1842 - 1928







Emma Mary Withnell
Emma and John Withnell


The woman who was to become known as 'the mother of the north west' was born on the 19th of December 1842 to George Hancock and Sophie Gregory at Guildford.


By the time Emma was 16 the family owned a large farming property in the York district and a neighbour - John Withnell - asked for Emma's hand in marriage after the pair had got to know each other and found they were mutually attracted.


When John proposed to Emma she said to her father, who was against the marriage: 'When you have 7 daughters and they are all as plain as me, you should be grateful for an honest man, even if he is poor, to take one of them off your hands.'


John and Emma married on May 10th 1859 at York.


After trying to make John's farm pay and not really succeeding, Emma got word from her explorer cousin (Francis Gregory) of good land becoming available in the Pilbara region in the north west of the state. John and Emma decided to sell up and move north.


In 1864 they chartered the ship Sea Ripple and loaded their belongings and livestock for the long voyage to the De Grey River where they intended to look for suitable land.


Walter Padbury and Wellard had been the first to arrive in the area but they had both departed within five years and it was to be John and Emma Withnell and their relations who would stay to open up the area.


The Withnells had an uncomfortable and potentially deadly introduction to the north west when, on their near arrival at DeGrey, a violent storm drove their ship ashore on a high tide and it was damaged by rocks. Stock was unloaded and in the time it took to get the ship re-floated, many sheep had wandered off or had died from drinking salt water. When the ship was patched and re-floated it sailed back to Tien Tsin Harbour that was to become their home by accident. The Withnells lost around 150 sheep which was a huge blow.


William Shakespere Hall was near the landing when the Withnells arrived and wrote the following about their arrival:


'Withnell poor fellow, was all done in and the women and children were landed in the boiling heat without breakfast or a drop of water, the poor little children were crying for some.'


After finding fresh water upstream from Cossack on the Harding River they set about establishing Mount Welcome Station.


After the homestead was built and leases were approved, John started pearling operations at Nichol Bay to try and diversify and increase income.


Eventually when the townsite of Roebourne was surveyed it was found the Mt. Welcome Station buildings were in the middle of the proposed town so an allocation of land was made to the Withnells in the town site and more land granted to compensate for that which was lost to the town.


John started a ferry service from visiting ships to the new town but demand for this was infrequent so as the town grew he started up a butchers shop as well.


In 1867 the loss of the ship Emma (named after Emma Withnell) affected many in the north west badly and John and Emma lost money, produce and good friends when the ship went down. This tragedy was followed by droughts and cyclones, one that almost destroyed the town, and then to top off their misfortune Emma lost her younger sister and then received news that her father had died.


Emma's older sister also had her share of misfortune when one by one her children died and then her husband was also killed after a shipwreck.


Early life here was very tough and women often had to run the homestead on their own when the men were away tending to stock. Emma Withnell told the following story in her diary:


'After I had put my dear little ones to bed, I tried to read, but I could not settle down to my book. The dogs kept up a continual barking, and I thought that wild bush natives were camped nearby. Perhaps, I thought, they had seen my husband riding away that morning, and were planning to attack the homestead. Pulling aside the curtains to the kitchen window, I peered out. To my horror there was a black figure about a chain away from the house. I kept a rifle in the corner of the room, and I rushed over, seized and loaded it. Returning I opened the window, slipped the barrel of the rifle through and called out: 'Go away or I'll fire'. In the dim light the figure took on a menacing attitude, and appeared to move its head in a sinister way. 'Go away, go away,' I screamed again. Then I pressed the trigger. I knew I had hit the object, but it still remained upright. Seizing a hurricane lantern, I ran out to investigate. To my relief the 'wild bush native' about to attack us was a dress and hat I had hung to dry on the clothes line.'


In fact, far from having any problems with the local Aborigines, Emma Withnell befriended them and tended many when they fell ill. She became known as 'Medicine woman'.


Eventually Roebourne was no longer the quiet peaceful spot that the Withnells had moved to 15 years earlier. They decided it was time for a change and sold up Mt. Welcome and moved out to their other holdings on the Sherlock River. They settled in once more and stayed another 9 years before their sons were old enough to take over and they were able to retire to Perth in 1890 (One source says 1888).


After 10 years in retirement at Guildford, John died in 1898 and Emma moved out to Northam but still retained an interest in the north west when she purchased an interest in Karratha Station. She spent the next 30 years dividing her time between her home in Northam and the homes of her children in the north west and around Perth.


Emma was one of the first women in W.A. to be made a Justice of the Peace. While visiting one of her sons in Mt. Lawley, Emma died aged 86 in May 1928 and was buried in the Guildford cemetery. 9 of her 11 children survived her.


The Withnell name is remembered in the names of streets, parks and landmarks around the state.




1842 - Born December 19th.

1859 - Married John Withnell on May 10th.

1860 - Son George William born.

1862 - Son John Gregory born.

1864 - Son Robert De Witt Harding born.

1864 - Sailed aboard the Sea Ripple to the north west.

1867 - Daughter Emily Ellen born.

1869 - Son James Aubrey born.

1872 - Sons Ernest Willmott and Horace Willmott born.

1875 - Son Herbert George born.

1879 - Mt. Welcome station sold and Emma and John moved to Sherlock Station.

1880 - Daughter Grace Ellen born.

1882 - Son William John born.

1890 - Retired to Guildford.

1897 - Daughter Fanny Louisa born.

1898 - John Withnell died on May 15th.

1928 - Died on May 16th.


Links to more information:


Withnell, Emma Mary (1842-1928)

Withnell, Emma Mary (1842-1928).

Emma Withnell.




Become a supporter of this website for just $5 a month



Go to the Home Page Go to the Help Page Go to the Help Page

Western Australia Now and Then website - Copyright (c) 2019 - Marc Glasby. All rights reserved.