The Gornall family tragedy of 1916

Compiled (May 2016) by Bill Moore, with Doris Posavec and Roslyn Eyre, three of the children of Hilda Gornall. Based on their recollections of stories they were told, together with family photos and other family memorabilia. Information about the development of the Scarborough surfing beach is from the Scarboro S.L.S.C’s publication, “50 YEARS OF SURF LIFE-SAVING 1928-1978”, (pages 9-10).


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David and Elizabeth Gornall came to Western Australia from Lancashire, England, arriving at Fremantle in January 1911. “It was very hot”, we were told. David and Elizabeth brought their six children; 

William Arthur, b. 5 August 1896;

John Alexander, b. 14 January 1898;
Clara Kathleen, b. 23 October 1900;
Hilda Gertrude, b.10 January 1903;
Marion Lindsay b. 10 June 1905;
Elsie Margaret b. 12 January 1907.

After several short moves the family settled in Egina Street, Mt Hawthorn, close to the shores of Monger’s Lake (later Lake Monger). The children eagerly embraced the surrounding Perth bushland, of which there was abundance, and that included the shores and waters of the nearby lake, which in those days were in pristine condition. (Today that area is buried under a busy freeway, with cars and trucks whizzing past in both directions at 100 kph and electrified trains at 110 kph.).  Somewhere between the “foot” of Anzac Road and Glenelg Street on the Mt Hawthorn side, a jetty with a platform at the end had been built over the lake.  Alex was recognised as being a notable swimmer, able to swim across the lake to the other side (now Wembley) and back. No doubt others in the family swam there too; especially the time our mother (Hilda) dropped through the jetty – apparently a plank had gone missing.


In the early days of the colony, the area now known as Scarborough was far too poor and sandy to be included in any early land grant. However, in 1885, a visiting Sydney journalist explored the coast-line in the vicinity of Scarborough and gave much publicity to the high qualities of the ocean beach. Over the next twenty-one years, various attempts at selling land took place. All came to a standstill. Eventually another real estate agent, Charles Stoneman, proceeded with the development of Scarborough and is credited with bridging the gap between coastal (sandy) environment and the settled horticultural-friendly areas of Osborne Park and Nookenburra (Innaloo). Stoneman sub-divided extensive areas of the district in 1906, 1914 and 1920. It seems incredible today when coastal blocks fetch very high prices that many of the early blocks, even with ocean views, were sold on easy terms and many contracts of sale were not completed.

We know that Grandad had a block of land at Scarborough, this in spite of his resources being not plentiful and we believe his nature to have been on the conservative side. The block was probably on easy terms from the 1914 sub-division which was being promoted over the next few years. We can only wonder what he had in mind.


It was December 1916, and the family had now lived in Western Australia for close on six years. The decision was made to take a holiday on the Scarborough block over the Christmas-New Year break of that year. Getting the family there and back, together with their food and camping equipment would not have been easy. We do know they camped on the block in a tent and drew water from a nearby well, and that the weather was hot and they had travelled to Scarborough by horse and cart over a dirt road. 

This photograph shows the family loaded up and ready to go. Sitting on the left hand side of the cart are; Nan and Grandad holding a young Elsie, and on the right-hand side, Hilda, and Marion with Alex sitting up front (as a young man should). Kathleen is sitting on the rear flap. The horse and cart was from Pianta’s dairy and the man standing by is a nephew, Jim Pianta, obviously ready to drive them there.  (A notable absence is Arthur, the eldest, who had joined the Australian military forces in February of 1915, and was overseas serving his country. 

The family on their block at Scarborough beach. In the background can be seen a roadway, most likely the road  leading to the ocean. The camp is on higher ground. The dip in the road just before it passes through the sand hills is probably now the intersection of Scarborough Beach Road and West Coast Highway. Unfortunately the photo is not of good quality, but the interpretations from the right are; Kathleen, Elsie, Nan attending a fire, Hilda holding a container of water, all outside  a tent, to the far right, erected by the “men”. It must have been all very exciting.

It is always difficult to make sense of past memories whilst mixing them with undated photographs. However, after careful review of the known circumstances and the recorded dates over this period, it is thought that most likely the two previous photographs depict the family leaving home and camping at the beach on the eve of the tragedy. It was to be the first time and the last time they did this.



On Saturday December 30, 1916, about midday, some of the family went down to the beach. Kathleen went for a swim. The ocean conditions were particularly bad and the events which lead to the drowning of six people are well covered in the newspaper reports, notably, the “Sunday Times”, the “West Australian”, the “Daily News”, and the “Westralian Worker”. 

Kathleen Gornall

(Summary: Kathleen, who was a strong swimmer, became caught in a rip. Her brother Alec first tried to rescue her, but was unable to reach her. More help was enlisted using the life line which had been installed at the beach. The rope was 150 yards long, but people had cut off lengths and it was only 50 yards – too short to reach her.

A human chain was then formed with at least eight men, but the current proved too strong. The man at the beach end lost his grip and five of the men lost their lives in the strong current.)

The tragedy of the drowning of Kathleen Gornall (aged 16) resulted in the loss of life of five men trying to rescue her [some of whom were also Mount Hawthorn residents]:-

      Edward Damon (aged 47, married with nine children), [Federation Street]

      John Smith (aged 42, married with two children)

      Peter Daly (aged 30, married with five children)

      William Djusung (aged 36) [Ellesmere Street]

      George Hoskins (aged 18)

all of whom, in dangerous conditions, never hesitated to assist in the rescue, shocked the local community and was given extensive coverage in the Eastern States newspapers. One wonders if it was made worse by the times being extremely disturbed due to the news emanating from the war which was raging in Europe.

Subsequently, as a demonstration of gratitude, Grandad made a point of visiting each of the bereaved families and personally thanking them.     

He also divested himself of the Scarborough block.


Over the ensuing years this drama at Scarborough beach has been used as an example for many causes, including ensuring use of safe equipment, more effective beach controls, and better assessment of ocean conditions, in many cases using examples of safety being practiced on the Eastern sea-board. The Scarboro Surf Lifesaving Club acknowledges the drowning of Kathleen Gornall as part of its origins as outlined in its “Fifty Years” celebration. 

The full document with the newspaper extracts is available in the Local History Centre.

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