To celebrate the release of Westerly 62.1, we invite you all to take a look at this special glimpse into John Weller’s creative non-fiction piece, ‘Wellington Location 205’, which is featured in the upcoming issue.
John’s piece considers historical and familial connections to place through a series of reflections on the violent legacy of Peppermint Grove Farm near Waroona. This innovative exploration of the experience of sifting through history to create a story is an excellent example of the strong creative non-fiction writing emerging in the WA writing scene. John’s immersion in both artifactual evidence and family storytelling results in a piece that is both compelling and compassionate. Hope you enjoy!
A story, naturally.
‘That could be them right there…ask your father…’
Dad bites into his fish from his ‘senior’s special fish and chips’, which I imagine is probably shark. My gaze drifts across the gently moving water of Fremantle harbour. It’s always busy here—tourists. Yet, oddly enough, always relaxing. Dad finishes his shark and reaches for his coffee.
‘Anyway, those ruins; the story goes something like this… we went there in the fifties with a mine detector, but they’re designed for large pieces of metal, not small objects, so we had no luck. Still, I imagine there’s sovereigns buried under the old fig tree, or somewhere.’
‘Sovereigns? What are they made of?’
‘Gold. They are gold.’
By the time I arrived home that evening my mind was set. I’d been looking, and struggling, to find a topic for my project, but this had all the elements of a good story; this seemed perfect. For the next two weeks I immersed myself in history. I found, and read, every old article about anything and everything to do with the story. By the end of the fortnight, I knew it backwards.
All pretty straight forward really. The circumstantial evidence was so damning he was always going to hang. You didn’t need Conan Doyle’s main man to put the pieces together with this one. I spread my notes on the table. Fifty or so A4 pages. I grab a blank page, sit down and start thinking about what I’m going to write. I’m sitting, and thinking, for a while, for quite a while, for a very long time. I don’t know where to start, what to do. I have all this information, but no apparent story. Suddenly, the penny dropped—amongst these notes was a story, but, what was missing was my story. I placed the pen on the empty page. Time to go for a drive.
I have an old book, a dictionary. It was printed in 1909, I got it from Dad, and he from his. It’s large, heavy, and five inches thick. Inside it’s reddish-brown, morocco bound covers are over two thousand wafer-thin pages covered in very small print. Inside it’s reddish-brown covers is knowledge, vast knowledge. It must have taken Mr Webster a long, long time to create such a formidable book. It lives, and rests, in a plastic tub, and has done for over three years—untouched, unconsidered. Recently, I got it out—but not to check spelling. Recently, it’s had a purpose beyond that of a dictionary, a purpose beyond words.
On a whim, as I am prone to having, from time to time, I decided to visit the ruins. I got lost—or rather, I lost the ruins; they weren’t where I expected them to be. The young woman at the Preston Beach shop was very helpful, and very good at Googling on her phone the site I was looking for. She gave me directions, and in no time at all, I was in the completely wrong place looking at a modernish red brick house that had had its roof burnt off in the recent bushfire. I rang Dad, got directions, and found Peppermint Grove Farm.
In the clear, bright autumn sun you could see just how new this fence was from the glare reflecting off the wire and metal posts. This eight foot barrier, topped with three strands of barbed wire, looked like it hadn’t even been rained on yet. The ruins were only a metre inside the fence—the barrier. The barrier between me and the ruins. Between me and history. Perhaps, being close to the highway, the owners had tired of people stopping to look at the ruins, then wandering over to other nearby structures to see if there was anything else old and interesting to look at, or steal. Or perhaps, out of some form of endearing respect for the woman that was murdered there, they wanted to protect what was left from unnecessary damage and vandalism; and just let them settle to the earth in the grace of their own time.
With four lanes of relentless traffic twenty metres away, this was not, or no longer is, a place for quiet reflection or contemplation; but I tried, and stayed a while. As I was leaving, I noticed in the recently disturbed soil near the fence, a rusty piece of long, thin metal with a hole in one end. Perhaps a door catch, or a window prop from the old homestead. I picked it up—a memento. I kicked at another piece of partially buried metal. An eight inch square peg with a head, rusty but recognisable. I added a couple of pieces of coloured glass to my collection, and a piece of mortar, and a piece of limestone from the old walls just to round things out. I was all done and heading back to the car when I noticed one last thing. A small, perfectly round dull-coloured object. An old, slightly convex, brass alloy button. A couple of minutes later, I’m back on the highway heading south and home. On the passenger side floor across from me lie my little assortment of artefacts; and the button.
