Thomas and Eliza Little

Thomas Little

from notes by Stephen Lally and an article published in The Skeleton (2003)

Thomas and Eliza were no ordinary couple. They succeeded where others failed and their story describes life two hundred years ago and the enormous contrasts to life today.

Thomas Little was born near Loughrea, Co. Galway, into a family with declining fortunes. He faced poverty, hard work and the frequent famines that wracked Ireland. He was employed as a gardener but he had the drive and ambition to do better for himself and he was one of the very few Irish emigrants to make a success of his life, although not in the way success is commonly judged.

In 1822 he married Eliza Lally, his first cousin. She was three years older than him and can have been no ordinary woman. Her background of poverty in the Galway countryside must have helped her endure the great privations and indignities of a soldier’s wife and she played an active and vital part in their successful life partnership.

In 1823, during one of the frequent famines, Thomas, with Eliza, and three brothers joined the East India Company Army, in the Artillery which was the superior force only open to tall, healthy men. This offered them security and a life of adventure. On the four month sea voyage to Calcutta they experienced terrifying storms, heat and calm and all the stresses inevitable when crammed in such a confined space with 200 soldiers. Yet Eliza, living in close, intimate proximity to all these rough men, gave birth to their first child as they crossed the equator.

Arriving safely in Calcutta they had to adapt to a new life in many ways in a very unfamiliar land and under military discipline. But within the first year Thomas and Eliza escaped the communal life of the barracks and he was eventually seconded to work for the Public Works Department of the East India Company. This job took him into the Indian countryside, travelling on foot for many weeks, at least in the early days. He helped to build new infrastructure, working closely with local people with whom he developed a great empathy.

No record survives of how Thomas built his moderate wealth or how he began to mix with the greatest people in Bengal society, despite facing discrimination on the grounds of his lowly background and being Irish and a Catholic. However, he eventually joined with some of these great men, both British and Indian, in an enterprise to capitalise on the potential of the very new colony of Western Australia. With a population of less than 2000 settlers at this time, this vast area was seen by the entrepreneurs of British India as a natural extension to their field of influence, as were Singapore, Straits Settlements and Penang. India was much closer to them than was Britain.

By 1837 all of Thomas’ and Eliza’s brothers had died, all before their thirtieth birthdays and they had lost at least one of their own children. This was not unusual in India where British mortality ran at 69 per thousand per annum and only 8% of deaths were of people over 40. More than a third of children died before their sixth birthday. It was remarkable that any couple should survive as long as Thomas and Eliza and they must have wondered when disease or injury would overtake them too. They and their family sailed into the Indian Ocean on yet another new and risky venture, to a land of opportunity and a much healthier climate, taking with them every piece of equipment they would need, livestock and a team of servants to help them establish a new home.

Thomas went as the agent of Charles Prinsep, later to be the Advocate General of Bengal, to buy land and set up an agricultural enterprise, primarily aimed at breeding horses. Great trust must have been placed in Thomas as, with return communications with his principal in India being at least 4 months, he had to make quick commercial decisions as opportunities arose. Thomas must have been successful as he remained Prinsep’s agent for seventeen years.

On February 4, 1838, Thomas Little, wife and family arrived in Fremantle on board the Gaillardon from Calcutta carrying 36 passengers, 18 convicts and 23 Indian labourers. His mission was to found a new Prinsep Estate to supplement those already existing in Van Diemen’s Land and Singapore.

Little left for Bunbury a week after his arrival where he found it surprisingly difficult to obtain land. By the beginning of 1839 Littie had decided to purchase the tongue of land lying between Leschenault Inlet and the Indian Ocean, consisting of 18,832 acres of sand hills with some richer flats along the shore of the inlet. This would enable him to start farming operations while he waited for better land to become available in 1840 or 1841. On the flats he set up the homestead named “Belvidere” in honour of the Prinsep home in Calcutta.

Visitors would tie up their horses at Wattle Point, immediately opposite Belvedere and call across the water. Except in a wild northwest wind, the call would be heard and the rowboat sent across to fetch the visitors from across the inlet. Thomas Little watched the arrival of the first Australind settlers in 1841.

The Prinsep Estate soon developed into a horse and cattle venture. Two herds, one of English and one of Bengali cattle or water buffalo were kept at the “Bengal Station” at the extreme end of the property. The water buffalo initially used for ploughing and as beasts of burden were cared for by four Indian labourers. These Indians and their families were Catholics from the old Portuguese colony of Goa and were not a success as labourers. The climate did not agree with them and they objected to the loneliness. Some escaped and returned to their own country.

