Friday, 11 July 2008

Everyday Heroes (No.2)

Captain Theophilus T. Ellis

Now, there’s a name to remember and a great name for a character in a book! When I do write about him though, it will be about him entirely. No made-up character. A novel, not an academic history. That way, more people will read it. References to him in history books so far, tend to be oblique –‘only one white man’.

I came across Capt. Ellis when I finished my degree and got a job in ethnohistoric research. For two years, I sat in the State Archive Library poring over the diaries, logs, journals and letters of the early settlers, gleaning every piece of information I could find about the Aborigines who lived in WA around the time of first white settlement (1829 onwards). I was working for a committee of historians and archaeologists who were putting together a biographical dictionary. It was an interesting job, but very frustrating. Early treatment of the Aboriginal people frequently had me grinding my teeth or even reduced to tears.

One day, the committee asked me if I’d copy out the 1833 - 1834 Colonial Secretary’s records of the daily log of the ‘Superintendent of Native Tribes’. I’m not sure why they wanted that particular volume copied, but copy it I did – in long-hand of course. No lovely laptops in those days. As I copied it, I became more and more interested in the man writing it – Theophilus T. Ellis. Things about him set him apart from the other settlers I’d read about.

Ellis arrived in WA aged 48 in 1830, apparently not married. He’d served in India and was assigned over 2000 acres of land on arrival. He became ‘Superintendent of Native Tribes’ in 1833 and was stationed at Mt Eliza on the banks of the Swan River in Perth. Each day, to try to stop theft of settlers’ property, the local Aboriginal tribes would come for their daily rations of flour. That was part of Ellis’s job. Capturing those who did anything against the settlers was also his job.

As I read his log, I could feel the frustration he must have felt. He really cared for these people. Yes, he was a man of the 19th Century, so he saw them more as children than as equals, but his sympathy for them shone through in his writing. The Aborigines suffered greatly from diseases new to them and Ellis did his best for them -

Monday 23rd December 1833
Migo, having gone with his mother to see Marungo her husband, who is ill at Monger’s Lake, on Saturday, was unable to return. I therefore went this morning to the lake and found him in a very weak state. He appears to have his lungs much affected. I brought him home on my horse. He is scarcely able to stand. Towards evening, Migo so feverish and appearing in danger, I thought it necessary to have immediate advice. Dr Davison 21st Regt. was kind enough to come and see him and, having taken some blood from him, sent a blister. I applied it to that part of his side where he complained most of pain. I also bathed his legs and feet in hot water, which produced a copious perspiration.

On another occasion, a couple wanting to marry - against tribal law - came to Ellis for help to escape. In the middle of the night he rowed them across the river in his boat, taking them to what he described as ‘their Australian Gretna Green’.

All the time, he was hampered by drunken soldiers who were assigned to his command. With no other officer to help him, he fought hard for respect. Local settlers, who he’d had dealings with in his other role as a magistrate, took great delight in hiding Aborigines he had been charged to find, or giving them rations when he’d denied them as punishment. Added to that, his knee gave him a great deal of pain. Often he found himself riding miles in agony through the rain, when his doctor had ordered bed rest.

As I came towards the end of the log, I began to feel very sad for this man that I’d grown to like. The incidents he wrote of were to lead to consequences for him that he couldn’t imagine.

In October, 1834 a party of soldiers, led by Governor James Stirling and including Ellis and five of his ‘policemen’, rode to Pinjarra in search of two Aborigines wanted for crimes against settlers. It was believed the Binjarup tribe were hiding them. As they approached, the party split into two. Ellis and his 5 men rode into the camp. Stirling and his twenty soldiers rode up the other side of the river, in case the men tried to escape.

As the police party rode in, one of the wanted men was seen. A policeman shot at him. Then all hell broke loose. Soon shots were being fired and spears thrown in all directions. Stirling’s men stood on the far bank picking off anyone who tried to escape. Women, children, it didn’t matter, if they tried to escape they were shot. The result is known in the history books as ‘The Battle of Pinjarra’. Others refer to it as a ‘massacre’ and I’m inclined to agree.

But having got to know Captain Ellis through his writing, I can only imagine him watching in horror and thinking ‘This wasn’t meant to happen’. Estimates of Aboriginal deaths that day range from 30-80, depending on who is telling the story. But there was ‘only one white man’ who died – Captain Theophilus T. Ellis. A small white cross in the graveyard in Pinjarra is his memorial. That, and the ‘honour’ of being on the police roll as the first policeman killed on duty in Western Australia.

