All writing © 2009-2015 by Colin Salter unless indicated otherwise. All rights reserved.
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Saturday, 2 March 2013

JOHN OKEY DAVIS (1777-1836) AND THE ANCESTRAL DOG PARK



I broke my collarbone at the end of January while out walking my dog. Typing up Tall Tales has been a challenge – one-fingered and wrong-handed. But the legs still work, so this morning before settling down to write this I was walking the dog again in my local park in Edinburgh, Scotland when I met Robin, an Australian visitor tracking down her family’s roots in this city. By coincidence dogs, and Robin’s home city of Perth in Western Australia, are all bound up in today’s Tall Tale.

Bobby, Edinburgh, 2012

Some of my earliest ancestors come from the area around Chenies in Buckinghamshire. In the eighteenth century Chenies was part of the estate of the Dukes of Bedford, whom at least two generations of my Davis forebears served as land agents. In this capacity they were responsible for the good use of the land by overseeing the tenants and collecting their rent.

Two Davis sisters, Sarah and Maria, married two Salter brothers, Samuel and John, in nearby Watford and became my 3x great grandmother and 4x great aunt. Sarah and Maria’s first cousin John Okey Davis, unlike his father and grandfather before him (both also called John), did NOT become the duke’s man. I don’t know why: was it a fall from grace, or the prospect of a better life? Instead, John Okey emigrated to Western Australia with his wife and six children (aged from 23 to 4) in the summer of 1829, sailing on board the SS Lotus, only the second ship to make the passage to Western Australia. They arrived in the Swan River on 23rd October.

Families on board ship, emigrating to Australia (1849)

The Lotus, under the command of Captain Summerson, was a new ship, built only the previous year at Whitby on the Yorkshire coast (where a century earlier Captain James Cook had discovered his love of the sea). It was 397 tonnes, and sheathed with copper – a recent technological innovation in which my Guppy ancestors had a hand. Having only a single deck, I imagine the Lotus’s journey to Australia may have been quite arduous for its sixty passengers. In 1833 the Lotus carried convicts, but on this trip most of its passengers – and perhaps also John Okey Davis, were part of an ambitious emigration scheme to settle 100,000 acres of land in the Leschenault area around Bunbury, south of modern-day Perth.

The plan was conceived by an entrepreneur called Colonel Peter Latour, to whom many of John’s travelling companions were indentured – that is, bound by contract. He had signed up bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers and others with the trades necessary for the success of his venture. Although I don’t know whether the Davis family was also involved, the estate management skills which John must have learned from his father and grandfather would certainly have been useful to Latour. (On the passenger list John is listed as a servant, although we don’t know to whom.)

In the event, the Leschenault scheme quickly failed – not the last to do so in an area of poor soil and low rainfall – and all the settlers were released from their indentures. In 1829 John Okey Davis claimed land on the far more fertile and temperate banks of the Canning River near its confluence with the Swan at Perth. There he and his family began their new life. At first they grew wheat and vegetables, and later planted citrus and almond trees. Under their management the land thrived.

Plan of early settlement allocations around Perth, Western Australia – the Davis family were given Canning plot 16 (presumably just off the bottom right of this image) which they named Chenies in memory of their English home

After John’s death his son, also called John Okey Davis, took over the running of the family estate, but he had already moved to Freemantle before he sold the Canning property in 1862. The new owner was John Gosnell, a London Perfume manufacturer. Although Gosnell bought the land as a private estate, its abundance of fruit trees and arum lilies gave rise in time to a myth that he bought the Davis grounds for their fragrance.

Fruit and nut trees on the land settled by the Davis family
(early 20th century, when the land was owned by John Wilkinson) –
some of the Davis almond trees can still be seen today in John Okey Davis Park

That imagery did the Gosnell’s land no harm when he sold it in 1903 to developers. They kept the name Gosnells for its sweet-smelling associations, and the trick seems to have worked: the population of Gosnells rose from 737 in 1911 to 106,585 a century later. Gosnells, growing from virgin land settled by the Davis family in 1829, became a formal city on 1st July 1977. By coincidence (I think!) Gosnells’ westernmost point, jutting out into the Canning River, is Salter Point.

Coat of arms of the city of Gosnells, motto Servire, “to serve” – the city was founded on land settled by John Okey Davis, servant

John Okey Davis the father died on 5th March 1836, nine days less than a year after his wife Frances Harriet Wombutley. They are buried together in a corner of their Canning River land, and their gravestone can still be seen today. The area around it has been preserved as parkland, and their name is preserved in its name – John Okey Davis Park. The park also contains the archaeological remains of the Davis mud-brick family home and a 500-year old Jarrah tree which John and Frances will have seen every day.

Back to dog-walking. It’s my impression that Australians are far less tolerant of dogs in public than we are in Britain. Dogs are restricted to designated public areas. So I’m delighted to discover that John Okey Davis Park in Gosnells is just such a place, reviewed on one of the many Australian dog-friendly web listings thus:

Great place to take the fur kids. Nice big open space with plenty of grass to run through. Usually few issues with other dogs as it is normally fairly quiet and it is just such a large area.

The grave of John Okey Davis (1777-1836) and Frances Harriet Wombutley (1783-1835) in John Okey Davis Park, Gosnells

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