Carnarvon is a town and a shire about 900 km north of Perth, situated near the mouth of the Gascoyne River. It is named after the Earl of Carnarvon, Secretary of State for Colonies, 1866-1874.

The Carnarvon area was first explored by George Grey in 1839, the Gascoyne attracting his attention as a possible opening to an inland sea. Grey reported favourably on the country for grazing and agricultural purposes. In 1858 Francis Gregory explored the hinterland, giving a cautious report on its potential. Settlement was left until 1876, and in about 1880 a hotel was built on the site of Carnarvon. In 1883 the town site was surveyed, and connected by telegraph to Perth the following year, strengthening Carnarvon’s port function by giving it timely information on market conditions.

In 1887 the Jubilee Hall was erected as a memorial to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations, housing the library and municipal chambers until 1973 and 1965 respectively.

The town’s white population was 226 when Carnarvon was made a municipality in May, 1891.

Carnarvon was described in 1904 in The Australian Handbook as –

… a municipality at the mouth of the Gascoyne river, on the north-west coast, 489 nautical miles from Fremantle. It promises to become an important settlement, and is the shipping port of the various sheep stations established in the district. It was proclaimed a municipality on May 19, 1891. Steam and sailing vessels call regularly, and good fresh water is obtainable. There are two good jetties. It contains three hotels, a post and telegraph office, money-order office and savings bank, branch of Union Bank, school, residency, Anglican church, library, custom house, courts house, gaol, hospital and four stores. Water service to all houses. Chiefly pastoral district. Population, about 318.

The district’s grazing capacity was acknowledged with the construction of a meatworks in 1920. The sinking of bores had yielded prolific water flows since the early 1900s, and the growing of bananas and tropical produce was started in the early 1920s. Many farmers were European immigrants. (Much of the Gascoyne River percolates through the sand and settles on a hard sandstone bed.) The establishment of banana and vegetable growing in the 1930s halted Carnarvon’s population decline.

In 1921 an air service between Geraldton and Carnarvon was established. In 1935 the Gascoyne River bridge was opened, spanning the sand beds which experience seasonal floods. In 1915, after flooding had threatened to wash away the township, a protective bank made of bundles of sticks was built., The bundles were like those on the Italian fascist badge, used for strengthening military trenches, and the area is today known as the Fascine.

The immediate post war period saw a rapid increase in agricultural output – vegetables for Perth and farms settled by ex-servicemen. In 1949 The Australian Blue Book described Carnarvon as –

… served by a weekly shipping service and a bi-weekly ‘plane service. The ‘plane links with Perth, via Geraldton, returning on alternate days.

As a port, Carnarvon exports large quantities of wool, sheepskins, kangaroo skins and livestock yearly, and is the main shipping point for the large Gascoyne district. In an average year over 29,000 bales of wool and 93,000 sheep are handled from this port. This is in addition to large numbers of stock, which are overlanded to southern markets.

A new industry which has been established is tropical fruit growing, particularly bananas, which are grown, mainly, on the banks of the Gascoyne River. It is estimated that the capital value of properties engaged in this production is some £50,000, employing between 150 and 200 persons on 60 properties. The winter climate of Carnarvon is delightful, and as the town has some splendid hotel accommodation available, it attracts a considerable flow of visitors. It is reticulated with water and electric light, while the majority of buildings are modern.

The Municipality of Carnarvon is the only town of note in this section of the country, and, in addition to its port activities, is the business centre for practically the whole of the vast area covered by the Gascoyne-Minilya, Shark Bay and Upper Gascoyne Road Boards.

The offices of the Gascoyne-Minilya Road Board are located in Carnarvon.,/p>

A whaling station operated on Babbage Island, near Carnarvon, from 1950 – 1962. It was later replaced with a prawning factory. The island was the site of the port jetty, one mile long, built in 1904. It was served by a tramway to bring passengers and goods to Carnarvon. State shipping transport improved, and the jetty was closed to the public in 1994.

During the 1960s Carnarvon became the site for the American National Aeronautical and Space Administration and for international radio and communications operated by Radio Australia had the Overseas Telecommunications Commission. The tracking station is on a sacred Aboriginal site. A salt and potash mine was established in 1969, employing up to 300 workers.

Carnarvon experiences severe cyclones. The Jubilee Hall lost its roof in 1960, a year coinciding with bad floods. The banana plantations have been damaged several times. Nevertheless, Carnarvon grows 80% of the bananas and 15% of the vegetables produced in Western Australia. The paving of the highway to Perth in the 1960s cut travel time by 75%, helping the marketing of perishables.

In 1990 a new civic centre and art gallery were built on the site of the former railway goods shed. The Shire of Carnarvon occupies 53,000 sq. km., including 300 km. of coast line. Coastal attractions include fishing, blowholes 73 km. north of Carnarvon and a memorial to HMAS Sydney, the scene of Australia’s greatest wartime loss of life. The wreck of the German raider, Kormoran, which sunk the Sydney lies on the shoreline. Further north is the Coral Bay town and resort on the Ningaloo Reef.

Carnarvon’s municipal census populations have been 727 (1911), 2,239 (1954) and 9,046 (1991).

Further Reading:

  • Larman, Jessie, Carnarvon, “Artlook”, c.1983.
  • Memory, R.Scott, “A Town Grows: Carnarvon”, Western Australia, 1967.
  • Visitor’s Guide, “Carnarvon”, Carnarvon Tourist Bureau, c.1995.
  • Wilson, H.H., “Cyclone Coasts: Australia’s North-West Frontiers”, Rigby Publishers Ltd., 1980.

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