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I

THE closing years of the last century are generally spoken of in Western Australia as “The Roaring Nineties.” Money was spent lavishly. Drinking, gambling and racing were the order of the day. In the main street of Kalgoorlie there were scores of public houses in which liquor bars were crowded day and night.

Most of the population were young unmarried men. They lived in camps and had their meals at one of the hotels. We were a happy-go-lucky crowd. A number of us clubbed together and had an hotel room in which we had our meals. One evening as dinner was finishing a member of the party carelessly flipped a nut out of his fingers and it struck a friend in the ear. He flipped it back, but it did not hit the man it was aimed at, but another, who promptly threw it back. Then, like a lot of schoolboys, those present began as a joke to throw fruit at each other. The missiles used were not only fruit, but anything handy.




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There was a French captain, a man who had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, who came occasionally to the hotel. He was a stranger to most of us, a severe-looking-individual, very particular about his dress and with waxed moustache with ends that stood straight out a couple of inches on each side of his face.

When the mêlée was at its height a friend of mine at the end of the room threw a boiled onion at me. I saw it coming and ducked my head. At that moment the French captain looked into the room. The onion struck him on the top of the nose. It was soft and it flattened out! Nothing was to be seen of his face except the waxed ends of the moustache.

Subsequently, the man who threw the onion went to the captain, explained that he had not thrown the onion intentionally at him, but at me as a joke, and what happened was an accident and he apologised.

“Sar,” cried the infuriated Frenchman, glaring at him, “dis is an insult that can only be wiped out in blood!”

My friend again expressed regret and apologised. He explained that what happened was not intentional.

The Frenchman refused to accept the apology and declared he wanted satisfaction.

The onion thrower said Australians did not fight duels. It was against the law and he could do no more than humbly apologise.

The French officer implied that it was easy for cowards to find excuses.

This aroused the ire of the Australian; he expressed himself ready to give the Frenchman satisfaction in any way he liked if the Frenchman was ridiculous enough to take that absurd view.




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It took some trouble on the part of friends to prevent a duel.

I heard of one duel arising out of a quarrel between foreigners. A challenge was sent and accepted. The seconds, who were Australians, loaded both pistols with red-currant jelly. They also heavily loaded the principals with strong drink. Each of the combatants showed red after shots were exchanged. They were, in fact, both bleeding. The seconds agreed that as they were wounded, honour was satisfied and all ended happily.

There were many curious characters about. An early day prospector was noted for his strange sayings. In a speech at a banquet he said, “I wint out into the desert with a pick an' a shovel in each hand and me wather bag in the other.”

A very enterprising but uneducated goldfielder was a member of the Kalgoorlie Municipal Council. His sayings brought to mind those of Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan's “Rivals.” The council was reported to have been mulcted in a law case. He gravely asked if it were true that the council had been “mutilated in the last law case.”

Medical men reported that the local milk was never analysed, and advocated sterilisation. In a speech he insisted that in the interests of public health milk should be sent to “the Government anarchist and paralysed.”

In a public speech he complained that times were bad and he felt sure the “economical gales” were coming.

The councillor in question was brutally candid. The


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services of a popular official whose work had not been satisfactory were dispensed with. It was done by a polite hint that he should resign. At a subsequent farewell function the mayor and councillors said a lot of pleasant things about him and expressed regret at his departure. The candid councillor got up and spoke thus: “I never heard such a lot of rot talked in my life. If our guest is such a fine fellow and the mayor and councillors are so sorry that he's going, then why did they sack 'im?”

He firmly believed that “all men are fools.” He built a public hall from his own plans without the aid of an architect, and he was in the habit of saying how most people predicted it would fall down. One night the gallery was so overcrowded that several of the audience left it, declaring that it would fall down. “Where do you think they went?” said he. “The fools stood under it.”

Goldfielders were keen followers of the turf, and some of them had strange ideas of turf morals. The owner of one of the best Australian horses, a man who raced only for the love of the sport and was of the highest repute, received a telegram from a back blocks mine manager a few days before a race, saying, “If your horse is trying put a tenner on for me.” Naturally the owner was indignant. He replied, “My horse is scratched; like your cheek.” As an answer, the following reached the owner: “Thanks, put a tenner for me on Your Cheek.”

Communications were slow and difficult. A man who kept a wayside bush hotel some sixty miles from


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Coolgardie had a singular experience. His wife was very ill and he asked a passing traveller to get medical aid, regardless of expense, from Coolgardie. Two doctors duly arrived, and after a consultation decided that there was no hope of recovery. The husband was disconsolate. The doctors declared they could do no good by staying. There was no telegraph available. The nearest undertaker was in Coolgardie, and the hotel-keeper told the doctors, with tears in his eyes, to have the best coffin that money could buy sent to the hotel.

Scarcely had the doctors departed than the woman began to rally. Each few hours showed an improvement.

The doctors' diagnosis was altogether wrong. She got better and better, to the delight mingled with wonderment of the husband.

