Meet the small town hero who even surpassed Ned Kelly in the fame stakes

Chris McLennan
By Chris McLennan
May 14 2022 - 10:00pm
MINT TRIBUTE: A statue outside the Perth Mint to Arthur Bayley (crouching) and William Ford.

In a small country town which Ned Kelly once called home, the bushranger is still outshone by a more famous former son.

Ned was 25 years old when he was executed, Arthur Bayley was 31 when he died.

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Who is this Bayley you might ask? One of Western Australia's greatest heroes.

He just needs a better press agent.

No colourful scoundrel or cop killer, Bayley has been credited with being one of the founders of WA.

Bayley died while back in Victoria, on his farm at Avenel, which lies just off the Hume Freeway, 114 kilometres north of Melbourne.

Ned Kelly lived in this same town, where Kelly's father and brother are buried.

Bayley was buried in the town cemetery as well, but atop his grave is a striking memorial paid for and maintained by the grateful citizens of the west.

Streets are named after him back in the west, ballads and books have been written in his honour, but Bayley remains little recognised in his home state.

It was only after a visit by this writer to his birthplace at Newbridge on the Loddon River near Bendigo locals were stirred to mark the event of his birth.

A sign marks the spot near where his family lived, complete with the tale of his remarkable life as written here.

The Newbridge sign marking the birthplace of Arthur Bayley.

Bayley was one of the founders of WA's mineral boom after making the first big gold strike in the late 19th century.

His discovery of gold at Coolgardie is held in such high regard there's a statue of him outside the Perth Mint.

Coolgardie was regarded as a barren desert plain before Bayley stumbled across its gold reef in 1892.

As the mighty Victorian gold rushes started to peter out, Bayley's find triggered a dash to the west, which saw Coolgardie become the state's third-largest town, behind Perth and Fremantle.

Without Coolgardie, there probably would not have been Kalgoorlie and WA's rise as a mining giant, a mantle it still holds today.

There were 150th anniversary celebrations not so long ago to treasure Bayley's birth by a still grateful WA.

Tthe imposing Avenel memorial to Arthur Bayley.

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An imposing memorial made of 15 blocks of granite was erected for Bayley at Avenel.

In a mark of enduring respect, WA's Coolgardie council even paid for the memorial's restoration in 1992.

It was said Bayley had a nose for gold, something he might have been born with, given Newbridge's long association with the yellow metal.

His was a remarkable life.

Arthur Wellesley Bayley was born on March 28, 1865, to Rosanna and John Bayley.

John tried his luck at Tarnagulla's gold rush, gave up to buy a butcher shop in nearby Newbridge.

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Both Bayley's parents died when he was just eight years old and he was taken into the care of his grandmother, Mary Williams, at Rupanyup, where she ran a hotel.

Young Bayley was educated at Rupanyup and left for Queensland when his schooling was over, aged 15.

He tried a number of jobs before turning his hand to mining in the Queensland gold rush towns of Normanton, Palmer River and Croydon, where he first met his eventual business partner, William Ford, who was born at Ararat in 1852.

For a time, Bayley worked with his brother Tom, before he returned to Victoria and then headed out again, this time to WA.

He arrived in Perth in 1887 with 30 shillings in his pocket and walked almost 400km to a small gold rush at Southern Cross.

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He followed several rushes with minor success at the Ashburton and Murchison goldfields.

He met up with Ford in Perth in 1892 and they turned again to the barren east.

The pair eventually camped by a native well called Coolgardie, 560km east of Perth, and began prospecting or "specking" in the morning.

Arthur Bayley pictured with William Ford in 1892. Picture: National Museum of Australia.

Bayley found a small nugget of gold lying on the ground at nearby Fly Flat and the pair soon found many more.

"We were a bit excited and threw our hats in the air, not even caring to see where they fell," Ford was later quoted as saying.

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In September, Bayley returned to Perth to lodge 554 ounces (15.7kg) of raw gold with authorities to register the claim for the mine "Bayley's Reward".

The two men extracted more than 50,000 ounces (1417kg) of gold from Bayley's Reward in their first six months, which remains the largest find in WA, and at the time was credited with saving the fledgling colony from bankruptcy.

Bayley's Reward was continually worked until 1963 and gave up more than 500,000 ounces (14,175kg) of gold.

Within a few years, Coolgardie was the third-largest town in the WA colony, with more than 5000 people.

At its peak, 700 mining companies based in Coolgardie were registered with the London Stock Exchange.

Small town hero who eclipses Ned Kelly in the fame stakes

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Only a year after striking it rich, Bayley and Ford sold their claims for £6000 and a sixth interest in the mine.

Bayley married Catherine Fagan at Albany and returned to Victoria in 1894 a wealthy man but had apparently left his new wife.

He bought a 1200ha farm near Avenel, managed by his brother Tom, and invested in other businesses in Avenel and Seymour.

He died on October 29, 1896, from dropsy, a combination of hepatitis and hematemesis, said to have been caused by his heavy drinking or his exposure to mining dust.

He left most of his fortune, £28,831, to his brother.

His wife, Catherine, was apparently not mentioned in the will but had to make do with an annuity back in WA.

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The script on his Avenel memorial reads: "Erected to the memory of Arthur Wellesley Bayley, native of Newbridge, Victoria, who died at Avenel, October 29, 1896, discoverer of Coolgardie goldfield, and pioneer of Murchison and other West Australian fields. His life was short in years, but long in deeds."

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Chris McLennan

Chris McLennan

National Rural Property Writer

ACM national rural property writer based in Bacchus Marsh, Victoria. Career journalist. Multi award winner.

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