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H.S. Trotman at Kingston Rest: toughing it in the Kimberley

Hubert (“Bert”) Trotman, dressed for a formal reception

I have been reading Beckoning West¸ the enthralling story by Eleanor Smith about Hubert Trotman. In the early years of the 20th century, he was second in command to Alfred Canning on the survey and construction of the Number One Rabbit Proof Fence and then later the Canning Stock Route in Western Australia, two of the most formidable feats of bushmanship in Australian history.

The book is based on a series of interviews Eleanor Smith had with Trotman not long before his death in 1965. The Trotman story has been described by VW Fyfe (one-time Surveyor-General of Western Australia) as providing:

… an inspiring record of courage, ability, and unselfish determination to succeed no matter how great the difficulties, nor how severe the hardships.

Reading the account of his adventures and achievements, one can only agree with Fyfe’s assessment. I have read the book before, not long after it was first published in 1966, but I recently discovered a copy in a second-hand book shop, and have re-read it avidly.

Trotman was one of Australia's greatest bushmen. He was tough, dauntless, loyal, just as happy on foot or on horse or camel; he was a competent surveyor, bush carpenter and cook, and was able to live off the land in some of the harshest environments on earth.

His story is writ large in Western Australian exploration and bush history, but one small episode caught my eye and is the subject of this story. In 1907 he visited Dunham River Station in the east Kimberley. This is the property known today as 'Kingston Rest' and is the site of a large, irrigated sandalwood plantation. In my days as a working forester, I used to visit this plantation regularly, and I became quite familiar with KR (as it is known locally) and the surrounding magnificent Kimberley landscape. Thus I found Trotman's account especially intriguing. Quite apart from my personal connection, the story highlights how tough were those early bushmen, and the trying conditions under which they worked.

In 1906, an expedition under the leadership of Alfred Canning set out from Wiluna to survey a Stock Route to Halls Creek, the concept being to connect the cattle stations of the Kimberley with the burgeoning population in the WA goldfields. The route was nearly 1500 km long, most of it through desert country with no surface water. Later, after having established that a stock route was feasible, Canning was given the job of constructing it. This meant demarcating the route and developing wells and troughs at approximately 20 km intervals along its entire route. Each well was timbered and equipped with a windlass and bucket and, in some cases, surrounded by yards.

Satellite photo of Western Australia showing the Canning Stock Route, nearly 1500 km in length.

It was a herculean task, with every item of equipment, stores, material and spare parts having to be ported in on camels. Over 100 camels were used. The party comprised twenty-six men (and a flock of goats to provide fresh meat along the way), and the project took nearly two years to complete.

As aside …

The stock route construction party also included HWB Talbot, the grandfather of well-known Western Australian forester Lenny Talbot. HWB was an Assistant Geologist with the Geological Survey Department and an outstanding and experienced bushman. He accompanied the Canning expedition to check for possible auriferous country along the route. Talbot kept a detailed diary of his experiences and findings. His story is wonderfully told in Lenny’s 2008 biography of the man.

In an incident that demonstrates the personalities of both men, Eleanor Smith recounted the first meeting between Talbot and Trotman. She quotes Trotman:

Before setting out from Perth, Canning had informed me that WH Talbot, Government Geologist and explorer, would be joining us …

“We don’t want any bloody passengers on this trip” I protested ….

[Then] about sunset one evening two men rode in. “Are you Trotman?” one enquired as he dismounted. ”I am” I replied. “Well, I’m your bloody passenger” and with twinkling eyes, HWB Talbot held out his hand.

The well-sinking expedition setting out from Wiluna. The figure on the right is thought to be Canning who always preferred to walk rather than ride, as this gave him a better idea of the distance travelled.

The country through which they travelled and in which they worked is called desert, but in fact is mostly quite well-vegetated, especially in a “good season” (one in which some rain falls) but the spinifex and saltbush plains are interspersed with red sand dunes usually with a steep southern face. The picture below by Jack Bradshaw was taken on the Stock Route when he traversed it a few years ago (in a 4-Wheel Drive vehicle, rather than on a camel). It shows a typical sand dune, with scattered saltbush; in the background a solitary bloodwood, and on the horizon a clump of desert oaks:

Back to the Canning expedition …

At the completion of the survey of the Stock Route, having reached the Kimberley region, Canning, Trotman and party camped at Flora Valley Station, east of Hall's Creek. While they were there, the wet season broke, stranding them behind uncrossable rivers and unable to get to the coastal towns of Wyndham or Derby to catch a steamer back to Perth.

