Local Identities

John Ferguson, a pioneer surgeon.

Dr John Ferguson came on the ‘Trusty’ in 1842 as part of The Western Australian Company venture at Australind. He was allocated land at what is now Brunswick and called his holding ‘Wedderburn’.

In the following newspaper articles, John’s son, Charles Ferguson talks about a family that adapted well to the new environment and ultimately prospered.   

(By A.B.)

There can be few in the State who remember John Ferguson, a pioneer surgeon of Western Australia, though many retain pleasant memories of his widow, who died at her home in Mount-street not many years ago, at the age of 91.

Her only surviving son, Mr. C. W. Ferguson, now 85 years old, lives in retirement in Mt. Lawley, and lately the writer called to show him Wollaston’s journals, in which may be read many references to his parents, whose kindly friendship was much valued. Mr. Ferguson produced a piece of plate whose inscription showed that it was presented to his father, Mr. John Ferguson, surgeon, of Auchtermuchty, as a testimony to his “professional skill, assiduous attention, and moral worth.” It is dated May 25, 1835.

The young surgeon stayed seven years longer in Scotland, and, having meanwhile married, ventured forth to try his fortune at Australind. The good ship Trusty, bringing 180 migrants to that ill-fated settlement, conveyed also the doctor and his family. There were two children — and some others whom he had chosen to come with him under contract. One of these, William Forrest, five years later, became the father of John Forrest, Australia’s only peer, and Western Australia’s most famous son.

It was Dr. Ferguson’s intention to “throw physic to the dogs” — in a sense — and settle on the land. He had visions of a return to the old country in a few years laden with the spoils of those fertile plains that every pioneer, in fancy, sees. He lost no time in selecting land, and, naming the estate Wedderburn, began, with his chosen workers, the task of turning the wilderness into a fruitful field. “How bowed the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!” But it was long before he saw “the harvest to their sickle yield” — and a scanty one it was, while his resources were rapidly becoming scanty, too.

His services as a surgeon, however, were much in request, and the Australind Company were glad to secure them, for the medical man who had come in the Trusty proved the reverse of trusty, and the doctor at the Vasse was also a broken reed; so Dr. Ferguson made many journeys thither in a vain attempt to save Mrs. Molloy, whose life, according to Wollaston, “had been sacrificed for want of attention on the part of her medical attendant.” Dr. Ferguson contrived a “hydrostatic” bed with Wollaston’s new mackintosh, fixed over a special water trough, made by a ship’s carpenter, and relieved her sufferings, but could not save her life.

William Forrest.

After a time William Forrest agreed with his employer to strike out on his own account, and, building his home at Picton, where it is still to be seen, he made good progress. There in 1847 John, the best known of his sons, was born. Wollaston gives this glimpse of him in 1851: — “Forest has erected an excellent water mill not far from the ford, which at present works well, and is much resorted to. He is a very clever fellow.”

“Another who came out with my father under contract.” said Mr. Ferguson, “was a man named Eadel (sic, Eedle), who got on very well, and not only put up for Parliament, but actually won the election for Wellington from Steere and Fawcett.” This was probably in the early ‘seventies. Eadel entered the lists with great confidence, and proved himself a prophet (if not a poet) by this jingling electioneering slogan: — “Fawcett and Steere may square you with beer, But, without beer or gin, D. Eadel will win!” [Editor’s Note – David Eedle did not come out with John Ferguson under contract, it was Alexander McAndrew, see ‘The McAndrews of Wedderburn’ on this website. Eedle did run for parliament several times but was never elected.]

In 1851 we find Dr. Ferguson settled in Perth, where he held the post of Colonial Surgeon, and every time the Archdeacon came to Perth, which was always at Easter, he appears to have breakfasted with the Fergusons on Easter eve; doubtless a happy farewell to the Good Friday fast! There were entries in Wollaston’s last journal in 1856 which were of special interest to Mr. Ferguson, one mentioning his own departure for England in the Esmeralda. As I read out the names of the passengers, including “Mrs. Ferguson and children,” Mr. Ferguson said he well remembered every one of them, and remarked: “Neddy Stone was the other child my mother had in her care, and he gave her a good deal of anxiety, for he was as nimble as a cat and climbed to every part of the rigging”.

Sir Edward Stone in his memoirs, mentions the interesting fact that three of the six men going home on that ship later won distinction in the service of the Empire, and received the honour of knighthood, which suggests that the calibre of those who served this State in those early days was good. They were Major General Sir Wm. Crossman, Major-General Sir Frederick Ducane and Sir Edmund Henderson. Mrs. Ferguson was contributing her share to these reminiscences. Her father, the late Dr. S. W. Viveash, was Government Resident at Middle Swan, and Wollaston often visited them — “a nice family,” he says, and later, “’dined at Mr. Viveash’s and met the Governor and Mrs. Fitzgerald, “kind and courteous.” His last visit to her father’s home was on February 1, 1853, but as Mrs. Ferguson was then only a month old, she confesses to having no clear recollection of their venerable visitor.

Houghton Vineyard.

Dr. Ferguson bought an estate on the Swan in 1859, once owned by a Mr. Houghton, and still bearing his name. There were a few vines on it, and says Mr. Ferguson, “my father’s first vintage consisted of one quarter cask, that is about 25 gallons, and even that was not quite full. He knew enough of wine making to know that the cask should be full, and kept full, until fermentation ceased. A little water was an easy solution, but he drew from the bed of Jane Brook, not water, but a load of white quartz pebbles; these he washed and dropped enough in to bring the wine flush with the top. It was my job for many days after to drop in more pebbles (to make good the loss from evaporation) and to test the progress of fermentation by holding a lighted match at the bung hole, the fumes extinguishing it quickly at first; but when half a dozen matches burned to one’s finger in succession, fermentation was deemed to have ceased.” In this primitive fashion began, the industry that has grown through 74 years of progress to large proportions.

