Willstown – a town like Alice

Capture.JPGI read Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice many years ago and in my faded memory, I thought the Australian scenes were set in Alice Springs. Of course it wasn’t, the clue is in the word “like” in the book’s title. I was reminded recently where it was actually set when I received a review copy of academic Richard J Martin’s book The Gulf Country: The Story of People and Place in Outback Queensland.

Martin’s book was commissioned by Burke Shire Council for the 150th anniversary of the town of Burketown in 2015. The anthropologist author was the right man for the job as he studied in the Gulf country for his PhD on Aboriginal culture. Martin found the shire had a black and a white history, the whites settling Burketown, the Gregory and the pastoral stations, while the black tale was of colonial violence, resistance and a landmark native title win.

Burketown was boom and bust country in the so-called “Plains of Promise”. Founded as a Gulf of Carpentaria port, it was a wild west place in the 19th century. Fouled by plague and a new rival port at Normanton, it never delivered its promise. Its struggles continued with the Second World War due to the nearness of wartorn New Guinea with many evacuated and never returning. The near derelict town survived only as a destination for crocodile hunters searching for valuable skins.

Here Martin mentions A Town Like Alice. He said Nevil Shute visited Burketown in 1948 and used his experiences to inform the book written two years later. It tells the story of the romance between Englishwoman Jean Paget and Australian soldier Joe Harman, both prisoners of the Japanese in Malaya during the war. Martin said Harman was possibly modelled on Glenore Station (Normanton) stockman Jimmy Edwards who led a similar life. After the war Paget rejoins Harman in “Willstown” which Martin calls a “thinly disguised Burketown”.

It’s a reasonable assumption given the Gulf location of the towns and the poetic substitution of Wills for Burke. But the book mentions Burketown as a separate town with Willstown situated further north-east at the mouth of the Gilbert River. There is no actual town at this spot and the closest settlement is the Aboriginal town of Kowanyama. Shute says Burketown was the “prototype” of Willstown though it also had qualities of Normanton and Camooweal.

Intrigued about this link to my part of the world, I found a copy of A Town Like Alice and reread it with interest. Shute is a fine storyteller and it didn’t take me long to get into the tale, narrated by Noel Strachan, a solicitor of Jean Paget’s family. In 1948 Paget inherits the family money to be held in trust until she is 35 and Strachan tracks her down to a London factory. She tells him how she survived the war in Malaya with a group of Englishwomen and children moved from place to place by the Japanese until they stopped in a remote settlement. There they grew rice until the war’s end (Shute modelled her on the experience of Dutchwoman Carry Geysel-Vonck in Sumatra).

The links to North West Queensland begin during her internment when Jean meets Joe Harman, a captured soldier who before the war was a stockman “from out behind Cloncurry”. Harman displays the casual racism of Outback Australians of the time calling Paget “Mrs Boong” because of her sunburn. When a puzzled Paget asks what’s a boong, he replies “black boys – black stockmen. Abos”. Harman tells her he works at a cattle station near the NT town of Alice Springs, which he called “a bonza place”. But he bemoans the lack of white stockhands, “These bloody boongs, they’re always going walkabout”.

Paget and Harman become close until the Japanese discover he has stolen chickens on the women’s behalf. They crucify him and Paget thought he died. The women are forced to move to another part of Malaya where they were finally allowed to stay unmolested by the Japanese. When Strachan tells her of her inheritance she decides to go back to Malaya to build a well for the women who helped her. In Malaya she finds out Harman did not die and sets off to find him in Australia. At the same time Harman finds out Paget is unmarried and seeks her in England.

Harman meets Strachan in London and tells him about Willstown and why it would be difficult for Paget. There’s no radio station, no fruit and veg shop, no fresh milk, no dress shop, no ice cream, no newsagent, no doctor, no swimming pool, no telephone and no young women. All outback towns are like that, Harman says, except Alice where “a girl’s got everything”.

In Alice Springs Paget finds out Harman has moved back to the Gulf and she sets off for Willstown. She flies to Cloncurry and takes a room at the Post Office Hotel arriving too late for “tea”. Cloncurry, she found, “had none of the clean glamour of Alice, it was a town redolent of cattle with wide streets through which to drive the herds down to the stockyard, many hotels and a few shops”. She then flies to Normanton and finally Willstown where she finds out Harman is in England. Willstown is even more unprepossessing than Cloncurry but love conquers all and she stays on. When Harman returns they plan to marry and Paget plans to turn Willstown into “a town like Alice”.

Paget uses her inheritance to start up a crocodile-skin shoe shop and handbag factory eventually expanding into a grocery shop, a beauty parlour, a dress shop, a swimming pool and a cinema. She wants to give young women jobs and attract the eligible stations bachelors into town. However as Martin says in his book, apart from the crocodile hunting nothing was further from the truth in Burketown in the 1940s and 50s.

