History of West Australia/Matthew Price


THE population of countries such as Australia are necessarily nomadic. There are really very few old-established business houses in proportion to those of mushroom growth existing in our cities. Australians move from place to place in search of wealth, and as they go they naturally meet with many romantic adventures, and experience the vicissitudes so common to young communities. Perhaps there are few of the Australian colonies in recent years which have given greater opportunities for adventures than Western Australia. Her great extent of jarrah forests, her undeveloped millions of acres, and her pearling fisheries present to the chronicler many incidents of pleasing interest; and the pearl shell industry more than any. During the history of pearling in Western Australia there has been quite a number of grim stories of lives lost, and also brighter tales of fortunes made.

The reader, when he has completed the perusal of the biography of Mr. Price, will agree with us about these two phases of pearl shelling. Mr. Price has had a varied career and many adventures, some of which have nearly cost him his life—by shipwreck, and once in the full stress and force of a semi-tropical hurricane he was within an ace of death. But not to anticipate, we shall mention these things in proper sequence.

Matthew Price was born in Brighton, Victoria, in 1855. His father, Matthew Price, was at one time warden of the Ovens Goldfields, and subsequently removed to New Zealand, where he was a police magistrate at Invercargill. From there he was appointed gold warden at Hokitiki and other New Zealand goldfields. Matthew Price, junior, was six years old when he went with his parents to New Zealand. At Invercargill he attended school until he was sixteen years of age. His first position was as a cadet in the Railway Branch of the Public Works Department of the Middle Island. For two years he was connected with the Government service; and on retiring became associated with Messrs. Brogden and Sons, who were then carrying out the contract for the construction of the railway from Dunedin to Cluther, and also a short south coast line. In January, 1875, he left New Zealand and came to Western Australia. He spent the best part of 1876 at Geraldton, whence he went to the Murchison as a member of a party of three who searched for good grazing land in that large district. Many well-watered, choice patches of soil, and many springs were found by the explorers, who passed over localities now rendered famous by the Murchison Goldfields, but no gold did Mr. Price's party see. Numerous natives inhabited the Murchison district, and sometimes the party met with sixty, eighty, and one hundred at one time, but, after treating them with uniform kindness, the behaviour of the blacks was all that could be wished. Returning to Perth, Mr. Price joined the Government service in 1876 as supervisor for the construction of the telegraph line between Albany and Eucla, for which Mr. J. Flindell was contractor. The line lay largely on the route taken by that successful explorer, Sir John Forrest, a few years previously and before completing the Western Australian portion of the work it may be well understood that many difficulties had to be surmounted. The poles used for the line were jarrah, procured from the old Canning Sawmilling Company, and were landed at positions along the coast most convenient to the place where the contractor was working. The coast is an exceedingly rough one, and along a considerable portion of the route it is difficult for a ship to put in. The schooner Mary Ann, Captain Miles in charge, was employed in this work. Mr. Price, as supervisor, had charge of the pioneer party, which went out in advance of the contractors and marked the trees to align the route to be taken by the telegraph. Much difficulty was experienced in getting poles along the course of the telegraph line, owing to the great number or mud holes, bogs, and deep creeks. Often the loaded drays were bogged in some of these, and then it was necessary to unload the whole contents before the vehicles could he extricated. On the line, too, was a little range of precipitous hills between 200 and 400 feet high, and to get the heavy posts in proper position across this was an arduous undertaking. After much meditation Mr. Price conceived a happy idea. The range ended in high perpendicular cliffs, at the foot of which the water was very deep. On top of those cliffs Mr. Price caused a derrick to be erected, and on fine days the Mary Ann would range alongside, and the busy derrick would then relieve her or her load. By this means the main difficulty of getting the poles to the top of the range was overcome. Among other things there was no water on these hills, and the precious liquid—precious throughout the colony—had to be conveyed long distances. After being sixteen months connected with this important historic work, which joined Perth to the telegraph systems of Australia, and practically the world, Mr. Price boarded the Mary Ann and sailed on the return voyage. Between Esperance and Israelite Bays the little vessel was wreckcd on a rocky islet. Fortunately for her company she did not immediately break up, and as ample provisions and water were on board they were able to wait for some time until they were rescued. Finally, a passing schooner beheld them, and putting in took them from their uncomfortable and dangerous position. The exposure and hard work brought upon Mr. Price an attack o[ rheumatic fever, which eventually compelled him to resign his Government appointment. Suffering acutely from this, the circumstances of his return to Perth remain green in his memory. At Esperance the shipwrecked people were landed, and Mr. Dempster, the only settler in the district, treated them with magnanimous courtesy. Placing a buggy at the disposal of the suffering Mr. Price and supplying saddle-horses for the others and pack-horses for their belongings, he headed the party and guided them overland to Perth in safety. The journey, owing to the unsettled nature of the country, was necessarily arduous, and took twenty-one days to complete. When Mr. Price recovered from his illness he proceeded to Cossack in July, 1878, by the schooner Ariel. 