Wallcliffe – People and Place

A selection of profiles of historical characters born or resident at Wallcliffe House. 

Wallcliffe Estate overlooks the Margaret River, at the final meander before it opens to the sea. Across the black waters lie a stand of brilliant white paperbarks, and the property is sheltered from the ocean winds by ancient dunes and a towering cliff of soft tamala limestone. The cliff is shrouded in vegetation and pitted with caves. The cliff faces north over a small, but high quality and undegraded esturine system. The natural landscape features of river and cliff, dune and ocean all interact to create a place of great natural beauty and plentiful resource.

The Wallcliffe area is a major cultural landscape with differing significance to various sections of the community. It is a place the Wadandi have held sacred for many millennia. Wallcliffe Estate and the ruins of the house have major historical significance as the second European homestead in the Margaret River region. The natural beauty of the landscape has also endeared the place to the local community and to tourists as a recreational area, although Wadandi Elders now ask that people do not land at or visit the cliffs.

In 2011 a prescribed burn on the Leeuwin Naturaliste Ridge near Ellensbrook escaped custody. It roared southwards through the National Park, leapt across the river and destroyed historic Wallcliffe House. This was a terrible loss to posterity. However, the land has survived along with all the many threads of spiritual and historical significance, and new meanings may be seen, rising from the ashes.

Nandinong and Bungitch, Wadandi Elders

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A Wardandi couple who were the traditional custodians and frequent visitors to the Bussell homesteads. Otherwise known as Jinny and Billy. The following extract from the introduction to “An attempt to eat the Moon” contrasts European and Noongar modes of sharing, and is a poignant example of the ironies of dispossession:

” …. Jinny (Nandinong) saw on a table some tempting watermelons. “Give me one watermelon, Edie,” she said to my aunt. “You can’t have one watermelon, Jinny,” replied my aunt, But I will give you a piece of ground and some seeds, and you can grow some.” Jinny just shrugged her shoulders and with a wide grin rejoined “Don’t be so poolish, Edie.” … Deborah-Buller Murphy 1958

Fred Isaacs 1882-1956

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The son of Lucy and Sam Isaacs. Fred grew up alongside the Bussells at Wallcliffe, but maintained his Noongar language, family, and connection to country. He was on the electoral roll, highly unusual in Australia before the Aboriginal “right to vote’ referendum in 1967.

Fred was an active and outspoken member of the community at a time when racial violence and exclusion were the norm. He farmed “Fernbrook,” the Isaacs’ 100 acre property on the banks of the river at Wallcliffe. He continually won prizes in the Margaret River Show for his pigs, cattle, and poultry, and for the richness of his milk and cream.

His skill as a stockman made him an expert part-time poundkeeper, retrieving lost cattle and horses from the bush. Concerned at the short water supply available to the captives, he asked the Roads Board for a well to be dug. The request was refused. He once spent two hours rounding up stray cattle from the main street, only to have the owner appear and scatter the mob in order to avoid the fines. He took the issue to court and won!

Frances Lousia Bussell (Brockman) 1851-1925.

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Fanny was born at Ellensbrook, grew up alongside Sam Issacs and spoke fluent Noongar. She roamed country on horseback, exploring and working the Wallcliffe cattle run, which extended for thousands of acres. It was while out chasing cattle in 1867 that she chanced upon the doline of Lake Cave.

Of Boranup Forest (“Karri Chase”), she wrote: “It is a beautiful station and strange. We killed a wild bull and had such a pleasant gypsy gathering in the evening. The great tall trees, the little mite of a hut, the glimmering campfires reflected from white stems.” Frances campaigned to have land set aside as a caves reserve, which later became the Leeuwin Naturaliste National park. She was one of Australias first female environmentalists.

Filumena Terry 1876 – 1944

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The youngest daughter of Alfred and Ellen Bussell.

She was deeply connected to country, and lived most of her life at Wallcliffe, a landscape already rich in significance. She pioneered society in the district, holding regular fundraisers at Wallcliffe House, and was on the boards of the Margaret Cecil Rest House and the C.W.A. But she also spoke out in the defence of Indigenous culture and language.

The local people were regular visitors at Wallcliffe. As a child she must have listened wide-eyed as Nandinong taught her the stories of place in Noongar: “she quaintly interpreted as she went along and taught me to say the words correctly; when one can master the “gn” prefix it has a soft and musical tone.”

As the years flowed by, and her Wardandi friends passed away, she began to share their stories of place. In 1936 she gave a talk to the Roads Board, called the “Manners, customs and legends of the Aboriginies of the South West.” This later became a radio talk which was broadcast by stations all over the state. She published some of the legends as a series in the West Australian, including the Magic Stick, Edarite, and Boolaninda.

“The Seizing of Corrianne” is a tale of two lovers, that ends sorrowfully. The young warrior Medinite dies of a broken heart and is buried at Wainilyinup. Filumina writes: “The grave of Medinite is near my home, marked by.a pile of stones.” The pile of stones has gone now. Perhaps removed or scattered by people unaware of their significance.

Now, telling Indigenous stories would be seen as appropriation. But in the 1930s local culture was derided and brushed aside, and it seems that Filumenas’ sharing of the stories was a call to respect culture and country.

Deborah Drake-Brockman 1887-1965.

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Daughter of Grace Bussell, and the “bride” of Brides Cave. Philanthropist, author and explorer. Married three times, she made her own fortune by opening rare mineral mines in remote parts of Australia. Her tantalum mines were taken over by the Government for the development of radar equipment in WW2.

In 1958 she published “An Attempt to Eat the Moon,” a collection of legends shared with the Bussell family by the Wardandi custodians of the river. “As a child I had read or told to me by my mother and father, and by my uncles and aunts, many of the legends of the Dordenup people, as other children have had read or told to them the fairy tales of Anderson or Grimm.””An Attempt to Eat the Moon” includes Old Man Rock, The Margaret River, Edareet, and White Hovea; stories which all relate directly to the river and cliffs at Wallcliffe. Now, retelling these stories would seem appropriation, but to the old residents of Wallcliffe, who were taught them by Wadandi custodians, the legends were an integral part of their lives.

(Permission to post image originally granted by Vivienne Webb for Spirit of Place in 2016)

Alfred John Bussell at the osprey nest 1890.

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The osprey nest at Cape Mentelle first appears in recorded history in 1801, when it was noted by Baudin, the captain of a French scientific expedition. Just over 100 years later, it was photographed by an Australian scientist. A.J. Campbell was a bird naturalist, who made a collection of over 500 species of birds eggs. In 1890 he visited Wallcliffe, having heard of the famous osprey nest. John Bussell and a Wadandi man named Edarite took him to visit it. Despite the theft of eggs for science, the nest is still there 127 years later.

Campbells’ article contains a fantastic account of Bussell crossing the rivermouth with his boots in his teeth, which explains why he was photographed without any pants! John grew up with Wadandi custodians of Wallcliffe and spoke fluent Noongar. He compiled a list of 26 bird names which are being used in contemporary language research.

Profiles first published for Margaret River Spirit of Place in 2016

Ellensbrook, the first of the Bussell homesteads, now managed by the National Trust.

Jinni Wilson is an independent anthropologist working in heritage interpretation. Through writing and photography she is exploring ways to connect community and spirit of place. In 2019 she established Earth Sea Star Eco-Heritage tours, looking to share a rich cultural landscape with visitors and foster sustainable tourism.

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