Potted Histories

Walking Sticks – An Unusual Export from Bunbury

By Irma Walter, 2019

Today walking sticks are rarely used as an aid for frail and elderly men and women, having been replaced by more modern types of support frames. Back in the 19th century however, walking sticks were a necessary accessory for the elderly, or were carried by men as protection while walking through dangerous city streets. Later they became very much a status symbol, carried by younger men of the upper class as a fashion accessory.

The walking stick became a favourite presentation gift. The Prince of Wales was presented with an intricately-carved specimen from Australia to add to his collection.[1] It is said that Queen Victoria had hundreds of different models.

Western Australian hardwoods such as jarrah and karri were mainly exported for construction of roads, railway tracks and bridges, but some of our more decorative timbers were being promoted for the production of furniture, writing cases, smoking pipes and walking sticks. Samples of curly jarrah, sandalwood, she-oak, tuart and jam-wood were displayed at various exhibitions both here and overseas.

Sir Newton Moore, WA’s Agent General in London, was a keen promoter of Western Australian timbers. In 1915, when opening his new premises at Savoy House, he thanked the guest speaker Mr. Harcourt, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and presented him with a walking stick made of tuart, with a handle of bullock horn and a band of Western Australian gold, described as ‘an exceedingly handsome souvenir, of which the recipient expressed warm appreciation’.[2]

In 1897 samples of ‘raspberry jam wood’ were sent to a London company for testing its qualities. A positive report was received, stating that:

We find that the timber is useful for many trades and purposes, such as walking-sticks, pipes, telephone mouthpieces, and the common rulers. There is always an open market for colored hardwoods, but to compete with the present market the price would have to be £6 per ton delivered in London. When the timber is brought before the public there should be a good sale for it.[3]

Walking stick manufacture was a common trade in England, with timbers such as ash, beech, thorn and hazelwood harvested for the purpose, yet at one time five million walking-sticks, valued at £25,000 or so, were imported into England annually.[4]

In 1891 a local WA farmer William Edmund Pye, when clearing his 200-acre block of coastal land at Australind, became interested in entering the export market, with timber suitable for walking-stick manufacture. Newspaper reports were as follows:

Mr Pye, of the Harvey brought a cartload of saplings into Bunbury last Friday, being part of an order for 100,000 which he has received from London These are to be worked up into walking sticks.[5]

Returns from a very novel industry, lately started in the district, were apparent on Friday, when a load of walking sticks was brought into town for shipment, Mr. Pye, of the Harvey, being the exporter, and holding an order from London for 100,000 sticks.[6]

Unfortunately, no description of the type of timber that Pye was harvesting was included in these newspaper reports. Nor was there any mention of further shipments of walking sticks out of Western Australia. This probably indicates that Mr Pye’s initial load in 1891 may have been the beginning and end of the walking-stick export trade in Western Australia.

William Pye was a young single man who had come to Western Australia in search of a healthier climate as a possible cure for his consumption (tuberculosis). For a short time he held a contract to deliver mail on the Bridgetown/Balbarrup run.[7] Just when he took up land in the Australind area is not known, though he appears on the 1903 WA Electoral Rolls, listed as a farmer at Hampton.[8] Local Harvey woman, Mary Venables (née Piggott) recalled that ‘Mr. Pye had a block about a mile from us, he was a tall thin man, he didn’t stay too long as he was a sick man’.[9]

In 1907 we find Pye called as a witness at the sensational trial of an itinerant named Augustine Di Kitchilan, for the murder of Miss Leah Fouracre, a single woman who lived alone at Peppermint Grove Farm on the Old Coast Road. William Edmund Pye described having met Di Kitchilan a few days before the murder, recalling that he felt uneasy when the man declared his intention of visiting Miss Fouracre, and asked whether she was well-off financially. Pye said that he didn’t like the question and replied that he knew nothing of the lady’s means, only that she farmed sheep and cattle.[10]

Land-clearing soon became too much for Pye. In March 1910, it was announced that William Edmund Pye, aged 45, late of ‘Palm Vale’, Australind, had passed away at St. Cuthbert’s Hospital in Northam.[11]

Thomas Hayward (Jnr) handled his deceased estate, with the bulk going to a relative in England, Miss Ann Frances Elford Pye.[12]

[1] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 10 October 1902.

[2] Western Mail, 26 Feb 1915.

[3] Daily News, 24 November 1897.

[4] Beverley Times, WA., 2 July 1937

[5] WA Record, 29 Oct 1891.

[6] West Australian, 28 October 1891.

[7] Bunbury Herald, 18 Feb 1889.

[8] WA Electoral Rolls, at https://search.ancestry.com.au/search. NB The Hampton locality is where Carnaby’s Park is in 2018.

[9] Reminiscences of Mrs Mary Venables (nee Piggott), Harvey District, at Harvey History Online website.

[10] West Australian, 13 September 1907.

[11] Northam Advertiser, 12 March 1910.

[12] England and Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858 – 1966, at www. ancestry.com.