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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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William John Withnell (1825–1898)

Great regret was felt in Guildford when news was circulated of the death on Sunday of Mr. John E. Withnell, an old colonist. Mr. Withnell, who had been resident of Guildford for some years, was very well known in the Nor-West, having been one of the first settlers in the Roebourne district. The funeral took place at the Church of England Cemetery at Guildford on Monday afternoon, the Rev. Mr. Marshall officiating.

The subject of this notice, who passed away peacefully into his long rest last Saturday, at the age of 76 years, was one of the type which, perhaps, more than any other has contributed to the pre-eminence of the British race as colonists and won for it a position which year by year seems to strengthen wherever the British flag is planted. Born in England upwards of 70 years ago, Mr. John Withnell came to this colony at an early age with his parents who were among the early settlers. They settled in the York district, where the father took up land and carried on the occupation of a farmer and grazier. In the early sixties, when as yet little was known of the "North-West," and the only settlements in that vast district were the ''stations," one started by Mr. Padbury and others at the De Grey River, and another by the late Mr. Welland, on the Harding River, Mr. John Withnell, then a farmer in the Beverley district, determined to establish a new home in the new country. He disposed of his farm, shipped his live stock and such plant as was thought necessary, and, taking his young wife and two little children left the district where his parents had settled and made sail from Fremantle. By some mistake, instead of being landed at "Cossack", then known as Port Walcott, the ship went on to Port Hedland, the result being that nearly all the live stock were lost, besides much other property. When, at last, the family landed at Port Walcott, they found they had to begin life again from the lower rungs of the ladder. John Withnell was, however, stout of heart, full of sturdy self-reliance; undaunted by his misfortunes, he started afresh, and was ably seconded by his wife, who was one of the very early native-born Western Australians. They pitched their camp in the centre of what is now known as Roebourne, and courageously struggled hard to make a beginning in stock raising, and, as others came to settle in the district, the bread-winners found occupation in carting goods from the "landing" to Roebourne for the new comers. As years went on, stock increased, and hard work and stubborn determination won a share of success in this world's goods, which were, however, more than equalled by the high character he bore–that of a true-hearted, manly Englishman, un-wearied in industry, and of sterling worth. Ever ready to help his fellow-men (and help was often needed in those times) he gave liberally and ungrudgingly. No one was ever heard to say a hard thing of John Withnell, and his house was for many years the rallying point of the settlers when visiting Roebourne. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke most men listened, which the following incidents will exemplify. The time came, as it comes to all new settlements in Australia, when the blacks meditated a slaughter of the whites, and they began by killing a policeman and several other white men on the shore of Nicol Bay. When the news reached Roebourne considerable consternation arose as the whites were few and the blacks many. However, Mr. Withnell went out with his team and one or two others and brought the bodies in for burial. A meeting was held to consider what steps should be taken to assert and maintain law and order. The general opinion was that the murderers should be at once arrested, if possible, but who was to do it? For there was only one policeman left. Those present at the meeting could all find excellent reasons why they could not form members of a party to aid in the work. Finally the subject of this notice broke his accustomed silence and said, "Any man who could see his fellow-man brutally murdered, as those had been, and not take steps to bring the murderer to justice had no British blood in him." After that excuses were forgotten, a party was formed and the murderers were captured. Ill health some years ago necessitated the retirement of Mr. Withnell from the North West. He disposed of his stations in the North- West, and his pearling interests, and came down south. Arrived here, he fixed his choice upon Guildford as his residence, and there he lived up to his death. He had for some time before his decease suffered from asthma, and a violent cold which he caught some months ago settled on his chest and to some extent no doubt accelerated his end. His death took place on Saturday and, as already stated, was perfectly peaceful. He leaves behind him a widow, seven sons, and three daughters to mourn the loss of one who deservedly bore the name of a good husband, kind father, and honoured pioneer.

Original publication

Citation details

'Withnell, William John (1825–1898)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1825
Bolton, Lancashire, England


15 May, 1898 (aged 73)
Guildford, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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