Cockburn History – Clarence Townsite: Have you ever wondered about the origins of WA Day?

Did you know that one of the earliest European settlements in Western Australia was right here in Cockburn?

Up until 2012, WA Day was known as Foundation Day. It commemorates the founding of the Swan River Colony, officially the day in 1829 when Lt-Governor Stirling and the passengers on his ship the Parmelia arrived in Cockburn Sound. Though they sighted the coast on 1st June, the weather was poor and and the sea dangerous. After nearly sinking the Parmelia, Stirling and the new settlers had to land on Garden Island and so the colony’s first true European settlement was born.

The foundation of Perth by George Pitt Morris / Settlement on Garden Island, early 1830

The foundation of Perth by George Pitt Morris / Settlement on Garden Island, early 1830. Courtesy ‘Settlement on the Swan’ by Ruth Marchant James / Heritage Perth.

Back in England, the British government was struggling to drum up interest for settlers to move to the colonies. Thomas Peel, employed in an attorney’s office, saw potential in the newly opened colony, and made arrangements to bring over 500 new settlers out if the government would grant him a large tract of land. This was agreed, with the condition that his preferred land would be available to him as long as he could arrive by 1st November 1829. Peel, on the Gilmore, missed the deadline by six weeks.

His first choice of prime land along the Swan River lost to him, Peel was instead allocated the land stretching from Woodman Point south to Mandurah. He and his settlers – many of them indentured labourers seeking a new life in the colonies at his expense – selected a site somewhere between the current Quarantine Station at Woodman Point and Mount Brown to be their townsite, and named it Clarence, after the Duke of Clarence who was next in line for the throne.

George Bayly's drawing of Peel town - ships Hooghly & Gilmore - Feb-Mar 1830

George Bayly’s drawing of Peel town – ships Hooghly & Gilmore – Feb-Mar 1830. Courtesy Maritime Heritage Association Journal, 2008.

The grand vision, in part, was to recreate the idyllic villages of rural England, with everyone farming the land and providing the artisanal supplies needed for a comfortable life. But Peel and his settlers had been led to believe that the Swan River colony was a pleasant, arable landscape with mild weather and abundant resources. The truth was rather different.

The settlement was not a happy one: stores and food promised by Peel’s partners didn’t arrive, and the settlers began to suffer from malnutrition. Their first year, entirely spent camped in temporary shelters on the beach at Woodman Point, was harsh both summer and winter, they could not farm the sandy and unforgiving land, and their doctor went mad.

Eventually, most of the settlers applied to Governor Stirling to be released from their indentured servitude, and as Peel was reclusive, argumentative, and disinclined or unable to help them in their need, this was granted. Settlers drifted away to other parts of the Swan River Colony, to other parts of Australia, or back to England. Peel was left almost entirely alone to contemplate the failure of his great vision.

Plan of boundaries proposed for townsite of Clarence, 1836

Plan of boundaries proposed for townsite of Clarence, 1836. Courtesty State Records Office.

There are few remnants of the settlement at Clarence, and indeed researchers still argue about where exactly it was located – nearer Woodman Point, or nearer Mount Brown. Regardless, Cockburn still holds the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the very earliest places where Europeans tried to settle in Western Australia.