Knockdominie scandal ended first magistrate’s career

Robyn Taylor, Vice President
Toodyay Historical Society Inc

Knockdominie cottage, c.1838. Photo:W&D Clarke

IN LAST month’s column brief reference was made to Rica Erickson’s draft history on Toodyay’s Resident Magistrates, the first being Captain Francis Whitfield who was appointed in 1838, although the year 1839 is also given.

The following is based on Rica’s draft, her book ‘Old Toodyay & Newcastle’ and other sources.

To recap, Captain Whitfield was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and had retired to Ireland with his family.

Instead of a pension he was offered a large grant of land in the Swan River Colony.

The Whitfields arrived in Fremantle inMay 1830 with nine of their children and settled in Guildford where he selected a portion of his grant entitlement and was appointed Guildford’s Resident Magistrate.

In 1836 Whitfield joined James Drummond and the Anderson partners in exploring the Avon Valley with the help of a Canning River Aboriginal named Babbing.

It was through Babbing that Drummond learnt a particularly favourable place in this region was named Duidgee (Toodyay).

In his account of the expedition Drummond wrote that Duidgee ‘was a favourite haunt of the natives, no doubt on account of its natural productions.’

This is the likely explanation behind the name Toodyay becoming referred to as ‘a place of plenty’, while in the Aboriginal language it meant a misty place.

Whitfield transferred his land entitlement for 4000 acres on the Avon River that became known as Knockdominie.

Although he was later appointed Resident Magistrate for Toodyay he continued to live in Guildford while his sons developed the land grant.

Needing a good road to the property, Whitfield had taken a party of workmen to clear a road through the bush.

The mysterious death of the two bullocks he had borrowed led him to undertake a post-mortem.

It revealed the animals had eaten large amounts of a pea flower (Gastrolobium trilobum).

Whitfield suspected this was the same plant that killed stock on the route to York
and in an attempt to alert others to its danger he pinned specimens to the parlour room curtains in Guildford.

Unfortunately, his warning wasn’t heeded.

In 1839 Whitfield and his wife moved to Knockdominie but within a year Whitfeld was involved in a domestic scandal that brought an end to his professional career, his reputation and social standing.

A maid who worked for the household was an orphan named Jane Green who had come to the colony through the Children’s Friend Society and had been placed under Whitfield’s protection.

One night not feeling well Jane retired early to bed early.

When Mrs Whitfield went to check on her she found Jane had given birth and had hidden the dead baby that showed cuts to its neck.

Whitfield and his sons were implicated in the subsequent Court hearing.

The public was sympathetic to Jane’s plight and according to the story that appears in the Old Courthouse Law Museum, Jane’s lawyer argued that ‘Jane could have been in a delirium and unaware of her actions as a result of childbirth.’

Rather than being convicted with murder, Jane was charged for concealing the body of the child and given a lenient sentence on Rottnest Island.

While her story ended more happily with marriage to John Bell and a new life in East Rockingham, Capt Whitfield ended his days alone in a hut at Knockdominie
where he died in 1857.