History of West Australia/William Owston
CAPTAIN WILLIAM OWSTON.
A GOOD deal of the romance of the sea has departed since the advent of the great ocean liners, and in place of the blood-stirring roar of the boatswain's mate at midnight to "reef topsails," neatly-clad stewards screwing up ports are the only indications passengers now have that dirty weather is expected.
Greenham & Evans.
CAPTAIN WILLIAM OWSTON
It is a pleasant change, therefore, to meet with hardy seafarers, who braved the perilous passages on the badly-surveyed coast line of Australia in the sturdy "wind jammers" of fifty years ago, and hear a few of the many exciting incidents which go to build up the maritime history of the country.
No one is more competent to speak on this subject than Captain William Owston, who has been associated with the shipping interests of Western Australia for more than half a century, and has done as much as any other navigator to develop its large trade.
Captain William Owston was born in Kent in 1825, and after leaving school was apprenticed to a shipwright. Subsequently he worked in that home of shipbuilding, the Chatham Dockyard, where he acquired a wide knowledge of the craft. The adventurous spirit of young Owston would not, however, allow him to remain on shore, so he went to sea, and at the age of twenty-four years was second mate and carpenter on board the barque Mary, which dropped anchor off Fremantle in 1849. The barque then made a prosperous run back to the old country, and the young officer, with admirable foresight, saw so great a future before the new colony that he decided to return here. He made arrangements accordingly, and in 1851, when the Mary again reached the Fremantle roads, he was among the first to land.
Shortly after his arrival he shipped on board the schooner Pelsail, engaged in the trade between Fremantle and Champion Bay. The growing trade caused a demand for cargo craft, and two years later he undertook the construction of a large lighter. The material (jarrah timber) used for this was obtained some five miles up the river from Preston Point, where Mr. Owston established a shipbuilding yard.
At this time Fremantle was a port of call for the American whalers requiring repairs, and Captain Owston's experience and ability gained at the shipbuilding yards of the old country enabled him to secure the work, which he executed so satisfactorily, that Mr. Pope, the then American Consul, saw that he got all the work. The perilous nature of the trade in which the vessels were engaged required that the workmanship should be of the highest quality, and the continued demand for his services when vessels came to the port to refit shows his popularity with perhaps the hardest taskmaster in the world—an American whalers' skipper. For three years Captain Owston had a hard but happy life, and then the old craving for blue water again seized him, and he became owner and captain of a smart schooner of 127 tons, appropriately named The New Perseverance. With this vessel he established a lucrative trade between Fremantle and Champion Bay, and he carried horses, sandalwood, and jarrah timber from there to Batavia. It was while engaged in this trade that Captain Owston had an unpleasant experience, which, but for his presence of mind and promptitude of action, would doubtless have caused great hardships, if not the death of several men. The adventure was brought about in this way. A prisoner serving a sentence in the Fremantle Gaol informed the authorities that while engaged as mate on board a Spanish schooner, which had put into Camden Harbour, he had gone ashore and picked up several pounds of gold, which he sold in Liverpool. He offered to point out the locality of the find on the condition that he was liberated from gaol. The authorities naturally regarded such a statement with suspicion, and before agreeing to the conditions communicated with the Home Authorities to ascertain whether a similar quantity of gold had been sold in Liverpool about the date stated. The enquiries were duly made, and it was learned that gold corresponding with the description given had been sold by a seafaring man at Liverpool, but it was not known where it came from. The receipt of this information caused quite a sensation in the colony, and it was decided to accept the convict's terms.
