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Ron Manners’ ideas
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What is history? And why is there an interest in it long after the people involved have moved on? I pondered these questions, and my place within local history, in this presentation to the Eastern Goldfields Historical Society in 1991. The meeting was held at Fimiston Fire Station.

The future of history

History is now becoming of great interest to me, despite the fact that I find it most difficult and frustrating researching the past. It would have been much easier if I had listened more carefully to the many things my father used to tell me. But I was  more interested in hotting up the engine of a Holden ute to make it go faster.

Perhaps along with advancing years I sense responsibility to get as much down on paper as possible, having experienced difficulty in bridging two generations in attempting to complete some notes made by my grandfather WG Manners. When it was realised that old WG (as I’ll call him) was dying of cancer at the ripe old age of 60, my father stood over him and asked him to write down some of his memories for the benefit of his family.

WG then sat day after day, on the front veranda of our home at 7 Croesus Street and produced a set of 10 small handwritten pads. These were handwritten on the reverse side of ‘brought notes’ from the firm S Madorsky — stock and share brokers of 152 Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie. That was in 1924 and then some 26 years later I can remember my father Charlie setting out to bring some of WG’s old notes and put them together in a form for circulation to members of the family.

Dad didn’t ever complete this due to other pressures, so it is left to me some 40 years later, or 66 years after the death of my grandfather, to finish the job. I feel that with the increased level of interest in Goldfield’s history it may warrant a wider reading as it tells of the people and lifestyles of those interesting times in Australia’s formative mining history.

That’s what he said

It’s funny how it’s only when you become interested in history that you try to understand it, and the reasons why it is important. There must be more cynical quotations made about history than any subject other than politics. I know that Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “What is history but a fable agreed upon?”

Voltaire said: “All our history…is no more than accepted fiction.”

Lawrence Durrell said: “History is an endless repetition of the wrong way of living.”

Sigmund Freud said: “The history of the world which is still taught to our children is essentially a series of race murders.”

And Edward Gibbon said: “History is little more than the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”

I don’t quite agree with these wise men, as it seems they have missed the ingredient of truth. History is a sacred kind of writing because truth is essential to it. Language is the archives of history.

It’s the discipline of “getting it right” that I find creates the problem of frustration. You can often be quite sure at the time that what you are saying or writing is correct but then find out many years later that you are completely off track.

A few personal examples are:

In 1986 I decided to celebrate the 88th anniversary of WG starting up in business at Kanowna. (That was many years after he arrived in Kanowna from Ballarat, as the engineer for the Golden Crown Mine). I thought I was pretty clever, finding amongst the old boxes of family history, a street map of Kanowna on which was marked ‘Manners’ along with the other locations of various landmarks. We then proceeded to pour a concrete slab and put a plaque on the top explaining the event. We gathered 50 or so friends together on the day, had a party and gave a rousing cheer for the early pioneers.

Now, five years later, I find the letter written by my father’s cousin Bill, explaining the various notations on the map and it revealed that we have got the plaque in the wrong place. That’s not where he started a business but where the family actually lived in Kanowna. You might say it doesn’t matter, but the plaque says: “This plaque commemorates the 88th anniversary of the establishment on this site at Kanowna, the first office of WG Manners & Co Mining Engineers.” So despite my best intentions I’ve blundered, and the concrete obelisk is not easy to move.

I’ve always been told that WG erected the headframe at north Kalgurli mine. It’s common knowledge that the headframe was transported from Wiluna so I presumed that he must have erected it at Wiluna. Keith Quartermaine now tells me that the headframe was designed and erected at Wiluna about five years after the death of my grandfather so I can only assume that the headframe in question that he erected must have been the original one at North Kalgurli which no longer exists.

Say what?

