Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Trees that Outlived a Town

The Leaning Trees of Greenough have a tale to tell. They have outlived the town that grew up around them

This river redgum at the museum is over 800 years old. They grow this way because of the prevailing south westerly wind

One of many scattered abandoned buildings

They challenge me, these buildings that stand so proudly and defiantly with their sightless windows. They shout at me that some great tragedy has taken place here and that I should find out what it was.

What happened here I wonder? Was it a lack of water as in Coolgardie? Was it a natural disaster? Or a human failing? Was it fire? Pestilence or Drought? Did it happen all at once? Or was it a progressive insidious thing, a slow erosion, a loss of faith in the future, where people packed their things and left one by one? Why do these buildings stand so solid and yet so empty? Do they have some moral to teach us?

I am in what is left of Greenough (pronounced Grenuff) 24 kilometres south of Geralton. It started well enough and at one stage boasted a thousand souls. The explorer, Sir George Grey predicted that it would become the granary of Western Australia when he called by in 1839. Augustus Gregory coming in 1851 subdivided its flat lands into 20 and 30 acre lots to attract English settlers and soon after a thriving wheat growing district developed.

The Wesleyan Church, built by Convict labour in 1871

The Greenough Pioneer Museum - one of the few inhabited buildings

My first port of call is the Pioneer Museum, one of the few inhabited buildings in town and one of the more substantial ones. The building dates from 1862 and was home to the Maley family. There the proprietors tell me that the blocks were simply too small to provide a living and certainly no cushion against a bad season or other disasters.

According to Wikipaedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenough_Western Australia, there were plenty of those, “…starting with a major cyclone in 1872 then major flooding in 1888” which covered fifty square miles and was five metres deep in places. This was followed by the discovery of gold which led to the gradual abandonment of the town. “By the 1900 most of the settlers had left the area with many small farmlets converted to grazing.”

Another theory put forward in the the National Trust's Visitor’s Centre on the main highway, is that the advent of farm machinery which could not be operated economically on small farms, led to a reduction in the number of workers needed. I have no proof, but this is more likely to have been an effect, rather than a cause, as men rushed off to the goldfields. Gold was first discovered in Western Australia at Hall’s Creek in 1885, and then in Coolgardie in 1893 which rapidly became the third largest town in Western Australia. International Harvester did not start producing farm machinery in Australia until 1902 and is thus unlikely to have been a major factor until after that date. The flow –on from the International Harvester decision of 1907 – that all men (sic) should be entitled to a living wage, would certainly have added to farm costs and spelt the death knell for any marginal properties that still employed labour.

Part of the Hampton Arms, no longer on the main highway, but still going

What is the critical mass for a town? When does the last shopkeeper decide to board up his shop or a family decide to leave their home? When does the government decide to shut a school or stop services such as the Post Office or the Police Station?

Wikipedia says that the wheat industry was not very successful until the railways made transporting it to ports economical. That began in 1899 with the opening up of the Great Southern Railway. Greenough was not on the railway line. Once the wealth from the goldfields had gone, early in the twentieth century, Western Australia had to depend solely on wheat and wool and was plunged into dire economic straits when prices fell in the 20s and 30s. Not until migrants arrived in large numbers after World War II did it begin to recover (Wikipedia, History of Western Australia).

That was too late for Greenough. During the Great Depression, many of it’s fine buildings -including the second best hotel in Western Australia (which even had its own ballroom), were ground up to be used as road gravel, leaving only a few randomly spaced survivors – churches mostly, although the pub, The Hampton Arms, a quaint place offering teas, books and antiques, survives on a back road, cut off from the mainstream of traffic between Perth and Geralton.

Like the trees and despite the vicissitudes of life, Greenough struggles on. If you are passing do call in at the museum, the pub, the olive farm and the National Trust’s historical centre while you can.

Inside the Hampton Arms there are antique shops, old books and a little cafe

Friday, February 19, 2010

Amazing Grace

One of the magnificent Colleges at New Norcia

In a state as pragmatic as Western Australia which celebrates its heritage mainly in terms of former quarries, logging camps and abandoned mining towns, it’s doubly surprising to come upon a place like New Norcia, a little bit of Spain right there among the gum trees. It seems like a mirage rising out of the reddish - yellow countryside.

This fabulous collection of sixty nine buildings includes two colleges, a convent, several beautiful churches, the monastery and a hotel.

Begun as an aboriginal mission by Benedictine Monks in 1847, it is a remarkable monument not only to the faith of its founders, but also to humanitarian ideals incorporating not only religious beliefs, but practicality, fine architecture, art and education. It is also a poke in the eye to those who believe ‘man is an economic animal dedicated solely to the pursuit of self interest.’

The colleges were dedicated to helping Aboriginal people gain literacy and agricultural skills. The museum has a fine collection of artifacts from these times including an exquisite collection of scientific instruments, paintings and even gifts from the Queen of Spain.


High ceilings, thick walls and colonades provide relief from the intense inland heat
New Norcia is still a working monastery and a self sufficient farm which produces magnificent bread, olive oil, ales and wine. They also make an excellent pan chocolatti!

The Benedictines were always a hospitable lot. The hostelry serves their own wines and ales, fine bread, olives and cheeses.

