Thomas Little 1800-1877

Thomas Little 1800-1877

Written by Kieran Jordan, based on information obtained from Stephen Lally

Thomas Little, an entrepreneur who helped establish Western Australia as a place to live in 1840s, lived at Carraroe, Kiltullagh in 1821. His parents were Robert Little and probably Judith Brett. Robert, from Gort, and Judith, from Dunsandle, were married in Loughrea in 1790. Judith probably died before 1821 as she is not listed in the 1821 census records. Robert was a gardener and nurseryman and probably worked at nearby Carraroe House. He also farmed about 18 acres in Carraroe and probably had a substantial house as there were 6 children (some of them adults), a niece, a servant and 3 visitors recorded as living with him in 1821.  

In 1823, Thomas and 2 of his brothers joined the army of the East India Company and went to India. By the time he went to India, Thomas had married his first cousin Elizabeth Lally, who was recorded as being in the same house as him in 1821. Elizabeth Lally was from nearby Knockatogher. Her father was James and her mother was Anne, probably nee Brett, a sister of Judith Brett. Thomas and Elizabeth (Eliza) had two children, William and Thomas, and they also adopted Maria Elizabeth Glynn in India when her parents died.

Thomas Little 1800-1877.
Photo courtesy of Danny Harris.

While in India, Thomas became acquainted with Charles Prinsep. In the 1830s Western Australia was hardly inhabited and was seen as an opportunity for development. In 1838, Thomas and his family went to Swan River Settlement in Western Australia to set up a horse breeding estate for Charles Prinsep. Horses were needed in India and breeding in Australia was seen as economically beneficial. While at Swan River, Thomas worked for Prinsep and at the same time built up his own estate.  He eventually retired from working for Prinsep to focus on his own estate, which he called Dardanup Park, near Bunbury, south of Perth. He developed a major farming enterprise rearing cattle and growing grain, particularly corn, and he also had large orchards, olive groves and vineyards, from which he became a major wine producer.

Thomas was a committed Catholic and in 1852 he donated land for the construction of a church and school.  He also donated building materials and helped to raise funds for the church building, making a large contribution to the fund himself.  The church was not only the original Roman Catholic Church for the Bunbury region, but the first Catholic Church to be built in WA outside the three main towns. The church was used as a school in the 1870s and was deconsecrated in 1939. It was damaged in a cyclone in 1979 after which it was restored and re-dedicated as Thomas Little Memorial Hall in 2020.

Dardanup Park, home of Thomas and Eliza Little. The porch and three verandahs were added after Thomas died.

In addition to supporting the church, Thomas supported his local community, Irish immigrants, education, etc:

  • In 1842 he was a member of the local council
  • By 1852 he was a Justice of the Peace and he is reported as presiding at a murder trial in December 1855
  • In 1852 he was on the committee raising funds for a Catholic church in Fremantle 
  • In 1862 he was elected to the committee of the Southern District Agricultural Society
  • He was on the local committee selecting products to represent Western Australia at the World Fair in 1863
  • Because of the delay in building the church with its school, the first school opened in the Littles’ own house
  • Thomas and his family encouraged Irish immigration to Dardanup

The Littles encouraged Irish immigration and gave several Irish immigrant families 100 acres.  Although not necessarily a gift, it was encouragement for immigrants to get started in their new life. The attached conditions may have been based on land improvement and payment based on crop output. In any event, it is clear that the Littles supported newcomers financially and helped them to settle in. Partly as a result of the Littles’ benevolence, the catholic population in the area rose from 31 to 249 in the six years from 1848 to 1854.

Eliza Little would have been in charge of entertaining, which was a function she was renowned for.  Just as they frequently stayed with friends, so friends stayed with them.  The Littles had a reputation for never turning anyone away, particularly an Irishman, a friend or even a complete stranger passing through the area.  Their door was always open and their parties were often mixed and lively.

By 1865 Thomas Jnr. was reported to be living in Melbourne as a professional horse trainer. In 1874, Thomas Jnr. set himself up with a large farm north of Perth, leaving his father’s estate behind him. Thomas died in Perth before 1900, nursed by his sister-in-law Helena.

Thomas Little Memorial Hall, Dardanup, Western Australia, once the Church of the Immaculate Conception.
Photo courtesy of Gordon Stuart.

In 1860 William Little, younger son of Thomas and Eliza, married Helena Mary Burke, an Irish girl, who had come to Swan River via Plymouth in May 1858.  William and Helena had five children between 1861 and 1868.  A boy and a girl died in infancy, leaving two girls and one boy.  William was very active in horse racing and was at different times Honorary Secretary and Clerk of the Course at Bunbury races.  He was also a keen cricketer, often playing with his brother in local matches. In 1869 William died at age 36 years leaving Helena with three small children under the age of six.  Helena died in 1916 in Coolgardie, a remote ex-gold mining town, 450 miles away, deep in the desert where she had gone to be with a son who was working on the building of the Trans-Australian railway.

Thomas’ troubles began in 1862 when the wine harvest was lost in that and the following year, and the vines were destroyed. Thomas managed to struggle through, but never recovered fully. Then in 1866 disaster struck when Eliza died at the age of 69. This was followed by the death of William in 1869, by several years of drought and in 1871 by red dust storms that destroyed crops.

So, Thomas’ venture in Australia collapsed even more dramatically than it had started. To make matters worse for WA there was a deep economic depression. The estate of Charles Prinsep that Thomas had established also collapsed, as did many other large ventures. Horses, which up until 1870 had been selling for £30, were, in 1871 selling for £17.  In 1872 a good horse might only fetch £5.

Thomas Little died in 1877 at the age of 77.  He had sold Dardanup Park in 1874 and moved to Bunbury where he died.  The cemetery in Bunbury, where he was buried, was destroyed in a dune blowout and his remains are probably buried deep beneath the sand. A plaque in Dardanup cemetery commemorates Thomas.

In a tough, pioneer community Thomas and Eliza were widely known and respected for their generosity, philanthropy, hospitality and fair dealing.  They are still remembered by the descendants of the Irish Catholic immigrants who they supported, for establishing their part of the Colony and giving it a character that still remains today.