0n arriving there he was somewhat disappointed to find a most dismal place, chiefly remarkable for its sandy reaches, and containing but two houses. He soon made his way to Roebourne, where he met several friends. The pearl industry, which he partly wished to see, was the subject of discussion among them, and as they were engaged in this trade he agreed to join them for one season without remuneration merely to gain experience. He carried out this intention, and carefully studied the work and routine. In 1879 he launched into pearling, and purchased a cutter named the Water Lily, and procured the services of twenty-seven Australian aborigines and three white men—thirty-one people all told—and proceeded to the pearling grounds. The natives negotiated all the diving, and by the end of that season he obtained twenty-one tons of excellent pearl shell, which at that time was worth £150 per ton in the London market. In following seasons he added four boats, each manned by seven men, to the Water Lily, and thenceforward, until 1886, he most successfully followed his curious work, and obtained the average of twenty-six tons per season. The pearl fisheries were then in comparatively shallow water, ranging from six to eight fathoms, but as these were worked out it was necessary to go to much greater expense than previously in fitting out pearling expeditions. In shallow water no diving apparatus was required, but when the pearl beds retreated further from the coast it was necessary to get complete diving gear. Mr. Price invested in four sets for use in the 1887 season, and also purchased the schooner John S. Lane and four luggers. The time arrived when it was necessary for them to start out, and when they got some distance from the central station the weather became thick and stormy, with every indication of a hurricane, and Mr. Price determined to put into the nearest bay for shelter. Then was experienced the most disastrous hurricane chronicled in Western Australian history. The day after his arrival Mr. Price encountered the full force of the gale, which blew with unabated fury for two days, and carried devastation to the pearling fleets. The masts of his vessels were snapped as though they had been matchwood. The chain cables parted, and Mr. Price's little fleet drifted at the pleasure of the hurricane. He was in the schooner at the time, which, mastless, and beyond his control, was driven out nearly 200 miles from land. Every moment almost they expected the vessel to founder or to strike some unknown rocks, and no more dangerous position could well be imagined. Happily, he escaped destruction for, as the weather cleared, he met two pearl luggers which had missed the worst of the hurricane, and they towed the schooner back again to the bay. On arrival there, Mr. Price found two of his luggers broken on the rocks, while the other two were very much damaged. A great part of the north west-coast pearling fleet was destroyed by this dreadful storm, and it was estimated that 300 lives were lost. The greatest anxiety existed in the minds of the public of Perth as to the fate of the pearlers, and the Government chartered the steamers Australind and Otway to go out in search of disabled vessels and their suffering crews. The steamers only succeeded in securing a dismasted schooner named the Serapasa, which was towed to Cossack. The schooner had previously picked up a Malay, who for two days had floated on the hatch of a foundered lugger. His breast was torn, and, suffering intensely, he soon died from his privations.

In 1888 Mr. Price retired from the pearling industry, after having lost heavily during the last two years. He now embarked in other businesses, and in the latter part of 1888 chartered the brigantine Bessie, with which he took a cargo of horses to Mauritius, and returning took another cargo to Singapore. This kind of life, however, was not to his liking, and he opened in business as a contractor. Among the important contracts he has carried out are two for the extension of the Fremantle jetty, one of 1000 feet, and the other of 450 feet. He is now steadily engaged in this line of business, in which he deserves the greatest success. Mr. Price married in June, 1888, the daughter of Mr. Brown, who for some time occupied important positions in the Ports Department at Fremantle. Throughout his somewhat varied career Mr. Price has proved a business man of resource and enterprise. Of a shrewd temperament, he is thoroughly straightforward in all his dealings, and possesses those excellent social qualities which tend to win him friends whereever he may go. No matter what position the vagaries of life have cast him into he has met them all bravely. A general favourite, there is no one that knows him but wishes him well.