An Australian Parsonage/Chapter II

CHAPTER II.

Description of Perth—View over Melville Water—Old Government House and Gardens—New Government House considered by some persons to be too large—Employment of convicts in Perth—No chain-gangs seen there—Immigrants' home—Anecdotes of some of the emigrants from our ship—Mistakes amongst poor in England as to the geographical position of Western Australia, and distance from Sydney, Melbourne, and Hobart Town—Difficulty experienced by Emigration Commissioners at home in procuring free emigrants for Swan River—Additional public buildings in Perth erected during the last three years—Town Hall—Wesleyan Church.

The situation of Perth is, as I have already said, a very pretty one. The river is there so wide, and the inward sweep taken by its bank so bold, that the town appears to stand rather upon the shore of some fine lake than upon that of so unimportant a stream as the Swan. This bay, chosen for the site of the capital, is called Melville Water, and is formed by a deep curve of the river bank, commencing at the promontory of Mount Eliza, and extending for a distance of about a mile and a half until it returns towards the opposite shore again by a low sandy stretch of land which almost conceals the farther upward course of the river's channel. Mount Eliza forms a prominent element in the beauty of this spot. Towards the river it is almost precipitous, rising in bold cliffs to a height of about 150 feet from the water which washes its base. On the landward side the hill is differently shaped, since one side slopes very gradually away from the summit, in a direction parallel to the shore, until it meets the low ground nearly level with the beach, upon which the end of Perth farthest from the river mouth is placed. Upon the verge of this slope, and having an elevated position above Melville Water, as well as an easy access from the lower part of the town, are built some of the best houses in Perth, and the view from them is so fine that it seems a pity that advantage should not have been taken of so good a site for Government House, instead of placing it where it now stands in the lower part of the town, and but a few feet above the river.

One of the best placed of these houses is Bishop's House, as the residence belonging to the see of Perth is called, and from its gardens the view may be enjoyed in perfection. Looking down from a height of nearly a hundred feet at the town and river below, the spectator beholds a mass of cool luxuriant foliage, formed by the glossy leaves of the bananas and bamboos which thrive in the narrow strip of swampy ground which runs along the bottom of the hill-side. On the slope itself the dark green of the orange and lemon trees, mingled with the lighter shades of the apricot, almond, and peach, forms a rich scene of verdure, which is charmingly relieved and brightened by the rosy blossoms of the large oleanders with which many of the gardens are crowded. Glancing over this lovely foreground, and looking somewhat up the river and towards the north-east, the eye, after admiring the contrast of the bright water glowing in the full blaze of the Australian sun seen against the dark forests of the opposite shore, rests finally upon the blue summits of the hills of the Darling Range. These hills form the back-bone of the more settled districts of the Swan River colony, and, rising to the height of from 1500 to 2000 feet, lie parallel to the western coast, at a distance varying from fifteen to twenty-five miles from the sea.

When strolling about the streets of Perth for the first time, the stranger will notice a certain unconnected look about the different houses and Government offices. Most of the buildings are handsome and well arranged; but each one seems to stand alone, and the next neighbour to a large and well-stocked "store," or to the private house of an important official, may be the cottage of a shoemaker or the yard of a blacksmith. Moreover, since almost all the houses in the best parts of the town stand in their own gardens, no actual streets can be said to be formed by them, and the general appearance of the whole place is rather that of one of those suburbs to which the business men of our large towns at home retire after their day's toil is over, than that of the working hive itself. Although this impression given by the first view of Perth is doubtless disappointing to anyone who arrives with the hope of making money therein, it makes the place much prettier than it would probably be if a larger trade were carried on there. There is a look of cheerfulness and brightness about the many gardens which surround the houses and the avenue of trees which lines each side of the main road passing from one end to the other of the town, that makes the new-comer feel that a home there might be a very pleasant one.

