|Straw bales in a field near Northam
An interesting and important early wheatbelt settlement.
Northam is located 150 m above sea level and 98 km east of Perth on the Great Eastern Highway and, like York, is one of the earliest settlements in the Central Wheatbelt area.
The town, with its beautiful setting and its population of nearly 7000, is remarkably attractive although it has a reputation for fiercely hot summers. As early as the 1850s the Anglican archdeacon of Western Australia was writing about how he 'rode to Northam in the evening through an atmosphere which felt like that at the mouth of an oven. Horses sweating copiously even at walking pace.'
The area around Northam was first explored in 1830 when a party of colonists led by Ensign Robert Dale travelled across the mountains from Perth and discovered the rich and beautiful Avon Valley. The townsite, on the banks of the Avon, was surveyed in 1830 and the town was gazetted in 1833. It was named by Governor Stirling, probably after a village of the same name in Devon, England. At the time its importance was based on its proximity to the river and its location as a crossing point. Almost immediately it became a point of departure for explorers and settlers who were interested in the lands which lay to the east.
This initial importance declined somewhat with the growing importance of other towns such as York and Beverley but, with the arrival of the railway, Northam became the major departure point for the fossickers and miners who headed east towards the goldfields.
In the twentieth century the town has had more than its fair share of scandals. In 1915 Captain Hugo Throssell, the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, arrived home to a hero's welcome only to inform the adoring locals that he had become a deeply committed socialist. In her novel Child of the Hurricane his wife, Katherine Susannah Prichard, describes the scene: 'On that dark night, speaking in the street to the crowd which had assembled, [he] described with deep feeling the horror and misery of war, and his sorrow that so many fine men (some of whom had been boys with him in Northam) would not be coming home to their wives and families. It was a dramatic moment when he announced that as a result of the suffering he had seen, 'the war has made me a socialist'.'
Another of Northam's scandals occurred in 1933 when the town's entire Aboriginal population 'were rounded up by police and dumped in the Moore River Settlement. The Northam Shire Council said they had scabies and were a health risk.' The quotation comes from Jack Davis' play Kullark which dramatises this appallingly racist act.
Things to see:
|The Avon Bridge and Suspension Bridge
The Avon River
One of the town's truly great attractions is the Avon River. It winds its way through the town and on each side it has attractive parks and walkways. The river is home to the unusual white swans (this mightn't sound very important but in a state where the emblem is a black swan a white one is quite a novelty). They were brought to Northam from England around the turn of the century and have thrived on the river ever since.
The notice beside the river says: 'The unique white swans of Northam. The white swan was introduced to Northam in the 1900s. Strangely the Avon River in Northam is the only place in Australia where these large birds have found a natural breeding ground. The swans are cared for by local volunteer wardens. Feeding takes place each morning at 6.30 a.m. on Broome Terrace next to Newcastle Street Bridge. At present there are about 80 of these birds on the river. The swans are a protected species.'
Another attraction on the Avon is the Suspension Bridge which crosses the river near the Fitzgerald Street Bridge. The locals proudly claim that their suspension bridge is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Australia.
Northam Heritage Trail
There is an excellent and very detailed Northam/Katrine Heritage Trail booklet which includes three trails: a 2 km town walk which includes the Post Office, Town Hall, Clearview House, St John's Church, the Northam Club and Shamrock Hotel; a 4 km town drive which includes the Flour Mill, West Northam Station Museum, St James Anglican Church, the Club Tavern, Byfield House and Mitchell House; and a 16 km drive along the banks of the river to Katrine, a nearby township which once vied with Northam for importance but died when it was bypassed by the railway.
Of the many buildings and locations on the Heritage Trail the most interesting are the Town Hall which was opened by Sir John Forrest in 1898 and is typical of the Italianate excesses which afflicted Western Australia in the wake of the gold discoveries, St John's Church in Wellington Street which was built between 1885 and 1890 and severely cracked in the 1968 earthquake and the Old Railway Station Museum (Fitzgerald Street – open Sunday 10.00-4.00) which was completed in 1884 and is now used as a local folk museum combining local artifacts with interesting pieces of railway history including an old steam engine (PMR 721) and carriages.
Mitchell House, on the corner of Hawes and Duke streets, is another Italianate mansion. Built in 1905 for Sir James Mitchell, who was the local member of Parliament from 1905 to 1933, it is a sumptuous house set in beautiful gardens. It is of interest that Mitchell eventually lost the seat to Bert Hawke, the uncle of RJL Hawke.
On Cemetery Road heading north out of town is Morby Cottage which was built out of mud brick and hessian sacking in 1836. It is the oldest building in the area and was built by John Morrell, the first settler in the district. In fact Morrell was also the first person to import livestock into the district and the first person to send produce to Perth from Northam. The cottage is currently run by the town council. It is open on Sundays from 10.30–4.00. For further details contact (08) 9622 1372. There is an excellent pamphlet on John Morrell, a truly remarkable man who did not leave his native England until 1830 when he was fifty years old.
Heading north on the Katrine and Irishtown Roads the traveller passes the huge Buckland homestead which was built in 1874 and is regarded by many as the most majestic home in the state. It certainly is a marvellous example of stately Victorian architecture. It now houses valuable collections of art and antiques.