Early History of Carnamah

The traditional owners of what we now call Carnamah are the Amangu, a language group of Aboriginal people from across parts of the Mid West region of Western Australia.

Following the establishment and expansion of the Swan River Colony, the district remained isolated between non-indigenous settlements on the Victoria Plains and at Irwin. In 1861 Scottish immigrant Duncan Macpherson took up a number of pastoral leases in the district, which it is believed he used for the periodic grazing of livestock.

By 1866 James Nairn and his family had settled in the district. James was English by birth and had arrived in the Swan River Colony with his parents in 1829. He initially worked as a blacksmith with his father in Perth and for a number of years leased the property Daliak in York. He established the 33,000 acre Noolooloo Station in Carnamah, which included the springs Billeroo and Noolooroo. After an unknown duration on Noolooloo James and his family shifted to Dongara, with the station continuing under the management of his son Frank.

Duncan Macpherson, who had taken up pastoral leases in Carnamah in 1861, took up residence in the district with his wife and eight children in 1868. The Macpherson family had been based in the Newcastle-Toodyay district since 1848 where they had leased a property called The Byeen. Following a disastrous drought and a large debt Duncan was evicted from The Byeen and it was this unfortunate occurrence that resulted in him shifting to Carnamah. The Macpherson family initially resided in a three roomed stone cottage near the Yarra Yarra Lakes but a short time later settled at Carnamah Spring where they built an impressive large stone homestead. Duncan and his sons took up additional pastoral leases and established Carnamah Station, which at its peak was over 120,000 acres in size. Most of Carnamah Station’s employees were Ticket of Leave convicts, Chinese immigrants and Aboriginal people.

In 1874 Carnamah’s remoteness was lessened with the establishment of a telegraph office at the Macpherson family’s homestead. The office was conducted by Duncan Macpherson’s daughter Bessie for the first two months and then by his daughter Maggie. For a few years, in true pioneering diversification, Duncan Macpherson was the contractor to deliver mail to inland districts and stations between Perth and Geraldton.

For over 25 years the Nairn and Macpherson families were the only settlers in the Carnamah district. During this time the Macpherson family was reduced in size with the death of Duncan’s wife Mary in 1888 and the departure of their elder sons. Meanwhile the Nairn family grew in size as a result of Frank Nairn’s marriage to Harriett Long of Coorow Station in Coorow. A number of Frank and Harriett’s children were born at their home on Noolooloo Station.

In 1894 the Midland Railway line went through and a station was established near the Macpherson family’s homestead, and named Carnamah after their station. The Midland Railway Company built the railway line in exchange for land from the Government. Among this land was almost all of Carnamah east of the railway line. This marked a big reduction in the size of the Macpherson and Nairn families’ stations as much of the land they had held in pastoral leases from the Government was now owned by the Midland Railway Company. Both families leased a lesser amount of land from the Midland Railway Company, and fortunately for the Macpherson family they held a large amount of land west of the railway line.

The arrival of the railway marked the dawn of further settlement in the district. Railway workers were stationed at Carnamah, including a railway stationmaster, fettlers and a ganger. In 1907 Lou Parker began farming at Winchester (the southern half of the Carnamah district). Lou and his brother Joe had been cutting timber around Carnamah for use in mines since 1900. Others, including Harry Markham, are known to have worked through the district cutting sandalwood trees for export.

Duncan Macpherson died in 1898 and his sons George and Donald became the joint proprietors of Carnamah Station. They traded in partnership as Macpherson Bros and bred horses in Carnamah which were shipped to Singapore after being herded overland to Perth. They also bred and grazed sheep and cattle, cut and transported timber to the Great Fingal Mine in Cue, and carted goods and supplies from Perth to mining operations at Rothsay. Following George’s death in 1904, Donald became the station’s sole owner. Over the years that followed the station slowly reduced in size as Donald began leasing lesser amounts of land. Donald and his unmarried sisters Maggie and Bessie continued to reside in the family’s large homestead.

Meanwhile the Nairn family’s pastoral operations in the district had passed to a third generation with Frank Nairn retiring to Dongara and his elder sons Edward and Harold taking over the grazing of livestock in the district. The two Nairn brothers leased 9,000 acres of land from the Midland Railway Company, owned the freehold blocks surrounding Billeroo Spring and Noolooroo Spring, and had 1,600 acres in Conditional Purchase leases at Petan Creek in Winchester. In 1908 they purchased Yarrabubba Station in Nannine, after which they ceased their operations in Carnamah and left the district. Their 1,600 acres in Conditional Purchase leases were sold to Perth accountant JLB Weir and farmed by his brother-in-law Fred Parrick.