After landing at the pier, and having been directed to proceed up a rather ugly street which leads from the river into the main road which I have just mentioned, the stranger finds himself in the centre of Perth. If he looks up the street, towards Mount Eliza, he sees, at some half a mile's distance, a large red brick building of considerable pretensions, placed upon the slope of the hill, and facing the very centre of the main street. I believe that this really fine building has been erected for the headquarters and barracks of the Pensioner Force which has been introduced into the colony during the era of transportation, but as it was only just finished when we left the colony, I am not certain what may be its final destination. This main street, of which I have several times spoken, is of great width, and being planted on each side with Cape lilacs (which, unlike any of the native trees, give an excellent shade when full grown) has already a very pleasant and verdant look, and will, when the trees are a little taller, make a really fine boulevard.

Looking from the top of the street leading from the pier, in the opposite direction and down the town, the gardens of the "old Government House" are close upon the right hand, together with the building itself, which is rather small and low, and is now used for various official purposes. These gardens are well laid out, and contain a few fine specimens of auracarias and pines, although they cannot boast of any especial rarities, and make no pretence to botanical completeness. A few attempts at acclimatization have been made, but none of any consequence, and there is still ample room for further efforts in that most useful direction. In the centre of the gardens is, perhaps, the best specimen in Western Australia of that great desideratum, a green lawn. It is formed of a grass called in Perth, Indian coutch grass, which is the only sort yet discovered that can stand the summer suns without being burnt up into hay. Owing to this benevolent Indian turf, the young ladies of Perth are not deprived of the delights of croquet; but are able, like their English sisters, to maintain a club for that purpose, since the Governor has kindly permitted these gardens to be used as a sort of public park.

Close to "old Government House" stands the new abode of state completed about eight years ago, having been erected entirely by convict labour. It is a fine massive building, and externally appears well suited to the abode of a representative of the Queen. Complaints have been made that more money has been spent upon this new Government House than suited the interests of the colony, and that too large an amount of convict labour also has been devoted to a building which is, say the murmurers, too grand for the pretensions of the settlement; money which might have been applied to road making and other similar useful works. I cannot help believing that this grumbling has arisen because, as being built and finished entirely by convict labour, no profits whatever from the erection of this large work have flowed into Perth pockets, and no immediate advantage to Western Australia has been seen to follow the expenditure of so great an amount of both money and labour as has been required to complete the new structure. I suppose that the same feeling has been excited in all the colonies to which transportation has been attempted, and that Swan River has only followed an example set before her by other districts in looking at such questions solely from her own point of view, and in striving to obtain as large a share as possible of all the expenditure connected with the maintenance and feeding of the convicts, whilst anxious to monopolize the benefits accruing from their labour as well. However this may be it cannot be denied that any work which is not thoroughly a colonial work, such as bridges, piers, or roads, but conducive only to the interests of the Home Government and its officials, such as this new building in question, is pretty sure to be unpopular in Swan River. The settlers would like to contract for the supply of all the necessaries used by the convict labourers at a good price, and then to have the entire benefit of their labour in addition, and seem scarcely satisfied unless this is the case, even though the Governor may have exerted himself to the utmost in striving to develop the country as rapidly as possible.

Having touched upon this subject, I may here notice that the existence and employment of convicts is much less striking to the eye of a stranger in Perth, and in the country districts, than it is at Fremantle, owing chiefly to the fact that it is only at the latter place, and close to the "Establishment," that any fettered men are ever seen at work. Of necessity irons must be used upon some of the thoroughly unruly prisoners, and a chain-gang must be a sight sometimes seen in any country where a large number of men are undergoing the sentences due to their crimes; but it is only at Fremantle that men under severe discipline are ever met with in the streets, and though you may there pass a body of fifty or a hundred men marching back from their work in chains, and escorted by warders with loaded and cocked revolvers in their hands, ready for use in an instant, still it is only in the immediate vicinity of the great prison that such a sight is ever witnessed, and it must be remembered that in that comparatively small body of men are collected all those convicts who cannot be trusted to obey the very mild rule by which the remaining five or six thousand men of the criminal class who are scattered over the country are governed. At Perth, and in the most solitary country districts also, if you happen to meet a "road party" of convicts, returning from their labour upon the highways under charge of their warder, you see no chains or fetters of any description, secret or open, neither is the warder armed with any visible weapon, not even a sword in its sheath; he may possibly have a revolver in his pocket, as he is, I believe, allowed to carry one if he thinks fit; but the chances are twenty to one that he has left it at home in his own hut, if it be a bush road party, or perhaps has even given it to the constable of the party, himself a convict, to clean.