Perhaps the most cherished memento of those far-off days that the son possesses of a worthy father is a letter written 75 years ago, in a beautiful hand, and perfectly preserved— “A few lines to let you know how often I think of you, and how very glad I shall be to see you out here again.” It holds out a promise of “a small saddle for you, and I hope that you and I will have many a ride over to Burswood.” Bishop Hale was at the time in England (1857) and Dr. Ferguson had just had word from him and writes: — “The Bishop, I am glad to say, is to open a school in Perth, and, as he is bringing out a master with him, I hope that the school may turn out a good one.” That, of course, was the school whence Hale School derives its name, and Charlie Ferguson came back in time to enter it a fortnight after it began its work. It not only turned out a good school, but also many a good “citizen of credit and renown.” Floruit, floreat, florebit! (West Australian, 15 July 1933.)


EARLY METHODS. Mr. Ferguson’s Memories.

A striking contrast in the methods used in the processes of wine-making by the first settlers in the Upper Swan valley and the methods used to-day has been supplied to an interviewer by Mr. C. W. Ferguson, who was one of the first men to undertake the cultivation of vines for wine manufacture in a district that has attained a considerable degree of importance as a vine centre in more recent years. Mr. Ferguson, who is in his 81st year, is still much more alert in mind and body than many younger men, to which a magnificent garden at the home where he is living in comfortable retirement at Mount Lawley testifies. Mr. Ferguson is the second son of Dr. John Ferguson, of Dundee, Scotland. Dr. Ferguson arrived at Fremantle [sic, Bunbury] in the ship Trusty in 1842. Passengers on the same boat included the parents of the late Lord Forrest.

Dr. Ferguson came to Western Australia to take up land, and he first selected an area at Australind, near Bunbury, where a reminder of his settlement has been permanently attached to the history of Western Australia in the Ferguson River, called after him. He did not long remain on the land, and when, in 1846, the then Colonial Surgeon, Dr. Harris, died, Dr. Ferguson was appointed to the vacant position. He then moved to Perth and lived in a house on a spot about midway between St. George’s-terrace and the Esplanade and Howard and William streets. Here it was that Mr. C. W. Ferguson was born, and he recalls that in his boyhood days, he often used to go boating in the shallow waters of the river which then covered the whole of the ground since reclaimed, and forming the Esplanade. In 1863, at the age of 16, Mr. Ferguson went to the Upper Swan valley where his father had bought the Houghton Estate named after an Indian officer, from whom the land was acquired by the Ferguson family with the object of producing or manufacturing wine.

Some of the vines were brought from Leschenault and some from South Australia, in which State the wine industry was established some years previously. The work of preparing the soil was very laborious, and all cultivation had to be undertaken by hand with a spade. When the vines came into bearing and manufacture of wine commenced, the methods used were very primitive compared with those existing at the Houghton vineyards to-day. Mr. Ferguson relates that the wine press was about 7 feet long and 2 feet 6 inches wide fitted with a false bottom, with a grating the bars of which were about one-eighth of an inch apart. The grapes were dumped into this trough or bin, and the juice was trodden out by men with their bare feet. It fell into receptacles underneath and was drawn off and usually kept for 12 months before it was offered for sale. Mr. Ferguson suggests that the use of wine as a beverage might be much more widely adopted in Australia if people followed the example set by his father. He says that in all the years he was associated with his father in the Swan valley he never knew him to take more than one glass of wine at a time, although he made it a practice to take that one glass at every dinner time. The wines made were a claret or burgundy type and hock. Ports and sherries were not attempted.

The Days of Barter.

Labour in those far-off days was much cheaper than it is to-day. The married men employed by Mr. Ferguson were supplied with a house and were paid at the rate of 3/6 a day, in addition to which they were allowed various farm products. Sometimes their pay had to be given in the form of goods, because the employed himself was often remunerated for his products by the system of barter in vogue in the early days. For instance, hay grown on the property and which realised up to £5 a ton, would be brought into Perth, and payment would be made in the form of stores, such as flour, tea, sugar, etc. Ready cash was therefore not always available and it so happened that workmen were sometimes called upon to accept wages in the form of a pair of moleskin trousers or a pair of heavy blucher boots. They did not seem to mind so long as the value was obtained. For many years the use of fertiliser was, of course, unknown, but, subsequently, a well-known town identity, in Mr. Solomon Cooke began to produce bone dust in a mill which he set up on the site of the present Australia Hotel, in Murray-street. His chief trouble was to secure a sufficient quantity of bones for his mill. Mr. Cooke was something of a marine builder and paddle boats which were seen on the Swan River in the early days were constructed by him.

Mr. Ferguson went to the Upper Swan in 1863. and he did not retire until 1911. The interests at the Houghton vineyards are still carried on by his sons, Mr. J. V. Ferguson and Mr. D. H. Ferguson. Another son is Mr. P. D. Ferguson, M.L.A. for the Moore constituency, and another is Mr. C. O. Ferguson, part owner of Tambery station, at the head of the Fortescue River, adjoining Millstream. (West Australian, 11 April 1928.)