The Society acknowledges the traditional owners of the Irwin Districts, their continuing connection to land, sea and community and pays its respects to elders and their cultures, past and present.

European Habitation of the Irwin Districts

European settlement in the Irwin is generally regarded to have occurred in 1851 when Lockier Burges selected the homestead site for “Irwin House” on a gentle slope near the river about 18 kilometers inland from the estuary1.

Irwin House (1890/91) IRME1883

Burges, in partnership with Edward Hamersley, S.P. Phillips and B. Urban Vigors made up the pastoral group called “The Cattle Company”. They were granted grazing leases over 60,000 acres (24,000 Ha) of land along the Irwin River and Greenough flats.

As the name suggested the company raised cattle and also sheep as source of meat and wool for the expanding colony, and with a keen eye on the contractual supply of these products to the commissariat2, particularly as convicts had commenced arriving in Fremantle in 18503.

The rearing of horses also became important as the need for work animals increased and an export trade was established to satisfy the requirements of the British Cavalry in India.

During the years 1852 and 1853 tillage surveys of land along the Irwin River were undertaken on behalf of “The Colonisation Assurance Corporation”4.

This private company had been formed in London with the express object to attract free settlers to the Western Australian Colony. Included in the survey was the layout of streets for the new town site of Dongara.

Efforts to improve communications, travel and the movement of goods became a focus of The Cattle Company who employed Edward Downes as a private harbourmaster5.

A small cottage was built on the south side of the estuary near the river mouth and in 1857 Edward and his wife Amelia took up residence and can be considered the first European residents of the Dongara-Denison town environs.

In 1859, John Smith took up the first of the tillage leases, Victoria Location 6886.

This was a 100 acre (40 Ha) site was situated on the south bank of estuary adjacent to Downes’ cottage. By 1865 Smith had built himself a cottage and in conjunction with John Maley, a two-storey stone flourmill was constructed on the riverbank7.

First Dongara flour mill located on the south bank of the Irwin River. Owned by J. Maley and J. Smith, c.1885 (IRME1559)

The remodelled buildings later became the home of the district’s first medical doctor, Dr George Bartlett8 who named it Denison House. The building was later owned by the New Norcia Benedictine Community and used as a retreat, but is now a community asset owned by the Shire of Irwin.

Dr Bartlett (3rd from left rear) and Mrs Mona Bartlett(4th from right, standing) entertaining members of the Scott, Waldeck and Delmage families at Denison House, c. 1890. (IRME0981)

In the period 1859 to 1865 most tillage leases along the Irwin River were taken up by the many settlers whose names are identified with the fledgling Irwin District. Names such as Brand, Clarkson, Cousins, Cook, Criddle, Ellery, Fane, Fitzgerald, Healey, Kearney, Mason, Morrissey, Nairn, Osborn, Pell, Pettit, Ridley, Rowland, Russ, Thurkle, Watson and the merchants such as Hosken, Moore, Pearse, Shenton and Waldeck along with the early schoolteachers, Cave, Clarke and Johnson.9

Governor Fitzgerald was petitioned in 1866 resulting in the establishment of the Irwin Arms10 in 1867 (now Dongara Hotel) by Thomas Walton, also the construction of a jetty 2810 feet (860metres) in length at Port Denison11.

A weekly overland mail delivery service commenced between Perth and Northampton in 1868 when Dongara resident William Osborn was awarded the contract12.

A successful tender in 1869 by Walton resulted in the construction of a police station, courthouse and gaol complex in 187013. This building is now the Irwin District Museum.

In January 17th 1871, the promulgation of the Roads Board Act saw the creation of the Irwin Roads Board which extended from the coast to the South Australian border.14

Coincidental with all of this activity the late 1860s and early 1870s saw a series of setbacks for the Irwin community, due to dry winters combined with crop losses from the fungus disease ‘rust’ in wheat and raging bush fires.

The 1872 Irwin River flood was of a dimension no one could have imagined. Mrs Eliza Moore, wife of a storekeeper, recalled the scene in her reminiscences “..anxiously watching the moonlight shining on a vast expanse of river, rushing furiously along, bearing haystacks, alive with wretched fowls, furniture, pigs and a regular jumble sale all being carried out to sea.”15

By the end of the 1870s times were improving and William Criddle (Jr.) built a second hotel the Dongara Hotel in 188116.

Opening of the Dongara Hotel, 01/07/1881 (IRME1377)
Dominican Convent, fmr Dongara Hotel c.1920 (IRME0126)

In 1901 it became the Dominican Convent and School, ironically closing in 1971 when the Irwin River flooded in full fury again. Presently the building is the Priory Lodge and Inn which on its opening day in 1985 was again inundated by floodwaters.

The district prospered in 1894 following the opening of the Midland Railway line connecting Perth to Geraldton with a station in Dongara and the Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill commenced operations17.

The Royal Steam Roller Flour Mill c.1923 (IRME1152)

During the 20th Century the district made its contribution as men and women participated in World War I, World War II, the Korean and Malaysian conflicts and the Vietnam War. Despite these tragic events, the quality of life improved with the provision of amenities such as telephone service, electricity and scheme water.

Agriculture continues to diversify in the district and the lobster (cray fishing) industry has grown along with oil, gas and mining contributing to the economics of the community.

Fishing boats at Port Denison c.1970 (IRME0324)
Yardarino gas field east of Dongara, supplied gas to Perth from 1964. (IRME1542)

Always a popular summer coastal town, Dongara and Port Denison continues to attract visitors and holidaymakers to enjoy this special part of Western Australia.

Port Denison Yacht Club races, c.1960. (IRME2151)
  1. Bain, M.A., Ancient Landmarks p.146
  2. ibid p. 146
  3. ibid p. 113
  4. ibid p. 104-107
  5. ibid p. 160
  6. Bain, M.A., Ancient Landmarks p. 172
  7. ibid p. 173
  8. ibid p. 403
  9. ibid p. 263
  10. Bain, M.A., Ancient Landmarks p. 303
  11. ibid p. 346, 347
  12. ibid p. 357
  13. ibid p. 358
  14. ibid p. 342
  15. ibid p. 389
  16. Bain, M.A., Ancient Landmarks p. 305
  17. ibid p. 404

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