In WG’s handwritten notes it was not clear whether the mine manager at Golden Crown Mine was Jonathon Bray or Gray. You’ve no idea how many people I have asked to try and verify this, with absolutely no success. It was only in March this year that I read in the Kalgoorlie Miner that Keith Quatermaine had completed an index for the old Goldfield’s book Those were the Days. The copy of the book I was using was one of the originals without such an index, and now with the benefit of the index I quickly flick through and find that there is no question that it is in fact Jonathon Bray who was the manager of that mine.

The situation can even be worse when you deal with subjects at some distance from Kalgoorlie and as the first part of WG’s writings cover his early days in Ballarat and Broken Hill, I’ve had to rely greatly on much appreciated assistance from the Ballarat School of Mines, the Ballarat Historical Society, Sovereign Hill Organisation, the Ballarat and District Genealogical Society and the Public Records Office of that city as well as the Creswick Museum and surprisingly Professor Kett Kennedy of the James Cook University of North Queensland at Townsville who is one of Australia’s noted authorities on the Broken Hill area. I needed his help to string together some of the names of obviously significant individuals mentioned. I’m so glad that I’ve referred the manuscript to these people as they have saved me from several minor bouts of embarrassment.

One such error was where WG had referred to his own father managing the Queen Victoria Gold Mine at Ballarat and the Smeaton Reserve Gold Mining Company at Smeaton, a suburb of Ballarat. The Victorians were quite irate about that, as Smeaton is quite separate, being some 30km away from Ballarat, and I have no doubt that WG spoke of Smeaton being a suburb in much the same way we would loosely describe Broad Arrow or Bulong as suburbs of Kalgoorlie.

One of the best photographs I’ve got showing WG is with a group of senior mine staff and he is sitting alongside a person, obviously the mine manager by the name of J McDermott. The other gentlemen in the photograph are all named but with names not familiar. I sent a copy of this off to a much younger Jack McDermott in Perth, asking if he was some kind of relation and if he could explain the location and details of the photograph which was undated. Jack has explained that it is in fact his grandfather and the location is the Cam & Motor Mines in Rhodesia in the early 1920’s. This explains why the other names were not familiar to me.

On the plus side of the frustration aspect, I recently met someone from Rhodesia/Zimbabwe who advised me that two books have recently been written about the early days on the Cam & Motor Mines and he is sending me copies of these.

One of my problems has been a remarkable lack of photographs or engineering drawings (I’ve had absolutely no engineering drawings at all, although WG figured largely in the design and erection of many of the early mining plants at King Battery, the Golden Horseshoe, Sons of Gwalia and many others). This was explained in a note that I recently found detailing that he had a very serious fire in his office just after World War I and he lost all of his early records.

You can imagine my reaction last month when Len Harmalin and Norma Latchford (research archivists at Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines), contacted me saying that they had located some early engineering drawings done by WG, and asked me if I had the originals? I was out in their office in four minutes flat and they have kindly obliged with three detailed drawings showing the Golden Horseshoe Plant design which he designed and erected in 1901. Finding such jewels makes the search worthwhile.

The idea of completing WG’s book started coming together after the celebration we had in Kanowna in 1986 and I started tracking down and indexing the interesting bits and pieces and reading the notes in some detail. Incidentally WG was with Father Long at Kanowna the night before Father Long’s announcement, so when this book hits the shelves it will be the first time that you’ll be able to read the real story of Father Long’s “sacred nugget”.

Gathering up the detail I then visited Peter Bridge from Hesperian Press in Perth and let him read the first draft. He encouraged me and suggested I tidy it up, put it all together and see him in about three weeks’ time. It sounded easy and it probably would have been easy for someone who knew what they were doing, but here I am three years and about 1000 hours later and I’m only now just managing to solve some of these blind alleys.

Talking of research solving the riddles of the past, I’ve appreciated meeting and spending time with Dennis Cumming this week and I wish him every success with his much-needed book. Dennis will stress in his book the example of how mining fulfils the three requirements for our country’s successful future.

