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Beagle Bay, WA

Fascinating First Nations mission town on the road to Cape Leveque

Beagle Bay is a tiny First Nations settlement which is inland from the Kimberley coast and on the main road from Broome to Cape Leveque. Access is not easy. The unsealed road from Broome attracts enough 4WD and bus traffic to ensure that it is seriously corrugated in the winter months and impassible in the summer months when cyclones and "the wet" ensure the road turns to mud. The trip is worth the effort. The church is a celebration of the shells, particularly pearl shells, which abound in the area and Cape Leveque is an isolated tropical paradise with beautiful white beaches and red cliffs.


Beagle Bay is located 2453 km north-east of Perth via Highway One and 129 km north of Broome.


Origin of Name

On 24 January, 1838 John Clements Wickham, who was surveying the coast, named Beagle Bay after the survey ship he was captaining, the HMS Beagle. It was the same vessel that Charles Darwin had sailed in from 1831-1836. The local First Nations name for the mission is Ngarlun Burr.


Things to See and Do

Beagle Bay Sacred Heart Church
The Sacred Heart Church was built from local materials with the older First Nations peoples making some 60,000 bricks in a home-made kiln with the help of Pallottine Brother Wollseifer. The First Nation people living at the mission collected trochus and giant clam shells which the women cooked to make lime for whitewash and mortar. The ‘Children of Mary’ made work clothes out of flour bags to protect their good dresses while building and making whitewash. Broome pearlers donated pearl-shells. Brothers Helmprecht and Krallmann looked after the mission cattle which provided an income. Brother Graf provided all the carpentry and joinery from local timber and Brother Wollseifer was considered the ‘chief architect’ of the church which was designed to be large enough to seat 200.
Father Droste and two boys, Joseph Neebery and Joseph Gregory, laid out the altar in shells and pearl-shell. 
Writing about the church Sister Brigida Nailon explained the altar's iconography: "At the centre is the innocent Lamb of God, flanked on the right with a Greek cross and on the left with a Roman cross. Cowrie shells frame the altar and tabernacle and pearl-shells form the inlay. The chalice carved by Fr. Droste reads ‘Dominus Deus et Deus Meus’ (‘My Lord and My God’). The original floor tiles were laid out in squares divided by illustrations of bush fruits and animals and weapons. The original ceiling was made from wood and plaster ‘set with shells to resemble the sky’. Fr. Doste carved an ebony wood cross decorated with shell to top the arch of the Sanctuary, which is flanked by two angels holding scrolls which read ‘Christus Vincit, Christus Regnat, Christus Triumphat’ (Christ Conquers, Christ Reigns, Christ Triumphant)." 
Later additions to the church include a redgum communion rail by Br. Frank Hanke, coloured glass windows donated by Bishop Raible, and the doors and furniture of bush timber made by Br. Joseph Tautz. In the 1920s one of the Salesian priests suggested flattened kerosene tins to reinforce the roof against white ants. 
Br. Stracke recalled the church as it was in the 1930s with the recycled tin ceiling and without the ornamental floor: "The shell church, they made it of mud bricks, collected shells to get lime for mortar and the whitewash. Even the floor tiles were made in Beagle Bay out of mud. Now it’s a cement floor. ... The Germans had to be quiet during World War I so they built this church to show they are here for a mission. The Beagle Bay church had a ceiling made of four gallon tins, [they] flattened the kerosene and petrol tins, and painted a design on it."
The building was completed in 1917 and a team of Aboriginal women decorated the interior with mother of pearl, cowrie, volute and olive snail shells. The result is a church which mixes Christian symbols, European mosaic techniques and "saltwater people" totems: dingos, snakes, emus, fish, shields and spears.
Fr. Creagh and Fr. Bachmair dedicated the new church on the Feast of Assumption, 15 August 1918. 
The main attractions are the central altar and the two side altars - altars to Mary and Joseph. The St Joseph's side altar features a pearling lugger on wild seas. Of particular interest are the fourteen Stations of the Cross which have been painted on aluminium sheets to survive the climate and white ants. They were painted by a German nun, Sister Roswina, in Munich. She had witnessed the bombing of Germany and  incorporated it in the eighth station which shows the destruction of Jerusalem. They are all framed by shells on picture frames made by Br. Franz Hanke. 
There is an excellent brochure, available at the church, which explains that the Stations of the Cross have: "The strong themes of sin and redemption are played out not only by the actions of Christ in the foreground but also by the characters, many of whom are Aboriginal, in the background. Observe that the ringleaders appear closest to Pontius Pilate in the first station looking not at Christ but at Pilate, calm while all around them are in a fury. In the second station the followers of Christ run away by going to the bush. The third station depicts the three attitudes of sin, shock and sorrow, in the faces of the three men whipping Christ. This play of major and minor themes continues throughout the stations until in the last station where redemption is achieved and holiness made possible by the death of Christ and is symbolised by the only appearance of halos on the saintly figures."


Other Attractions in the Area

Cape Leveque
Located a further 90 km up a dirt road (for 4WD vehicles only - and no caravans) is Kooljaman Cape Leveque, described on its website as "a remote wilderness camp owned and run by the Indigenous Bardi Jawi Communities. Situated on native title land, the locals invite you to share the astonishing diversity, pristine wilderness and unique landscape that celebrate this award-winning place as a once in a lifetime experience." It neatly sums up the activities in the area describing how "Guests can enjoy snorkelling with a beautiful array of tropical fish life, swimming in crystal clear blue waters, fishing, photography, beachcombing for unique shells, mud crabbing, learning about bush tucker, scenic flights over the Buccaneer Archipelago, charter boat trips, whale watching, bird spotting or the most popular activity of all – doing nothing but soaking up the sheer tranquillity and beauty of the surrounds." It is an area of exceptional beauty with the white sands and blood red cliffs set against the blue seas and skies. Check out http://www.kooljaman.com.au for details and bookings.

