Mining, Murder and Mayhem

Whim Creek Of the many graves in the Whim Creek Cemetery, only four are identifiable, and only two have headstones. Both headstones are broken, but the words on that of Thomas Darlington suggest a mystery. "…Killed at Whim Creek, 24th December 1911… Erected by his fellow unionists…" 

Killed on Christmas Eve… And why did his fellow unionists pay for the memorial?

In the bar of the Whim Creek Hotel, on the opposite side of the North West Coastal Highway, an aged patron known only as Frank, was delighted to relate the folklore. "Thomas Darlington was murdered in this very bar, late at night on Christmas Eve in 1911. His throat was cut by an Italian scab during a dispute at a union meeting. Later, when the sixteen men who were witnesses to the crime were aboard a steamer and on their way to give evidence at the trial, a cyclone blew up. The ship was lost with all hands."

It was a neat tragedy, but verbal history is unreliable and folklore builds myths into a distortion of the fact. This brief story demanded further investigation.

What was the reason feelings ran so strongly that a union dispute resulted in murder? Why was the meeting being held so late in the evening on Christmas Eve? What happened to the killer? What of the other unionists? Why didn't they help? Did they feel responsible that their inaction resulted in Thomas Darlington's death and so paid for the headstone on his grave to assuage their guilt?

It helps to understand the history and the working conditions at the Whim Well Copper Mine before these questions can be answered. In 1877, copper was discovered and a mine opened at Whim Well, midway between Roebourne and Port Hedland. Before long a store and hotel were established at the nearby Whim Creek to serve the mine. Whim Creek developed into one of the first towns in the Pilbara. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it had a population of four hundred people who were served by two hotels, a general store, stables and a blacksmith's shop. It also boasted a race course. In the year, 2001, everything had disappeared apart from the Whim Creek Hotel, the solitary survivor of this once prosperous mining town. But even the Whim Creek Hotel is not as it was. Built in 1898, it was initially called Delaney's Public House. The second hotel, the Federal, has long since disappeared. It was previously called Dunn's Public House, but had also been renamed. The reason the hotels were renamed is unknown. Maybe the owners thought hotel suggested a more sophisticated enterprise than public house. Another report states that Whim Creek had a population of nearly three thousand, but this is unconfirmed. It also claims the town had four public houses, but that is not correct. This confusion may have resulted due to both hotels changing their names.

The Whim Well Copper Mine was the first of the Pilbara mines and the largest in the early 1900s. It continued with sporadic production until the 1960s. In the early days of the mine the high grade ore, assaying at 27.6 percent, was bagged for shipment and transported to a new jetty at Balla Balla for loading into ships. Initially this was by horse and wagon, but in 1908 a narrow gauge railway was built and ran until 1917 when the line was closed. Motorised transport then took over the task of carrying the ore.

Like Whim Well, Balla Balla no longer exists.

The train also carried passengers who to travelled on a flat wagon at the rear. The wagon had no sides nor seats and the passengers perched precariously on their luggage, or whatever they could find, fully exposed to the elements for the sixteen miles (26km) journey.

Working conditions at the Whim Well Copper Mine were even worse than the discomfort of the train and the miners were exploited. Many of them were recruited in the south of Western Australia, or the eastern states, with promises of good wages, accommodation and food. They were brought by ship to Balla Balla at the company's expense, but once at Whim Well they discovered conditions were not as they had been represented. It was not a happy working environment.

One unexpected cost was their accommodation. They had to pay if they used that provided by the company and in addition supply their own food, which was only available from the company store at inflated prices. As a result many miners were paying back most of their wages to the mine owners and were unable to leave because they had insufficient money for their return fare to the south. The words of the song, about a miner owing his soul to the company store, are not without foundation.

Because of the exorbitant charges it became common practice for miners to camp out in the bush. The conditions in these camps were no better than in the company accommodation, and often worse, but it was less expensive

However, there was one imposition compounding their misery that the miners could not escape. While working in the mine they were not allowed to talk, nor even whistle. Just why the management imposed such draconian restrictions is not recorded, but these controls were not unusual in the early 1900s.

