks over unfenced land. They grew wheat and ground their own flour with a stone mill.

Towards the end of 1873, George took the second Cocanarup wool clip to Albany, but the hardship and loneliness of the upper Phillips River had taken their toll and he didn’t return. The family conference was held and decision made for James, aged twenty-two, Robert, aged twenty-one, and young Walter, who was only thirteen years old, to go out to the bush.

George Dunn subsequently married the youngest of the Gillam children, Selina, but not until 1886 when he was over thirty. Selina was eight years his junior. The couple moved to Cranbrook where George became proprietor of the Cranbrook Hotel. They had five children. George Dunn died at Albany in February 1907, not yet 52 years of age.


Robert Adam


Robert Adam DunnAbove: Robert Adam Dunn 1857 -1933


From what I’ve read about Robert Dunn he presents as a pretty determined character. He was only 17 when he went out to Cocanarup and 23 when John was killed.  He helped escort his mother, sister Eliza and  Henrietta Gillam out to Cocanarup for a six month stint in 1882. Robert stayed in the area over fifty years profiting from the sale of Cocanarup Station and the various other business interests the brothers built up in the town that established itself around their original enterprise. The excerpts below provide some further detail about him.


Robert worked at Woodburn in the Porongorups until 1874 when he joined his brothers James and John at Cocanarup. In the years 1890-1905 when the mines were being developed, Robert carted mining equipment and stores by wagon from Hopetoun to Ravensthorpe. He is also said to have carted the first load of copper ore to the port of Hopetoun. Like his brothers, he was respected for his talents as a bushman. Robert never married. After the sale of Park Farm in 1911, he lived with his sister, Eliza, who was running the Miner’s Arms in Ravensthorpe. In 1927 both moved to Mount Barker. Comments courtesy of Nell Eriksen


From Marian Bockway’s ‘The Dunns of Cocanarup’


Caught up in the (goldrush) excitement, Walter and Robert Dunn set out from Cocanarup in 1890, with prospectors George and Tom Stennet, on a prospecting and trail-blazing trip to the Yilgarn. Walter wrote to his mother from Southern Cross, saying he saw the Yilgarn as a potential market for his chaff, pork, sheep and cattle. For this purpose, the Dunns struck a track through from Cocanarup to Southern Cross which still exists, going east to Ravensthorpe, then north through Hatters Hill, the Ironsides and Parkers Range. John Holland’s party, clearing Holland’s track from Broomhill to Bayley’s Find (Coolgardie) in 1893, reported that ‘carved on an oak tree were the initials of the Dunn Brothers who had crossed from Phillips River to Southern Cross’.  Although keenly aware of the gold boom, the Dunns continued their farming operations. Walter and Robert were often away with their teams, carting for others as well as themselves, and leaving James alone at the station.


When Robert and Eliza Dunn sold up their Ravensthorpe assets and moved back to Albany to retire they were interviewed by a the Sunday Times Newspaper which was interested in preserving their story as early pioneers. The excerpt below gives some indication of Robert Dunn’s memory of his time on the Phillips River. By 1828 only oldest brother William, Robert and Eliza remained. Robert lived on for another five years.


Robert Dunn speaks to the Sunday TimesAbove: Robert Dunn speaking to The Sunday Times, 20th May, 1928 In this excerpt Robert tells of shooting dead one of the Aborigines who stole from the homestead in 1877.



Walter Dunn 1860 - 1926Above: Walter Dunn 1860 – 1926


Walter was the youngest and physically largest of the Dunn brothers. In the family portrait taken sometime around 1910, he is clearly the tallest and most solid. Born in 1860 he was just thirteen years old when he left home and went out to Cocanarup Station. Walter discovered his brother’s body on March 20th 1880. He made a statement and presented as witness at the failed trial at the Supreme Court in Perth in October 1881. After the trial Walter helped escort his mother, sister and John’s fiance, Henrietta Gillam, out to Cocanarup for their six month stay. When the mining boom arrived Walter became a partner in the Miners Arms Hotel as well running a carting business between Hopetoun and Ravensthorpe. He had other business interests as well.

From The Dunns of Cocanarup by Marian Brockway.

Caught up in the excitement, Walter and Robert Dunn set out from Cocanarup in 1890, with prospectors George and Tom Stennet, on a prospecting and trail-blazing trip to the Yilgarn. Walter wrote to his mother from Southern Cross, saying he saw the Yilgarn as a potential market for his chaff, pork, sheep and cattle. For this purpose, the Dunns struck a track through from Cocanarup to Southern Cross which still exists, going east to Ravensthorpe, then north through Hatters Hill, the Ironsides and Parkers Range.  John Holland’s party, clearing Holland’s track from Broomhill to Bayley’s Find (Coolgardie) in 1893, reported that ‘carved on an oak tree were the initials of the Dunn Brothers who had crossed from Phillips River to Southern Cross’. Although keenly aware of the gold boom, the Dunns continued their farming operations. Walter and Robert were often away with their teams, carting for others as well as themselves, and leaving James alone at the station.Walter then managed the Miners Arms Hotel and Eliza later assisted with the management of the premises.


Evidence, which I’ll present in my final post in this series, indicates Walter Dunn -apart from being a local dignitary- became a mass murderer, something no one has yet come out and said. Walter Dunn bragged about what he did and his deeds though widely known were never publicly discussed. Walter Dunn wore the persona of a man of significant local importance right up until his death, reflecting the colonial attitude of the day toward Aboriginal relations. By the turn of the 19th Century the settler establishment had adopted a thoroughly protective approach toward their heroic pioneers and the old ‘Friendly Frontier’ had completely disintegrated.

The events at Cocanarup, for which Walter Dunn was probably mostly responsible, represents the collapse of colonial law along the South Coast. It is the point at which the settler establishment, unable to tame neither land nor native, capitulated.

There are four key symbolic episodes in the history of Aboriginal/European relations along the South Coast, two positive and two negative. Alexander Collie’s 1835 dying wish to be buried alongside Mokare and Wylie’s decision to go with Edward John Eyre instead of Joey and Yarry at the head of the cliffs in 1841 are positive. John Septimus Roe’s decision to exhume Collie’s body and re-bury it in the Anglican cemetery at Albany and the events at Cocanarup are the opposite.

Walter Dunn died aged 66 at Ravensthorpe Hospital. He had just returned from the funeral of his brother James in Perth.



 The Daily News, Thursday 27th May, 1926

By the death of Mr. Walter Dunn, which

occurred in the Ravensthorpe hospital on

the 14th instant, the State’ has lost a use-

-ful colonist, whose forbears landed at

Albany during the early ‘3O’s. They were

pioneer farmers of the Porongorup’s,

between Mt. Barker and the Stirling Range.

The Dunn family are a big race of people

—big of stature, big of mind, and big

of heart.  The late Walter was especially so.

It is only a few weeks since he

visited Perth to attend the funeral of his

brother James, when his interesting

description of an 80-mile belt of agricultural

and pastoral country, between Newdegate

and Esperance was mentioned in this

column. His intelligent descriptive vein

of the Ravensthorpe country – in the de

velopment of which he had labored from

its earliest pioneering days.

He was always a treat to listen to.

Mr. Dunn was largely interested in a

manganese proposition near the town of

Ravensthorpe, and was treating with the

Broken Hill Proprietary Company con-

-cerning its development.

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