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.

Sikh Heritage of Dongara – Part 1 Heritage Sites

THIS INFORMATION WAS COMPILED BY DR. BRUCE BASKERVILLE
FOR THE DONGARA SIKH HISTORY OPEN DAY 1 October 2022

ਡੋਂਗਰਾ ਸ ਿੱਖ ਇਸਿਹਾ  1 ਅਕਿੂਬਰ 2022 ਨੂੰੂ ਖਿੱਲ੍ ਾਹ ਸਿਨ
ਸ ਿੱਚ ਸ ਿੱਖ ਸ ਰਾ ਿੀ ਥਾਨਾਂ ਾ ਿੇ ਟੂਰ ਗਾਈਡ ਪੋਰਟ ਡੇਸਨ ੋਨ, ਡੋਂਗਰਾ ਅਿੇ ਈ ਟ ਐਡਂ , ਕਾ ਇਰਸ ਨ, ਪਿੱਛਮੀ ਆ ਟਰੇਲ੍ੀਆ]

INTRODUCTION

Sojan Singh was a remarkable man.  A man who deserves to be remembered.  He was a leader in his communities in Western Australia and the Irwin district.  Dongara’s Sikh heritage, and the Sikh heritage of Dongara, can be seen and explored through the life of Sojan Singh and his family, both through the video created by Sandpiper Entertaiment for the WA Museum, Boola Bardip  and this tour guide which have taken Sojan’s story as a pathway into a history that can be shared between all Western Australians.

Part One charts a route through eight sites with Sikh heritage around the towns of Dongara and Port Denison in the Shire of Irwin.  The sites are not in chronological order, but each site illustrates an aspect of the lives of Sojan and Dongara’s Sikhs.

Part Two explores some of the historical themes in Dongara’s Sikh heritage.  It provides bigger contexts for the local events at each of the sites.

Part Three lists all the individual Sikhs and Sikh families identified in the Irwin district between the 1900s and the 1950s.  There are some smaller lists such as known cremations.  These lists provide some fine personal details of each person mentioned in the site and thematic histories.

The information was all correct at the time of preparing this guide, but as further research is undertaken, correcting errors and inaccuracies will probably be needed.  Comments and corrections will be happily received by the Irwin Districts Historical Society at PO Box 347, Dongara 6525 or idhs@midwest.com.au.

This guide was researched and written by Dr. Bruce Baskerville and Shirley Scotter and reviewed by Graham Grundy and Julie Nunn.

Dongara

29 September 2022

Part One: THE TOUR ਗਾਈਡ

1. Port Denison – Sojan’s beach house site, 68 Point Leander Drive

Singh’s Beach cottage, later Sweetman’s, later Benkinsop’s, 1972 | IRME0678

Sojan Singh owned or leased a cottage on the Denison waterfront that during the 1910s he advertised in newspapers circulating in the Murchison Goldfields as a holiday rental.  Denison was a popular summer resort from the heat of the goldfields, and Sojan’s advertisements would have been very appealing with the presence of cool fresh rainwater in the tanks, and a carriage service he offered from the railway station to the cottage and back again.  The cottage was demolished in 2002.

2. Port Denison – Sojan’s land, cnr John Street, 119 Point Leander Drive

Plan showing Sojan’s Denison Town Lot 144.  Dongara is north (top),  Denison is south (bottom) and the Indian Ocean is east (left).

Source: Plan of Denison Townsite 1894: SROWA Cons 5698 item 0513

Sojan Singh’s will of 1920 listed a sandy block of land, Denison Town Lot 144, on the corner of Point Leander Drive and John Street as part of his estate. The block was not developed during his lifetime, and passed to Grace Sojan.  It remained in her ownership until her death.  John Street (which lead over the sand ridge to the beach) was never a properly formed road, and was closed and de-gazetted in the 1990s.  The land is now the site of the eastern section of the Port Denison Retirement Village, the first stage of which opened in 2004.