Exactly ten years after Leah Fouracre was shot and killed, my grandfather was also shot; but he lived. He was involved in that man-made hell—war. He was returned to England, and spent the remainder of the war training recruits. In 1919 when he returned to Australia, his wounded elbow had completely healed. Leah’s wound would never heal. The autopsy revealed that Leah’s fatal wound, had been inflicted by an exploding bullet that tore through her lungs and heart before exiting the front of her body as she was in the process of turning. A cold-blooded cowardly murder. It had to be that way. For this was a woman that lived alone on an isolated property. And it was common knowledge that she had great skill at marksmanship. It was common knowledge that this was a woman, who, if given a fair contest, was a woman capable of defending herself against any man.
Being mid autumn, the sky has the deeper blue hue than the harsher, lighter blue of summer. Recent rain has the paddocks beyond the ruins covered with a blanket of vibrant green grass. The large trees that gave the homestead its graceful ambience are gone. Now, only a handful of smaller trees remain, randomly scattered within the paddocks. You can easily see across to where the existing sheds and structures mingle and rust, semi-hidden, amongst a band of peppermint trees that run north and south. These trees are roughly two hundred metres from the ruins. So Leah’s immaculate veggie patch—or kitchen garden—and crop of barley for the calves, would have existed just before the trees. I picture it off in the distance. Then, I fill in the picture, little by little. I add the path that meandered from the house to the kitchen garden. Then the wattles that flanked the path, paying particular attention to having them sway in close to the path about halfway between the house and the garden. I put back all the large and stately fruit and native trees. I turn east and put back the stables, and the old well. Finally, I restore the post and rail fencing that surrounded the house and yards.
Leah lays the sickle down and scoops the barley into the hessian sack. She stands and starts making her way back. She is where the wattles swing in close to the path when she hears a noise behind her, she begins to turn, she hears the familiar loud ‘CRACK’ of her Martini Henri rifle, but this time, it is not she firing it, and it is probably one of the last sounds she hears. She falls to the ground, and her hat and bag of barley fall with her. Augustine de Kitchilan stands less than twenty feet away. He slowly lowers his aim, and starts to make plans, hasty plans.
I didn’t even know I had the photo. I’m getting the dictionary out, but on top of it there’s a pile of papers and large envelopes. I start going through them. They’re family related things Dad gave me; family trees, articles, photocopied documents, that kind of stuff. Then, as I’m turning through the stapled pages—a photo. Its clarity and sharpness is remarkable for a photo of that era—the caption dates it as ‘1922?’ It’s an image of my grandfather at Lake Clifton. He looks quite young; he was quite young. By my calculations—thirty-two. I can recognise myself in him. But his facial features aren’t as sharp as Dad’s or mine—Grandma probably had something to do with that. He is mounted on a particularly large, powerful looking horse. Even through the black and white photo, you can clearly see the exquisite sheen of the horse’s coat. It looks like a very healthy animal at the peak of its prime; both of them do.
the button—part two
Sometimes, out of nowhere, and out of chance, a connection occurs. I upload the photos, and start looking through them, back and forth. I figure the more I look at them, something missing in my story, my stalled story, will reveal itself, and give me direction, inspiration, an idea. I’m doing this for a while, maybe twenty minutes, maybe longer. Then, at one point, I click back one photo too many, and find myself looking at a grainy image of De Kitchilan from one of the old articles. I’d taken a close-up with the phone—added it to the other images connected with the story. He’s standing against a wall, the framing cuts him off at the upper thighs. I’ve been looking at the ruins long enough, so I just leave the image there and lean back.
Then, I notice it. His clothing is drab; featureless—a light coloured long-sleeve shirt, slightly darker trousers. But, on the trousers, there it is—a button. A button that becomes more and more noticeable the longer I look at the image, to the point, where it is all I see. The cogs go to work. Its size is similar, if not exact, to the button in my pantry—probably a rather generic clothing fastener back then. The cogs work a little harder. He’d left his blood-stained trousers at Fisher’s—his Sri Lankan friend—and borrowed another pair. Why? A boy staying at Fisher’s saw De Kitchilan get up during the night, wash his shirt and dry it before the fire. In one article there had been a ground plan of the homestead, showing the configuration of the eight rooms and their purpose. Why not wash the trousers too—wash the blood out? The cogs are approaching warp-speed, white sparks fly, and a localised magnetic field is being generated.
The button I found was within five metres of what was once Leah’s bedroom. The bedroom where De Kitchilan placed the body before ransacking the house and setting it alight. Why not wash the trousers? Unless? Maybe the button was missing. Maybe there was no spare button at Fisher’s to repair them. Or perhaps—for a man with a lot on his mind—replacement was the easier option than repair. So my button, my innocuous looking little object, could it be possibly something much more than that? Could this be the actual button, that somehow got caught in Leah’s clothes and broke away as he was carrying the body? Sometimes a whim pays off.
