One of the stories from the 2012 project: Who were they? People who shaped Victor Harbor and for whom our parks and reserves are named.
An early arrival
Alexander Ewen, a ship’s carpenter, was born in Midmar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1827. He was the oldest of seven children of James Ewen and Margaret Esson. He sailed to Australia aboard the Daphne and arrived at Encounter Bay about 1848. Alexander was employed at the Bluff whaling station, established in 1836, to pursue the monsters of the deep. By this time, the whaling industry was not as intensive as it once had been, and was pursued only in the winter season.
In between times when things were quiet, Alexander Ewen found work elsewhere. He worked on building projects such as the Pt Elliot jetty and The Bluff jetty. While working on the wharf at Pt Elliot a ship arrived from his home town of Glasgow and he recognised the skipper as an old acquaintance. Knowing what a good ship’s carpenter Alexander Ewen was, the captain tried to convince him to return to Scotland, and poured him a few glasses of rum as they talked. Suddenly, Ewen heard the clink of chains and dashed on deck to find the ship pulling away. He leapt from the stern onto the wharf, just in time.
Two incidents at the whaling station were particularly memorable for Alexander Ewen, and were passed down through his family. The Aborigines were employed as lookouts: one at the Bluff, one at Pt Elliot and a third at Newland’s Head, Waitpinga. One day the Aborigine on the Bluff spotted a whale near West Island. He gave the alert and the men of the station set out after it. They managed to harpoon it, but found it was a half-grown calf. Then the mother turned up, and in anger thrashed out and split the whaler’s boat in two. That day the whalers lost everything. Alexander Ewen broke a rib or two, and another whaler broke an arm, but all were taken back to shore by the pick-up boat.
On another occasion, Tommy the native on the Bluff came running down to say there was a whale out near West Island. He jumped into the boat and fell down dead. The whalers wore buttoned capes, or ‘monkey jackets’, so Alexander Ewen put Tommy’s over him in the bottom of the boat, and told the other Aborigine rowers when they arrived that he was asleep. After the men had got the whale and returned, Ewen told the Aborigines that Tommy was dead. Then began the lamentations and the ancient ceremony of the dark men that Alexander Ewen knew would have prevented the catch if the Aborigines had been told before of Tommy’s death.
Alexander and Mary
On 26 May 1855, Alexander Ewen married Mary Parsons, daughter of John and Mary Parsons. Mary was born in Suffolk, England in 1837, and arrived in South Australia on the William Stewart in 1853. They were married at the residence of Mary’s father, John Parsons, Encounter Bay. Alexander was 28 years of age, and Mary was 18 years old. The Reverend R. W. Newland officiated. They set up home in a ‘pug’ house near The Bluff, where six children were born, and one died. While living there, Mrs Ewen had an unpleasant experience with a large Aboriginal man trying to break down her door, while the men were out pursuing a whale. Fortunately, she did not have to use the small axe which was her only weapon of protection.
Alexander then built a house of bricks used as ballast aboard one of the many ships that called at the Bay, at ‘Alex’s corner’ in 1867, now Ewen Reserve. Another eight children were born there.
One Ewen boy was killed by a kick from a horse and Alexander Ewen was extremely upset. He wanted to shoot the horse, but was advised against this.
Two newspaper reports from the Magistrates Courts are interesting. The first was reported as follows: “Port Elliot 18 July 1872. Before Messrs B.F Laurie, SM., and T. Goode, JP. Mary Ewen pleaded guilty to have beaten James Gibson, son of Joshua Gibson, of Port Victor, butcher. Informant called several youthful witnesses. Defendant in extenuation said the lads set her boy fighting, and when she charged complainant with doing so he called her a liar, upon which she struck him with a small stick. Fined 10s and 15s costs”.
The second report concerned Alexander Ewen. “Victor Harbor: Wednesday April 16. 1873. [Before Mr. A. F. Lindsay, JP] Fanny Taylor, of Encounter Bay, was charged by Alexander Ewen with using abusive and threatening language to him. The Court considered the time the prisoner had been locked up was sufficient punishment, and dismissed her with a caution”.
The last of the whalers
From 1871, Alexander Ewen was Headsman at the whale fishery after the industry had nearly died out in the 1860s. He was still Headsman (the last) some time later when the last whale was caught. Two whalers who joined with him in the venture were Harry Lush and James Long.
The two eldest sons, Alexander and David, died in rather tragic circumstances working on river steamers – one of pneumonia and the other was hit in the head by a windlass. Alexander, the father, had to travel to Blanchetown on both occasions – once on foot, the second by horseback – to bury his two sons.
Alexander himself one night tried to intervene in an Aboriginal fight, was clubbed and wandered off dazed and was missing for three days. He suffered from piercing headaches and his death early in 1893 aged just 67 was attributed to this blow. Mary however, lived on until 1921 when she died aged 83 at Wayville West.
Their son Lewis was a professional fisherman as were his, Lewis’s, two youngest sons, Bill and George. When George died in 1983, Bill gave up fishing and so ended the Ewen association with the sea.
- Settlers Around The Bay, Anthony Laube
- Victor Harbor: From Pioneer Port to Seaside Resort, Michael Page
- Trove digital newspapers www.trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper
- Digger database