Even by 1960 when Burketown celebrated its centenary its population was just 83, though that figure unlikely included Aboriginal people. In Shute’s book they were unreliable Abos who went walkabout and apartheid was the norm. Paget asks Harman “what do I if a boong comes into the ice-cream parlour and wants a soda? A boong stockrider? Do I serve him or has he got to have a different shop?” Harman replies, “I don’t think you could serve them in an ice-cream parlour, with a white girl behind the counter.” Paget creates a separate parlour for the blacks.

There’s no apartheid today in the Gulf, though there are few ice-cream parlours either. The Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1982 and became recognised under the Native Title Act 1993 as the representative Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander body for the Gulf Region. This region includes land and waters from the Northern Territory border to east of Normanton, and the islands and seas of the lower Gulf of Carpentaria.  The Waanyi People won their native title claim in 2013 as have the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples and the four claimants on the Wellesley Islands. Given the Federal Court has recognised coexisting Arrernte native title rights and interests on most reserve, park and vacant Crown land and waters within Alice Springs, “Willstown” in this sense is indeed a town like Alice.

James Cook before Australia


As we approach the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s “discovery” of the east coast of Australia, his name will be big in our news in 2020. Cook remains the single largest symbolic in Australia’s colonial story, though he died almost 10 years before Australia was founded. He is celebrated in hundreds of names of places in white Australia, while in Northern Territory Aboriginal lore, they tell tales of how “Captain Cook” came to the north coast and stole their lands. And before we dismiss this as absurd folk history we should consider the British called its Pacific outpost “Botany Bay” for Cook’s landing spot for many years after the First Fleet found that particular bay unsuitable for a prison colony.

I wrote about Cook’s contested legacy last year, after the government announced a $3m memorial to him in Botany Bay. What’s less controversial is Cook’s remarkable seamanship, rightly celebrated in many books inlcuding Rob Mundle’s “Cook: From Sailor to Legend”. Mundle is a maritime biographer and his own skills as a sailor and writer bring colour to Cook’s extraordinary story. This post looks at events in Cook’s life before the legend began.

Had Cook joined the British Army, he would have been lost to history. Armed commissions were the property of the gentry which they freely brought and sold without reference to merit. But the Royal Navy was different. As a young man Cook breathed the salty air of Staithes, North Yorkshire and moved 10 miles south to Whitby where he was indentured to the Walker Brothers’ coal vessel business. He served his apprenticeship on the collier Freelove, shipping coal between Newcastle and London, and dealing with storms in the rough North Sea, an experience which would serve him in good stead.

In 1755, aged 26, he was offered master of a ship in the merchant marine but turned it down to join the Navy as an able seaman. His timing was good. Britain was entering the world’s first global conflict – the Seven Years War. The war between Britain and France dragged in the other European powers and quickly spread to their overseas colonies. Cook sailed aboard HMS Eagle under fellow Yorkshireman Hugh Palliser who quickly realised Cook’s talent. Palliser mentored Cook in navigation and mapping and became a usefull ally in the years to come. They had skirmishes with the French off the coast of Newfoundland and Cook was promoted bosun.

By 1856 Cook was commanding a British cutter on patrols near France and then commanded a French capture Triton back to England. Back on Eagle in 1857 they battled with a 64-gun French East Indiaman which they captured. He took exams to enable him to master HMS Pembroke answering only to the captain. In 1758 Britain tried to crush France’s North American colonies and Pembroke sailed for the attack on Quebec.

Britain laid siege to the gateway Louisbourg Fort on Cape Breton Island. Here Cook learning mapping skills from the Surveyor-general of North America, the royal engineer Samuel Holland. The Pembroke then sailed up to the Gulf of St Lawrence where Cook carried out a survey of Gaspé Bay, his first published chart. Cook was encouraged to learn spherical trigonometry and celestial navigation using the newly invented sextant.

In the summer of 1759 Britain launched the attack on Quebec with no charts or river buoys to guide them through the maze of shallows, shifting sandbanks and churning currents. Cook and others spent days taking soundings to find an ideal spot for the invasion and the Navy took Cook’s advice the landing vessels were similar to colliers he worked on and could be secured very close to shore. That didn’t work as Cook’s soundings were at high tide and the landing was at low tide. Nevertheless the British landed their army and won a quick victory at Quebec, changing North American history.

Cook moved to the bigger HMS Northumberland where he continued his vital survey work. They were back at work when France tried to retake Newfoundland and there he contributed to chart knowledge as well. When they finally sailed home in late 1862 Cook was marked out for greater contribution to the empire.

