A Brief History of the Irwin Districts

Situated on Arurine Bay beside the Irwin River estuary are the twin towns of Dongara and Port Denison, forming the urban area of the Shire of Irwin. The village of Irwin is about 17 kilometres east of Dongara, and there are several tiny hamlets in the north and south of the shire.

During the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries Dutch, French, British and other European ships sailed along the Irwin coast, and occasionally shipwreck survivors may have met an unhappy fate on its sandy shores. During the 1830s and 40s American, British and other whaling and sealing vessels combed the coast, plundering and virtually destroying the local seal populations.

In 1839, an expedition led by Lieutenant George Grey returning from Shark Bay in three American whaling vessels attempted to land at Kalbarri. The boats and most supplies were destroyed in the heavy surf, and they were forced to make the 700 kilometre trek overland to Perth. Grey’s party became the first recorded Europeans to traverse what is now the Irwin Shire. Grey later reported upon the extent of promising pastoral country in what he named the Province of Victoria, including the Irwin River catchment. It was Grey who re-named a river he crossed the ‘Irwin’, to honour Frederick Irwin, the military commandant in Western Australia, and Irwin’s name eventually came to be the name for the whole district.

Irwin River Estuary, Dongara

The Gregory brothers, acting on Grey’s reports, reconnoitred the area in 1846 and found coal seams in the upper reaches of the river. However its poor quality and remoteness meant it was never seriously exploited in the colonial period. The Gregory’s were closely tracked throughout the Irwin by local Aboriginal warriors, and did not tarry long in the district.

Colonisation commenced in 1851 when grazing leases were granted to the Cattle Company over Aboriginal lands on the lower and middle Irwin river flats, as well as the Greenough Flats. A large party of colonists herding cattle from the Avon Valley trekked overland to occupy the leases, and the first house of wattle and daub with thatched roof was built at Irwin. Grey had earlier reported on similar Aboriginal-built structures in the area. Cattle and sheep were soon grazing in the Irwin valley, watched by shepherds, and wool and meat began to be exported from the river mouth. There was conflict between the Irwin Aboriginal people defending their territory and the colonists that, after numerous skirmishes on the Irwin and Greenough flats, culminated in the massacre at Bootenal Thicket in 1854.

‘Fairlawn’ Home of C H Oliver, 1860 |IRME0032

The Cattle Company workers were accompanied by their families, and in August 1852 Mary Criddle was born at Irwin, the first colonial-born child in the district. In the same year a townsite by the river mouth was surveyed, and by 1854 the population of colonists exceeded 350.

The Aboriginal people called the river estuary ‘Thungarra’ meaning ‘place of seals’. By the time the colonists entered the area, the seals had largely been taken by the sealers, but Aboriginal people taught the colonists their name for the estuary, which carried within it the melancholy memory of the lost seals. Over time, the colonists anglicised Thungarra to Dhoongarra to ‘Dongarra’, which became the official name for the estuary townsite.

In 1859 the first tillage lease was taken up in the district by John Smith, who then built the first flour mill near the Irwin River Estuary in 1865. This was the first important industrial enterprise in the district, and its ruins survive today near ‘Denison House’.

First Dongara Flour Mill c1870 |IREME1559

Overland travel was arduous and dangerous at this time, and the growing community travelled mainly by sea. The river mouth was dangerous and unpredictable for shipping, and a landing place began being used in Arurine Bay. A townsite was surveyed around the shores of the bay in 1866, and named ‘Denison’ in honour of the retiring Governor of Madras and former governor of NSW and VDL. This was followed by a jetty being built in 1867, with two obelisks, or navigation beacons, nearby. By 1870 four commercial warehouses were operating near the jetty. As the pastoral leases gave way in the late 1860s to smaller agricultural or ’tillage’ leases, wheat and sandalwood became major exports from the harbour, with Singapore a key sandalwood market.

