Massa Singh: Cameleer and resident of 123 Richmond Street, Leederville

Researched and written by Friend of Local History Michelle Vercoe.

It all started with a conversation between friends; mates, with a mutual interest in books, history and urban myth. An exchange of copies of photographs and official documents occurred and these pieces of information eventually were placed in front of me where, as a Friend of Local History, my investigation began.

Camels were used for exploration of inland Australia in the Burke and Wills Expedition of 1860. With the discovery of gold more camels and their drivers were called for as a valuable method of transport, because they could survive long periods without water. Between 1860 and 1907 it is estimated that over 10,000 camels were imported into Australia.

In 1896 Massa Singh, aged 26 of Kale –Ki, near Amritsar Punjab, travelled to Australia. He disembarked at Fremantle as a British Indian to become one of many “Afghans” employed as a Cameleer using his skills of handling and caring for camels.

Possibly illiterate, Massa Singh went through customs receiving a certificate of “Exemption from dictation test”, by the Collector of Customs. He was photographed and provided a hand and thumb print. (a requirement of the White Australia Policy, although formerly instated  from 1901-1973 it  was in practice prior to these dates).

According to documentation; by 1933 Massa had worked in Coolgardie for 11 years, Peak Hill for two years, Carnarvon for six months and the Murchison area in the gold fields for 17 years as a Carting Contractor working with camels.  From the 1920s the use of camels declined with the growth in motorised transport.  

While at Peak Hill Station, Massa advertised in the The West Australian, 21 January 1925,

Particulars, 110 Park Street Subiaco.

For sale: 17 Camels, with harness and 1 –14 Ton Wagon. All is first class order. May be seen at address above.    

Massa Singh, Twin Peak Station via Mullewa

At the age of 63 Massa resided at 123 Richmond Street Leederville. The homeowner was Meer Singh, also a Cameleer and later a Hawker. Meer Singh was seriously assaulted in a racial attack in 1904 while leaving the Victoria Hotel (now Rosie O’Grady’s) in James Street with friends. Three men were arrested.

Life had not been easy for Massa who, over the years, had been cheated of wages and gone to court to protest. Massa did travel back to his home in India and on one occasion spent five years there. Upon his return in 1916 Massa left a wife and children, who were to remain in India.

Massa Singh has been recognised as being one of the first Sikh’s to arrive in Western Australia by the Sikh Association of WA Inc. and noted to be living in Leederville.

Their newsletter stated:

 “Riverton Crematorium Most Sikhs would travel around W.A. hawking their wares and would then return to India to retire.  Some, however, were not able to do so and in 1932, the Sikhs were allocated a piece of land on the banks of the Canning River to be used as a cremation ground after a sickly Sikh immolated himself as he feared that he would be buried.  Massa Singh and Buttan Singh made the application for this land.   This area is now a heritage site.”

 The Government Gazette Dec. 23. 1932

 “It is deemed expedient that Reserve No. 20968 Canning (near Riverton) should vest in and be held by Bollah Singh and Massa Singh in trust for the purpose of a Cemetery (SIKHS)”. “His Excellency the Lieu-Governor and Administrator with the advice and consent of the Executive Council.”

Two of our Local History Centre patrons remembered the “Afghans” of Richmond Street.

 Elizabeth Kirkham nee Sorley, said, “My grandfather (Mr. Sorley), who lived at 199 Oxford Street, was a good friend of the men and would often meet in the laneway for a chat. During the war the men were given a higher rice ration of which they would share with her Nan. They worked together in Coolgardie at the “Government Camel Paddock.”

Mrs. Ivy Baraiolo, in her oral history interview, recalled the Afghans of Richmond Street, where she lived from 1942, aged 8. “There used to be an Afghan man [living] on the right...and our parents told us not to talk to them because, they would take us away! And of course we listened! [laughter]. We were very, very scared; so we used to walk in the middle of the road ...the Afghan man knew what was going on and he used to come out when we children were going to school and go “boo” at us. He had a big turban on him. I can see him, very much so."

Meer Singh is registered in the City of Perth rate books at 123 Richmond Street in 1946, but not in 1947.  Mier (?) Singh is registered as dying in Perth in 1946. Meer Singh was still the owner of 123 Richmond Street when he died in 1946. It is not known what happened to Massa Singh.

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