At home he married Elizabeth Batts, 14 years his junior and they enjoyed three months together before he was sent back to Newfoundland with Samuel Holland. The new British territory and its coastline needed to be mapped accurately for towns and borders. Surveyor Cook had to deal with 1000km of indented fogbound coastlines and dangerous Arctic storms and icebergs. Under the Treaty of Paris, Britain ceded St Pierre and Miquelon to France and Cook had to survey those too.

He gained a reputation for duty,  detail, and seafaring and surveying ability. In 1766 he sailed to Newfoundland for an eclipse of the sun, bringing him to the attention of the Royal Society, enhancing his chances to be chosed for the transit of Venus observation trip a few years later.

In late 1767 the Society held a meeting to discuss the transit due 3 June 1769 and agreed the South Seas would provide a useful viewing point. This meant procuring a ship, a request granted within weeks by the King. A converted collier was purchased and renamed HMS Endeavour. The proviso was the Admiralty would want their own Navy man in command. Though more senior officers were available, champions like Palliser Admiralty Secretary Philip Stephens pushed Cook’s case and he was appointed First Lieutenant in May 1768.

Around the same time Captain Samuel Wallis returned to London from the South Seas and spoke about his new discovery – Tahiti. Wallis convinced the Royal Society Tahiti was the ideal spot for the Transit offering easy shore access and safe anchorage. The other development was the inclusion of a self-funded scientific crew under wealthy Joseph Banks and included naturalist Daniel Solander.  As the ship prepared, Cook received his secret orders, not to be opened until the Venus task was complete.

Endeavour left English waters in August and set off for Madeira and then Rio as it headed for Cape Horn with its heavy seas and biting cold and rain. By April 11, 1769 they were at Tahiti. There they found a satisfactory spot where Cook wrote they would “throw up a small fort for our defence.” There was some trouble with thieving natives which escalated when a marine shot one dead but peace was restored after a parley.  June 3 was a clear day and the observations were successful. After a month they were ready to leave and Cook opened up his secret orders.

The idea was to find the unknown south land, Terra Australis Incognita, believed to exist in the South Pacific. They would search south to 40 degrees from Tahiti, then head west to New Zealand, and finally head home whichever way he could. He was ordered to claim uninhabited lands for Britain, and where they were inhabited to “take possession of Convenient Situations” but only with the “Consent of the Natives”.

Cook sailed south but proved the only suspected sightings of land in this region was “Cape Flyaway”, sailor speak for a bank of dark clouds on the horizon.  At 40 degrees Cook and his crew were glad to turn away from the high seas and savage storms of the Southern Ocean. He set course for Tasman’s landing spot in New Zealand.

On October 9, 1769 they found land, half way along the east coast of the North Island (near today’s Gisborne). They were immediately attacked by Maori and killed one on the beach, a bad start to international relations, at a place he named Poverty Bay, because it provided little by way of food.

Initially they sailed south, avoiding more attacks. However seeing no likely harbour and ‘the Country Visibily altering for the worse”,  Cook reversed course at Cape Turnagain near the bottom of the North Island. They went back past Poverty Bay and the most easterly point at East Cape before naming the Bay of Plenty, Mercury Bay (for a transit of the planet he observed on 9 November), Cape Brett, and North Cape at the top of the island. He headed south until he saw the remarkable peak of Mt Egmont (Taranaki) and as the coast disappeared south east he found Marlborough Sound assuming it was a across a broad bay from Egmont.

They landed to do repairs and from a high hill on Arapawa Island, Cook discovered the strait between the islands, now named for him. They sailed through it naming Cape Palliser on the north for Cook’s Navy mentor. He travel north to Cape Turnagain to prove it was an island, then turned again to explore the South Island. By March 9 they were on the southern tip he named South Cape (not realising it was Stewart Island), turning north at West Cape five days later, admiring the fjords as they did so. On March 27 he completed the circumnavigation of “2 large island, divided from each other by a Strait”.

Now free to go home, Cook dismissed the Cape Horn route in Winter and chose to go east to the Cape of Good Hope. The idea was to fall in with the coast of New Holland following the path of Abel Tasman in 1642 and head north to seek port at Batavia (now Jakarta).  Tasman had also hoped to sail north from Van Diemen’s Land but powerful headwinds forced him east.  Storms affected Cook too and put him on a path 150 miles north of Tasman.

\At 6am on April 19 1770 Cook recorded in his journal “saw land extending from NE to W at the distance of 5 or 6 leagues”.  He named it Point Hicks for a crew member. Cook hypothesised this land and Van Diemen’s Land were not the same (proved 30 years later by George Bass). The Endeavour had arrived at Australia and sailed 2000 miles over the next four months before claiming the east coast of the continent for England. We are still living with the consequences today.