3. Dongara bridge – Mrs Sojan’s house site, off Point Leander Drive

The precise site of the cottage known as ‘Mrs Sojan’s’ cottage is not certain, but it was one of several small stone cottages that were built in the 1860s and 70s on the river flat between the present Dongara Bridge (1889/1964), and the older river ford further east known as Moore’s Crossing.  The south bank between the crossing and the bridge, along St Dominic’s Road, was cultivated by Chinese and Sikh market gardeners during the early 20th century until converted into the Priory gardens and sports fields in the 1920s.  It is likely the cottage was on or in the vicinity of these gardens.

Grace Sojan retired to live in Perth sometime in the mid-1930s, and she was living in Leederville when she died in 1938 aged 60.  Sometime between her husband’s death in 1920 and the acquisition of the Dongara stores and residence by Rur Singh, Grace and her children moved to live in the river side cottage.  In June 1945, seven years after Grace’s death, a large flood severely damaged the cottage and it is likely that it was demolished sometime after that inundation.  Although Grace had been dead for some years, the cottage was still clearly associated with her presence and the Sojan Singh name by the local community.  Flooding has now destroyed all of the old cottages that once sat along the south bank of the river, the last one being lost in the flood of 1971.

Mrs Sojan’s cottage, showing the severe damage from the 1945 flood.  The Catholic Church of the Holy Family (1907-1980) is on the horizon to the left.  | IRME 2835

4. Dongara – Old Police Station (Museum), 5 Waldeck Street

The Old Police Station and Courthouse (now the Irwin Districts Museum) was built in 1871, and was the chief administrative facility in the town well into the mid-20th century.  Apart from their policing duties, police officers also registered births, deaths and marriages, conducted censuses, and undertook many other public service roles.  The building played a key role in the lives of many Dongara Sikhs.

The corner room with large double doors was the courtroom, where the local bench of magistrates heard and ruled on various lower-level criminal and civil cases.  A number of the Dongara Sikhs had some familiarity with the court for two main reasons.  One was recovering debts from local people who had failed to pay their store accounts.  Some examples of such cases include Goodya Singh suing Rur Singh for repayment of £7 loan, Rur counter-sued for £2, in April 1907 (loan to be re-paid + costs, Rur’s claimed dismissed); George Knowler suing Sojan Singh for £3 for damages to his garden caused by Sojan’s cow in August 1907 (magistrate awarded 5 shillings as sufficient); Sarner Singh, supported by Attra Singh, suing Buta Singh for a £12 debt in July 1909 (Sarner to be repaid at £1 per month); Sojan Singh suing Mr Gordon for a £7 dishonoured cheque in December 1909 (Gordon to pay + costs).  There are many other such cases, and they illustrate ways in which the Sikh community was able to use the legal system to manage and settle civil disputes among itself and with the broader community.  The other reason involved civil or police cases brought against men who had been fighting: see ‘Sikh martial practices and traditions in Dongara’ (pages 19-20).

The other significant space in this complex is the cells in the long west wing.  Three of the original cells survive today (the large native cell and exercise yard were demolished in 1956).  Anyone arrested by police was locked-up in the cells until a magistrate heard their case.  The most tragic story relates to the lonely death of Sojan Singh in a cell on the night of 8 November 1920.  Earlier that afternoon Grace Sojan had called the police as her husband was ‘acting strangely’, hallucinating and sweating after drinking heavily and suffering from influenza.  The police took him to the lock-up about 10pm and placed him in a cell.  About ten minutes later they checked on him and found him dead on the cell floor.  Sojan had fashioned a rope from his shirt sleeves and pants legs and apparently strangled himself.  At an inquest in the court room the next morning the doctor deposed that it was quite possible to cause death by self-strangulation in less than a minute, and then revealed that he had been treating Sojan for ‘alcoholism’ and violent hallucinations for some months.  The jury found that Sojan had came to his death by his own hand whilst temporarily of unsound mind owing to excessive drinking, and we find that no blame is attachable to anyone”.  He was buried the next morning in the Catholic cemetery.  

Newspaper reports of the time describe Sojan as a well-known businessman in Dongarra … steady in his habits.  Only months before he had expanded his store, business was doing well, and there seemed no indication of what was to come.  Sojan Singh’s death remains something of a mystery, despite the tidy finding of the inquest.  The bereavement notices in the papers speak of the family’s loss of a dearly beloved husband, fond father and loving brother.  Sojan’s untimely passing was deeply felt. 

