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JOHN SEPTIMUS ROE

1797 - 1878

 

 

 

As one of the early explorers, J.S. Roe was responsible for naming many towns and features in W.A. You will see his name mentioned many times in this guide. We think it is fitting that we include a quick biography of the man who was responsible for so many discoveries.

He was born in Berkshire (England) on May 8th 1797 the 7th son of Rev. James (Jas) Roe and Sophia Brookes. He came from a poor but respectable family and was educated at Christ's Hospital School that was known as a rather harsh place.

 

During his time at this school Roe almost made a decision to change from a mathematical and navigational education to a more arts based stream but his father would not hear of it and so young John was set on a course that would lead him eventually to the other side of the world.

 

Roe joined the Royal Navy in May 1813 and was a midshipman aboard the HMS Rippon. He served on the Rippon during the Napoleonic wars and saw action several times.

 

Next he served aboard HMS Horatio first on convoy duty and then surveying. During the survey the ship struck rocks and was almost lost but Roe seems to have had a charmed life and this was the first of a number of lucky escapes he had over the years.

 

He then sailed for China (July 1815), going via the Cape of Good Hope and returned to England in January 1817.

 

Roe was now made Master's Mate and he boarded the ship Dick and travelled to NSW joining the surveying service where he served with  Philip Parker King. After a time in Sydney (when Roe almost drowned in a boating accident) the expedition was provided with the ship Mermaid on which they set sail on December 21 1817. Travelling down the N.S.W. coast they then went west through Bass Strait to the west coast where they dropped anchor at King George Sound. During his stay in that area Roe travelled around Oyster Harbour crossing the King and Kalgan Rivers where once again his luck held and he just avoided drowning again.

 

The survey moved on up the west coast to the North West Cape and then turned east along the north of Australia and through the Torres Straits. On returning to Sydney Roe surveyed the Derwent River before re-joining King and sailing north for more survey work. This survey was cut short and the ship returned to Sydney before returning north to complete the work. It was during this trip that Roe was attacked by a group of Aborigines and again escaped more by good luck than anything else.

 

The Mermaid was by now in need of major repairs and was beached at what became known as Careening Bay. After being patched up they sailed back to Sydney and were almost lost in a storm. On arrival the Mermaid was pronounced unfit for sea duty and the survey transferred to the Bathurst.

 

In May 1821 they sailed once again for the west coast and it was during this voyage that Roe slipped and fell 50 feet from the head of the mast and escaped death only because some temporary planks had been placed in a position to break his fall. The survey went as far as Roebuck Bay before sailing to Mauritius and then returning south to King George Sound and finally back top the east coast again.

 

In 1823 Roe was promoted to Lieutenant and during the stop off in Sydney he surveyed the harbour where once again he was involved in an accident on the water where his boat overturned and 4 sailors drowned. Fate smiled on him yet again and he survived after making it to shore with the rest of the crew.

 

After a refit the Bathurst and Roe set sail for England on May 10th 1823. In 1824 he joined the HMS Tamar under Captain James Gordon Bremer. In September 1824 with the ships Countess of Harcourt and Lady Nelson a group of settlers were taken to Melville Island where the ill fated Fort Dundas was established. With the settlers dropped off and left to their fate the Tamar sailed for Bombay and more survey work.

 

After returning to England, Roe met James Stirling and was soon asked to join the expedition taking settlers to the Swan River Colony. Initially Roe and Stirling did not get on well personally but eventually they went on to work very well together. Roe received his appointment in writing before even Stirling and was the first official appointee to the new colony. He was initially given 2 years leave from the navy but this later extended out to 40 years!

 

Before leaving England Roe married Matilda Bennett who would follow him to the new colony and bear him 12 children in all.

 

Roe arrived in WA in 1829 as Surveyor General - a post that he was initially meant to fill for just two years. 40 years later with at least 16 major (and many minor) explorations completed, Roe had traveled the length and breadth of the state. He is one of the most inspirational of our early explorers only retiring in 1871.

 

John and Matilda with two of their daughters

 

Roe's initial work in W.A. was almost impossible. With just one 'sickly' assistant surveyor he was expected to lay out town sites in Perth and Fremantle while at the same time survey properties for all the settlers who had made claims for land grants. Inevitably mistakes were made and for very many years afterwards Roe was involved in protracted boundary disputes between land owners.

 

Apart from being Surveyor General, Roe served as a Magistrate, a member of the Legislative Council, a Director of the Western Australian Bank, a member of the Board of Surveys, president of the Swan River Mechanics' Institute, a committee member investigating the establishment of a railway east of Perth, a member of a board designating the responsibilities of Harbour Masters, as Registrar of Brands and as Commissioner of Roads and Bridges.

 

By 1859 Roe wanted a break (little wonder) and he applied for 18 months leave during which he took his wife and three youngest children back to England where he visited friends and relatives and even paid a long visit to James Stirling. The family returned to W.A. in September 1861. Roe did not enjoy the voyage home and wrote of it being 'a most protracted and disagreeable passage.'

 

Roe was a member of the party of settlers who took part in the Battle of Pinjarra' but he refused to fire on the group of Aborigines himself.

 

Matilda died in 1870 and Roe was bereft. He never really recovered from her loss although he was to formally retire in the following year year and lived a further seven years his health gradually deteriorated and he became frail and infirm.

 

He died on May 28th 1878 having raised no less than 12 (one source says 13) children with his wife Matilda.

 

Roe has been accused (by some historians) of 'feathering his own nest' by making sure his properties were selected and surveyed before others. He has also been accused of being an autocrat, a member of the social elite who wanted the landed gentry to keep control and opposed any moves toward establishing representative government or political parties. Assuming that these things are true, they are merely a reflection of the times and his background. Most 'gentlemen' settlers held the same views but Roe contributed so much to the early development of the colony that it is fitting that he is remembered more for his tireless efforts than for his opinions.

 

Many of his personal papers display a genuine concern for other people of all walks of life and he was known to be a fair and honest man in his dealings with others.

Writing about exploration in 1840 an unknown author penned the following:

'There have been almost continuous explorations from Perth this year. The first of the colonies to wake up to the importance of examining the interior was, as usual, the indefatigable colony of Western Australia. High on the roll of honour of W.A. explorers is the name of John Septimus Roe ' Father of Western Australian explorers.'

 

John Septimus Roe and Matilda Bennett have been immortalised in the number of place and street names around the state.

 

Roebourne, Roe Highway, Roe Street, Matilda Bay, Mt. Matilda, Bennett St. and many others mark the remarkable contribution John made to the development of W.A. One of the last entries John made in his diary before he retired was the rather understated comment:

'I have not been an idle man in my generation'.

 

An older J.S. Roe

 

I'm lost please take me home...


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