Yes, he deserves a book.


Luc2 said...

Fascinating tale, Kate. Definitely worth a book.

Kate said...

Can't you just see me, writing that last battle scene, Luc? ;) Perhaps I'd better send that chapter to you?

KarenJ said...

Thank You so much Kate for your insight into a man whom I have been researching for many years. Captain Theophilus Tighe Ellis was my 3x Great uncle. I have been trying to put together a history of Theophilus and his sisters family who travelled with him to Australia.
Thank you once again

Kate said...

Wow, Karen! I'm glad the blog came in useful for you. How I'd love to trade info! You have an ancestor to be proud of IMHO. Are you in Australia or Britain? If there's anything I can help you with, please let me know. I've just edited my profile, so you can contact me privately if you wish. And happy researching!

Raechel said...

i am related to him too!!! somehow...i don't know how. through my dad's side i am guessing.

but THANK YOU!! i have been trying to find info on Theo for AGES!!

Emma said...

Hi Karen and Kate

My name is Emma Margetts and I am an artist who has been asked to do a painting about Captain Ellis! I can't believe that I may have traced a possible ancestor of his .../ I have been searching for months to find an image of his relative to use as reference for his portrait ... I have heaps of information about him ... are you interested in exchanging resources???? Emma

Emma said...

Hi Kate, Karen and Rachael

Emma again, I was in a bit of a rush when I wrote that last comment, so I have returned to fill in a few more details. I live in Western Australia, Perth and I have bee asked by the WA Police to paint a memorial painting about T.T Ellis's death. This painting will be part of 25 other paintings all dedicated to people who are known to have lost their lives at the Battle/Massacre at Pinjarra. The Police have been very helpful assisting me with my research and I have a wonderful image in my head of the man, your blog Kate was very helpful also. However, there is still one missing piece ... we have been hoping to find an image of a relative or likeness to the man in question to assist my reconstruction of him in paint. We uncovered Ellis's Irish landed gentry ancestory but still no image! We also traced his sister to Tasmania where she remarried and became a Bolger, but still no living relatives appeared to us. If there is any possiblity that either Karen or Raechel would be willing to share a photograph or two with me, I would be over the moon! I am collaborating with some Indigenous artsist to create this painting, it is due to be completed mid november (2009). The entire exhibition will open in February (Perth) and then go on tour around Australia for 2010. So time is of the essence, if I have found some obliging relatives of this very interesting man.

Warm regards


Anonymous said...

Hi Emma
Thanks so much for getting in touch with us. T T Ellis arrived in Australia along with his sister and 9 of her 10 children. I have seen a photograph of his great newphew Edward Robert Bolger from Victor Harbor Sth Aust. My own son has many resemblances with his 4X great grand father. If you would like more info feel free to email me at

Kate said...

Hi Emma,
Sorry I didn't get back to you earlier. I'm glad Karen caught your note. Sounds like you've got a lead! I expect you've already pillaged the Battye Library? I never saw any images of him or his sister, though I have a very clear picture of him in my mind. It will be interesting to see how your painting comes out. I'll keep an eye out for the exhibition and come down to see it (I don't want to say where I live, but it's not far from Perth.)Good luck!

Emma said...

Hi Karen and Kate

Wow, I am so exited that you both have responded and yes Karen, I will contact you on you email, this afternoon. Kate, I am very interested in the letters that you had to transcibe from Ellis, can you tell me were your transcriptions are kept? Also I will let you know when the exhibition opens too!

Have to go, but will be in contact soon



Emma said...

Hi Kate

In your last response, you mentioned that you had a very clear image of Ellis in your mind. I was wondering, if you have the time, you wouldn't mind sharing this with me? From the perspective of a writer and an artist yourself, I am facinated to know how you percieved the man i have been researching for months. I have read you blog and I enjoy the way you write ... if you have the time to indulge me with a few lines of descpitive prose based on your vision of the man, I would be most grateful!

Many thanks



Kate said...

Hi Emma,
Sorry, I've been at work and not had time to write back to you. Do you have an email I can send my 'image' to, rather than put it here? If so, please let me know at the email address on my profile. I'll write something tonight while I'm thinking about it.