During the whole time of our sojourn in the colony we never heard of any instance of an attack upon their warder made by one of those parties of convicts, some fifteen to twenty in number, who are sent out into the interior to construct the roads, and are thence called road parties. The danger lies the other way; the temptation to make friends of some of the more decent of the men under his charge is so great, in the solitude of the bush, that an unmarried warder requires much strength of mind to resist it. With a married man the case is different; he has his own family around him in his hut, and does not feel so solitary as the single man, who has no one to speak a kind word to him but the sinners under his charge. Good as the West Australia system of transportation has proved itself to be in the towns, where the warders can find companionship in their own class of society, it fails in the bush in this respect. No warder ought to be exposed to even the possibility of being compelled to seek his sole acquaintanceships or friendships in the criminal class; he ought always to have, at least, one man, untainted by crime like himself, to speak to and associate with. It is too much to expect of human nature to ask a man to live alone month after month, without anyone of his own class near him. There is indeed a gaol at Perth, and one rather larger than would usually be required in a town of some 3000 inhabitants, but it is in the less prominent part of the town and easily passed by unnoticed, so that, on the whole, an inobservant person might readily pass a week in the place and never perceive that there was a single convict in the colony.

There are not many public buildings in Perth demanding notice beyond those I have already mentioned, with the exception of two or three pretty chapels, or churches as they are now usually termed, belonging to the Nonconformists, and also the schoolhouse under the Board of Education, which is so built as to be often mistaken for a small chapel, its exterior being so ecclesiastical looking. I have already mentioned the two cathedrals belonging respectively to the Churches of England and of Rome, and need not again refer to either of them. The hotels in the town are comfortable and the charges moderate; the stranger will find the table d'hôte system prevalent in most of them, although he may have his meals in private if he prefers to do so; or, if he desires to obtain lodgings in a private house, he will not find much difficulty in procuring accommodation of a respectable and convenient character.

There was, however, another public building which we were anxious to visit before we left Perth for the interior, and that was the "Home." This is a Government asylum, established as a respectable refuge for all those migrants from England who may not have succeeded in obtaining employment immediately after landing; and it is also used as a sort of almshouse or workhouse for those old people who may have fallen into poverty, and for whom Government aid has become indispensable. Purists, in language insist upon calling this building the Immigrants' Home, whilst others, who remember that its especial purpose is to provide a shelter for those new-comers who have not as yet been able to convert themselves into dwellers in the new country, in any useful sense of the term, but are still as waifs and strays cast upon its shore, consider that Emigrants' Home is the more legitimate title for the abode of those unlucky exports from England who have not at once been able to obtain admission into the human circulation of the new country, but are still, as it were, in store at the place of landing.

On inquiring at the "Home" as to the fate of our old acquaintances on board ship, we learned that our Yorkshire friend, the successful cake maker, had been joined on landing by a very decent-looking man who was doing well as a shoemaker, and who seemed, though a convict, to be respected as a man of business. He had prepared a very comfortable home for his wife and children, and it seemed probable that they might all prosper, could she make up her mind to do her best in a scene so totally new to her.

This family seemed the only one among the "married people" class of immigrants that had much prospect of a good start in their new country. Several of our other shipmates were still lingering unemployed in the "Home," apparently very downhearted. The place did not look much like its name of "home" to the new-comers just at first, for, to an English eye, the accommodation, which is quite sufficient for comfort in the climate of Australia, looks bare and cold and meagre, so that it gave our poor friends somewhat of the same impression which we can fancy to be made upon a previously happy child, when it is introduced into one of those schools called "happy homes" in the advertisements.

We were shown into a long room, divided off into separate spaces by wooden partitions, each space being of good size, and doing duty as a private apartment, but much resembling the loose boxes in a nobleman's hunting stable. These represented unfurnished lodgings for the immigrants, some of whom, perhaps, would, if the spaces had contained more accommodation, have bestirred themselves but slowly in seeking independent homes of their own. The place was perfectly clean and well ventilated, and plenty of water was at hand in the yard of the building, a great comfort with the thermometer at 90° as it then was. There was also no lack of water in the form of tears as we went in, for a poor old Irishwoman, whom we found sitting on the floor, with her feet straight out before her and her back against the wall, just as we had often seen her sitting on deck resting against the bulwarks, was crying grievously, in company with her daughter. When we learned the reason for all this lamentation we did not wonder that they were both disconsolate. The poor souls had come out to Swan River intending to proceed from thence, believing it to be a very easy trip, to join the husband and father in Melbourne; and they now found themselves in Australia with almost less chance of getting to Melbourne, in their penniless condition, than if they had remained in London.

