Roebourne, Western Australia

Western Australia

Roebourne Tourist Centre

Population: 950
Established: Proclaimed a township on 17 August 1866
Postcode: 6718
  • 202 km ( mi) from
  • 1563 km ( mi) from
  • 38 km ( mi) from
State District: North West
Federal Division: Durack
Mean Max Temp Mean Min Temp Annual Rainfall
33.9 °C
93 °F
20.5 °C
69 °F
310.3 mm
12.2 in

Roebourne is an old gold rush town in Western Australia's Pilbara region. It is 202 km from Port Hedland and 1,563 km from Perth, the state's capital. It prospered during its gold boom of the late 19th century and was once the biggest settlement between Darwin and Perth.



The hottest temperature ever measured in the town was 49.4 degrees celsius on 19 February 1998. [1]

Early history

Roebourne's name honours John Septimus Roe, the first Surveyor General of Western Australia.[2]

The Pilbara region was first explored by Francis Thomas Gregory in 1861. He and his exploration party arrived at the head of Nickol Bay, landing near what was to become Roebourne, and travelling about 60 km inland to present day Millstream Station. Gregory regarded the area as highly suitable for pastoral settlement. The first settlers, including Gregory's cousin Emma Withnell and her young family, arrived in the Roebourne area in 1863. The Withnells established themselves on the banks of the Harding River 13 km from the coast, where they had access to a reasonable fresh water supply, and took up 30,000 acres (120 km²) at the foot of Mount Welcome. In common with many settlers at the time, they hired local Aboriginal people to work on their properties as shepherds, labourers and shearers.

By 1865, the population of the area had grown to about 200, and the Withnells' property served as a local hub, with John Withnell opening a store and providing cartage services to the other settlers. Prior to the construction of a church in the area, services were held in their home. The Government Resident, Robert John Sholl (1819–86), arrived in April 1866 from the failed Camden Harbour settlement (near Kuri Bay) to provide assistance in developing the region and set up camp near the Withnells' home while trying to find a suitable townsite. He eventually decided to locate the town at his camp, and on 17 August 1866, after surveyor Charles Wedge drew a draft plan consisting of 106 lots, Roebourne became the first gazetted town in the North West. It became the region's administrative centre and various government buildings, shops, services and hotels set up business. Sholl himself served as Justice of the Peace, district registrar and magistrate, and he was concerned with the plight of the local indigenous people and made submissions to the Government to ensure they had basic rights.[3]

In 1872, the town was destroyed by a cyclone. Many of the buildings from shortly after this time are heritage listed. The site of the Withnells' house, which was rebuilt in 1937 by a later owner, is located on Hampton Street at the foot of Mount Welcome.[4]


Gold from Nullagine, discovered in 1878, and surrounding copper and tin mines contributed to Roebourne's prosperity in the 1880s and 1890s. With the decline of both, Roebourne lost the majority of its European population and became a shadow of its former self. What remains of that era are various National Trust buildings around the town.

Until the 1960s, Roebourne was a non-indigenous town operating as a regional administrative centre, and strict controls and curfews were placed on movement of Aboriginal people to, from and within the town - they were mostly confined to camps and reserves a few kilometres away. However, with the construction of company towns (Dampier, Wickham, etc.) for their workers by mining companies who had moved in to exploit the iron ore in the region, the decline of pastoralism in the region, and changing attitudes to Aboriginal welfare at governmental level in the late 1960s, Roebourne became essentially an Aboriginal town as people moved out of the crowded camps and reserves, and from the outlying stations.[5]

In later years, Roebourne became notorious for the struggles between Aboriginals and police that were documented in a federal report dealing with Aboriginal deaths in custody,[6] which were documented as a major issue in Aboriginal affairs from the 1980s onwards. The report showed that Roebourne (with a largely Aboriginal population of 1,200) had ratios of police to citizens that were five times that of towns in more settled parts of Western Australia.

Present day

Currently Roebourne serves the passing highway traffic and tourism, especially as the gateway to many national parks in the interior. The town's education needs are met by the Roebourne School (1905), a K-12 school serving about 250 Aboriginal students. Roebourne also contains a TAFE campus, library and telecentre, as well as a small hospital. Many other services are provided from Karratha, 40 km away.

The area is home to the Ngarluma people, but many Yindjibarndi and Banyjima people previously from outlying stations also live in the town.

See also


  1. . . Bureau of Meteorology. 19 September 2008. Retrieved 2008-09-23. 
  2. Western Australian Land Information Authority. . Retrieved 2007-01-17. 
  3. Wendy Birman, 'Sholl, Robert John (1819-1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, Melbourne University Press, 1976, pp 121-122.
  4. (PDF). 30 October 1998. Archived from on 2006-08-21. Retrieved 2006-11-19.  - includes a broad history of the town of Roebourne.
  5. Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, ANU. (PDF). pp. 3. Retrieved 2006-11-19. 
  6. . . 15 April 1991. Retrieved 2006-11-19.  [dead link] An additional, less detailed report can be found for Ginger Samson at the same site.