By 1910 a number of farmers had taken up virgin land between the railway line and the Yarra Yarra Lakes. Among them were Robert Parsons, Green Bros, Alf Hollingsworth, and Dewar Bros. The Macpherson and Nairn families and most of these early settlers were predominantly involved in the grazing and breeding of livestock. In 1913 Arthur G. Darling settled on 16,080 acres on the east side of the railway line and in 1915 became the first farmer in the district to grow wheat on a large scale.

The first known organisation to be formed in Carnamah was the Carnamah Progress Association, which was operating in 1912 when the Carnamah State School was established. The next year the townsite of Carnamah was declared, although it would be years before an actual town would come into being.

Up until 1909 the Midland Railway Company had only made one land sale in Carnamah, which was an 11,000 acre block of virgin bush to Donald Macpherson. In 1910 the Company devised the Improved Farms Scheme to accelerate land sales and settlement in the district, which would also increase traffic and profits for their railway. The scheme was to subdivide some of their land into “Ready Made Farms” of about 400 acres in size. These farms were partially cleared of virgin bush, fenced and were to contain a four roomed house, 1,000 gallon rainwater tank and a dam. This resulted in a large number of clearing, fencing and building contractors working in the district in 1912 and 1913 – as 45 Ready Made Farms were created in Carnamah and Winchester.

The Ready Made Farms were heavily advertised in newspapers and as a result about 20 families purchased and settled on the farms between 1913 and 1916. Most of these settlers were British citizens from Scotland, England, India and South Africa – and many had no practical knowledge of farming. Ready Made Farms in Carnamah and Winchester, in order of purchase, were taken up by:- John Raffan, Christopher Hoskyns-Abrahall, Hans Haussler, John Colpitts, Jack Lawson, George Reid & Amy Taunton, John Lang, Randolph Christie, John McIntosh, Edward Bell, Robert Niven, James Hunter, Henry Watson, Bowman & Forrester, Richard Robertson, John Rooke, Charles Turner, John Rankine, Dibgy Nelson and Agnes Lawson.

The farms had been drastically overpriced and the local conditions falsely represented by the Midland Railway Company. Most of the settlers soon realised the farms were so overpriced that they’d never make enough money to be able to pay for them. The settlers demanded the prices of their farms be reduced as they had been misled about factors such as rainfall, expected yields and profits. The Midland Railway Company initially rejected their claims – to the end that the settlers formed an association to tackle the Company and wrote several letters to leading Western Australian newspapers. This onslaught of bad feeling about the Company’s Ready Made Farms resulted in a halt of land sales in the district. By 1919 those on the Company’s farms declared that the prices of the farms would have to be significantly reduced or almost all of the settlers would be forced to abandon their properties. After almost four years of battling with the Company the settlers were finally given a fairer deal and the prices of their farms were reduced by 40 percent.

When most of the settlers on the Midland Railway Company’s farms had arrived in the district the townsite of Carnamah consisted solely of the railway siding, Henry Parkin’s house and the Davieson family’s general store. In 1916 the Parkin family opened a second general store from their home, and later established a blacksmithing business.

The first large social event to occur in Carnamah was a Sports & Races Day which took place on 4 May 1916. The day consisted of children’s sports in the morning, horse races in the afternoon and a dance in the local railway goods shed in the evening. The event was very well attended by Carnamah residents in addition to visitors from neighbouring districts and raised £48 for the Red Cross, who were in need of funds due to the First World War. Despite having a small population over 30 men from Carnamah and Winchester served in the Armed Forces during the war, and ten of these brave men were killed in action. The end of the war was marked in Carnamah with the holding of Peace Day Celebrations on 19 July 1919.

Between 1919 and 1923 the Repatriation Department established four soldier settlement estates in the district by purchasing land from Donald Macpherson, the Midland Railway Company, Lou Parker and Arthur Darling. These four parcels of land became the Yarra Yarra, Carnamah, Winchester and Inering estates. Each estate was subdivided into a number of farms and these were allocated to about 40 ex-servicemen from the First World War. This significantly increased Carnamah’s population as with these men also came their families and the need for large numbers of farmhands, labourers, clearers and contractors.