She left her room and began to go about as usual.

One morning early a teamster turned up with a coffin in his wagon and the name and age of the hotel-keeper's wife engraved on a plate on the lid. It was hurriedly laid in a bough shed for fear that the sight of it would give the now rapidly recovering patient a severe shock. Days passed. The wife got well. The horrible thing that was hidden away began to get on the husband's nerves. She wondered what was preying on his mind.

One day she went into the bough shed, pulled off some things that hid the coffin, read the inscription on the lid, and immediately went and said to her husband, “It is just the thing I want.”

The coffin was well made. She had a partition put in it and she used the smaller division to hold water


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to wash clothes. In the dry part of the coffin the clothes, when washed, were placed before they were hung out on the line. For more than twenty years the coffin was to be seen in the hotel yard, where it continued to be used as a washtub.

Goldfielders were very casual. An Irish doctor who came to the goldfields with the main object of making money out of gold-mining, and incidentally to practise his profession, told me that an old man came to him for treatment. In an endeavour to diagnose his case he decided to take his temperature, and put a thermometer in his mouth. The doctor left the room for a few seconds, when something distracted his attention, and his surgery being next door to a newly formed club he wandered in and engaged in a game of billiards. After he had finished the game he suddenly remembered the patient. He rushed back, to find him still balancing the thermometer in his mouth at the angle he had put it in. When the doctor took it out the patient remarked, “Oh, docthor, that's a great cure! I feel a lot better. All the pain's now gone!”

At a mining camp out back, where some fifty men were working for alluvial gold in a gully, a popular prospector suddenly got ill and died. Every man in the vicinity gathered round the grave. Someone suggested that the Burial Service should be read. There was no Bible or prayer book in the camp. It was felt something should be done, but no one knew exactly what to do until one old digger stretched out each


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hand, and taking hands the mourners solemnly and reverently, with their hats off, sang, “For he was a jolly good fellow.”

He was in many ways a worthy townsman, without education, but prosperous. As a justice of the peace a ne'er-do-well from England was brought before him charged with being drunk and disorderly and resisting arrest.

“What 'ave you to say,” said the magistrate, “for your disgraceful conduct?”

“I am guilty, sir,” replied the culprit, “and in extenuation I can only plead that in wrongdoing I err in the company of my betters. De Quincey tells us he is an opium fiend; the Bard of Avon does not deny the charge of being a poacher; Byron shows us he is a profligate; Goldsmith is known as a gambler; Benvenuto Cellini acknowledges he is a thief and murderer—”

“That's enough,” said the magistrate. “You are making the case worse for yourself. A month's imprisonment with hard labour.” Then, turning to the constable, he added, “This man has been keepin' bad company. I didn't know there were such bad characters about 'ere. Bring them afore me. 'Tis time they were dealt with.”

A very different type of man from that ignorant justice of the peace was John Michael Finnerty, the first warden of the goldfields. He was an outstanding personality, in fact the most outstanding in a community


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that included men of exceptional cleverness, several of whom later became world famous. He had the confidence of prospectors, and there was general faith in his fairness and wisdom. Once met he never could be forgotten. He was tall, of commanding appearance, and had an interesting career. An Irishman, born in Limerick, sent to school at Rugby, he came to Western Australia when twenty-one years of age, engaged in pearling on the north-west coast, and traded with the Malay islands. After many adventures he became a pastoralist on the Gascoyne river. For a time he was most successful, but a drought came, his stock perished, and he was ruined completely. Then he became an inspector of police in the northern part of the colony, and when gold was discovered near Hall's Creek he was appointed warden of the Kimberley goldfields. As a raconteur he could not be surpassed. In his stories of the Far North he outrivalled De Rougemont. In fact, Finnerty always said that De Rougemont must have heard of some of his experiences and used them for his book.

Finnerty had a great sense of humour. One day he came into the club looking amused. He told me he had directed a policeman to announce that the court was adjourned sine die. The policeman was Irish. It was a dark, wet day, and thinking that was the cause of the postponement, he cried out, “The curt is adjourned till a shiny day.”

On one occasion Warden Finnerty had to give a decision as to the ownership of a large nugget found close to the boundary, if not actually on the boundary, between two alluvial claims. The holder of each claim said it was his. Finnerty turned to one of the claimants


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and asked him to produce his miner's right. He confessed he had none. Then he asked the other litigant a similar question, and he also had no miner's right. “In that case,” said the warden, “the nugget must go to the Crown.” And it did.

The first Mayor of Coolgardie was James Shaw, a Belfast man, a veteran of the Maori war and a one-time Mayor of Adelaide. In his capacity of chief magistrate a case came before him where a man used insulting language towards another, who promptly knocked him down. A fine of £1 for assault was imposed, but when the man who was knocked down asked for costs, Mr. Shaw promptly replied, “Certainly not, a man who cannot fight should not use insulting language.”

