This article was written for the Esperance Tide, a lovely local publication that I’ve been writing the ‘5 Minute History’ column for. I think this is one of the most fascinating stories of our early history. The photograph, courtesy of the Esperance Museum, is of Sarah Brooks on her one trip to Perth, the only time she left the Esperance area after arriving here as a 24-year-old.
In 1850, a young couple, Mrs and Mr Henry Ferby Brooks sailed from England to Australia. They had with them their two-year-old son John Paul, and their baby daughter, Sarah, who was born on the ship, just before it set sail. Mrs Brooks’ unmarried sister, Mary Jane Donovan, was also on board. Just three months after they arrived at their new home in Geelong, Victoria, Henry Brooks contracted typhoid and died. His widow, Mrs Emily Brooks, was only 18 years old. She and Mary Jane helped to support each other until Mary Jane married a wealthy pastoralist in 1854. After this, Emily opened up a small, exclusive school to support herself and her two young children, which she ran for many years.
When John Paul left school, he worked for his wealthy uncle, Mary Jane’s husband Thomas Edols, for a while. After Emily had a falling out with Thomas, John Paul leased property and tried his hand at dairy farming. It was not a successful venture, and a year later, in 1874, Mrs Emily Brooks, Sarah and John Paul all sailed to Albany, determined to settle in the Esperance area. At the time, the fledgeling Western Australian government was advertising generous leases in the area, hoping to attract new settlers. The little family applied for a lease of 100,000 acres in the Esperance area, bought a horse, cart, and a tent, and set out from Albany to their new home. They had with them two pet dogs, two pigs, and a cockatoo in a cage. The cart was loaded with all of their possessions, so the family had to walk alongside, camping in their tent at night, and sometimes staying at homesteads that they came across. When they arrived in Esperance, they were received warmly at the Dempster Homestead but continued on to their new home at Point Malcolm, near Israelite Bay. The small family bought 400 sheep and built a very simple house called Marlburup. Not long after they settled at Point Malcolm, John Paul left his mother and sister and went exploring towards Eucla. He took with him an Aboriginal man, Jackie, and three white men. Later on, it became apparent that two of these three men were actually escaped convicts who were trying to travel to South Australia. John Paul realised that most of the good land around Eucla was already taken, and he returned to the settlement at Point Malcolm, barely surviving the return journey due to running out of supplies.
The family managed to scrape out a living from the harsh land, eventually moving to a new, stone house called Waratah. John Paul became the first linesman at the Telegraph station at Israelite Bay. Sarah, who was an accomplished pianist, painted well, and could speak several languages, would have been a very eligible bachelorette in the new settlement of Esperance. However, her mother reportedly would not let her marry, as she wanted Sarah to have a wealthy suitor. John Paul built a new stone house at Balbinia, which is still there to this day, and he and his mother moved in. Sarah stayed at Waratah on her own, until it burnt down, and she moved into Balbinia.
In 1883, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller placed an advertisement in the West Australian newspaper, asking for settlers in different areas of Western Australia to send him botanical samples. Von Mueller was one of the most famous botanists of the day. He was the government-appointed botanist Victoria, and later on, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. Sarah Brooks started sending him samples of the plants that grew around the Israelite Bay area. Sarah sent hundreds of botanical samples to von Mueller, and von Mueller returned the favour by naming two different plants after Sarah, Scaevola Brooksiana and Hakea Brooksiana. Sarah was also a keen gardener and propagated many plants. Sarah and John Paul also both wrote articles for von Mueller which were published in journals, describing the landscape, geology, and fauna of the Esperance region. In John Paul’s article, he described Israelite Bay and the surrounding area in great detail. He also quoted some of the Aboriginal names for features of the area, showing that he had learned at least a little from the First People of the area.
Mrs Emily Brooks died in 1910 after suffering a broken hip some years earlier. She had been bedridden for years due to the pain from her hip. Sarah and John Paul buried her at Balbinia. Sarah had not been out of the area since she arrived from Albany in 1874. In 1927, Sarah travelled to Perth, at the age of 77. She commented that ‘the chief thing that surprised me was the noise in Perth.’ Sarah also commented on the flowers that were abundant in Perth. In 1928, the neighbours found Sarah semi paralysed after she had suffered a stroke at Balbinia. They took her to Norseman in their 2 seater Buick, but Sarah died there in the hospital and is buried in the Norseman cemetery. In 1930, the same neighbours, the Dimers, found John Paul, lying injured in a paddock. He had been lying out in the open for two days, and he died later from exposure. He is buried with his mother at Balbinia.
One of the Brooks’ contemporaries, Mrs Crocker of Balladonia, wrote of the Brooks family that ‘…theirs was a sad chapter… Miss Brooks came to the district as a charming and accomplished young woman of twenty and truly wasted her sweetness on the desert air.’ This may have been so, but the Brooks also proved themselves to be resilient and determined, and Sarah’s efforts certainly helped to discover and catalogue many of the plants of the area. They were true pioneers whose legacy continues to this day.