5. Dongara – Old Catholic Presbytery, 6 Criddle Road

This building, now largely hidden behind more recent housing, was built about 1884 as a presbytery for the local Catholic priest.  It also served as the Catholic place of worship until 1905 when the Church of the Holy Family was built adjacent to the Dominican Priory.  It was here that Sojan Singh and Grace Maddison were married by the Reverend Father Ryan on Sunday 25 October 1903 (St Crispin’s Day).  Press reports of the wedding, the first in WA between a Sikh man and European woman, were derogatory and racist.  The press report in the Geraldton Advertiser, a well-known supporter of the Murchison mining fraternity, was derogatory but also unwittingly revealed the extent of local support in Dongara for the couple.  In the absence of her father, the bride was given away by Tom Reynolds, local tinsmith, photographer and artist, with Mr Cubb as ‘bridesmaid’ and Miss Knowles as ‘best man’, an inversion of roles intended to ridicule the ceremony.  The wedding was attended by a large local crowd.  Despite the press coverage, local people warmed to the couple and they became popular guests at local weddings, with silk their signature wedding gift.

The old presbytery is now a private home and is not open to the public.

A. East End – Rur Singh’s store, 30196 Brand Highway

After Rur Singh retired to Perth in 1947 the property was sold to Fred and Nellie Windsor in 1950, returning again to be used as a residence.  It passed to Tardun farmer Dorothy Fabling in 1953 who kept it as a holiday house until 1962 when much of the building was severely damaged in a fire.  The Store was acquired by John Rowland and Graham Grundy in 1990 and restored to its original state, partly based on the memories of Gertie Rowland from Rur Singh’s time.  In 1996 the complex received a Civic Design Award for heritage restoration.  It was sold in 2011 to investor Charles Nilson and left vacant and was recently acquired (2022) by philanthropist Frank Tomasi who is undertaking maintenance and renewal works.  

Rur Singh’s East End Store, and Sojan’s first rented store (now the former newsagency building) are the only surviving Sikh commercial buildings in the Shire.

6. Tyford – Attra Singh’s market garden, 30386 Brand Highway

Attra Singh and Mat Kaur, 1890s

SROWA: S59-Cons3458 1923/103

Little is yet known of the site of Attra Singh’s gardens.  When his wife Mat Kaur gave birth to a still-born daughter in 1907 the birth took place at Edward Clarkson’s property, ‘Tyford’.  The ‘Tyford’ estate at that time occupied the south-eastern corner of the Dongara Flat, an extensive and very fertile plain that had been farmed for wheat since the 1860s.  It also extended across the river to adjoin another Clarkson property, Spring Farm (now Springfield).  Clarkson was well known for his produce, not only in wheat and sheep but his vegetable gardens and fruit orchards that were around the main house and riverbanks.  There was a ford known as Moore’s Crossing just east of Tyford, opposite the Moorland estate, that connected with Spring Farm and the road running past the Priory to the Dongara Bridge (now St Dominic’s Road).  It is likely that Attra Singh was either employed by Clarkson as a gardener or leased some of Clarkson’s riverside land and operated his own gardens on the south bank.  Some old pomegranate trees, date palms, olive trees, agave clumps, pepper trees and water tank ruins on the south bank in this area may mark the gardens site.  Further westward along the river Robert Russ also operated a large market garden and Carob grove around the same time beside Russ Cottage (now a museum) and sent produce to the Kalgoorlie goldfields by train.  Attra Singh’s produce might also have been sent to the Perth and goldfields markets, as well as selling through Sojan Singh’s store and hawker’s cart.  As with Mrs Sojan’s Cottage (see site 3), the periodic flooding of the riverbanks has removed any easily identifiable evidence of the former gardens.                         

It is notable that Attra Singh was accompanied by his wife Mat Kaur, who is the only known Singh woman to have landed in WA before the 1950s, and several children.  Mat Kaur gave birth to a still-born daughter on Clarkson’s ‘Tyford’ estate on 8 September 1907, and the child was buried on 9 September on the property.  The grave was not marked, and its location is unknown.

