1869-1949 | Western Australia | Editor & Journalist
Irishman John Kirwan was a crusading editor of the Kalgoorlie Miner in the late 19th century when Western Australia’s eastern goldfields held a third of the vast State’s population and underpinned the economy. A passionate democrat, Kirwan inspired his readers to force reluctant Premier John Forrest to bring Australia’s western third into the national Federation in 1900. He learned his trade in Dublin, then emigrated to Brisbane, working in Sydney, country Victoria and Port Augusta before joining the WA gold rush as a journalist.
Cosmopolitan gold hunters brought radical ideas on republicanism, socialism and trade unionism to Australia’s west. Miners bitterly complained that the West Australian government used wealth from the gold boom to benefit distant residents of Perth, Fremantle and farming districts hundreds of kilometres away. They suffered from lack of basic services like clean water and were excluded from decision-making by an electoral distribution weighed heavily in favour of early settlers.
Hostility to Premier John Forrest’s conservative rule ran deep on the Goldfields. The notorious “ten-foot’ law banning alluvial miners from digging deeper than ten feet was a gift to big gold mining companies, sparking widespread unrest among miners in the late 1890s.
For the miners, Federation represented fairer political representation in Western Australia, affirming their links with friends and family in the eastern colonies. By 1899, opposition to the Forrest Government inspired moves for separation of the Eastern Goldfields from the rest of Australia, to create a new state in the desert called “Auralia”.
Kirwan’s fiery writing led to a petition to Queen Victoria to separate the Eastern Goldfields from Western Australia, if WA did not join the new national Federation. The miners sent their appeal to the Queen in a gold-mounted casket. Under pressure from London, Forrest finally agreed to a referendum, and more than half the Yes vote came from the Goldfields. Kirwan campaigned passionately and successfully for many other progressive causes, including a trans- Australian railway.
Most of the early prospectors and miners came to WA from across Australia as well as overseas. John Kirwan became a local hero through his brilliant reporting and editorialising in the daily Kalgoorlie Miner, informing Goldfielders of their political, social and legal rights.
He brought the spirit of a new age to the rest of West Australia, including its politicians 592 km away in Perth. He fostered and promoted progressive ideas to become a respected local leader, elected to the new Federal Parliament in 1900, at just 31 years old. He kept writing all his life, often recalling exciting early days on the Goldfields.
The lure of gold attracted tough adventurers. Some pushed wheelbarrows, others rode bicycles, some walked behind wagons carrying their belongings from the ports of Fremantle, Albany or Esperance. Afghans carriers drove camel teams, and later there was a horse coach service between the railhead at Southern Cross and Coolgardie’s golden Eldorado.
The loss of human life on the pioneering goldfields was cruelly high. Men died from starvation and thirst, lost in the dry, trackless bush. Typhoid, dysentery and scurvy were rife, and took a heavy toll on the gold prospectors. Kirwan told their stories, and recalled them in his lively autobiography My Life’s Adventure.
He wrote: “… In no part of the world perhaps did nature show a more harsh and inhospitable aspect than in the trackless, waterless expanses of the arid interior. Fever decimated the ranks of the prospectors, and many died of exhaustion and thirst. Notwithstanding hardships and dangers, the country around Coolgardie was explored for hundreds of miles and it was found that it was not a mere ‘goldfield’ that was discovered, but what could be characterised as a golden Continent…”
“…Motorcars and aeroplanes had not then come into existence. A charge of £5 for the carriage to Coolgardie from Perth of each swag of 100 lbs. weight was made. The owner of the swag had to walk. Later there were coaches…”
“…By May, 1893, there were over 1,000 men on the field. Valuable finds were reported in various outside localities. There were frequent rushes as reports of good finds were received…”
“…Exactly nine months after Bayley reported the find at Coolgardie, Paddy Hannan arrived at Coolgardie with news of a rich discovery at what is now Kalgoorlie, twenty-four miles east of Coolgardie, and applied for and was granted a reward claim. His find of alluvial was specially important, for it led to the discovery of the lodes of the Golden Mile, which is held to be the richest square mile in gold that has ever been worked…’
“…Hannan was well known to me …Like many of the prospectors who opened up the goldfields, he was an Irishman; he was born in the parish of Quin, County Clare, about 1842, and came to Australia when he was twenty-one years of age. In disposition he was quite unlike the jovial, riotous type fairly common in mining communities.
“He was kindly, quiet and reserved…The story he told me of his great discovery was simple and direct. It was:
‘…I arrived in the colony in March, 1889, and was at Parkers Range about forty miles from Southern Cross, when Bayley reported the discovery of a rich reef at Coolgardie. I joined in the rush.
‘When we came on June 10 to Mount Charlotte, my mate and I decided to stop and prospect the country round about.
‘To us it looked country where there might be alluvial. We found colours of gold and then got good gold at the north end of Mount Charlotte to down south of Maritana Hill.
‘We soon realised that we were located on a valuable field. Alluvial gold was in abundance. We got scores of ounces. It was agreed that I should go to Coolgardie and apply for a reward claim.
‘The news of our find soon got abroad. There was a good deal of excitement. Hundreds of men set out for the scene. The flats and gullies all about our reward claim became alive with diggers dryblowing and finding gold.”
Paddy Hannan retired to Melbourne, living out his life quietly on a government pension, but his memory lives on in Kalgoorlie’s main street, named for him, where his statue sits holding a fountain in the shape of a water bag.
John Kirwan eventually became a West Australian Member of Parliament, where he served for 30 years to become President of the Legislative Council. In 1912, he married Teresa Gertrude Quinlan 1912, daughter of a WA politician. They had three sons, one killed in WW1. He was knighted in 1930, and never forgot his thrilling Goldfields days.
He recalled: “None but the most readable could survive. Of all those publications, only one is alive today-the Kalgoorlie Mine … the story of that paper, which I edited for the first thirty years of its existence, is one of the romances of the Australian Press…”
The Kalgoorlie Miner still appears daily.
Jan Mayman is a winner of the Gold Walkley and a member of the International Consortium of investigative Journalists. Her grandfather George Mayman was a pioneering gold hunter and mine owner in the Kalgoorlie Goldfields.
Portrait of J. W. Kirwan by The Swiss Studios, Melbourne. Circa 1900-1909. Courtesy of National Library of Australia
Portrait of 'Sir John Kirwan: President of the Legislative Council', August 30 1931, Western Mail, Perth, p5
My Life's Adventure, Sir John Kirwan, Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1936.
Kirwan, Sir John Waters (1869–1949), Pat Simpson, Australian Dictionary of Biography
Gold and Politics: The Influence of the Eastern Goldfields on the Political Development of Western Australia, David Mossenson, 1890-1904, M.A Thesis, Perth, 1952.
Golden Days, J. Raeside, Colortype Press Ltd, Perth, 1929.