To celebrate Women’s History Month, we asked Elaine Forrestal to tell us about Clara Saunders, a pioneer woman of the Western Australian Goldfields
It’s Women’s History Month and we’re really excited to announce the publication of Goldfields Girl, a historical fiction novel about an extraordinary woman named Clara Saunders. Here, author Elaine Forrestal shares with us some of what she learned about this amazing pioneer of the Western Australian Goldfields.
In 1892, Clara Saunders left home at 14 years of age to make the difficult and dangerous journey into the desert 168 miles east of Southern Cross. She was fascinated by the thought of the now legendary Bayley’s Reward Reef, the biggest reef of pure gold in the world at that time, and went to live and work among 2,000 prospectors, all male, who had joined the first rush out into the desert. This harsh and isolated area would soon become the town of Coolgardie.
As a parting gift, her mother gave her a medical compendium, with the help of which she became a de facto nurse before there were any trained or qualified medical personnel closer than a three-day horse and buggy ride across the desert over unmade roads.
During this time, Clara famously offered help to a prospector, Paddy Hannan, who had contracted what appeared to be typhoid fever. She gave up her bed for him, sharing with one of the other women, and nursed him for more than two weeks until he regained his health. Hannan then returned to prospecting and within a year (17 June 1893) had discovered an even larger reef of pure gold. This became the Golden Mile and changed the course of WA history.
When Clara married Arthur Williams in Coolgardie in July 1894, theirs was the first European wedding ever to be conducted in the eastern Goldfields. As newlyweds, Clara and Arthur moved to the Ninety Mile, which, as its name implies, was ninety miles further out into the desert north-east of Coolgardie. It became Goongarrie township and they built their own hotel there. One year later, they moved on and built, established and managed another hotel at Mount Morgans. In 1896, Clara had her first daughter, Lillian Mary, and in 1898 her second, Violet Catherine.
A few years later, Arthur Williams died of pneumonia while visiting his two elderly aunts in England. He had made the trip because he was fond of them and he knew they wanted him to inherit the family property. He was their favourite and only remaining relative. Clara carried on alone, running the hotel at Mt Morgans for seven years (1903-1910). She sent the two girls to boarding school in Perth so that she could focus her energies on the business.
In 1910 she married a gold prospector, John Joseph Lynch. They moved to the wheatbelt and established a wheat and sheep farm in a newly opened up area near Bruce Rock. Clara then became a pioneer woman of the wheatbelt, helping her husband with the farm work and bringing up their two boys, John Leopold (b. 1909) and Edward Joseph (b. 1910). John Joseph Lynch died of a heart attack on the farm in 1939.
Clara moved to Perth and lived with her younger sister, Susan, who had also been widowed. Then, in 1944, she married Perth-based John Paton.
Clara Saunders was living with her granddaughter when she died from complications after a cataract operation in 1956. She was 77 years of age. But she left behind a detailed account of her life, which has given us a rare and invaluable picture of the essential role women played in pioneering our country.
Buy the book.
De Mori, Caroline, “Time, Gentlemen”: A History of the Hotel Industry in Western Australia, Western Australian Hotels Association Inc., 1987.
Forrestal, Elaine, Goldfields Girl, Fremantle Press, 2020.
King, Norma, Daughters of Midas: Pioneer Women of the Eastern Goldfields, Hesperian Press, 1988.
Saunders, Clara, Notes from the Memories of Clara Saunders: One of the Pioneer Women on the Coolgardie Goldfields, (transcript produced (195-?), held by the Battye Library, Perth, Western Australia.