One who retired from farming activities and lived on the inlet as a fisherman, drew his boat up on the Australind shore and died of a heart attack on the beach. He is buried at the old Australind cemetery outside the present enclosure.

By 1851 there were 162 head of Bengal cattle on Bengal Station and like the English cattle they were sold on the local market to cattle dealers who drove them to Perth to meet the demand for food by the convicts and wardens. The homestead, which was built on the Bengal Station, was named Buffalo and was subsequently rented to a family of English settlers called Jackson.

Thomas Jackson and James Maguire of Dardanup were firm friends and through this friendship the Buffalo homestead became the centre of activity in the dramatic escape of Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly in 1869.

In addition to the Belvidere property, Prinsep acquired two blocks at Dardanup, Paradise Farm and Prinsep Park, as well as James Henty’s land at Dardanup. Prinsep Park was established under Thomas Little’s guidance and is privately owned by the Goyder family today.

As was common in the freewheeling business atmosphere of the time, Thomas accumulated land of his own and ultimately left the employ of Prinsep to manage his own agricultural land and to build one of the finest houses in Western Australia, Dardanup Park in 1851.

It was on this land that he and his son successfully settled Irish immigrants, allotting each man sufficient land to support himself and a family. Little first had a portion cleared and planted a few fruit trees. To tide his charges over the initial stages he gave them employment, and within a few years the settlement proved a success. In Bishop Salvardo’s survey of Catholics in WA* the Little household and family totalled 76 out of Dardanup’s total population of 111.

Little was one of the first major wine producers in the area and experimented with other crops such as figs to establish what was best for the soil and climate. He was involved with other business opportunities, such as logging, as they arose. Thomas was an early participator in horse racing. He was one of the first Justices of the Peace.

In addition to his farming operations,he found time to take part in public affairs in his district. He was a member of the first Bunbury Town Trust in 1843 and later advocated a road to the capital, asked for bridges over the Collie and Preston Rivers, and for financial assistance to make the streets of Bunbury.

In 1946 descendants of the early immigrants were still on the original farms and Little’s name was still remembered. Thomas Little donated land in 1854 for a church and school to be built in Dardanup and took particular care in their establishment. Thomas Little was a devout Catholic, and frequently recorded in Archdeacon Wollaston’s (Church of England chaplain) journal, where he states: “Although a Roman Catholic he is a very excellent settler”.

Thomas and Eliza were known for their hospitality to people of all types, often at the same time with interesting results. But where they stood out was in their philanthropy. They were devoted Catholics and were instrumental in establishing the Catholic church in their area. In the face of local antagonism, they were major benefactors of Catholic Sisters who had arrived to care for the poor and they supported groups of young Catholic girls who arrived to overcome the shortage of wives and domestic servants.

Sadly, this great generosity was instrumental in their downfall as, when bad economic conditions combined with several years of drought, they had no reserves. The house and land was sold to creditor George Shenton Snr in the late 1860s, before Shenton’s death in 1867.

Eliza died suddenly in the midst of this bad time, in 1866. Thomas lived another eleven years, dying in 1877.

In 1877 Thomas Little, passed away at Dardanup. The properties were put up for sale by George Shenton Jnr in 1878 (Western Australian Times, Friday 15 February 1878), apparently part of his late father’s estate, George Shenton Snr, who had died in 1867. The land was purchased by Henry Whittall Venn who already owned the large acreages of the former Prinsep estate.

Dardanup Park and Prinsep Park were to continue as the pre-eminent properties in Dardanup under the new ownership of Henry Venn. There were significant cultivated areas of oats and hay, as well as holdings of sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and dairy. Horse-breeding was also to continue as a successful major activity.


References:

  • Australind Family History Society; Settling Migrants – How Thomas Little of Dardanup Fared Years On, from “The Skeleton” – A quarterly newsletter of the Australind Family History Society, March 2003. This article covers the time after the Littles arrived in Western Australia.
  • Busselton-Margaret River Times, 15 February 1979 – J S Battye Library of WA
  • Lally, Stephen; A Synopsis of his book on Thomas and Eliza Little (2022). Provided in January 2022 with permission to use on the web site. This covers the early part of the story of the Littles in England and in India.
  • *Salvado’s List ofCatholics/ In WA/1854 – Available in Australind Family History Society Library
  • West Australian Newspaper 1946 – J S Battye Library of WA
  • Honniball, J H M, George Shenton (1811-1867), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2 , 1967, (Melbourne University Press), 1967 and online in 2006, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shenton-george-2654, accessed 15 March 2022.