The View From Mount Clarence

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

King Georges Sound, Oyster Harbour and John Septimus Roe – Part 1

Originally Published: March/April 2014

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.  Australian Aboriginal Proverb


Albany: On King George’s

The first story in the ‘OUTDONE’ collection is called ‘Time and Place’.  I called it that because I felt it placed significance on the historical nature of the stories as well as the geographic location of Albany, in a West Australian as well as global context. Much later, I discovered the two key words in the title formed part of an oft-quoted proverb (above) and that the proverb’s source, while exactly unknown, is attributed to the indigenous Australian community. That made me feel pretty good because while this first story isn’t primarily concerned with Aboriginal Australia the collection most certainly is.

Also, the proverb encapsulate’s the secondary meaning I intended the story to convey; that is, an inner sense of awareness about our time alive. Two hundred years ago geographic discovery was the thing. We live in a global digital age now, but my belief is that regardless of race and era mankind has always held an inner sense of mystery and wonder related purely and simply to existence.

The image below shows the layout of King George’s Sound, the location upon which the settlement of Albany was formed. Mount Clarence isn’t marked on the map but it’s right behind where it says ‘Pt William’. The chart here is cut from an early map made up of the land surveys of John Septimus Roe and features Oyster Harbour. You can see the two rivers which run into Oyster Harbour. On the left, to the north-west, is King River. In the north-eastern corner is the ‘Riviere des Francais‘ or old French River which later became known as the Kalgan.

So, Time and Place. When I began this process the first thing I did was search the internet for reading material and the first publication that came up was ‘The Settlement On The Sound’ by D.A.P. West. There wasn’t much else and I had some kind of vague recollection of the book from school so I ordered it.  ‘The Settlement On The Sound’ was sent from a small bookseller near the town of Cambridge in England which gave me an inkling Albany’s history was, or had been, the subject of investigation by some quite serious academics, but yet Dunstan Arthur Percival West was a local historian at Albany and his little book, first released in 1976, was published by the West Australian Museum and not (nor anything like) Cambridge University Press.

Discoveries in Western Australia [cartographic material] : from documents furnished to the Colonial Office by J.S Roe, Esqre. Surv. Genl. 1833. MAP RM 2653.
I read about P.P. King and saw that in January 1818 he came to the place George Vancouver had called King George the Third’s Sound, returning nearly four years later over the Christmas/New Year period of 1821/2. King visited briefly a third time in November 1822  en-route to England, all of which was interesting but really only served to remind there was always something about Albany, outside of itself, which just seemed to lack importance.

What did strike me about King’s first visit though was the name of his Joint Second-in-Command, John Septimus Roe. It won’t mean anything to those who never went to school in Western Australia, but to those who did,  J.S. Roe is a pre-eminent historical figure.  He was hired as the first ever Surveyor General when the Swan River Colony was first founded in 1829 and served right up until 1870, giving enormous service to the State. It’s impossible to downplay the role he played in early settlement so when I saw he first visited eleven years before the colony was formed, I immediately wondered how old he was? Roe was born in May 1897, which, in January 1818, made him not quite 21.

What else interested me about Roe had more to do with the West Australian wine industry. I had worked in that business for around twenty years and had just finished representing Sandalford Wines of the Swan and Margaret Rivers. This meant I knew that the Roe family had been vignerons for generations because they were the founders and original owners of Sandalford Wines.

Christ's Hospital's buildings in London in 1770
Christ’s Hospital’s buildings in London in 1770

Anyway, I wanted to know a bit more about Roe’s early life so I looked him up and found there was an out-of-print biography only available through Australian libraries, but enough information on-line to get something of a feel for him.

He was the seventh son of the Rector of Newbury, at Berkshire. An unfortunate position for a middle class boy really as his father’s money was spent on the education of his older brothers. However, Roe’s parents dug deep and he was presented to and accepted by the charitable Christ’s Hospital Grammar School in London where he said he wanted to be trained as a school master.  Even back in the late 1700’s they did means tests. Christ’s Hospital is still a charitable school today. The amount a student pays in fees depends upon how much their family can afford.

Roe was a bright boy. He could draw and was an able mathematician. Attached to Christ’s Hospital is the Royal School of Mathematics, a specialist college which at the time of Roe’s education provided for the beginnings of a Royal Navy career and Roe went in that direction when he graduated aged fifteen. Bear in mind this was 1813 and Britain was fully ten years into the Napoleanic Wars.

John Septimus Roe. A young man in the Navy.
John Septimus Roe.
A young man in the Navy.

So, young John Septimus Roe goes into the Navy straight from school and is assigned to HMS Rippon. He sees immediate action off the coast of France and in the process draws a chart of Brest Harbour. The Navy likes the way Roe draws and thanks him for it. The Rippon goes out of service in 1814 and Roe is quickly assigned to HMS Horatio which takes him out to China where he gets no war action but plenty of time to write, read and draw. As he turns eighteen, through the letters he dutifully writes home, it becomes clear young John feels deeply indebted to his parents for the effort and sacrifices they made to get him his start in life.

