Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Canning, Alfred Wernam (1860–1936)

by John Slee

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Alfred Wernam Canning (1860-1936), surveyor, was born on 21 February 1860 at Campbellfield, Victoria, son of William Canning, farmer, and his wife Lucy, née Mason. Educated at Carlton College, Melbourne, Canning entered the survey branch of the New South Wales Lands Department as a cadet, and in January 1882 was appointed a licensed surveyor under the Real Property Act. He served at Bega in 1883-86, Cooma in 1887-89 and as a mining surveyor at Bathurst in 1890-92. On 17 April 1884 he had married Edith Maude Butcher in Mary Immaculate Roman Catholic Church at Waverley, Sydney; they had one son who died in 1923.

Canning joined the Western Australian Lands Department in 1893 and, in routine surveying in the south, soon proved himself a first-class bushman and reliable surveyor. About the turn of the century rabbits from the east were beginning to invade Western Australia and Canning was instructed to survey a route for a rabbit-proof fence. The line took him from Starvation Harbour on the south coast to Cape Keraudren, east of Port Hedland, through 1175 miles (1891 km). Said at the time to be the longest single survey in the world, it took him three years. On one bad stretch when a camel died, he had to walk 210 miles (338 km).

In 1906 the State government planned a stockroute to bring live cattle from the Kimberley district to feed the goldfields. David Carnegie, who had explored further east in 1897, had concluded that it was 'absolutely impracticable', but Canning proved it to be practicable. With 8 men, 23 camels and 2 horses, he left Day Dawn in May 1906, aiming to find water sufficient for stock every 15 miles (24 km) of the 925-mile (1487 km) route, and reached Halls Creek in January 1907 with the task successfully accomplished. On return to Perth he had to face the publication of charges by Blake, the expedition cook, that Aboriginals had been ill treated. A royal commission exonerated him in January 1908, although he had admitted chaining Aboriginals at night.

Canning's optimistic report to the government was accepted, and he organized a second, larger expedition, of 20 men, 62 camels, 2 horses, and 400 goats for milk and meat, to construct the necessary wells along the route. In temperatures varying from below freezing at night to blazing heat, Canning led his party with mild courtesy and resolute example. Calculating distances principally by his own unvarying pace, he would walk for hours, regardless of the weather. Much of the course included desert sand-ridges 50-60 feet (15-18 m) high, which had to be crossed every half-mile or so. He finished this herculean task in March 1910, then went to England, where he addressed the Royal Geographical Society.

In July 1912 Canning became district surveyor for Perth. He worked on the Land Repricing Board in 1915 and in 1917-22 was surveyor for the northern district. He resigned from the public service in 1923 and went into partnership with H. S. King as a contract surveyor.

In 1929, at the invitation of the government, Canning led a new expedition designed to reopen his old stock route, which had been virtually abandoned. Subordinates remembered how he walked the whole distance twice, leading the men to a well, then while the men were cleaning it, walking on fifteen miles (24 km) ahead to locate the next one. After this tremendous feat, he lived in retirement until he died of progressive muscular atrophy at his home in Perth on 22 May 1936. He was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Church of England rites. His estate was valued for probate at £1012.

Select Bibliography

  • D. W. Carnegie, Spinifex and Sand (Lond, 1898)
  • P. Hasluck, Black Australians (Melb, 1942)
  • E. P. Smith, The Beckoning West (Syd, 1966)
  • H. W. Talbot, ‘Geological observations …’, Western Australia Geological Survey Bulletin, 1910
  • Australian Surveyor, 1 Sept 1936, Mar 1970
  • Thomas Burke diary and proposed memorial leaflet, PR 288 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • interviews with survivors of the 1929 expedition.

Citation details

John Slee, 'Canning, Alfred Wernam (1860–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/canning-alfred-wernam-5499/text9355, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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