Gwalia is on the edge of the North-eastern Goldfields, 147 miles due north from the Kalgoorlie Golden Mile. The explorer John Forrest named Mount Leonora in 1869 while leading an unsuccessful search for the remains of the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and his lost expedition of 1848. In 1896 three prospectors discovered gold near the base of Mount and named the claim Sons of Gwalia in honour of the Welsh Tobias brothers – the Coolgardie merchants who funded them. They sold their claim to George Hall for £5000, and he recouped his investment in about one month.
The workers had no transport to take them to the diggings, and as the mine developed the town was settled by squatters. It started as an assortment of tents, tin shelters, miners’ huts and staff houses built around the lease. Even though the town was not officially gazetted, it had two government buildings – the post office and police station. It also had two firsts: a public swimming pool and a State Hotel.
Throughout the 1950s the core population dwindled from about 1000 to around 400. The ebb and flow of transients was steady; they came from nowhere, sometimes created a bit of stir, and then, like the red dust willy-willies which blew-up out of nowhere and stung your legs if you got caught in them, they disappeared without trace. For anyone wanting to vanish, Gwalia was the last stop – a refuge for married men dodging alimony payments and wanting to keep one step ahead of their wives. The town was also a safe haven for a few nonconformists and recluses; they kept to themselves and were accepted as part of the community. There was an unwritten law: If they didn’t tell, you didn’t ask. Single men arrived, and always with the same grand scheme – to save money and move on. During his three years as Gwalia policeman, Bob Primrose made a habit of meeting the train and casting a casual eye over the new arrivals, who sometimes numbered as many as twenty men, all looking for work on the mine. If someone aroused his suspicions, he made a point of striking up a conversation, even driving them to one of the boarding houses, all the while asking questions. Mr Primrose was strict but fair. A bit on the shortish side, he always wore the police uniform of khaki shirt and shorts, long socks and a white pith helmet, which caused some hilarity the first time he appeared in the public bar of the State Hotel. ‘Oh gawd. Get a look at this would ya.’ The bar went silent and Constable Primrose eyeballed a smirking customer. He asked his name and said, without a smile and holding the handshake: ‘What’s the joke, Andy?’ There was a moment of embarrassment: ‘Nothing, really.’ Mr Primrose moved to establish his authority: ‘You’re not laughing at me, are you?’ Perish the thought. ‘No … no.’ Mr Primrose had made his point: ‘Well, I’m glad about that. I’m sure we both wouldn’t want any misunderstanding to get us off on the wrong foot.’
Mr Primrose was known by the locals as ‘Mister Bob’, which came out of deference to his role in the town. He and his wife June had three children, one of whom was intellectually disabled. Their fourth child, a daughter, was born at the Leonora hospital. The infant suffered breathing problems, and despite the best efforts of Doctor Morrison, she died within an hour of being born. Dick Leaney was bit of card and he nicknamed Bob Primrose, ‘the flower of the force’.
The towns of Leonora and Gwalia were only two-miles apart and were different in both style and spirit. Gwalia’s population was 60 percent Italian, 20 percent Eastern European – with the larger percentage of the latter being Yugoslavs – and the rest, “Britishers”. It was a European community and the first stop for some of the new arrivals. At one time there were twenty-eight different nationalities working on the mine. After overcoming their culture shock they found friendship and security. For many it became their new home, while others stayed only a few months. The first group of displaced persons who arrived in the town were astonished when Vic and Melda Mazza allowed them instant credit; to book up and pay once a fortnight when they collected their wages from the mine. These poor souls, having lost everything in a devastated and war-torn Europe, were grateful for the trust and became loyal customers. The percentage of bad debts was minuscule compared to the amount of money they spent in the shop.
The Italians in Gwalia brought many of their traditions from the old country, and since they made up such a large percentage of the population the town was, in many ways, akin to an Italian village. They celebrated saints’ and name days. Christenings, engagements, weddings and Christmas were an excuse for a party. The women cooked a feast of food and sweets from their own regions of Italy which Australians soon came to appreciate and never knocked back an invitation.
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