Finding Family

One woman's obsession with family history.

What I love about history is the constant ability to learn something new. Research is always vital but sometimes you can’t learn if you don’t know where to look. This is especially the case where buildings or infrastructure is torn down. To me, it seems once the physical reminder of history is lost, it doesn’t take long before the memory of it is lost too. Generation upon generation of people are born and what was once well-known can become forgotten. The same can be said for stories.

As is often the case, I came across the Whatley Station and the Whatley Park Pensioners purely by chance whilst searching for something else. At first confused (where in the world was Whatley Park?) I began researching and found myself learning a piece of Bayswater’s history which had never been known to me (or my parents) and by all appearances had been (perhaps unintentionally) buried in the tombs of the past.

Whatley Park was the name of an area of land which was located on the banks of the Swan River in Bayswater (near where the Bird Sanctuary is) and ran all the way back to the North of Morley Drive. Originally owned by the Whatley family it was eventually sold to Gold Estates who subdivided the land. The area itself is no longer known as Whatley Park and is now a part of the City of Bayswater.

Running through both Bayswater and the area which was once Whatley Park is the Midland Railway Line. The line still exists and though the exact details of its history are probably sketchy to most people (including myself); they still however know it’s there. What most surprised me was learning of the existence of a spur line (known as the Belmont Railway Spur) which separated from the Midland Line between today’s Bayswater and Ashfield Stations. After separating it ran through Guildford Road towards the Swan River (to the east of Slade Street) and stopped at Whatley Station. A railway bridge was built across the river in the late 1890s and trains would continue across, eventually turning right and running parallel to Matheson Road where they terminated at Belmont Station in front of the Ascot Racecourse. If you hadn’t already guessed; it’s primary purpose was to carry passengers to the races.

To view a map of the Belmont Spur Line, please visit the following flickr page: https://flic.kr/p/6sr6gt

The stations, the railway tracks and the bridge were all demolished in 1957 which probably explains why the railway spur became a piece of “hidden” history. It’s demolition also meant that another piece of history that was connected to Whatley Park also vanished; the story of the Whatley Park Pensioners.

The Whatley Park Pensioners consisted of a group of elderly men who, rather than be sent to an institution, chose to live in a camp on government land (somewhere near the start of the Belmont Railway Spur and Whatley Station). Most were unmarried, often had no relatives in Western Australia and, in their younger days, had worked on the railways or the goldfields. They received a pension of £1 per week which they made the most of because they lived simply. A Pensioner by the name of Stephen Rohan stated:

I lead a pretty quiet life now… Just take my time to get a bit of firewood, carry water, and one thing and another, and go into Bayswater once a week to get my pension and a few stores. There is nothing like a little liberty.

Grand Old Men

They lived in makeshift humpies which they built themselves from a variety of materials such as canvas, iron or bush boughs. Each home was kept clean and was surrounded by a small fence. Attempts had been made to grow vegetables but they had limited success due to the harsh, sandy soil. It was acknowledged that some humpies were quite obviously better than others but this difference generally came down to the person who built it and maintained it.

The neatest and most shipshape establishment of the colony is acknowledged to belong to Thomas Henry Greer, a Maorilander, who has inherited a love of orderliness from his sea captain father. His living-room is rather like a ship’s cabin. The fireplace, constructed with marvellous ingenuity, had a built-in camp oven. And around the cabin walls were old fashioned photographs of Victorian women with hats the size of a saucer, and of Thomas Henry as a boy. Many painted kerosene tins and tubs are carefully covered and stored with rainwater for the summer. There is the ‘laundry’ with flat-irons and ironing tables and a hard bed for afternoon lounging… All sorts of neat little contrivances are in the camps of these house-proud old colonists, while others flourish in luxurious grubbiness.

Whatley Siding Camp

Each individual conducted his own cooking in an open fireplace with the food mostly consisting of vegetables. Like any other person, the men completed their chores and then turned their attention to recreational pursuits such as reading the daily paper, smoking, visiting others in the camp, having a yarn or simply sitting engrossed in their own thoughts. On Saturdays some Pensioners often stood on the Belmont Bridge where they had a good view of the races at Ascot.

How long they’d been living there isn’t really touched upon in the newspapers but statements made by the men indicate that some of the Pensioners had been there since the late 1900s. It would also seem that as economic times worsened, the camp (and it’s occupants) increased. In 1932, towards the end of the Great Depression, it was noted in one paper that there were up to 80 men living there while another paper stated the number to be 120.

Mr N Fitzpatrick

In the 1930s romantically written articles about the Whatley Park Pensioners and their utopian camp were often printed in the newspapers. Although these highlighted the happy, carefree stories of the men quietly going about their lives and making the best of what they had, they failed grossly in pointing out the desperation and suffering that was also present.

Their ages varied but most seemed to be over the age of 60. Combining this fact with a lifetime of hard work meant that unexpected deaths were common. Men were often found in their beds not having roused from sleep or were found lying in the bush after having died suddenly from various causes.

Pensioner Dies in Camp

Accidents were also a regular occurrence which, again, could be a reflection of their age and a slowing of their faculties. They lived very close to the train lines and were often seen crossing them to get to and from various destinations. Though many of the Pensioners were no doubt careful, one wrong move or a misheard sound meant disaster. One of the most reported cause of accidents or death was being hit by a train.

Elderly Pensioners Death

Their open fireplaces for cooking food were also potential death traps. Many men were reported to have accidentally fallen into the fires and suffered terrible burns as a result. Unfortunately, fear of having their freedom taken away from them also meant that some Pensioners tended to the wounds themselves and did not visit the hospital. This had dire consequences for those who had severe burns.

While some of the Pensioners (such as the ones interviewed) seemed to be comfortable with their lot in life and remained positive, there were also some men who may have been deeply unhappy with their situation. Sadly, this unhappiness resulted in a number of suicides within the camp.

Though the surrounding residents tolerated the Pensioners for many years, by 1934 however, a petition was put forward during a meeting of the Bayswater Road Board requesting that they be removed.

Protest

Their main concerns were the lack of sanitation but it was later proved that this only applied to the few and not to the many. Other residents didn’t mind the Pensioners at all and a letter written by Mrs M Benn to The West Australian illustrated this view.

Mrs Benn

In the end, the Pensioners were not removed from their camp at Whatley Park. They continued to live there throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s. By the late 1940s and 1950s however, all mention of them in the newspapers ceased. Either they continued to live there and simply were not printed in the papers or, they were requested to move on. What became of them after this point in time is unknown.

When I first came across the Whatley Park Pensioners I was immediately drawn to them. These men worked during the Gold Rush (boom) years in Western Australia’s history. When we needed to build new railways they came from across the states or from other countries and the railways  they helped build were probably vital to Western Australia’s success. Many were without family and this small fact means that their lives, their stories and their contributions to Western Australia’s history are lost.

There are so many stories in this world and really, only a small amount are told. These are usually the stories of people who did great things or who rose to power and prominence. I take my hat off to them but it’s the people like the Whatley Park Pensioners who attract my attention the most. They may not have been wealthy or ran the State but they still played a part in our great history and regardless of their social standing, they deserve to not be forgotten.

Sources:

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2 thoughts on “Whatley Park Pensioners

  1. Heather says:

    Jess, as long a there are caring people like you with an interest in history, the stories of the Whatley Park Pensioners and others like them, will be told. Another wonderful post.

    1. Jess says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Heather. 🙂

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