To take up Trotman's story, in their bush camp at Flora Valley:

Canning and I shared a bough-shade near which we rigged a shower made from a kerosene tin, which amenity was screened from public gaze by a five-foot high brushwood fence.

They had been experiencing some trouble in the camp with the pilfering of their stores by the local Aborigines but had been unable to catch them. Then:

.... one morning, while under the shower, I glanced across to our store tent just in time to see a strange native darting out. Realising that this must be the elusive thief ... I dashed out and chased him through the tall grass, leapt over a log, and landed heavily on the butt of an old quandong-tree, a piece of which broke off, penetrating my foot.

Limping back to camp, I tried to dislodge the splinter, but it was too deeply embedded.

All attempts to remove the splinter failed, and Trotman was forced to hobble around the camp on an improvised pair of crutches. The nearest doctor was at Derby, 460 km away across several flooded rivers.

After a few days the foot became infected and began to haemorrhage. Canning decided that Trotman must be taken to Wyndham, which was "only" about 400 km away, from where he could get a ship to Derby and the doctor. A horse, sulky and driver were hired (for one pound a day) and fitted out with provisions and an especially padded splashboard on which Trotman could prop his "now grotesquely swollen" foot.

Commenting with typical understatement on these arrangements, Trotman said:

I realised how fortunate I was that the accident had occurred comparatively close to civilisation, rather than way down in the desert, but nevertheless I found the journey agonisingly slow.

They were held up by three rivers, each running a banker, and then had to wait four days before they could cross the black soil plains to the north. Here:

...our sulky wheels collected a mixture of quaggy mud and cane grass that swelled them to the size of balloon tyres, so that every few yards we were forced to stop and scrape them free. Under such conditions we made often less than twelve miles a day. Whenever we stopped to boil the billy, I bathed my foot and tried vainly to dislodge the splinter.

Eventually they reached Turkey Creek and thence made it to Dunham River Station. This was owned at the time by the widow of Jerry Durack; he had been "shot by a native" in 1901. At the homestead, Mrs Durack:

... was most kind and insisted on seeing my foot, although I warned her it was not a pretty sight. She helped me to remove the grubby bandages, bathed it, and rebandaged it with fresh linen, but from the pitying look she gave me I think she felt my number was up.

The homestead at Dunham River Station, painted by Elizabeth Durack in 1947. [Courtesy of Perpetua Durack Clancy]

Frances (known as “Fanny”) Durack was widely admired in the Kimberley. She was battling to keep the station going after the death of her husband. Her eldest son had also been shot in the same incident as her husband, but the boy had managed to escape, mount a horse and ride it bareback to get help from Durack relatives at Argyle Station, fifty miles or so away. In a passing observation that highlights to me the resilience of those pioneering women, Trotman recalled:

At the time of my visit, Mrs Durack had four sons and a daughter, but had lost two children in Queensland before the family came to the Kimberley, while two other daughters had died of fever and were buried at Dunham Station.

Leaving the homestead, the party then had to cross the flooded Dunham River. This was accomplished:

. .. with the help of a number of native prisoners who, chained neck to neck, were being taken to Wyndham on a cattle-stealing charge. These men helped me into a galvanised bath-tub provided by Mrs Durack and then, half swimming and frequently submerged, they managed to push me across the turbulent stream.

The Dunham River in flood

Another aside …

The Dunham River, by the way, was named in 1882 by pioneer pastoralist Michael Durack on his first exploration of the Kimberley. It was named after the Reverend Father Dunham of Brisbane, an Englishman who, in 1871 had been the first clergyman to visit the Outer Barcoo (where churches are few) in far north-western Queensland. After Durack’s epic journey from Queensland, Dunham River became one of his cattle stations, along with Argyle, Ivanhoe and Keep River.

Father Dunham, pioneering Catholic priest of the outback

In Mary Durack’s wonderful book (Kings in Grass Castles) about the pioneering Duracks of the Kimberley, there is an amusing story about a ‘devil-may-care’ Irishman Danny Skeahan (the brother-in-law of Patsy Durack) putting up a challenge to Father Dunham:

Dinny, primed with hard liquor and no respecter of persons at the best of times, challenged the priest to a fight, whereupon Father Dunham, to the surprise and joy of the community, not only took on the hot-headed Irishman, but promptly laid him flat. Dinny, scrambling from the dust amid the jeers of the onlookers, came adroitly to his own defence. “And what sort of a man is it atall would be hitting a praist?”