Even though De Kitchilan had a criminal record for larceny, and was capable of violence, it’s unlikely he murdered Leah for the petty cash and semi-valuable items he stole. It’s most likely he murdered her for the gold. Leah didn’t bank her money. Her brother, Robert, always paid her in gold sovereigns for what the farm produced, and it was estimated she had around two hundred sovereigns somewhere on the property. De Kitchilan must have heard about this, known about this. Maybe, when he broke the lock off Leah’s bedroom with an axe, and hurriedly searched the room, he was looking in the right place, but just not the right spot. Records show that part of the floor was not boarded. The gold may still lie under that earthen part of floor, which is now covered in rubble, and covered in time. Or, perhaps, it’s buried in the one place where recently disturbed soil would never arouse suspicion or interest—the kitchen garden. Or perhaps it’s somewhere else. Maybe it’s best not to know, to never know. Maybe, when a mystery loses its mystery, it also gives up its interest, becomes just another story—complete and ended, then fades into nothingness. Perhaps it’s best to let the gold lie, and let the story live.
This is an old story of people long since passed. People, who as they fade deeper into history, become mere characters, almost fictional. For the most part, I can no more sense their humanity, or essence as once living people than I can with any tragic figure from any tragic novel. For the most part. I came across one, and only one, piece of text that did put me in that time, where I did, and was able to, sense Leah as a living person, and feel the emotion surrounding her murder. It was written by a representative of the press, who accompanied the Police, the Coroner, Robert Fouracre, and members of the jury to Peppermint Grove Farm prior to the inquest at Pinjarrah:
Just as the two parties were preparing to leave, a very sad reminder of the present state of the home was brought forcibly before all present, by a number of cows coming along the roadway, and turning into the gateway near the house, all softly lowing, as if calling for the mistress they knew so well. (‘Waroona Murder’, 1907)
I have one vague, and snap-shot short memory of my other grandfather. An elderly man, with a somewhat stooped back, walking slowly up the driveway with my grandmother toward the house where I spent my earliest years.
I have no memory of Dad’s dad. He passed years before I was born. We never shared, or were part of the same world. And yet, I guess I can, and do, have a somewhat abstract relationship with him; through a connection and understanding of the country and time when he lived, through my dad—and his stories, through this story, and through, and because, of Leah.
Just over seventy years ago, my dad first visited Peppermint Grove Farm. He remembers his dad showing him the wooden dowel that held the window frames together. Recently, I was at Peppermint Grove Farm with my dad. He showed me a few things, told me a few things. There’s some nice symmetry here, but also something else. For I now know, albeit across time, that there is at least one place where I have shared a presence with not only my father, but with his as well. And that there is one place the three of us have in common. A place that connects me to history, to my history, and to my grandfather: Wellington Location 205.
|Leah Fouracre: Murdered in 1907 by Augustine de Kitchilan.||John Weller’s dictionary: printed in 1909.||Augustine de Kitchilan: convicted of the murder of Leah Fouracre and hanged at Fremantle Gaol in 1907.|
|John Weller’s Grandfather: Stanley John Weller at Lake Clifton in 1922.|
Stay tuned to the website and social media for further details on the release and launch of Westerly 62.1!
‘Waroona Murder.’ The Daily News. (August 21, 1907: 3). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘A Murder Trial. Day Three.’ The Daily News. (October 1, 1907: 3). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘A Murder Trial.’ The Daily News. (October 1, 1907: 4). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘A Waroona Tragedy. Was it a case of murder?’ Southern Times. (August 20, 1907: 5).. Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Death or Dungeon.’ The Daily News. (October 29, 1907: 9). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Execution of De Kitchilan.’ The Daily News. (October 29, 1907: 9). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
Hasluck, A. 1967. Early Days: Journal and proceedings, Vol. 6., Part. 6. Perth: Lamb Preston Pty Ltd.
‘Peppermint Farm Horror.’ Sunday Times. (August 25, 1907: 1). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Recollections of some Notable Criminals.’ The Daily News. (May 13, 1933: 21). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
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‘The Murder of Miss Fouracre at Peppermint Farm.’ Sunday Times. (September 1, 1907: 5). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘The Waroona Murder.’ The Daily News. (August 22, 1907: 3). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘The Waroona Murder.’ The Daily News. (October 23, 1907: 4). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘The Waroona Murder.’ The West Australian. (October 7, 1907: 7). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘The Waroona Tragedy.’ Kalgoorlie Miner. (October 7, 1907: 5). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘The Waroona Tragedy.’ Truth. (October 5, 1907: 8). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Waroona Murder.’ Sydney Morning Herald. (August 21, 1907: 3). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Waroona Murder.’ The Daily News. (August 21, 1907: 3). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
‘Woman’s Mysterious Death.’ Kalgoorlie Western Argus. (August 27, 1907: 26). Retrieved from: http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper.
John Weller left school early to work in the cray fishing industry for a decade, followed by a number of other physically demanding jobs; until the onset of ankolosing spondylitis. Several years after this point, he returned to study and thus writing. He will turn fifty in 2017.