Under the chairmanship of John Lang a local committee was formed to raise the necessary capital to have a hall built in Carnamah. The committee members were successful at their task and the Carnamah Town Hall was officially opened by Donald Macpherson on 17 February 1921. The hall was used for the district's first agricultural show later in 1921, which was conducted by the Carnamah-Winchester branch of the Primary Producers' Association.

By this time the town had only a few more buildings – among them being Bob Palfreyman’s one roomed humpy and Teddy Clark’s small house. Later in 1921 Lou Parker, formerly of Winchester, shifted to the Carnamah townsite where he had a general store and large stone house built. Leslie Trotter shifted from Moora and opened a bakery and general store. In 1924 a stone hotel was built, which was initially run by Mrs Martha Davies. The next additions to the town included Green Bros’ butcher’s shop, Stan O’Grady’s garage, Charlie Kroschel’s tearooms, and Henry Parkin & Son’s power station.

Local farmers Donald Macpherson, Arthur Darling and John Bowman all served representing Carnamah on the Upper Irwin Road Board (later renamed the Mingenew Road Board). In 1923 the Carnamah District Road Board was declared and on formation spanned from Three Springs in the north to Gunyidi in the south, with Carnamah as its administrative centre. An election for the new Board was held on 17 November 1923 with John Bowman and Donald Macpherson being elected as members for Carnamah, Bill Lawson for Winchester, and others to represent Three Springs, Coorow and Marchagee. Carnamah farmer John Bowman was the Board’s first chairman.

The telephone arrived in Carnamah in 1923 and the first townsperson to be connected was Lou Parker. The next year John Bowman became the first farmer to have the telephone. Separate telephone exchanges were established on the Inering Estate in 1924 and at Winchester in 1925.

In 1924 Donald Macpherson sold 11,000 acres of his land situated between Carnamah and Three Springs to Edward and Harold Nairn, who had grown up on Noolooloo Station and had been graziers in Carnamah until leaving over a decade earlier. Harold and his wife Eva shifted to Carnamah shortly afterwards, marking the return of one of the district’s earliest pioneers.

By this time local farmers were starting to grow large amounts of wheat and Carnamah began to be seen as a successful and worthwhile agricultural district. As a result, the Midland Railway Company was able to sell almost the entirety of its remaining land in the district. By the end of the 1920s the farming population had soared and large amounts of land had been transformed from virgin bush to paddocks. Carnamah soon attracted attention for being one of the highest wheat producing districts in Western Australia.

The growth of the Carnamah townsite stalled before very quickly catching up with the sudden growth that had occurred in the remainder of the district. In 1929 and early 1930 the town grew at in incredible rate, often remarked to have “sprung up overnight like a field of mushrooms.” By 1930 the town boasted five general stores, three tearooms, hotel, boarding house, post office, bakery, tailor, dentist, chemist, doctor, hospital, solicitor, builder, four mechanical garages, two churches, accountant, two banks, newsagent, hairdresser, barber, power station, two butchers and a number of commission agents who were sellers of agricultural machinery and farm requirements. Within another few years the town also boasted a vet, its own newspaper, police station and a resident police constable. A small townsite had also been established at Winchester and consisted of a general store, school and a few houses.

Local clubs in existence around this time included football, tennis, cricket, badminton, race, basketball, athletic, golf, dingo, girls and repertory. Other organisations such as an Agricultural Society, Literacy and Debating Society, Toc H group, Adult Education Circle, Masonic Lodge, Manchester Unity of Oddfellows Friendly Society Lodge, Boy Scouts, Traders' Association, Ratepayers & Citizens' Association and Parents & Citizens' Association were also operating in addition to branches of the Country Women’s Association, Returned Soldiers League, Primary Producers Association and Wheatgrowers Union.

With the financial depression came a horrific drop in wheat prices. Many local farmers made a loss on wheat over consecutive years, and some were forced to abandon their properties. A large number of Carnamah farmers had been deriving their income solely from the growing of wheat and as a result mixed farming became more popular. Many introduced livestock such as sheep and cattle to their properties, and in 1933 a number of farmers began to grow barley for the first time. The town of Carnamah was thriving and undoubtedly at its peak during the early years of the depression. Through a mix of financial strain, advances in farm machinery and the beginning of farms getting bigger, the population began to decline. By the end of the 1930s the town no longer had a vet, chemist, doctor, hospital, tailor, dentist, solicitor or boarding house. Through unrelated circumstances it'd also lost one of its general stores in a fire.