In 1866 an inn license was granted to Joseph Walton, an ex-convict, at Dongarra who built the ‘Irwin Arms’, now the Dongara Hotel. The new tillage leases attracted a considerable number of ticket-of-leavers, or paroled convicts, to the district as small farmers, and the Irwin became a major area of convict settlement. The district continued to grow, despite rust (a fungal disease of wheat), drought, locust plagues and fire. Convict transport to Western Australia provided many single men for a cheap labour force, which saw the building of much needed public infrastructure, in particular roads, a Police Station, and schools as well as the jetty and obelisks. In 1871, the same year that the Courthouse and Police Station (also built by Joseph Walton) opened, the Irwin Road Board was formed, bringing local self-government to the colonists. The Road Board District, the forerunner of the present Shire, stretched from the coast to the South Australian border until 1895 when the eastern goldfields were separated and it began to be reduced to its current area. The Dongarra Courthouse became one of the main courts in which Aboriginal men were sentenced to Rottnest during the 1870s and 80s, with many of them captured far up the Irwin valley as the frontier moved inland through the eastern reaches of the Road Board District. This is a part of Irwin’s history that remains yet to be told.


In 1881 a second hotel was built, on the south side of the river, called the Dongarra Hotel, when the main road to the harbour still followed an older route. The spiritual needs of the colonists were finally met with first Catholic Church built in 1872 by Father Lecaille. In 1884 the Wesleyan church and the Anglican church and rectory were constructed, although both congregations had previously holding services in the school. A significant addition to the Anglican church was the old curfew bell from Fremantle that once signalled the end of the day to convicts, and whose peal can still be heard over Dongara on Sunday mornings. By the 1890’s, the discovery of rust resistant wheat had improved harvests, and Western Australian was in the throes of a huge gold boom. Many local men turned to gold mining in the Murchison for extra income, and in 1894 the Midland Railway Company line opened connecting Dongarra with Perth and Geraldton and the Murchison. Local merchant, Francis Pearse, opened the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill in 1894, which had its own rail siding, and brought a new period of industrial activity to the the district.

Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill.

Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill. c1923 |IRME1152

His rival, Samuel Moore, also had his own rail siding built just east of Dongarra, and as both men were directors of the Western Australian Bank, a branch of the bank opened in Dongarra at this time. The general prosperity of the period saw the local Irwinish happy to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, although few foresaw that the opening of the railway line would spell the demise of Denison as a major commercial port.

Dongara Town Band leads the parade across Dongara bridge celebrating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. 1897 |IRME1385

In 1900, the Irwin District recorded the second-strongest ‘no’ vote in Australia against Federation (only Greenough was stronger). Nevertheless, the Edwardian period was one of prosperity as new shops and a new school were built, and Irwin Road (now Moreton Terrace) developed as a distinct ‘high street’. The Irwin Arms was upgraded and became the new Dongarra Hotel in 1902 when the earlier Dongarra Hotel was sold to the Dominican Sisters, who converted it into a convent and school that became the Dominican Ladies College, making Dongarra an important regional centre for education. The Moreton Bay Fig Trees that line the high street of Dongarra were planted in 1906 as part of the earliest civic improvement program in the district, and the town of Dongarra began to spread out in the area between the new Dongarra Hotel and the Royal Stream Roller Flour Mill.

Dongara Hotel, Moreton Bay Fig Tree on right 1910 |IRME1674

Moore’s new shop and warehouse on the corner of the high street and the road to the beach, proudly displaying its black swan badge, remains a visual symbol of this confident era.

At the same time, the district’s tourism industry began to develop on the back of holidaymakers coming by train from the Murchison goldfields and from the developing northern wheatbelt. Denison and the beach was their focus, although Dongarra was also acquiring a reputation as a pretty little ‘English’ country village, and as tourism grew it emphasised these twin attractions of nature and culture. The earliest commercial fishing began to supply the tourists, and the railway was also able to transport fish and crayfish to markets along the railway line and Perth. Denison entered a new phased as a seaside resort and fishing village.

Port Denison from Leander Point, with Mona Bartlett, 1908 | IRME1105

The Great War had a huge impact on the district, with about 20% of its young men killed and more maimed and wounded. The war memorial in Dongarra erected in 1919 (initially in the cemetery) records their names. After the war, with the loss of pre-war exuberance, it was the Irwinish women who came to the fore in the district as farmers and especially as businesspeople, operating many of the shops including the town’s first lingerie shop in Moore’s corner building.