  • The value-added respect
  • Export orientated
  • Enables us to convert the ‘lucky country’ into a ‘clever country’

I think Dennis will appreciate WG’s observations on the development of the politics of envy in Australia, in direct conflict with what should be a morality of achievement. This cult of envy and resentment has developed into what we now call our tall poppy syndrome, the desire to reduce our highest down to the lowest common denominator. Any civilisation is the sum total of all the achievements of its people, and as achievement becomes increasingly discouraged, scorned and even persecuted, the forward momentum of a society is quickly halted, and then ultimately reversed.

I visited the Soviet Union last September with a group of economists and saw encouraging signs of people throwing off the burden of a suffocating government. As yet we don’t see any similar encouraging signs in Australia.

WG Manners’ book is not an official mining history of the industry, it is a simple story of his quest for daily bread. He saw himself as a steadfast battler caught up with interesting events and swept along by the early mining legends and colourful entrepreneurs. When we are actually living we often fail to comprehend the significance of our times, and it is the passage of many years that enables these strivings to be seen in true perspective. WG, it now seems, is credited by others as being the first mining engineer to visit Broken Hill and the Northern Territory. He describes the day the first woman arrives at Broken Hill.

One of the pleasures I’ve experienced in this project is that it has enabled me to meet and get to know a grandfather who died 12 years before I was born. This again brings be back to tonight’s title — The Pleasures and Problems of Delving into History. Whilst this all started as a discipline of duty to complete this book, it has now turned into a burning passion so the pleasure of passion becomes the persistent problem. The pain of tracking down these details has become a pleasurable pastime and the main problem is that is has absorbed far more of my life than I ever intended.

What’s next?

Now that I have carved out this space in my life and now that I’m coming to the end of the WG saga, I’m about to start assembling some of my father’s bits and pieces and I must say — apart from his World War I diaries (when he described seeing the Red Barron shot down), Dad didn’t really write a great deal. But there are a lot of activities in which he was involved.

This covered a long period of economic difficulty where the Goldfields developed a distinctive characteristic of innovative persistence and I can’t help wondering if our new generation will handle the tough economic times as well as those folks who held the town together. They kept the place going so there could be a nickel boom and another gold boom.


WG’s two chapters on Kanowna — Kanowna at its Peak and Kanowna’s Decline — make interesting reading and in my father Charlie’s book I’ll cover in detail the 60th anniversary of Father Long’s announcement, held in 1958, together with the 1956 commemorative ceremony where 200 people were present. Those functions stimulated considerable interest in Kanowna. At the time the street signs where all refurbished and this became a great tourist attraction.

If I live long enough to get around to writing anything myself I think I’ll have a chapter called Kanowna’s Rebirth, covering what is currently happening in Kanowna, and where the activities of the Kanowna Belle Partners may shift the centre of gravity of the gold focus from Kalgoorlie to Known. Perhaps the Kanowna Belle Partners (NBH Peko and Delta) would respond favourably to an approach from the Historical Society to assist with re-surveying and erecting new street signs, in time for the 100th anniversary of gold being discovered at Kanowna which will be on October 12, 1993.

In closing I would like to thank your society and several members in particular for your greatly appreciated assistance in the past and warn you that in my next book project I’ll be delving into an era where many of you may be asked to assist with first hand impressions. I hope you don’t mind my friendly voice on the phone from time to time.

Also to prepare myself for this new writing experience I signed up for a two-day writers seminar about a week ago, and one of my friends from Queensland rang home while I was at the seminar. Jenny [Ron’s wife] explained where I was. He was delighted that I was attending this seminar on writing and hopes that he’ll now be able to read my writing. At that seminar we were asked to write a brief poem on any of the Goldfields paintings that were hanging around the Boulder Town Hall. I wrote this little piece which was based on a John Sztermula painting showing a bush road, and this is how I’d like to finish tonight.


“I took the road less travelled by

and that made all the difference.”

Robert Frost wrote the lines

so many years ago,

But they just came back to me

as down the road I go.

Just when I’m about to solve

the reason for these tracks

I come to this fork in the road

so another mystery to uncover

what was on these old-timers minds

in their quest, to seek and discover.

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