Donald Macpherson, referred to as the “Father of Carnamah,” passed away on 23 October 1931, aged 73 years. Donald was the first to represent Carnamah on the Upper Irwin Road Board, a founding member of the Carnamah District Road Board and had served as president and patron of numerous local organisations. He was the leader of the annual Carnamah kangaroo hunt and was known for his generosity at the hunts for lending a horse to anyone who didn’t have one. On the day of his funeral all businesses in Carnamah were closed as a mark of respect. Donald was survived by his Bessie, who continued to reside at the family homestead in Carnamah until her death at the age of 87 years in 1939.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War a militia unit was formed in Carnamah and trained fortnightly under the direction of Ivan Johnson and Dave Bowman. Later in 1939 local branches of the Red Cross Society and Australian Defence League were established, and were followed by the Carnamah District War and Patriotic Fund, Volunteer Defence Corps, and Air Observation Corps. The first person from the district to enlist in the Armed Forces was farmhand George McGowan, who enlisted in the Australian Army on 11 November 1939 and was Killed in Action on 23 May 1941. Large numbers of men and nine women enlisted in 1942 and others to give the ultimate sacrifice were Ivan Johnson, Bill Clark, Bernie O’Hara and Ken Lally.

With so many men serving in the Armed Forces and the subsequent labour shortage many local farms and businesses were kept going only through the untiring efforts of the district’s women. The majority of local organisations and social events were suspended owing to a reduced population, petrol rationing, and a large workload for those who remained. The district later fell into darkness with a compulsory blackout of all vehicle, house and street lights. Celebrations instantly began when the news of peace was received in Carnamah on the morning of Wednesday 22 August 1945. The war was over and the streets of Carnamah resounded with church bells ringing, kerosene tins being donged by children and the constant tooting of car horns. In addition to the devastating human casualties from the war it had also adversely affected the town, claiming one of its banks and the local newspaper.


Related content:

     ●  Biographical Dictionary of Carnamah

     ●  Virtual Museum - The Macpherson Family

     ●  Blog Post - The Story of Ah Sue: a Chinamen

     ●  Virtual Museum - Midland Railway

     ●  Virtual Museum - Ready Made Farms

     ●  Virtual Museum - Roads to Government

     ●  Virtual Museum - Carnamah's Business Houses

     ●  Blog Post - The Story of Bulk Wheat Handling

     ●  Blog Post - Carnamah at the National Museum


Written by Andrew S. Bowman for the basis of a talk on the history of Carnamah on The Way We Were program on 6PR 882 AM radio on Sunday 4 December 2005.
Rusting Grader in Carnamah

Rusting grader in a Carnamah paddock in 2004



Macpherson's Stone Cottage

The Macpherson's first home in Carnamah
on what later became the Yarra Yarra Estate



Duncan Macpherson

Duncan Macpherson
who was born in Scotland died at Carnamah



James & Sarah Nairn

James and Sarah Nairn



Macpherson Homestead

The Macpherson's Homestead in 2004,
located just east of the Carnamah townsite



Edward Frank William Nairn

"Ned" Edward Frank William Nairn


Ready Made Farms
Ready Made Farms

Overseas Advertising of the Ready Made Farms
encouraging the British to purchase and immigrate



The Gables

The Parkin family's home The Gables
at 4 Yarra Street, Carnamah



Robert Palfreyman

Bob Palfreyman outside the Carnamah Hotel
at 22 Macpherson Street, Carnamah



Carnamah District Road Board Office & Hall

Offices of the Carnamah District Road Board
built onto the front of the Carnamah Hall in 1926



Harvesting on Rosebury Row Farm in Carnamah

Harvest by both horse and tractor
on Rosebury Row, the farm of Roger Clark



Harold & Eva Nairn

Harold Nairn and his wife Eva
of Lakeview Farm, Carnamah



Carnamah Show Ticket

1926 ticket to annual show and sports of
the Carnamah District Agricultural Society



17 Boojerabba Street

Home & Agency Business of Ray Wykie
at 17 Boojerabba Street, now Robertson Street



Carnamah Presbyterian Church

The laying of the foundation stone of the
Presbyterian Church at 9 Macpherson Street in 1927



The North Midland Times newspaper

Header of Carnamah's newspaper,
which was produced in Carnamah 1933-1945



Donald Macpherson

Donald Macpherson,
also known as the "Father of Carnamah"



15 Macpherson Street, Carnamah

Home & Business of George Mulligan
at 15 Macpherson Street, Carnamah