In 1831, 400 people left everything they had ever known to follow a British entrepreneur to one of the most isolated places on earth.
Instead of a brave new world, the 400 were stranded on the Western Australian coast for over a year in a chaotic makeshift city that came to be known as Clarence Town.
Lost for 150 years, the site was recently rediscovered by a local archaeologist and is revealing new information about our colonial past.
The Swan River Colony was always intended to be Australia’s first private settlement. Convict labour was definitely not part of this vision; in fact, until the latter half of the 20th Century many Perth families would strenuously deny their convict roots. But where to access cheap labour to build this new British outpost?
An answer was found in indentured servants – workers bought over from Britain in exchange for a period of labour (generally 3-7 years). Though the agreements were generally entered into voluntarily, the backbreaking work and harsh conditions were a high price to pay.
Thomas Peel was one of the colonies’ major investors and planned to bring over 400 indentured labourers. In exchange, he had been promised 1,000 square km of prime land - however there was a catch. To claim the land Peel had to arrive before November 1829. Unfortunately Peel was six months late so by the time he arrived the land had already been claimed.
Panicked, Peel threatened to take his entire cohort back to England and protracted negotiations began for a new allocation. While these continued all men, women and children were stranded on the coast, where they inadvertently created one of Perth’s first towns. The site itself was completely unsuitable with little water, basic shelter (the lucky ones created canvas tents, with others forced to dwell in barrels and boxes) and dwindling supplies.
After over a year living in slum conditions, the government stepped in to release all labourers from their contracts. Peel balked – his dreams for a grand town in his name were all but shattered – causing Governor James Stirling to write:
‘Had the Magistrates given a contrary order and compelled your people to remain in your service they would have acted illegally, for such an order would have been equivalent to Sentence of Death by Starvation.’The settlement was abandoned.
Peel died in Mandurah in 1865 and it is said in his later days he would ride his horse throughout the colony in full (but tattered) English riding gear. Once the colonies’ main investor, he ended his life as a local eccentric with illusions of grandeur. Indeed his folly was so famous it even caught the attention of Karl Marx who used his tale of woe as an example in Das Kapital.
The citizens of Clarence Town are rarely mentioned in colonial records, indeed most could not read or write. However, recently, a team of archaeologists led by Dr Shane Burke have been working to release their unique voices from our colonial past.
For over 50 years historians believed the town site was at Woodman Point however a treasure trove of artefacts have proven that the actual site was 8km further south. Finds have included hundreds of thousands of artefacts – including pipes, bottles, coins, thimbles, flint and limestone structures – even a piano key...
The objects left behind are revealing much about the people of Clarence Town. Once abandoned on the fringes and erased from the records, they are finally telling their side of the story.