You’ve just settled in a brand-new colony, set up a new mill and decide to go south on business. A sudden storm with a strong swell sends your tiny schooner to the seabed, where the only survivor of the shipwreck is the ship’s dog. As if cruel fate isn’t finished with you yet, the mill goes bankrupt and is sold to Satan.
I couldn’t write stranger fiction if I tried. The sad part is that it isn’t fiction at all – it’s the very true and tragic story of Mr William Shenton.
Some men are simply cursed – or maybe it’s the site they settled at.
The Sad (True) Story of Shenton and the Devonshire
William Kernot Shenton was born in the parish of St Thomas, Winchester in Hampshire, England in 1801.
At the age of 28, he decided to sign on to a group settlement scheme, under Colonel Peter Latour. There were a fair few of these arranged by wealthy English investors, who paid to bring people from England to settle Western Australia. Latour was promised a large grant of land for himself in Leschenault, Western Australia, while all his colonists were given smaller grants of land nearby. The total land area for him and his colonists was 100,000 acres – to be shared between less than sixty people. They were indentured colonists – indebted to Latour for their transport costs to get them to Australia. The usual arrangement for this was for the settlers to work off this debt through free or low-cost labour to Latour for a few years. After that, they were free landowners, with their own land and the knowledge of how to productively farm it.
Of course, none of them knew Western Australia very well – most had never seen the place. With completely different seasons, soils and far less rainfall, it’s no surprise many of these settlement schemes failed. Latour’s Leschenault colonists worked for him for less than a year before they were freed of their indentures, most likely because they’d been granted unproductive land – or at least, land that wasn’t as productive as it would be back in England.
Shenton signed on as an agriculturalist. He boarded the Lotus in Portsmouth, England in May 1829. Her hold contained everything he thought he’d need. When he arrived in Fremantle in October 1829, he signed a list of all the things he’d brought with him. A complete saw mill, iron work, wheels and vices, carpenter tools, a turning lathe, a boring machine, nails, screws, ironmongery, scales, mathematical drawing instruments, medicines, seeds, furniture, apparel, books, linen, guns, pistols, powder, shot and balls. He was a well-equipped man, Mr William Shenton.
After he was released from his indenture in 1830, he was granted a hundred acres of better land on the Helena River, near Guildford. Bored with the life of an agriculturalist, he started one of Western Australia’s first newspapers – the Western Australian Chronicle and Perth Gazette. He wrote the first nine issues in long hand, from 19 February 1831 to 19 April 1831, before he partnered with another colonist, Charles Macfaull, who had a hand-printing press. Together, they published The Fremantle Observer, Perth Gazette and Western Australian Journal – the first newspaper both printed and published in Western Australia.
It wasn’t long before Shenton was restless again. After only three issues, he left the paper in Macfaull’s capable hands and headed south to his land in Leschenault, to explore the Collie River.
When he returned to Perth, he was granted a lease of land at Point Belches – now known as Mill Point – to establish a flour mill in 1833.
Now, all this land was a government grant – but all of it had traditional owners who’d claimed it long before white settlers arrived. I’m referring to the local Aboriginal people. It was inevitable that there’d be conflict when both groups claimed ownership of the land – and they had different legal and justice systems, too.
As a result of conflict between the two groups, the original mill was burned to the ground in 1834. Between a failed settlement scheme, a Guildford land grant, a handwritten newspaper and now a burned down mill, Shenton had probably already decided Australia wasn’t the lucky country.
On the 24 November, 1841, he married Jessica Cameron. She was 28 – the same age he’d been when he arrived in Western Australia. Maybe his luck was starting to change.
On 1 June 1842 – exactly thirteen years after the day the Parmelia, the first immigration ship, arrived in Fremantle from England – Shenton climbed aboard the little schooner Devonshire in Fremantle, headed for his land in Leschenault. He was a passenger, not crew, but neither the ship, the storm nor the sea saw any difference.
The storm hit with gale force winds and a heavy swell, as the Devonshire sailed down the west side of Garden Island. Knowing what had happened to several other vessels on this stretch of water, the captain sought safety in the South Passage, between Garden Island and Cape Peron.
There was no sanctuary to be had for the Devonshire – at least, not on the surface. In the storm and the heavy seas, she sank – never to be seen again.
It was only eight years after the disappearance of the Cumberland in the very same waters and the newspapers hadn’t forgotten. Items started to wash up on the beaches around Mangles Bay and Shoalwater, followed by the body of the first mate, John Miller, on the north end of Garden Island. His body was buried on the island, but the newspapers of Perth still held out hope that maybe only the mate had been washed overboard, while the Devonshire continued on to Leschenault and took shelter there.
More items washed up on the beaches. An empty chest. The Captain’s clothes chest. A dinghy, two paddles and a bucket. Four garden chairs, a sail and three water casks. Then, four months later, candles.
The ship’s dog was found, wandering wild on Garden Island.
The dog was the only survivor of the Devonshire shipwreck – all six men aboard died, including William Shenton. He left Jessica a widow and she inherited the property known as Shenton’s Mill.
In 1879, an ex-convict who’d been transported for forgery, named Thomas Browne, otherwise known as Satan, investing all his money and borrowing a lot more to turn the mill and buildings into a hotel and dance hall. One of the first things he did was to take the blades off the windmill, but he also built a large veranda. He called the place “Alta Gardens” and the advertising described it as combining, “The attractions of rural pleasure and out-of-door amusements with hotel entertainment and home comforts.” People came, but not enough to cover his debts.
In 1881, deeply in debt and in prison waiting to be sentenced over some dodgy dealings to do with a land sale, he committed suicide – by taking strychnine. It took hours, his body going into fits and spasms, and was witnessed by a warder, a gaoler and the surgeon. What a horrible way to go.
After Satan failed to profit from his venture, the mill was used as a residence, wine saloon and poultry farm. I originally thought the birds were chickens, but photos of the site in 1900 show bigger, darker birds than chickens – large numbers of the native black swans. I don’t know about you, but my experience of black swans as a kid have taught me that they have a lot in common with winged demons.
The mill was acquired by the West Australian government in 1929. The veranda was removed and the mill was restored to as close to its original condition as possible. It’s a museum to early colonial life and is now owned by the City of South Perth – yes, Shenton’s Mill still stands, though William Shenton died over 150 years ago.
The Devonshire – and William Shenton’s body – have never been found.
Next week is the tale of a double tragedy – what do you do when there’s a storm so bad there are two shipwrecks, but you can only rescue the crew of one ship? How do you choose?