Father Dunham, it is said, was the model for the priest in Banjo Patterson’s famous poem A Bush Christening.

Back to Trotman and his foot …

After crossing the Dunham River, the travelling became easier, and they made good progress towards Wyndham.

Despite his injury and what must have been extreme discomfort, Trotman still took pleasure in the surrounding bush. This he described as a "tropical paradise" with its green grass, rain-filled lagoons covered with water lilies and birdlife and "tremendous blossoming boab trees". Then:

.... one morning while probing my foot with my pocketknife, I managed to push aside the sinews and out shot the trouble-making splinter. The pain I had endured throughout that [three weeks] journey now eased and by the time I reached Wyndham my condition had greatly improved.

At Wyndham Trotman boarded the steamer Burrumbeet and sailed to Derby. Here the doctor opened up and cleaned his foot and declared him fit enough to return to Perth.

Although Trotman does not dwell on his hardships, he does go on to make an interesting observation, reflecting on how things stood for employees (even government officers) at that time:

In those days there was no Worker's Compensation or unemployment benefits and although my accident had been caused in the vigorous pursuit of my job as keeper of government stores, I had no right to compensation for loss of wages. My income had ceased when I left camp at Flora Valley.

Nevertheless, following a full recovery he was one of the first appointments made by Canning for the job of well-sinking along the stock route that they had surveyed. Now is not the time to relate this grand story but suffice it to say that Trotman again distinguished himself as Canning's right-hand man.

Bert Trotman, somewhere in the depths of Western Australia.

The survey and construction of the Canning Stock Route was not without controversy, mainly involving Trotman. After the project was completed, the party’s cook Edward Blake made allegations against both Canning and Trotman over mis-treatment of Aborigines (who had played an essential, albeit coerced, role in guiding the surveyors to water). A Royal Commission was called. The Commission exonerated the expedition of all charges, finding that the accusations against Trotman by Blake were motivated by malice (the two had fallen out on an earlier expedition). However, it left a stain on the reputations of both Canning and Trotman. And although they were exonerated, it is impossible for a modern reader to regard the chaining-up of their Aboriginal guides, so that they could not escape overnight, with anything but repulsion. There is no doubt that Trotman was a tough bushman, but he was also a hard man, focussed on getting things done – and on surviving to tell the tale.

In recounting the story of the splinter in his foot, I have only touched on one small episode from Trotman’s life and times. In addition to the four great projects in which he was Alfred Canning’s 2IC (the survey and construction of the Rabbit-proof Fence, and the survey and construction of the Canning Stock Route), he criss-crossed the state as a member of several expeditions and explorations, most of which covered enormous distances over truly inhospitable country. In the end (he died in Perth in 1965 at the age of 91) he was regarded as one of Western Australia's greatest modern-day explorers and bushmen.

The map below, taken from Eleanor Smith’s book, shows the routes of his many travels. This achievement is underlined by the fact that most of these expeditions were made either on foot, or on camel or horseback.

But how the world changes! For all his obvious intelligence and bush wisdom, Trotman would never in his wildest dreams have imagined that Dunham River Station would now be called (nobody seems quite to know why) Kingston Rest and is the site of a vast plantation of Indian sandalwood trees, irrigated from an enormous dam in the ranges to the west of the homestead.

Satelite photograph of Kingston Rest, formerly Dunham River Station, showing the private dam in the ranges, the sandalwood plantation and the sinuous Dunham River (thanks to Andrew Brown).

Nor would Trotman have been able to envisage that the Canning Stock Route is no longer traversed by stockmen and their cattle but is a favourite destination for four-wheel drive adventurers from all over the world. Some of the wells that he installed have been restored, but of most of the others (over a century later) little remains.

All that remains of Well 50 on the Canning Stock Route (photo by Jack Bradshaw), apart, perhaps, from the ghost of Hubert Trotman, glimpsed one night under a gibbous moon.


Durack, Mary (1959): Kings in Grass Castles. Constable and Company Ltd, London

Smith, Eleanor (1966): The Beckoning West. The story of H.S. Trotman and the Canning Stock Route. Angus and Robertson, Melbourne.

Talbot, Len (2008): HWB Talbot. Exploring the golden west. Hesperian Press, Victoria Park, Western Australia

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