By 1908 Attra Singh and his family were living in Fitzgerald Street Geraldton where a still-born son was born and buried in the Urch Street Cemetery.  Attra retained business interests around Dongara for some time, and in 1908 he advertised a £1 reward for a grey spring cart horse lost near Dongara.  The family later lived at Nabawa in the Chapman Valley where they continued to operate a garden and also a store, and travelled between WA, Singapore and India on several occasions.

7. Dongara – Sojan and Rur Singh’s Stores, 29-31 Moreton Terrace

Sojan Singh established a store almost as soon as he arrived in Dongara.  He rented premises for 30 shillings per month from Edward Clarkson of ‘Tyford’.  The store was a small newly-built shop in Irwin Road (Moreton Terrace), on the Hepburn Street corner, opposite Cohen’s new store (see ‘Sikh settlement in Dongara’, page 14).  The rented shop opened in November 1901 and operated until 1906.  Sojan purchased several adjoining town blocks (Lot 73) facing Irwin Road and built a new store of brick and stone with an iron roof and a residence at the back, opening in 1907.  A Sikh store operated here for the next forty years until 1947.  The store was initially run by Sojan and Grace Singh, and then after Sojan’s death in 1920 the operation eventually passed to Rur Singh.  Ownership of the property passed to Grace, then to Rur and later partly to Grace and Sojan’s son Roy, before being sold in 1949.  On the east side of the store, Pola Singh built a stone store in 1930 on Lot 72, which he leased to Reuben Plester who operated a general store there until his death in 1941.  This property also passed to Rur Singh after Pola’s death in 1934.  Lots 71 and 74 behind the stores, facing Smith Street, were also owned by Sojan Singh and he seems to have kept horses and other stock there.  

Advertising for Sojan’s store shows he dealt in groceries, including butter, boots, shoes, drapery and imported Indian silks and fancy goods.  He also bought and retailed fruit and vegetables from Clarkson’s orchards and gardens.  Sometimes he advertised ‘Silks a Specialty’, and older Dongara residents remember buying colourful fabrics and other clothing materials and draperies from the store.  Sojan continued to improve his store, adding acetylene lighting in 1909, which was considered very modern at the time, in 1910 he enlarged the shop building (“a sign of increasing business” reported the newspaper), and in 1913 he again expanded the store, and built a verandah over the footpath.  In

1920 a gallon licence (something like a bottle shop licence today) was added to the store. After

Sojan’s death, Grace transferred the gallon licence in 1921 to Charles Smith for his store in Yandanooka.  Rur Singh bought the Dongara premises for £695 ($58,000 in 2021 values), and took over the store operations, expanding the business in 1925 with a new gallon licence, as well as continuing the drapery and silk lines and adding crockery, patent medicines and kitchen wares.  

Geraldton Guardian 20 August 1907

IRME0643

However, Rur was aging, and after Pola’s death in 1934, and the effects of the Great Depression, including unpaid accounts, he began looking to either lease or sell up.  The main business became the gallon licence, and Rur’s big advantage over the hotel for the liquor trade was offering home deliveries with his Ford truck.  In 1937 the truck was in a serious accident, which affected Rur’s health.

In 1940 the renewal of his gallon licence was refused by the Liquor Board owing to his ongoing illness, unreliable trading hours and poor shop cleanliness, and in 1941
Rur was forced to liquidate much of his stock to pay debts owing to wholesalers Burns Philp. Reuben Plester also died in 1941, depriving Rur of a rental stream, and he retired to East End in 1942.

Left: Rur Singh’s Ford truck Cemetery Hill, 9 May 1937 IRME0739

After 1949 Sojan’s old store was divided into a butchery (Fawcett’s, later Norrish’s) and a pharmacy (Porteous’s).  Pola’s store was sold to the Country Women’s Association (CWA) in 1948 after which it became the CWA Rest Rooms for the next 40 years.  All of the buildings and their associated infrastructure such as sheds, tanks, wells and trees were demolished in 1989 by a property developer who built the present ‘Batavia Boulevarde’ complex on the site.  The Historical Society lobbied the developer with a proposal to retain some of the historic buildings as part of the new development, but to no avail.  With the demolition, the physical evidence of Dongara’s little ‘Sikh Quarter’ was swept away.

