Brief History of The Irwin District

Irwin District Map

Situated on Arurine Bay next to the Irwin River are the historic twin towns of Dongara and Port Denison, the coastal settlements of the Shire of Irwin.

In 1839, an expedition led by George Grey left Perth in the Swan River Colony by ship, bound for the area near Kalbarri, north of the Murchison River. His boats and supplies were destroyed in a cyclone, and he was forced to make the 7OOkm (450 miles) trek south to Perth.

Lieuteneant Grey and his party became the first recorded Europeans to traverse the Irwin District and note the extent of promising pastoral country in the Irwin River Basin. It was Grey who gave the European name 'Irwin' to the river.

The aboriginal people of this region, called the river estuary 'Thungarra' meaning 'a place of seals'. It was the anglicising of this name that gives Dongara its present name.

Further exploration occurred in 1846 when the Gregory brothers discovered coal in the upper reaches of the river. Europeans returned and remained permanently in 1851 when grazing leases were taken up by the Cattle Company, and the first house of wattle and daub with thatched roof was built.

Cattle and sheep were soon grazing under the watchful eye of shepherds who were accompanied by their families and in August 1852 the first European child, Mary Criddle, was born. In the same year the Dongara townsite was surveyed, and by 1854 the European population exceeded 350.

In August 1852 the first European child,
Mary Criddle, was born

Irwin River Estuary.
Irwin River Estuary.

In 1859 the first tillage lease was taken up in the district by John Smith, who built the first flour mill near the Irwin River Estuary in 1865.

St, John's Anglican Church.
St.John's Anglican Church, Dongara.

With the increase in shipping to service the growing community, a jetty at Port Denison was built in 1867. In the same year an inn license was granted to Joseph Walton at Dongara who built the 'Irwin Arms' now Dongara Hotel.

The Irwin District continued to grow, but in the late 1860s, rust, a disease of wheat, devastated the crops and this coupled with with drought, locust plagues and fire brought poverty to the settlers.

Despite these setbacks, the early 1870s saw the building of a Police Station, an annex Post Office and the formation of the Irwin Road Board and in 1881 a second hotel.

Father LeCaille built the first Catholic Church in 1872 and in 1884 the Wesleyan and Anglican churches were constructed.

By the 1890's, the discovery of rust resistant wheat had improved harvests, however a world economic depression meant low prices for cereals.

In 1894 the Midland Railway, connected Perth and Geraldton and a local merchant, Francis Pearse, opened the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill (see Below). The Moreton Bay Fig Trees which line the main street of Dongara were planted in 1906, and 32 volt DC electric lighting was provided to Dongara townsfolk in 1939.

More recently the discovery of natural gas, the development of the rock lobster industry and the mining of lime sands has added new economic dimensions to the long established agricultural industry.

32 volt DC electric lighting was
provided to Dongara townsfolk in 1939.

Over the years, Dongara and Port Denison has been a holiday destination for inland farming families who came to the foreshore every summer. With the advent of the railway, many city people also came to enjoy holidays by the sea.

Visitors now come all year round by road to enjoy the spring wildflowers, mild winter weather as well as our beautiful beaches.

The Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill

The Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill was built in 1894 by Francis Pearse, merchant and landowner of Dongara and was, in its time, the most up to date mill in Western Australia.

Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill.
Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill.

Machinery installed at the time was a 16HP engine manufactured by Ransome, Sims and Jefferies of Ipswich, England. Designed by Henry Simon of Manchester England, the building is constructed of local limestone with red brick quoins to window and door openings.

The Mill was connected to the Midland Railway by a spur line into the shed, which could hold 8000 bags of wheat. Flour from the mill was shipped to the northern towns and the Goldfields region of Western Australia.

The Mill closed in 1935. The building is presently owned by the National Trust of Australia (WA).

Bain, M.A., Ancient Landmarks, University of Western Australia Press, 1975.
Pallassis Architects, Perth WA, Dongara Old Mill Conservation Plan, National Trust of Australia (WA), 1996.