One man, charged with being drunk and disorderly, was asked what he had to say to the charge. He calmly replied, “I plead guilty to the charge of drunkenness, but cannot truthfully say anything about being disorderly until I hear the evidence.”

A warden friend of mine told me of a blackfellow, Jacky, who was brought before him and asked before he was sworn, “What will happen to you if you tell a lie?”

“If I tell lie I go to hell,” was the prompt answer.

When cross-examined he was asked, “You say you know the meaning of an oath and if you lie you go to hell. What will happen if you tell the truth?”

“Then,” said Jacky, “we'll lose the bloody case.”

Quietly and unobtrusively there arrived at Coolgardie in 1896 a young man, twenty-one years of age,


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but extremely desirous of being considered much older. He had mining experience in the United States and came under engagement to Messrs. Bewick Moreing and Co., mining engineers. Silent, reserved and a tireless worker, he could write excellent reports, and showed a most penetrative judgment as to the value of prospecting shows. For years he lived on the goldfields. He had few friends and was almost unnoticed except by his employers, who realised his worth, and by mining men with whom he was brought into contact. He was an American, somewhat uncouth, a teetotaller, neither popular nor unpopular, and when after three years his firm transferred him to China his departure was unnoticed. Later, in 1905 and 1907, he returned to inspect mines for his firm, but few were aware of his presence in Australia. He would have attracted great attention were it known that he was to become one of the world's famous men—Herbert Hoover, later President of the United States. In another book I have written much about his goldfields experiences. My recollections of him and his brilliant wife need not be repeated, but though little heard of in those days yet of all the goldfields community he was the one most heard of subsequently.

To me and others whose memories go back to those pioneering goldmining times it has been a matter for regret that amongst the many brilliant intellects, the prospectors and adventurous seekers after riches, there were so few writers, and none of them of the highest order. It was a colourful life, crowded with incidents—humorous, pathetic, sensational; a singular medley


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of people, strangers to each other and amidst strange surroundings. No wonder that they did strange things and often showed human nature strangely naked. John Galsworthy, in a letter to a friend written in September, 1894, says:

“Have you read the accounts of the gold finds in Western Australia? If it wasn't for my governor I should like to join two or three fellows and have a shy at them. It does seem to me so beastly dull to go on grinding at a profession or business just to make money, when one might make as much in two or three years; and even if one didn't, I think the life would be good for one, harden one up a bit. I must say I should like to make some tin; it is an awful bore always being hard up more or less.”

What a pity Galsworthy did not come! He might have made “some tin,” but most likely the “tin” would have come out of the ink-pot. He might not have written “The Forsyte Saga,” but he probably would have written a saga not less interesting and one that might have brought him even more fame.

A. G. Hales, the novelist, spent some years at Coolgardie, where he was generally known as “Smiler,” edited a paper, was a boxer of local renown and an unsuccessful candidate for Parliament. Had he remained longer in Western Australia and used the material around him, he would probably have become an Australian Bret Harte. Instead, as a war correspondent


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and traveller, he led a life of constant changes and picturesque adventures.

In the Boer War, as a representative of the London Daily News, he secured a high reputation for sending early information of importance and for his brilliant descriptions. One day he and another correspondent, Lambie, left camp and rode off into the veldt to seek the whereabouts of some Australians in the vicinity. They did not find the Australians; they found Boers. Whilst galloping away Lambie was shot dead. Hales and his horse were both wounded and he was made a prisoner. In his captivity he was kindly treated by General Christian de Wet, of whom he became an admirer. Long years afterwards, during the Great War, when Hales was in the Alps, not far from him a son of de Wet's was fighting with the Italians.

J. H. Curle, a mining engineer who was amongst the early day goldfielders, afterwards aquired considerable fame as a writer, but his books only refer briefly to Western Australia. “The Gold Mines of the World” is one of them, but he is better known as the author of such well-thumbed library volumes as “The Shadow Show,” “This World of Ours,” and “To-day and To-morrow.” One of the most travelled men in the world, Curle has traversed the five continents, north and south, east and west.

Remarkable and celebrated though he is, yet no mention can be found of him in reference books. He hates publicity of any kind.

“A wintry landscape with a fairish woman in her furs is civilisation's masterpiece.” This quotation from


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one of Curle's books was given by a reporter in a Perth paper, the Daily News, in recording an attempt he made to interview Curle in 1928. The interviewer added that although Perth had no wintry landscape, the “winter of discontent” spread to pressmen waiting on a railway station for Curle.

“Mr. Curle?” inquired a pressman.

“Well, what of it?” was the somewhat brusque reply.

The newspaper man stated that he would be very glad if Mr. Curle could spare him a few minutes during the day for an interview.

“I have nothing to say; nothing I want to say. If you want to say I'm here and that I'm going to South Africa, well I can't stop you, I suppose.”

“But,” interposed the reporter, “as a traveller and as a frequent visitor to Australia, your views are appreciated by the general public.”

“You'll find 'em all in my books then!” was the author's only reply.

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