Quoin Bluff

Book page | Updated 1 years ago

History

On 19th December 1849, Mr Daniel Scott, the harbour-master and a merchant from Fremantle, departed in the schooner Pelsart for a 'trip of discovery' off the coast 'to pick up whatever might be thought profitable between this (Fremantle) and Sharks Bay'. He was accompanied by Mr T.F. Gilman, who having discovered guano of a superior quality in the Houtman Abrolhos, would undoubtedly have been able to recognize similar deposits elsewhere. Indeed, his report of 8th March 1850, indicated the presence of guano on Egg Island and a small rock - Guano Rock near the eastern shore of Dirk Hartog Island, situated about 1long mile southward from the Quoin (Quoin Bluff).

In September 1850, new deposits were mooted in Shark Bay and to protect his interests in the area, Scott offered the Government £1 per ton for all other guano discovered. His offer was contingent upon protection offered him against fraudulence on the part of others; a protective force of 15 military to be stationed on Dirk Hartog Island and despatched via the Pelsart; and the guano offered for sale at £5 per ton.

The Governor rejected Scott's offer as he felt it was not expedient to encourage or allow any monopoly of the resource after the expiry of the lease (April 1851). For every ton taken after this time a charge per ton would be levied in order to secure the rights of the Colony and increase colonial revenue. The Secretary of State, Earl Grey, issued instructions to this effect to Governor Fitzgerald. He recommended that a moderate charge would give no strong motives to attempt evasion, and any opportunity of raising a large sum of money would assist with improving the harbour and accelerating other useful public works in the colony. He further suggested that a military detachment might be sent to the vicinity.

Partly to assist in an examination of the Shark Bay and Exmouth Gulf regions, but also anxious to prevent the illegal removal of guano by foreign vessels, protect other economic resources (i.e. fish, pearl shell, sandalwood and other timber) and property interests in the area, the government stationed a protective military force on Dirk Hartog Island.

The Irwin Station was established at Quoin Bluff to protect the valuable guano supplies that had been discovered on the adjacent Egg Island and other smaller islands in 1850. Fifteen troops of the 99th Regiment, under the command of Lieutenant L.R. Elliot, were tasked with this duty. The soldiers arrived from Champion Bay (now Geraldton) in October 1850, and established their camp consisting of a wooden building and tents, and later constructed at least one building from locally available stone. They were armed with two cannon that were placed at the top of the bluff where there was a clear view of the bay.

Map showing the location of Quion Bluff on Dirk Hatog Island

Map showing the location of Quion Bluff
Image copyright WA Museum

Drawing of the major features of the camp at Quion Bluff

The major locations at Quion Bluff
Image copyright WA Museum

The soldiers worked in conjunction with the Colonial schooner Champion, under the command of Captain B.F. Helpman. Helpman was in overall command of the military force in Shark Bay, while Elliot was responsible for land activities. Helpman was frequently absent from the area as he was exploring Shark Bay and Exmouth Gulf to the north.

Elliot's principle duty was the protection of the guano supplies. He was instructed not to allow any vessel whether British or foreign to load guano, shells, timber, or any other produce without specific authority first obtained from the Colonial Secretary's Office. He was also tasked with the exploration of the bay so as to determine what other resources might be exploited to provide valuable income for the Swan River Colony which at that time was desperately in need of money.

Elliot was also instructed to minimize the interaction of the local Aborigines with ships' crews. This was to prevent any disruption to 'peace and order' as the Europeans were seen as intruders in the region. Ships' crews were not permitted to go ashore on the mainland, but restricted to Dirk Hartog Island.

The mining of guano peaked in February 1851, but the supply would not last for much longer. Elliot was told to prepare to move his camp from Quoin Bluff closer to other guano bearing islands and Cape Herrisson was seen as a suitable location. The wooden building in use was to be removed to the new location and a second building was to be sent as quarters for his men. The strength of the garrison was now Elliot, one sergeant and eight rank and file.

In May the camp was moved, and on 10 July 1851, with the guano supplies at the point of being exhausted, the garrison was recalled to Fremantle. Elliot stayed on to complete his survey of the local pearl banks before returning to Fremantle in September.

Archaeology

Quoin Bluff is located on the eastern side of Dirk Hartog Island, which forms the western boundary of Shark Bay. The bluff is sloping limestone formation that extends out into Shark Bay and, as the southern point of Herald Bay, is a prominent navigation point with an excellent all round view of the approaches to Egg Island.

It is probable that the Irwin Station has been relatively undisturbed for up to a hundred years, with only a small number of people who knew that the site existed visiting it. Over the past several decades, however, the site has been more frequently visited. Evidence of occupation is still visible but is disappearing from the site.

The visible remains of the site are located within a small area of 60mx60m. The remains of one building are immediately visible upon entry to the site, as it has been built up the sloping side of the cliff so that it overlooks the camp. This building has been designated Building One. The remains of another building or structure are indicated by a surface layer of flat stones that have been roughly formed into a rectangular shape. This has been called Building Two. Between the two is another collection of stones that may represent a third structure, or may be discarded stones.

Building One is the most identifiable feature of the site second only to the jetty that is more readily visible. It is set mid way up the cliff and overlooks the rest of the site. It is roughly rectangular with an entrance located on the western side (front) facing the site.

The building has been constructed with local limestone pieces that show no signs of prior preparation or masonry work and which have been placed or stacked into position without the use of mortar. The thickness of the walls is fairly uniform each being about 0.5m thick. The south-west corner is greatly disturbed with a large amount of rubble having fallen within the building. Stone rubble also extends out and down the slope about 1m from the western wall. It is likely that the current floor level is set upon fallen stones indicating that the walls were at one time higher than they are now. It is possible that the original floor surface has been protected by the fallen material. The building is set into the cliff face, the rear of the building having been dug out of the cliff.

From what remains of the walls it is not yet possible to elaborate as to the original design of the building—what roof structure was present (was it pitched or a simple sloping roof) and possibly possessed windows. Certainly these features would relate to the function of the building. If it was a store or magazine it may have had solid walls, but if it was Elliot's quarters then it may have had windows.

Little remains of the second structure (Building Two) other than a layer of stones that roughly indicates its layout. The absence of stones in the north-east corner may indicate a doorway or simply that stones from here are missing. This may have been the location of a large tent that was used as quarters for the enlisted men. It is also possible that the wooden building known to have been at the site may have been located here and that the stones that are seen today formed part of a perimeter for the building.

Plan of the main building at Quion Bluff

The main building
Image copyright WA Museum

The jetty is approximately 100m long and orientated along a north–south axis. It is in two parts with a break of 8m between 72 and 80m from its beginning at the shoreline. It is built from local limestone and is very crude in its current state. It is likely that what remains is only the base and that a once higher, smoother surface once existed and has collapsed onto itself over the years. An alternative suggestion was that the stones were once covered by wooden planks, however no sign of such construction could be found.

The jetty is submerged at high tide, which is the ideal time to bring boats close into shore, therefore it is logical to think that the height of the jetty would have been higher when it was constructed. At low tide the jetty is fully exposed.

The small number of surface artefacts located during the inspection demonstrates how the archaeology of the site has degraded over the years and the disappearance of artefacts from the site appears to have accelerated over the past twenty years.

An assemblage of steel artefacts recovered from Quion Bluff

Artefacts from Quion Bluff
Image copyright WA Museum