At this point I became interested in who else went to Christ’s Hospital, probably because my brother and I went to Guildford Grammar School in Perth during the late 1970’s and a bit of the old alumni thing stays with you. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was amongst Christ’s Hospital’s most famous Old Boys and this I found interesting because of the opposition of Coleridge’s work, Romantic Poetry, to the nature of Roe’s as mathematician and of the role science played at that time in the pursuit of truth. Roe’s career demonstrates the application to task he was was famous for, yet he had always loved to draw and I wondered if he hadn’t been so good at Maths would he have been taken by the arts?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Coleridge graduated 25 years earlier than Roe after studying languages and English composition and by 1818, when Roe first sailed into King George’s Sound,  Coleridge had already completed his life’s most famous works; Kubla Khan, Chistabel and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  Also, what struck me was that both men were the sons of Rectors and both born well down the pecking order within their own family, Roe being the seventh son and Coleridge the last of his father’s thirteen children, yet Coleridge fell victim to an opium habit and was largely a dependent character while Roe, through never being idle, was entirely self-sufficient from the time he left school.

Roe’s less active two year stint as Midshipman on the Horatio at the Navy’s China station got me thinking about the possible state of mind he was in and I decided he was full of adventure and wonder through experiencing those exotic climes but that being compelled by a sense of indebtedness to his parents visualised a career path for himself at a time when the New World was a place of great discovery and untold opportunity.

The sun was high and the midday air hummed with bristling cicadas. In the perfumed branches of stunted trees ranging back from the beach, wildly coloured birds fluttered and screeched, their curling beaks and shiny pink feet at odds with the rough grey bark on which they perched. Though it was not his job, how he’d love to make drawings of them. The newness of the landscape and its unique wildlife filled him with wonder and stepping light-footed with the rhymes and rhythms of ‘Kubla Khan’ running through him, it looked from a distance as if he were engaged by music.

Roe sat further exams in maths and navigation when he returned to England in January 1817 and upon passing was appointed Master’s Mate to the New South Wales surveying service under the command of the aforementioned Philip Parker King.  Some months prior to that Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, which he had composed after an opium-induced dream twenty years earlier, had finally been published and I fancied the idea Roe might have bought himself a copy.

A drawing of Roe’s made while sailing from England to New South Wales in 1817. The drawing is of an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro.

Together, King and Roe sailed out to Sydney via South America in the troop ship Dick arriving after six months. During this time Roe made  some of his most impressive drawings and I wondered, during that sojourn, the kind of thoughts he was having. The juxtaposition, if you like, of the young wonder-struck romantic composing beautiful drawings of exotic islands off the coast of Brazil versus the Navy’s no-nonsense apprenticing to the science of navigation and exploration. Roe was ambitious, but in September 1817 when the Dick sailed into Port Jackson, he was just twenty years of age.

The New South Wales Surveying Service was laid up in Sydney until December waiting to take commission of a ship it could begin its coastal surveying exercises on. It looked for a while as if they might have to wait for repairs to a larger ship to be completed (months longer) but a small cutter called the Mermaid unexpectedly became available. The crew was assembled and the task to which they were assigned was able to get under way a few days before Christmas. King’s task was to explore and conduct a survey of the northern and north-west coasts of Australia which he decided to approach, by virtue of the contrary tropical winds at that time of year, by sailing south to Bass Straight and then west along the southern coastline before rounding Cape Leeuwin and heading up the continent’s west coast.

During Roe’s quiet time in Sydney he moved in Government House circles which he appears to have appreciated in terms of the task of running the colony of New South Wales but which he wasn’t able to enjoy, probably on account of his age. Something else happened during those few months as well, which I don’t have much information on but which will have affected him. There was a boating accident in the harbour and the young Master’s Mate almost drowned.

Thus, Roe sailed the Mermaid uneventfully along Australia’s southern shores following the charts of Matthew Flinders, the industry standard at the time, and on January 18th rounded Bald Island and made into King George’s Sound. It’s not clear what time of day this was so I took  poetic licence and imagined it to be early morning. Young John Roe is reveling in a moment of great clarity and remembers an instance in navigation class. . .

‘Now, Roe,’ the teacher was fixed on him. ‘About time?  How do you know what time it is hundreds of miles from land, let’s say in the middle of the South Seas?’

‘It’s the same thing, sir,’ he enthused. ‘It’s just the same.’ He said it as if it was a thing of simple understanding but sensed around him the others in the class, the teacher looking at him, a moment in his own time when something significant was coming to pass. ‘If time is measured in units from a set position, as it is sir, from Greenwich running east, then it can be determined the same way as position can be determined.’ The silence around him was whole, everyone hanging on his next words. ‘Time is decided by the rotation of the earth and by its annual orbit of the sun. It’s constant, sir. So long as the earth is in motion we can know not only where we are but exactly what time it is as well.’

I saw Roe on the 56 foot teak wood yacht as the sun rose behind them to splash upon the scene of their arrival.

Rounding Bald Island a few minutes after sunrise on a mid-summer’s morning they made for the protecting islands. Exactly as the charts showed, Princess Royal Harbour opened to the left, Oyster Harbour to the right and Mount Clarence, like a sentinel, stood tall between the two. He measured the descriptions offered by the earlier navigators and verified them, feeling for the first time acutely his presence at the very edge of the New World.

At twenty years of age his awareness gave rise to another moment of clarity. He checked their measurements; they were thirty-five degrees, two minutes, twenty-eight seconds, South: One-hundred-and-eighteen degrees, nine minutes, fifty-four seconds, East: It was zero-five-forty-five hours on the twentieth day of January in the year of our Lord, Eighteen-eighteen.

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