B. Dongara Cemetery, cnr. Church Street and Dodd Street

Francis Sojan Singh, who died tragically at Dongara Police Station on 8 November 1920 was buried in the Catholic section on 10 November 1920 by the Reverend Scanlon.  The grave site is at the west end of the cemetery, and for reasons not yet clear, is aligned north-south, unlike the east-west alignment of all other graves in the cemetery.  The grave is marked by simple concrete kerbing and a small marble Greek Cross-style headstone engraved In/Loving Memory/of/Francis Sojan Singh/who died/8th November 1920/aged 52 years/Non. Com. Indian Army/RIP. The headstone style is the same as that used to mark the graves of the Sisters at the Dominican Priory.  Eighteen months after the burial, Sojan’s body was exhumed from the grave and cremated, still in the coffin, on a pyre in the cemetery grounds.[1]  

The cremation on 31 May 1922 was reported in the Geraldton press:

A most unusual ceremony was performed at Dongarra on Wednesday, 31st May. The dead body of Sagan Singh (known as Sojan Singh) late storekeeper of Dongarra, who died on the 8th of November, 1920, was cremated according to the Indian (Sikh) custom.  The cremation took place in the presence of the public and the ceremony was carried out by the following countrymen of the deceased: Polo Singh, Tomal Singh, and Surchia Singh (Geraldton Guardian 3 June 1922).

The pyre was probably close to the grave site, which no longer holds any human remains.  However, it survives as the only tangible monument to Dongara’s Sikh history.

The sandhills land between the west end of the cemetery and the Back Beach (Seaspray) (Dongara Town Lots 11 and 12), known as Cemetery Hill, was part of Sojan Singh’s estate at the time of his death.


[1] ‘An Indian’s Funeral’, West Australian, 19 July 1929

C. Whale Point cremation site (Seaspray Beach, off Church Street)

Seaspray Beach was formerly called Back Beach, Town Beach or North Beach, and two cremations took place here on Whale Point, the first sandy promontory north of the car park area.  The placename recalls the vertebrae and other bones of a whale that littered the point for many years.  The first cremation was that of Easa Singh, who was cremated 15 February 1909 at Whale Point.  

The body was taken to the beach in a rough coffin and placed on a pile of wood. More wood was built up round and over the coffin, and afterwards set fire to. The fire was started about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, any by sundown there was not much left to be seen. Sojan Singh had the matter in hand, and was assisted by his brother, Palar Singh, Busann Singh and Chatta Singh. Deceased’s friends will take up the bones and ashes and place them in a bag with sacred stones and deposit them in the sea. The burial ceremony will then be complete (Geraldton Guardian 18 February 1909).

The second cremation here took place fifteen years later when the body of Toman (Tomal) Singh was cremated 5 March 1924 at Whale Point.  The rituals were performed by K. Singh, and witnessed by Rur Singh and Walter Russ.

8. Seven Mile Beach cremation site (Brand Highway, 12 km north of Dongara)

Dongara’s fourth cremation was of Sojan’s brother Pola Singh, who was cremated 28 April 1934 in the vicinity of the isolated fishing spot called Seven Mile Beach west of Nhargo.  The ritual was performed by Rur Singh and Guy Sojan.

A picturesque old Indian hawker, named Pola Singh, widely-known because of his caravan travels in the north of this State, died recently at Dongarra, at the age of about 90 years, and in accordance with Indian custom his remains were cremated.  A relative, Rur Singh, carried out the funeral rites at Nhargo, a thickly wooded district eight miles from Dongarra. Rur Singh cast some of the ashes into the sea, but enclosed the remainder in an urn and sent them to Pola Singh’s relatives in India (West Australian 26 June 1934)

Rur Singh retired to Leederville in 1947, and later to the Sunset Old Men’s Home in Nedlands where he died on 24 July 1949.  His body was cremated at the Karrakatta Crematorium Chapel on 27 July 1949.

Left: A ‘picturesque’ Pola Singh cradles one of his great-nieces or nephews in the garden of the store residence, Irwin Road, c1930. SAWA

Continue to Part 2…….

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