Another emigrant, who came from the Midland counties of England, and whose relations lived in Tasmania, was in equal trouble. He assured my husband that he had been told at the Emigration Office at home that he could easily reach Hobart Town when once landed at Perth, and supposed that he would have to go thither by coach, but wished to know whether he would be more than one night upon the road. Many cases of this nature have occurred among the poor whilst Western Australia was the only colony to which free emigration, at the expense of Government, was carried on.

Australia is known to be an island, and the poor at home who desire to reach its shores seem to have no idea of its enormous extent; but to fancy that, if once landed in any one of its settlements, they may easily transfer themselves, at no great expense, to any other colony to which they desire to proceed. I cannot but think that much self-deception upon this point is allowed to exist among the English poor, and that the country agents of the Emigration Commissioners take no pains to counteract their ignorance. Even amongst well-educated persons, I have found much surprise to be excited when I have spoken, since my return, of the great difficulty of visiting any of the other colonies from Swan River. The fact is, that the very lowest passage money from Fremantle to Adelaide, the nearest Australian port, is six pounds, and that as no steamboats whatever ply on the coast the voyage must be made in a sailing vessel, of perhaps 250 tons burden, and may last a fortnight or three weeks.

These facts are but little known at home, and the poor fancy that, when arrived at Government cost in West Australia, they will be able, by the savings accruing from a week's work, to make their way to any other part of the continent in which they may have friends or relations, amongst whom they wish finally to settle. When these people, unwarned at home, land in the colony and find out their mistake—find that they are, as it were, compelled to remain for years in a place where they had intended to spend only months—they are naturally angered and wrathful, and the consequence is that they learn to hate and abuse the place from the very first, and when they have succeeded at last in getting away to Sydney or Melbourne, they spread an evil report of Swan River amongst all their fellow-artisans.

The excuse made by emigration agents for not having published freely all the disadvantages of the colony, is the following. They say that free emigrants were clamorously demanded during the era of transportation, and that it was not their business to deter people from accepting the Government offer of a free passage, a boon which they could get nowhere else. They would also say that wages were good in Swan River, and that there was a fair chance for all who were willing to work. It is needless to refer to the past, and now that transportation has ceased the whole aspect of the case is altered; but I would ask those who know the colony well to say whether it is not the truth that the great majority of the respectable labouring and artisan classes who have been sent out as free emigrants during the last ten years has left the colony for Melbourne and Adelaide, and carried an evil report of its prospects away also?

Since we landed, in December 1863, several important additions to the public buildings have been made, which have much improved the general appearance of the town. Of these the new Town Hall deserves the first mention. It is a fine building, upward of 170 feet in length by 80 feet in breadth, accommodating two thousand persons. It is constructed upon arches, so that the basement may form a market-place, a convenience much wanted previously, and it is surmounted by a tower 130 feet in height, and of an ornamental character. As far as it was possible to form a just opinion upon a building still in progress when we left the colony, this new hall seemed likely to add much to the aspect of the town, the tower especially promised to be very effective in the more distant view when approaching from Guildford or Fremantle by the road.

During the last year or two a handsome church has been erected by the Wesleyan body, which is now, I believe, completed and opened. It is described as having a very church-like and graceful exterior, with a lofty, though light spire, and good windows, so that it must form another welcome addition to the general appearance of the capital. One cannot but hope that, before many more years pass by, an effort may be made by the members of the Church of England to erect a building a little less barn-like than their present cathedral, which must, I fear, present but a poor contrast to the new tower of the Roman Catholic, and the graceful spire of the Wesleyan church, if the latter building be indeed as elegant as the description given of it in the Perth newspapers, which we have received since we left the colony, would lead us to believe.