WONNERUP: a chronicle of the south-west
A short drive north of Busselton in Western Australia is Wonnerup, one of the area’s earliest homesteads, today surrounded by tuart forest and working farms. The story of Wonnerup is one of hardship, tragedy and sheer persistence.
by Ros Stirling
View from the verandah of the original homestead to Wonnerup House, built in 1859. Photo: Ros Stirling
In 1827, George Layman, aged just 17, emigrated from England to Van Diemen’s Land with his brother Charles. It was not to be an auspicious beginning to a new life. Two years after arriving, George was attacked by escaped convicts and robbed of all his money. No doubt hopeful of better opportunities in a settlement without convicts, George worked his passage to the new colony at Swan River, arriving in October 1829.
In Perth, George and a partner won a contract as sawyers to build the first barracks at the new settlement of Augusta on the south coast. He was assigned an allotment of land in the Augusta townsite, and later a larger grant 12 miles from Augusta on the Blackwood River. In 1832, he returned to Perth where he married Mary Ann Bayliss, a young woman who had arrived at Swan River with the first settlers. The couple worked hard, first living in a wattle and daub cottage in Augusta, and then clearing thick timber and scrub by hand to create cattle grazing land on their isolated grant.
Amongst their few neighbours were the pioneering Bussell family and John and Georgiana Molloy. Despite the best efforts of these early settlers, their attempt to create a viable community at Augusta was destined to fail. The land was poor, the crops failed and relations with the Bibbulmen people of the area deteriorated. Finally, most of the original settlers applied for land grants in the Vasse River area, which had been explored a few years earlier by John Garratt Bussell and a party including George Layman.
Layman successfully applied for an allocation on the Vasse known as Sussex locations 3 and 4, later named Wonnerup, an Aboriginal term thought to refer a woman’s digging or fighting stick. When John Bussell led the first expedition to settle the area in April 1834, George Layman was amongst the party.
The following year George and Mary, now with two young daughters, moved to the tiny settlement at the Vasse, living there until 1837 when they moved to a small rough hut that George had built on their land at Wonnerup. Over the next year, the family became better established as George built a more substantial homestead, and their son, George Layman II, was born.
The homestead built by George Layman Snr in 1838 was later converted to a kitchen and dairy. Photo: Ros Stirling
George Layman, however, was not to enjoy the fruits of his labour for long. Relationships between the Wardandi people of the area and the white settlers were strained and, increasingly, there were violent incidents between them which resulted in numerous Aboriginal deaths. In 1836 six soldiers had been stationed in the Wonnerup area to protect the settlers of the area and their property. Matters came to a head in June 1841 when George Layman was speared to death by Gayware, a Wardandi elder and resistance leader well known to the white settlers. There are differing accounts as to what brought about the events. One is that Layman intervened in an argument between Gayware and another tribesman over the distribution of damper, and insulted Gayware by pulling his beard. Another account suggests that Layman had taken two wives of Gayware to work on his farm and refused to allow them to return to their husband.
Layman’s death triggered a hunt for Gayware and his three sons, led by Molloy and the Bussell brothers, that went on for several weeks. The full extent of the killing that took place at this time is unknown as Molloy’s reports to Governor Hutt are missing and most deaths were not recorded. In this small, close-knit community, it is not surprising that they closed ranks against further inquiry. However, it is known that Gayware was finally shot and his three sons were apprehended, two of them to be imprisoned on Rottnest Island.
The stables, looking across the site where the original cottage was built by George Layman, and destroyed by fire in 1858. Photo: Ros Stirling
The widowed Mary Layman, now with five children, stayed on at Wonnerup and continued to run the farm. A year later, she married Robert Heppingstone, whose family had been among the original settlers at Augusta and had moved with them to the Vasse. Mary and Robert went on to have two sons of their own and, as well as helping to run the farm, Heppingstone established a small whaling business operating from Castle Rock.
1858 was to be a year of further tragedy for Mary. Heppingstone was drowned leaving her widowed again and relying on her twenty-year-old son, George Layman II, to help run Wonnerup and his stepfather’s whaling business. In the same year, the family house burned to the ground. The dairy and kitchen, separate buildings, survived.
The following year, George Layman II married Amelia Harriet Curtis and built a new homestead, which still stands today. Initially the building comprised four rooms and a short hall. A new kitchen and scullery were added around 1862 and much later, in 1925, a bathroom and toilet. The other main building at Wonnerup (known as the kitchen/dairy) is believed to have been built on the site of the original 1837 house built by George Layman I and then, over the years, added onto with the configuration that exists today completed by 1872.
The sitting room of Wonnerup House. Photo: Ros Stirling
After a tough and eventful life, Mary Ann Heppingstone died from heat exhaustion in 1870. She is buried at the Pioneer Cemetery in Bussellton. George and Amelia worked hard throughout the 1880s and 1890s to build Wonnerup into one of the most successful dairy farms in the district. For four years from 1884 George served as a member of the State Legislative Council. During his absences Amelia Layman managed the Wonnerup operations while raising their eleven children.
For the first decade of the 20th century Wonnerup was managed by George and Amelia’s youngest son, James, until his premature death in 1912 at the age of 31. It was then up to his elderly parents and four unmarried sisters, Nina, Stella, Clair and Ida, to keep the place going. As the sisters got older, their nephew Ivan Webster took over management of the property. Four years after the death of the last sister, Stella, in 1962, Wonnerup was sold, having been 120 years in the Layman family. The land containing the two main houses was purchased by the National Trust in 1971, and the following year, land including the stables and blacksmithing shed was acquired. Wonnerup was opened to the public in 1973.
Today, the stone and timber-shingled buildings of Wonnerup are well conserved and furnished with artifacts that give some indication of how the Laymans lived in the 20th century.
Our thanks to the National Trust of Australia (W.A.) for assistance with this article.
Wonnerup, a property of the National Trust of Australia (W.A.), is in Layman Road, 10km north of Busselton. It is open Thursday through to Monday from 10am to 4pm. It is closed 22 June to 5 August and from 20 December to 6 January. For further information telephone 08 9752 2039 (Wonnerup) or 08 9321 6088 (National Trust).