Adding to the miners difficulties were the heat, the willy-willies (cyclones), the rain and insects. One report, dated 1901, relates temperatures of 120 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit (49 to 52 degrees Celsius).

In 1910, George Bennetts was twenty years old and mining in Boulder when he, and three mates decided to try their luck at the Whim Well Mine. After the first morning's work they'd had their fill of the conditions and walked away from the mine heading for Roebourne, sixty-nine miles (110km) away. They had covered only half the distance when the police caught up with them and served a summons. If they didn't return to Whim Creek within twenty-four hours, they would be tried in absentia for breach of contract. When they were taken to court, they were fined ten pounds each, or one month in jail, but George Bennetts was determined to leave the Whim Well Mine and walked away. When he reached Roebourne, he was jailed for the night, but released after he'd paid his fine.

Understandably, the miners' union had a strong following in the Whim Well Mine, but despite the iniquitous conditions many miners refused to join. This caused considerable friction between union members and non-members. At Christmas 1911, this animosity erupted in violence and murder.

The story of the murder of Thomas Darlington is more involved than the simplified version related in the folklore. Some facts too are different.

Thomas Darlington was a thirty-three years old miner from Eaglehawk (Bendigo) in Victoria, a married man with a family. In 1911 He was one of many men working at the Whim Well Copper Mine who objected strongly to the conditions and was a staunch supporter of the union. On the evening of December 23, 1911, he was attending a union meeting in the bar of the Federal Hotel at Whim Creek.

At about ten o'clock an argument developed between Thomas Darlington and two Italian non-unionists, Lawrince Cappelli and Joseph Seleno. During the argument Darlington called the Italians scabs, and a few blows were exchanged.

At this point the licensee, Thomas Hill, evicted the participants in the argument, but the confrontation continued to escalate on the front verandah where Thomas Darlington and Joseph Seleno "…got into holds…". Seleno drew a knife and stabbed Darlington several times. One wound extended about four inches from the back of his neck to his windpipe and was about two inches deep. The artery had been severed. Darlington staggered back into the bar, only to collapse on the floor which rapidly pooled with blood, which was also splattered across the walls and boxes. Although first aid was rendered and a man rushed for the doctor, Darlington bled to death before medical assistance arrived. The time was ten-fifteen.

A newspaper report states that during the fight Thomas Darlington was getting the better of Seleno. As a result, Cappelli passed a knife to his fellow Italian. This report is not a first hand account and conflicts with some details of the police report, so cannot be relied on.

Seleno and Cappelli bolted to their camp, about a mile from the hotel. Police Constable Growden, with the help of a miner, Matthew Murphy, gave chase. He found Seleno stripped and attempting to clean himself, his arms, hands, face, chest and back covered in still moist blood. PC Growden cautioned and arrested Seleno, who then admitted he had killed Darlington. Seleno then showed Constable Growden his singlet and trousers, which were also saturated with blood.

When asked about the weapon he produced a pocket knife with two blades, the largest, which was scalpel sharp, was about two inches long. Although it had been cleaned it still had traces of blood adhering to the metal. Seleno acknowledged it was the knife he had used to kill Darlington.

Constable Growden then questioned Cappelli about the murder of Darlington, but he denied being involved, claiming to have been in the camp all evening. Growden was not satisfied with his protestations of innocence and arrested him for being an accessory in the murder.

By ten-forty both men were secured in chains at the Police Station.

When Constable Growden examined Thomas Darlington's body, he found several knife cuts on his legs, back and shoulder.

The acting coroner, Dr Shelmerdine, held an inquest on the morning of Sunday, 24 December, which was adjourned to 29 December. The funeral took place at two o'clock on the afternoon of 24 December. On the headstone this date is incorrectly recorded as the date of his death.

