Ross’s Swamp – The last of the Donnelly Mill Shoots

Ross's Swamp / Donnelly RiverRoss's Swamp / Donnelly RiverRoss's Swamp / Donnelly RiverRoss's Swamp / Donnelly River

This was to be the last of the Donnelly Mill Shoots for the exhibition. Kristopher who actually works at Donnelly was a willing and definitely appropriate candidate.I am not sure if he was aware what he’d let himself in for but he contributed greatly as he took to it like a duck to water.

I had heard the story about Ross’s Swamp a couple of times. Ross’s Swamp is situated about 4km from Donnelly Mill, and is apparently haunted. As Kris knew where this was, thus lessening the likelihood of us getting lost, it seemed apt that we should include it within the project. So the spooky story goes like this….


At the turn of the century it was fairly common practice for farmers to drain the local swamps of the south west in order to plant potato crops. Donald Ross officially took up this plot of swamp land in 1904, apparently in partnership with someone called Allen. At the time the surveyor arrived and surveyed the property in 1903, a camp had already been set up and the first drain had been dug. This drain wasn’t very deep, about half a metre, but is still evident if one knows where to look. Details of the lease are shown in both the Surveyor’s feild book and the original plan dated October 1903 and the first rates were paid in 1904 in the names of D Ross and P Allen. Two of the surveyor’s tree blazes marking the corners of the lease are still present.

By early 1905 D Ross was shown as the sole lessee, and his father, Colin, had joined him. There is conjecture that father and son had different opinions about harvest time and the first crop was lost. There are rumours that the agent for the second crop “took off with the money”, which may be related to the experience of J R Walter setting up business in 1904 with J P Bailey, who apparently left town suddenly, leaving the business struggling and eventually being taken over by Elders in 1909. It is also said that Donald indulged in heavy drinking that maybe culminated in financial difficulties and the loss of the property.

What cannot be questioned is the magnitude of Donald’s achievement in digging the trench so admiringly referred to in Colin Ross’ letter to his brother. The trench goes through solid rock that was removed with a pick and shovel. It is several metres deep in parts, and barely the width of a man’s shoulders. They had cleared a very rich swamp and reaped excellent crops which should have provided a comfortable living. They had moved from the original campsite into a hut. However, reports of the time indicate that Donald’s behaviour was erratic and that he was inclined to drink heavily.

On 11th January Donald was reported to have been in town saying that he was ashamed of himself for leaving the old man, and that he wouldn’t touch drink again. He then left town with a mate, and between them they had two bottles of whiskey and a bottle of gin. Colin walked into town and was heartbroken to find that Donald had gone off to Smithfield. He thought of going through to Perth, but decided he couldn’t be content if he left the state he was in. He was obviously concerned for Donald’s state of mind as he made a diary entry on 16th January:

“Donald has the DT’s badly, saying very strange things.”

The tragedy at Ross’s Swamp occurred sometime between Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th January, 1909 in the midst of a prolonged heat wave with easterlies described in the West Australian Newspaper as:

“A hot land wind blew during the greater part of the day and when one left a shady retreat, and ventured into the open, it was only to meet a blast as from a furnace.”
Maximum temperatures recorded in Perth were up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) with minimums of 77 degrees Fahrenheit (25 degrees Celsius) and extremely muggy.”

The Events:
Sunday 17th January 1909
Two bodies, both shot with Lee Enfield .303 rifle, were found at 4.00pm by Thomas Henry Maslen and George Charles Maslen who were paying a social visit from their camp on the Donnelly River. They returned to Bridgetown and reported it to police same day.
Same day Constables Strapp and Thurlow left for the scene of the tragedy, arriving at the homestead at 2.00am Monday morning.

Monday 18th January 1909
Police representatives, PC James Strapp and Charles Thurlow arrived at the scene. Both bodies were taken to Bridgetown on the same day and identified by John Henry Smith. Commissioner of Police received a telegram from Inspector Holmes of Bunbury “Following wire received from Bridgetown Police. Supposed murder and suicide, father and son named Ross, 18 miles distant. Constable Thurlow and self leaving, bringing remains. Strapp”

Tuesday 19th January 1909
Colin and Donald buried in Pioneer Cemetery, Bridgetown (Burial Entry 99 and 100, page 13 Anglican Church Burial Book; Death Entries Blackwood 5 and 6, 1909); Undertaker – Polly Dakin, Bridgetown, Carpenter.

It would seem, from today’s recognition of PTSD, that Donald was suffering after effects from his war time experiences, that his father loved him a great deal and wanted to help him.

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