Potted Histories

A Brief History of Roelands

Reproduced from a letter by James A Kane to Chris Hartley for the School’s 75th Anniversary in 1978 and made available to attendees.

… I believe that Roelands was named after Roelands Park, the original home of the Rose family. (Probably it derived its name from John Septimus Roe, the first Surveyor General of Western Australia). Roelands Park was the name of a farm on the right (north) bank of the Collie River, extending from the railway line well up into the Darling Ranges. After the sons of Robert Henry Rose grew up and moved away to other properties the homestead farm was sold. In my childhood it belonged to the Goyder family who conducted a Jersey stud and dairy farm. They had the first milking machine (a Ridd) to come to the district. I believe the farm is now owned partly by various members of the Harnett family and partly by John Cox.

For a long time Roelands was very much a sleepy hollow. Probably the first land was taken up by the Europeans soon after the settlement at Australind about 1841. Little is known of the previous inhabitants, the Aborigines of the Nyungar tribe who were plentiful throughout the Southwest. When a small child I have seen large numbers of aborigines camped near the Collie River but they moved away. Unfortunately few white people in those days were interested in learning their language and studying their culture. They were a very fine and interesting people.

European settlers took up land around Roelands in the early days, much of the land to the north and west of Roelands belonged to the Gardiner and Gibbs families, and that to the south and east to the Rose and Clarke families. Little income was to be had from owning land after the trees had been cut down for timber. Cattle were grazed, but as the native shrubs were not good fattening fodder, neither beef production nor dairying was really successful. Most men of the district supplemented their incomes by working in the timber industry, cutting jarrah sleepers which were smoothed with a broadaxe, felling straight trees for bridge piles or working on the timber mills. Up in the hills east of Roelands was a big timber mill, known as Number 1 Mill, which operated for many years. Logs were dragged or ‘snigged’ to loading ramps by bullock teams, one of the most famous teamsters being Mr John ‘Boomer’ Gibbs of Roelands.

Perhaps the first successful farming was potato growing after the discovery of the value of superphosphate about 1875. Australian farmers began applying artificial fertilisers to the soil and this aided the production of crops. As Roelands is usually free of frosts it became a centre for potato growing using the popular ‘Delaware’ variety of potato. Two crops a year were grown – one planted in July and dug in November (the winter crop), the other planted in January and dug in May (the summer crop). As Roelands receives a great deal of rain – about 35 inches or 875 millimetres – in the winter months, the winter crop was planted on well-drained land. The summer crop frequently had no rain at all, so it was grown on carefully prepared moist soil, either on the Collie River flats or the Benger Swamp. Ploughing was done with a single furrow mould-board plough drawn by two horses, some well-known makes of plough being the ‘Oliver’ and the ‘Massey-Harris No. 10’. Often the actual planting of the tubers was done by schoolboys, who were paid about half the wages of a man. Parents would often allow their boys to miss school for a week or two in order to supplement the family income. Potato digging was done by men (and women) using forks. They were paid by the bag, and there was great rivalry to see who could fill the greatest number of bags in a day. Potato–digging became a seasonal occupation. Itinerant diggers often moved from district to district as crops ripened.

Roelands really came to life after the Perth to Bunbury railway went through in 1897. Early in the present century, work began on developing Bunbury harbour and this involved construction of a long breakwater to protect shipping in Koombana Bay from the violence of westerly winds. Rock for the breakwater was brought from a quarry at Roelands. In my childhood it was a familiar sight to see trainloads of huge granite boulders brought down from the quarry and taken to Bunbury. There was a sizeable town in the hills below the quarry, and Roelands itself grew into a small town. For many years there was a house on railway land between the shop and the railway station, occupied by the quarry caretaker, Mr John Sarre and his family. Another conspicuous building nearby was the Engine Shed, built to house the Nunnagine, a small locomotive that pulled the rock trains down the steep gradient from the quarry. Years later the Engine Shed was converted to become the office of the Public Works Department when the irrigation scheme was in the process of development.

There were some tragic events in Roelands. In those days houses were often hurriedly built – just a frame of timber covered with hessian, this being whitewashed over for privacy and warmth. One such house stood where the Roelands Hall is now and was occupied by the Buswell family, a young couple with a small baby. One day Mrs Buswell went to the nearby shop on a brief errand. Imagine her horror on coming out of the shop to see her house a blazing inferno and knowing the baby was inside. Nothing could be done to save the infant. On another occasion a man from the quarry was found dead and partly burned beside a burning log not far from Roelands township. Rumour had it that he had been carrying a lot of money and it was suspected that he was the victim of foul play, but the cause of his death remains a mystery. Great excitement reigned the day the quarry train got out of control and raced backwards down to Roelands at break-neck speed. The guard, Mr Bill McGarry, jumped off as the runaway flew past the station, but the other four men remained on board until the engine struck the buffer at the end of the siding and rolled over. Two well-known Roelands residents Messrs John Sarre and Stan Dye, together with the driver and fireman had remarkably escaped from injury.