For those in pursuit of more spiritual nourishment it is possible to join the monks in prayer at certain times or to go on spiritual retreats. There are also educational activities and guided tours. See their website for more details:

Happy 40th Birthday Hutt River Province!

I had my passport inspected and stamped and have just made my first international trip this year, all without even leaving the country. I have been on a pilgrimage to Hutt River Province, about 65 km north of Geralton in Western Australia, which will be 40 years old on the 21st of April, 2010. Over the weekend of the 24th and 25th of April, Hutt River will be a lively place with pipe bands and brass bands, knightings, bush dancing and rides for the children. It will also be Prince Leonard and Princess Shirley’s 63rd wedding anniversary.

Where's the castle? Typical outback working farm architecture is not what you would expect in a royal kingdom

Apart from the pretty new Chapel, the Government Offices and the souvenir store, Hutt River doesn’t look all that different to any other outback farm - a few run down buildings, a tractor or two, the sound of a generator humming in the background, except for the tour buses bringing in 40,000 visitors a year from all over the world. Obviously its charm lies not so much in its physical appearance, but in the remarkable story that it represents.

Government Offices and Post Office

The newly built chapel

Visitor from Dresden tries out the Royal Pew

Inside the chapel - the carpet has been salvalged from Buckingham Palace

Australians love their bad boys, their anti -heroes and those who dare to challenge authority. Perhaps it’s because so many of us are descended from rebels of various kinds, or because a good many of our forebears were brought here in chains, but I am sure there is a genetic disposition to cheer the underdog and cock - a -snook at those in charge. We still worship Ned Kelly and Peter Lalor of Eureka Stockade fame of course, but Prince Leonard is a hero from our own time, who not only dared to challenge the Federal Government but actually won.

It was 1969 when an argument about wheat quotas started it all. The Commonwealth Government, which guaranteed wheat prices, fearing a bumper crop, asked the state governments to impose quotas on the amounts to be planted.

Unfortunately, the Western Australian Government did not announce its quotas until October, after all the planting had been done. Leonard Casley, as he was then known, already had a thousand acres under wheat when he was told he could only have one hundred. Nor was there to be any compensation or appeal.

He was not about to take this lying down. As well as being a farmer for twenty years, he was a dashing man about town, owning property in Perth - eighty flats, some shops, and “a couple of mines.” He also wrote on mathematics and physics for NASA.

He took it upon himself to examine the Government records and discovered that the quota arrangements were only a proposed Bill, not yet an Act of Parliament. This was all the ammunition Leonard Casley needed to make an appeal to the Governor of Western Australia. However, this provoked a hostile response from the Western Australian government which then threatened to seize his land.

A search of Crown Law and titles revealed one tiny clause “That the government could not appropriate more than one twentieth of his holdings for any reason.” (I’ll bet they have since removed that clause!) and his claim for seccession was upheld by International law and appeal to the crown, though not, of course, without considerable obstruction from the governments of the day.

So on the twenty first day of April 1970, formal notice of seccession was duly served on the Western Australian Premier Sir David Brand, the State Governor, Sir Douglas Kendrew, the acting Prime Minister Mr John McEwen, and the Governor General of Australia, Sir Paul Hasluck," says the official website, and Hutt River Province became an independent legal entity no longer under Australian Jurisdiction.

The rest, as they say, is history. At first, law professors at prestigious Australian universities were adamant that the bid for seccession would fail, yet three years later, they were inviting Prince Leonard to address law students and lawyers. “It’s never just about the Law,” says Prince Leonard emphatically. “It’s about diplomacy, knowledge and politics.”

If you would like to read the full blow -by -blow account, and it is a great read, check out the official website at


History abounds at Hutt River – the tiny souvenir shop is crammed with photos and memorabilia of meetings and greetings, commemorative coins and international honours from France, Spain, Luxembourg and Monaco, yet Prince Leornard remains a humble and modest man. He could make a killing from tourism – a recent TV program in Germany sparked 300,000 hits on the Hutt River website, but he doesn’t charge entry fees and is always happy to oblige when it comes to photo ops. At most he might sell a few stamps or postcards or perhaps one of his beautifully presented commemorative coins but even then you feel it is about pride in showing you something special, rather than trying to sell you something. Princess Shirley tends to shun the limelight and we didn’t really get a chance to talk, though I have heard that there were times when she had grave doubts, especially when letters with the seal of the Governor General began to arrive.

Official Duties

Prince Leonard looks a little tired now. He says the trip to Sydney for the recent book launch about his exploits An Australian Monarch (by William Pitt), almost killed him and he has now turned to more spiritual pursuits – commissioning the paintings for the Chapel and turning his mathematical skills to pondering the formula of life. He has also founded his own college and is writing a book. He is pleased that so many the visitors these days are young people.

Among many beautiful paintings in the chapel, this one shows Prince Leonard's sons as seekers of truth on the Sea of Gallilee

Hutt River will live on in many ways, not the least through his children -four sons, two daughters, and 23 grandchildren and the two great grandchildren rumoured to be on the way. I 'm delighted to have met and been able to chat to a living legend and a truly remarkable character.

Long live Prince Leonard and his (long suffering) Royal Family!

Prince Leonard Forever