At the resumed hearing twenty-three witnesses gave evidence. The verdict was that Thomas Henry Darlington met his death at the Federal Hotel, Whim Creek, on the night of 23rd December, as a result of a knife in the neck. The wound was inflicted by Joseph Seleno, and that Lawrince Cappelli was an accessory before and after the fact. The two prisoners were committed for trial at the Supreme Court, Perth, for the wilful murder of Thomas Darlington.

Both men had previous convictions.

Seleno was an ex-French soldier who, it was rumoured, had escaped from a French penal station. He had discharge papers from the French Army for disorderly conduct and had been implicated in assault and robbery. Two months prior to killing Darlington, he had been convicted of disorderly conduct by fighting in a public place. During this fight he used his feet in preference to his fists, kicking his opponent in the testicles and stomach deliberately and repeatedly.

Cappelli had twelve previous convictions and used two aliases, Catallini and Giovani Penoldi.

Establishing the date of the next episode of the story is difficult. The police report is undated, simply referring to the terrific gales early in the morning of the 22nd ult., [1912]. [ ult. (Ultimo) was commonly used in correspondence during the first half of the twentieth century to mean of last month.] The gales in the north were also featured in a newspaper report on March 23, 1912, giving the impression that they were still current. However, as the trial took place in Roebourne on March 23, and the accused and witnesses were all embroiled in the gales at Balla Balla, the gales must have occurred earlier. The month referred to in the police report as ult., can only be February. The following is based on that report.

On the afternoon of the 21st a gale developed off the coast near Balla Balla and built to become a cyclone. Several ships were anchored off Depuch Island, thirty miles (fifty kilometres) to the east, during loading operations by lighters from Balla Balla. One of the survivors, Captain Olsen of the Norwegian ship, the Crown of England, estimated the wind speed at 100 knots (greater than 180 kilometres per hour).

An account of the experience by another survivor confirms the violence and gives some idea of the ferocity of the storm. After The the Crown of England had foundered first mate, Mathias Holst, was washed over the starboard bow by a huge wave into the raging waters, only to be hurled back over the ship by another breaking sea. He was then caught by yet another wave which deposited him high on the rocks of the shore, from where he was able to scramble to safety.

During the cyclone five vessels were driven ashore on Depuch Island. Two of them were ocean going ships loading copper ore from the mine. At two in the morning the three anchor cables of the Crown of England, parted. She was driven ashore on one of the most rugged stretches of the coast and by first light the ship was a total wreck. All that remained was a mass of shattered timber and iron. The Crown of England, an iron ship of one thousand eight hundred and forty-seven tons, had been built in England in 1883. She had in her holds over one thousand tons of copper ore from the Whim Well Copper Mine. Eight crew members lost their lives. The bodies of six of them were recovered and were buried on Depuch Island the next day.

The barque, Concordia, also registered in Norway, was the other ship loading copper ore. She had about one thousand five hundred tons of ore aboard. Like the Crown of England, she similarly parted three anchor cables and was driven ashore about an hour later, close to the ill-fated Crown of England. However, she struck on a sandy beach with little damage. No lives were lost on this vessel.

Other ships to founder included the schooner Enterprise and the lighter Clyo. Both were driven onto rocks and became total losses. Aboard the Enterprise one of the crew members managed to get a lifeline to the shore and the crew and two passengers all reached land safely. Those aboard the Clyo were not so fortunate, one crew member and three passengers were killed.

The lighter Steady, the fifth vessel to strand, was luckier. Like the Concordia, she was washed ashore on the beach and escaped without damage. The Steady had a crew of three and carried eight passengers, several of whom were witnesses in the trial of Rex-V-Seleno. The passengers were awaiting the arrival of the SS Bullarra for passage to Roebourne where the trial was to take place. Everyone reached shore safely.