Early in this century about 1902, land owned by the Clifton family to the west of Roelands was acquired by the Government. Known as the Clifton Agricultural Area, it was divided into small blocks of about 100 acres and sold to settlers. Among those who took up these blocks were Mr and Mrs William Raffarty, Mr and Mrs John Shine, Mr and Mrs William Carter, Mr and Mrs Fred Haskins, Mr William Cleary and my own parents, Mr and Mrs James Kane. Gradually they cleared a few acres, planted a small homestead orchard and kept a few cows, but such little farms would not provide a living and the men frequently worked away at whatever job was offering. Somewhat later to the Clifton Area came Mr and Mrs Brandli and soon Mr Brandli had started a blacksmith’s shop at the crossroads. Those little farms have long since disappeared, having been absorbed into bigger properties. They were not economic units.

In the years following the Great War from about 1920, subterranean clover was introduced. This enabled fodder crops to provide cattle with good pasture and the dairying industry developed rapidly. More land was cleared and sown to clover, the settlers building up their herds and sending cream in five-gallon cans to butter factories at Bunbury and Harvey. Later a cheese factory was erected at Brunswick, on the site of the present Peters depot. In a few years the whole appearance of the district changed as the bush fell before the axe and wide acres of clover pasture took its place. Farmers as a class are very materialistic and few if any of them were disturbed by the destruction of nature’s protective coat. An early conservationist was Miss Bessie McAuliffe, teacher at Roelands School in the period 1915–1918. She loved our native flora and fauna, but her attempts to preserve the little that remained in the school grounds were ridiculed by those whose motto was ‘if you see a tree chop it down’.

It is an odd quirk of fate that the severe depression of the 1930s brought prosperity to Roelands. Governments tried to increase work for unemployed men and two big projects effected the Roelands district very closely. The first of these was the construction of a new main road, passing through Roelands and crossing the Collie River by the new bridge, with its branch road to Collie going up over the ranges. With the opening of these new sealed roads, Roelands ceased to be a backwater as far as road traffic was concerned and became a landmark on the State’s main South West Highway.

Second and more important was the Collie River Irrigation Scheme devised by Mr RJ (afterwards Sir Russell) Dumas, one of this State’s outstanding engineers and administrators. The scheme involved construction of the Wellington Dam on the Collie River, with main channels running north and south along the foothills of the Darling Ranges, to carry water to farming land on the coastal plain from Benger to Dardanup. Also, an extensive system of drainage to carry off the excess water that falls in the winter months was incorporated. The resident engineer Mr Joe Allen set up his headquarters in Roelands and before long many hundreds of men were employed. Work continued for about ten years before the scheme was finally complete, but irrigation water was flowing to farms in less time than that. Today Roelands is the centre of a prosperous farming community, producing milk for the Perth metropolitan area, as well as potatoes, beef cattle, pigs, etc., and looks back on its long period of slow development with some pride.

Before concluding, I shall tell you what I know about the Roelands School. I believe the Government School on the present site was built about 1905. It consisted of one classroom, with a lobby that served as a hat-room and washroom across the north side. Two little porches as separate entrances for boys and girls provided ingress to the lobby. Incorporated in the building was a narrow passage – the teacher’s quarters, subdivided into a small bedroom and kitchen/dining-room. Evidently little consideration was shown to the teacher, usually a single woman, in those harsh times. About 1919 a new teacher’s quarters, in the form of a small cottage, was erected in the northern part of the grounds and a fence divided the teacher’s area off from the rest of the school ground. This cottage was too small from the start and the present teacher’s house was built about 1922, just in time to accommodate the first family man, Mr Walter Crossing, in 1923. Among early teachers was Mrs Pyne, who stayed for a number of years, and later Miss McAuliffe. Those young women must have had an unenviable task living alone in a hostile environment and trying to control some fairly wild bush-bred kids – often the boys were bigger than the teacher.

I haven’t mentioned all of the families by any means who contributed to the history of Roelands. There was Mr WB Castieau, JP, known as the ‘Squire of Roelands’ who owned Seven Hills and who had one of the first motorcars in the district – his car always bore the number H·7 and was always a Buick – and whose telephone number was also 7. His wife was usually called upon to hand out prizes on Parents Day and his sons, Ned and Bill and daughter Kathleen were well-known throughout the district. Several families of Roses and Clarkes were always prominent. The Clarke family owned a beautiful orchard Orange Grove on the Collie River flats west of the railway line and this was always a popular place for visitors. An employee of the Clarkes for many years was Mr James Grapes whose son Len conducted a service station until quite recent times. Nearer to the Roelands township lived the Poller, Gibbs, Dye and Waterson families, while further north were the Gardiners. In my youth children from all of these families attended Roelands School, some coming in horse–drawn buggies but most coming considerable distances on foot. Walking was not considered a hardship in those days.

It would not be right to end a brief history of Roelands without reference to the hub of the little community, the shop-cum-post office. I believe the shop on the present site was begun by Mr EM Clarke, who afterwards owned a business of considerable size (Clarke’s Stores) in Bunbury, and who was for a time a member of the Legislative Council. In my youth the shop was owned and conducted by Miss Elizabeth Gordon, a remarkable woman who ran an efficient business, yet was everyone’s friend. Telephones came to Roelands about 1924 thus ending the days when the quickest way to transmit a message was by horseback rider…