A party consisting of Mr. T. K. Panter, Inspector of Police, who was appointed leader, Constable Buck, Dr. Martin, the convict, whose name was Wildman, and thirty-four volunteers was formed, and Captain Owston's schooner was chartered to convey them to Camden Harbour. The party and twelve pack horses were embarked, and in the early part of 1864 the anchor was dropped at a remote place on the north-west coast. The convict, who had been treated on terms of equality with other members of the exploration party, watched the preparations being made for landing the stores and horses with apparent interest, but when the time came for him to disembark he refused to point out the spot where he had previously landed. Inspector Panter attempted to reason with him, but to no purpose, the man maintaining a stubborn silence, and neither promises nor threats could make him change his demeanour. The convict was reduced from the status of a passenger, and installed in the position of cook. As a suitable landing could not be discovered near where the schooner was anchored, it was decided to go on to Camden Harbour. The voyage thence was marked by an exciting incident, the schooner getting into a "willy willy" near the "Treacherous Reef." Fortunately for all concerned, Captain Owston saw the danger in time, and managed to bring the schooner up in good holding ground, thus saving the vessel and the lives of passengers and crew. As the convict persisted in his refusal to go ashore, Inspector Panter determined to land, and discover the auriferous country without the assistance of a guide. The horses were disembarked, and the party set off in high spirits, sanguine of returning in a few days with untold wealth. They went to a place named Glenell, about twenty miles from the coast, and made a careful search for gold-bearing country, but without success. Inspector Panter then suggested that they should endeavour to discover some good pastoral country, and a start was made in the schooner for Carnot Bay. On arrival there, however, the beach was found to be crowded by natives, whose hostile demonstrations discouraged any attempt to land. As the navigation of the Bay was intricate, Captain Owston decided to wait until the following morning before attempting to work his vessel out to sea, so the night was passed quietly at anchor. The natives remained on the beach all night, their whereabouts being marked by the hundreds of fires that pierced the gloom until morning, and at daybreak the schooner was got under way, a course being shaped for Cape Vailaret. A boat was sent ashore to see if any natives were in the vicinity, and finding the coast clear, Inspector Panter and party landed to examine the nature of the country. The horses swam ashore.
The convict was left on the schooner, and for a couple of days performed the duties assigned to him without demur. This apparent contentment, however, was evidently only to lull suspicion, for one night the startling discovery was made that the convict and the two boats belonging to the schooner were missing, thus preventing any communication with the shore. Captain Owston at once came to the conclusion that the man had made his escape in the smaller boat of the two, with the intention of reaching Java, and cut the other adrift to prevent pursuit in case his absence was discovered before he got away from the ship. He determined to make an attempt to overtake the fugitive, and sailed at once, and the following evening had the satisfaction of picking up the big boat drifting out to sea. He then returned to the anchorage, and on landing found the other boat, but no trace of the convict, who was, however, caught several days later.
On the return Of Inspector Panter and party, after a successful trip of four days, the schooner started on her return journey to Fremantle, with the convict in irons. The arrival of the schooner in Fremantle with the news of the fruitless result of the exploration was a great disappointment to the many people who were anxiously waiting her return, and the convict, for his perfidiousness, was sentenced to three years' additional imprisonment.
The good work done by Captain Owston in navigating almost unknown waters was appreciated by the authorities, and his opinion was so esteemed that he was consulted as to the quality of the land at Camden Harbour. It was due to his report, as to the unhealthy nature of the country, that any thought the authorities had of attempting to open up the port at that time was abandoned.
The Captain again went into the Java trade, giving the command of the vessel to his mate, who made three successful voyages to Roebuck Bay and Cossack with the ship. The little schooner which had navigated the treacherous coast successfully so long then met her "Waterloo," being wrecked on what is now known as "The Perseverance Rock," named after the vessel. Captain Owston's next venture was the Eliza Blanche, the command of which he took himself, and from 1868 to 1871 this well-known trader successfully ran with several cargoes to ports in Java, China, Mauritius, and Melbourne. He also owned the Macquarie, Bonnie Lassie, Ribston, Singalee, Mary Smith, a fleet of vessels engaged in the same trade.
Captain Owston started business as a general merchant in partnership with the Messrs. Pearse.
His ability as a seaman was so well recognised that he was appointed Lloyd's surveyor over forty years ago, which position he held until a few years ago. As a nautical assessor, he was not to be surpassed, and during the twenty-five years he filled the position his decisions gave satisfaction to all concerned.