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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Withnell, Emma Mary (1842–1928)

by Douglas Sturkey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Emma Mary Withnell (1842-1928), pioneer, was born on 19 December 1842 at Guildford, Western Australia, daughter of George Hancock, farmer, and his wife Sophia, née Gregory. She was tutored on a farm near Beverley by her university-educated father and was later to do the same for her own eleven children. On 10 May 1859 at York she married John, son of William Withnell, a stonemason who had migrated in 1830.

Attracted by the discovery of good pastoral land in the north-west, Withnell sailed for Port Walcott in 1864 in the chartered Sea Ripple with Emma, two children and her sister Frances. All of their livestock except eighty-six sheep was lost when the ship ran aground. Camped at Nickol Bay, they lost more equipment but were saved from death by thirst by a settler. Wearing makeshift clogs of wood and sheep-skin, the family walked to the Harding River and settled near Mount Welcome where Emma soon bore her third child.

They first sheared in September but for the next few years they were forced by low prices to diversify. Leaving Emma to manage the station, Withnell went pearling and, after Roebourne was founded in 1866, he acquired a lighter to convey passengers and stores from the port to the settlement. With his wife's assistance he ran a butcher's shop, on the outskirts of Roebourne, but he lost financially when the Emma foundered in 1867. Bad droughts in 1870 and 1872 were followed by a cyclone which destroyed their home and killed much stock. In 1878 a fire destroyed most of the buildings on their property. Next year Withnell sold Mount Welcome station to R. J. Sholl and moved to Sherlock station; with Emma he retired to Guildford in 1890. Their sons retained substantial holdings in the north and one, James, found the gold-bearing stone which started the Pilbara goldfields in 1887.

Widely known as the 'Mother of the north-west', Emma looked after the sick, delivered babies and regularly conducted religious services in her home. The local Aboriginal people trusted and respected her; she nursed and vaccinated many in a smallpox epidemic in 1866. By family tradition, she and John were honoured by being made a 'Boorong' and a 'Banaker', which they believed enabled them to move freely amongst the tribes. With John absent for lengthy periods, she relied on the Aboriginal women at the station for company, domestic labour and help looking after her children.  

In 1868, however, John was sworn in as a special constable by Sholl, the resident magistrate, to punish Yaburara Aboriginal people in the Murujuga/Burrup Peninsula area about 50 miles west of Roebourne who had been accused of killing a police constable, William Griffis, his Aboriginal tracker and two white pearlers. Many Aboriginal people were subsequently killed in what became known as the Flying Foam massacre.  Islands in the Flying Foam passage, named for a schooner which plied between Fremantle and Roebourne, were part of the massacre site. John Withnell and the other expedition leader, Alexander McRae, were later thanked for their efforts by Sholl. But when two of the alleged killers of the policeman came into Roebourne in early 1869, Sholl took no action against them, declaring: “Personally I am in favour of an amnesty for these natives have received a severe lesson and much blood has been spilt.”

John Withnell died on 15 May 1898 leaving an estate valued for probate at £5895. Survived by nine of her eleven children, Emma died of cholecystitis on 16 May 1928 at Mount Lawley, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery at Guildford. Her portrait hangs in the 'Hall of Pioneers' in the Baandi rest house at the National Trust property at Mangowine. In 1961 the Country Women's Association erected a memorial of Nickol Bay stone on the site of her Roebourne home.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Richardson, Early Memories of the Great Nor'-West (Perth, 1914)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), The History of the North-West of Australia (Perth, 1915)
  • J. P. Stokes, The Western State (Perth, 1958)
  • E. Pownall, Mary of Maranoa (Syd, 1959)
  • V. H. Ferguson, ‘The late Mrs John Withnell’, JRWAHS, 1 (1928)
  • Perth Gazette, 7 Mar, 6 May 1864
  • West Australian, 18, 19 May 1898, 10, 19 Aug 1961, 11 Dec 1965
  • Western Mail, 24 May 1928
  • Richardson papers and R. J. Sholl journal, 1866 (State Library of Western Australia).

Additional Resources

  • profile, Daily News (Perth), 5 July 1928, p 11

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Douglas Sturkey, 'Withnell, Emma Mary (1842–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/withnell-emma-mary-4880/text8163, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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