The 1930s were troubled times. It was the Depression, and the prices farmers obtained for their produce plummeted. In 1933 the Irwin District returned a very strong vote in support of secession at the State referendum that year. In 1935 the flour mill closed, throwing its workers on hard times. Even so, the first motor garage opened in 1934, signalling the rise of the motor car (and a coming challenge to the railway), and in 1939 the garage began supplying 32 volt DC electric lighting to businesses and households in Dongarra. In Denison, local residents obtained a lease over the disused bond store next to the jetty and converted it into the Denison Hall, hosting summer shows and events for tourists and enhancing the town’s appeal as a resort. Lime sand mining had a short life south of Denison between 1937 and 1941.

Port Denison Lime Works produced 90% pure lime, c1940 | IRME0773-1

The Second World War saw the Irwin District close to the front lines after 1941 with a heavy Allied military presence, and local volunteers on duty to watch for suspicious aircraft and maritime activities. Local street and directional signs were removed, food was rationed, and local people contemplated becoming refugees in advance of an invading Japanese army. Parts of the Denison Jetty were destroyed to prevent its use in an enemy landing. One curious result was the official shortening of Dongarra’s name to Dongara in 1942. What did happen to that missing ‘r’?

With the end of the War, peace eventually brought prosperity to farmers and stimulated the development of crayfishing as American soldiers returned home with a taste for the local delicacy. During the 1950s crayfishing grew as both younger farmers and Italian, Portuguese and Scandinavian migrants bought boats and tried their hand, and the district’s population became both younger and more culturally diverse than ever. In 1959 the first crayfish processing plant was built at Dongara’s back beach (now Seapspray), and the name of Greek entrepreneur Michael G Kailis became synonymous with both crayfishing and Dongara. Connections between Dongara and the Abrolhos Islands greatly strengthened during this time, with a notable annual migration of fishers and their families every winter. The Irwin coast also became dotted with fisher hamlets inhabited by a cosmopolitan array of people. The discovery of oil and gas at Yardarino in 1964 brought mining to the district in a scale not previously seen, and which would grow in the future with mineral sands mining and other forms of gas extraction.

Yardarino exploration rig, 1964 |IRME1542

Amid all these changes, the district’s largest nature reserve, Beekeepers, was established in 1956, and the Irwin Districts Historical Society was formed in 1964. Local champions of Irwin’s natural and cultural heritage were now organised.

Dongara’s town hall burnt down in 1950, and a new town hall opened in 1953, remaining the district’s only example of an striped classical style building. The old Irwin Road Board District, which had contracted to its present boundaries by 1928, was re-born as the Shire of Irwin in 1961. The State Electricity Commission connected Dongara to the grid in 1969, and in 1972 a new (the third) school was opened in Dongara, followed in 1975 by a new Shire Council chamber and offices. The Shire Council, in recognition of Denison’s growing importance as a fishing harbour, renamed the town Port Denison in 1973. The shire’s first museum, and one of the earliest house museums in Western Australia, Russ Cottage, was opened in 1971 by Sir David Brand, premier and local MP, for the Irwin Districts Historical Society.

Major environmental changes in the district also became noticeable during this period with the clearing of extensive area of the sandplain for agriculture, and the construction of a town water supply scheme, opened in 1965, drawing upon the picturesque Allanooka swamp, once renowned for its displays of wild Geraldton Wax blossom in spring. A sign of the change was evident in 1971 when the highest ever recorded flooding of the Irwin River at Dongara forced the closure of the Dominican Ladies College, destroyed the historic birthplace of Sir David Brand and despoiled the newly-opened museum.

Russ Cottage flooded, 03/1971 | IRME0915-1

The Midland Railway Company, whose bus service had pioneered wildflower tourism, was taken over by the WA Government Railways in 1964, and within a decade the lovely old Dongara Railway Station was demolished. Loss as well as gain are equally part of Irwin’s story.

Dongara Railway Station demolished 1976 |IRME0752

Over the years, Dongara and Port Denison has been a popular holiday destination, greatly developed from its early beginnings in the Edwardian era. Tourism is now the largest employer in the shire with visitors coming all year round to enjoy the spring wildflowers, mild winter weather as well as the beautiful beaches. Crayfishing continues, but reduced in scale since its heyday, and mining exploration remains ceaseless. Meanwhile, new wind farms in the north of the shire bring glimpses of the industries of the future.

Mumbida Wind Farm, opened 2013 | © Bruce Baskerville

The Irwin Districts’ stories have continued to develop and change since the 1970s, and with the passage of time are moving into the realm of history. Writing them into our history books remains a continuing task for our local historians.

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