Two of the passengers who died aboard the Clyo, were Thomas James Hill, the landlord of the Federal Hotel, and Edward Peter Maginnis, the wharfinger (harbour master) in charge of Balla Balla harbour. They were also waiting for passage to Roebourne aboard the SS Bullarra to give witness in the Seleno trail. The body of the third passenger, Robert Thompson, was never recovered, but Thomas Hill and Edward Maginnis were buried in Balla Balla cemetery.

As is often the case the folklore is unreliable and the verbal history that all sixteen witnesses in the Seleno trial lost their lives in the cyclone is an exaggeration. This fable is also repeated in a published account of Thomas Darlington's grave with a variation that the witnesses were sailing aboard the Crown of England and the Concordia.

Seleno and Cappelli went on trial at Roebourne on March 23, 1912, where Mr Norbert Keenan, King's Counsel, was the Supreme Court Commissioner appointed by the Western Australian Government. Seleno was found guilty and sentenced to three years hard labour. Cappelli was acquitted.

At a time when the death penalty was the usual punishment for murder, this light sentence is remarkable. Especially so when the accused had admitted his guilt, had a criminal record and was, moreover, from a non Anglo-Saxon background. It raises a number of questions.

As a King's Counsel, the Commissioner would have been part of the affluent establishment. He would have probably had friends and acquaintances who owned shares in mining ventures, maybe even in the Whim Well Copper Mine itself. Possibly he had an interest on his own account. He would be unlikely to be sympathetic to the Union Movement nor the Australian Labor Party, which was a development of the unions.

The Labor Party would have been seen as a rising danger by the establishment. This fear would have been fuelled when the Labor Party won power in the Federal Elections in 1910, and also in several State Elections, New South Wales and South Australia in 1910, and Western Australia 1911. After these ALP successes the establishment would have been anxious to discourage any potential supporters for this new threat to their lifestyle.

In view of Seleno's criminal record it seems unlikely that Mr Norbert Keenan, K.C. would have been influenced by his cooperation and admission of guilt. Although it seems improbable, is it possible that Keenan held ideas about social reforms? Or did he pass such a lenient sentence as a reward for an act against the unions and a warning to supporters of the Australian Labor Party?

Whim Creek Cemetery

Thomas Henry Darlington

Although Thomas Darlington's headstone is now broken the inscription is still clear;

In loving memory of


Killed at Whim Creek

24th December 1911

Aged 34 years Erected by his fellow unionists


Norman Harold Gordon

The other headstone in the Whim Creek Cemetery is that of Norman Gordon. Like the headstone on Darlington's grave, that on Gordon's grave is broken.

The inscription gives no clue to his life nor the manner of his death;

In loving memory

(at rest)


third son of


of Inverell, N.S.W.

born at Armidale N. S.W.

16th August 1879

Accidentally killed at Whim Creek, W.A.

27th July 1907

Rest In Peace

Erected by his sorrowing parents.


Balla Balla Cemetery

Thomas James Hill and Edward Peter Maginnis

Balla Balla jetty was about sixteen miles (twenty-six kilometres) to the north of Whim Well. The last part of the journey is across salt flats. The cemetery is about one kilometre before the site of the jetty, on a small spinifex covered rise, to the west of the track. It is delineated by four galvanised steel posts, but cemetery is an over-grand description. There is no fence and the rise is very small, less than two metres high. Just two identifiable graves occupy the site, with little room to spare.

At the northern end a shattered headstone identifies the last resting place of Thomas Hill. Broken iron railings set in concrete surround the grave. The inscription is;

In loving memory of

Thomas James

eldest son of

Thomas W. and Mary A. Hill

and brother of

Ethel E. Crocker

The remainder of the inscription is indecipherable and the lower section of the headstone is missing.

At the southern end of the cemetery, another grave is outlined with rocks, but without any indication of who was buried at that place. It is almost certainly the grave of Edward Peter Maginnis, the wharfinger at Balla Balla, who died with Thomas Hill when the Clyo was driven ashore.


© Jim Ditchfield

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