Cape Leveque Lighthouse
Located on the path from the Kooljaman Restaurant to the local beach, the Cape Leveque Lighthouse is located behind a high fence on a rocky outcrop. The WA Heritage website (http://inherit.stateheritage.wa.gov.au/Public/Inventory/PrintSingleRecord/06b7e9e3-7d12-4e58-852d-05008f3e6f4e) explains: "The whitewashed circular building tapers to an external steel bracketed perimeter deck off the top element that is mostly glazed to facilitate the beacon light from within. The apex has a metal dome. The design of the prefabricated cast iron lighthouse tower is finely conceived and executed. The tower 13.1m high. The building was commissioned on 9 August 1911, and was one of ten lighthouses built on the West Australian coast between 1900 and 1913, most of them on the North West coast. At this time, the provision of lighthouses was still the responsibility of the State, but the control of all coastal lights passed into Commonwealth hands in 1915. Cape Leveque lighthouse tower was manufactured in Perth. Construction of the lighthouse and associated quarters cost £9,219. The lighthouse was fitted with a third order, dioptric triple flashing white light, which was visible for 18 nautical miles in fine weather. The light was fuelled by kerosene and the lighthouse was manned by two light keepers. The tower is the only prefabricated cast iron lighthouse designed by the Public Works Department and manufactured locally by Bela Makutz. The RAAF had a base near the lighthouse during World War Two, and an airstrip was built nearby in 1955. The lighthouse was modernised in 1965/66 with a new light and a non-directional radio beacon and the old quarters were replaced with two steel-framed, two-storey residences. The original light was given to the WA Museum. In 1985, the lighthouse was converted to solar power and automated, with a new light. A Racon beacon was installed. This beacon has a range of between 10 and 20 miles, less than a radio beacon, and is used by ships equipped with radar.



* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the coastal area was home to the Nyul Nyul First Nations people.

* In 1688 a Captain Read sailed down the coast of the Kimberley and around King Sound in the Cygnet. One of the crew was William Dampier who, when he returned to England, wrote A New Voyage Round the World. 

* Dampier returned to the area in September, 1770 as master of the Roebuck. He landed somewhere around modern-day Broome to replenish his water supplies and to capture an Aborigine. He found no water and the Aborigine he captured resisted and was shot. 

* In 1801 the French explorer, Nicolas Baudin, sailed along the coast and named Gantheaume Point at Broome. 

* The explorer Phillip Parker King passed along the coastline in August, 1821.

* In 1838 John Clements Wickham, who was surveying the coast, named Beagle Bay after the survey ship he was captaining, the HMS Beagle.

* By the 1870s pearling facilities were established at Roebuck Bay, now modern day Broome.

* It wasn't until 1879 that Europeans began to settle the area. That year the explorer Alexander Forrest travelled through the area and sent back glowing reports of the area around Derby which described the district as being "well watered land suitable for pastoral purposes, besides a large area suitable for the culture of sugar, rice or coffee". 

* On 27 November, 1883 the Governor of Western Australia, Sir Frederick Napier Broome, announced that there would be "a Townsite on the North Western point of Roebuck Bay hereafter to be known and distinguished as Broome." 

* By the 1880s Broome was nothing more than a few pearlers, some pearling luggers, a few shanties and some local Aborigines.

* In 1882 George Canler Rose, arrived at Beagle Bay with sheep, horses and supplies, and established a property. 

* By 1883 Father Duncan McNab had established a small mission at King Sound on Disaster Bay.

* In 1890 French Trappist monks established a mission at Beagle Bay. The site was chosen because it was the last land available in the Kimberley. 

* In August, 1890 the Trappists chose a site for the mission that was seven miles (11 km) from the shores of Beagle Bay.

* The Trappist Mission was named Notre Dame du Sacre Coeur (Our Lady of the Sacred Heart) and staffed by two Trappist Monks in 1890.

* In 1892 six more monks arrived at the mission. That year saw a school established at the Mission.

* In 1895 another ten monks arrived at the mission.

* The first baptisms took place in the mission in 1896.

* In 1898 a cyclone destroyed most of the mission's buildings.

* In 1900 the main residence at the mission burnt down. In April that year eight Trappist monks left the mission and moved to Palestine.

* On 12 January 1901 the Trappist mission was taken over by German Pallottines and became the centre of Pallottine activity in the Kimberley. There were four clergy - two fathers and two brothers.

* Later in 1901 two Pallottine brothers, with help from the mission children, made 25,000 mud bricks to rebuild the school. All the bricks were destroyed by cyclonic rains. 

* In 1903 the chapel burnt down but the missionaries remained and started pearling operations off the coast.

* By 1907 nine St John of God sisters from Ireland were added to the Pallotine fathers and brothers.

* On 19 November 1910 the mission was destroyed by a cyclone with winds estimated at 175 km/hr.

* By 1911 the mission had over 3,000 head of cattle, 40 horses, 60 pigs and 400 goats.

* During World War I plans began for the building of the church. 60,000 bricks were made and fired in a homemade kiln.

* The church was consecrated in 1918.

* By 1923 there was a road from Broome to Beagle Bay.

* By 1930 Beagle Bay Mission was supporting 188 people.

* In 1935 Beagle Bay was, once again, destroyed by a major cyclone. That year saw the mission acquire a pedal wireless to connect it to the Australian Inland Mission.

* In 1942 the Japanese invaded the coastline.

* In 1940 the German Pallottine missionaries at Beagle Bay were arrested in a roundup of all German aliens.

* On 3 March 1942 Broome was attacked by nine Japanese Zero fighters.

* Australian army intelligence officers were stationed at Beagle Bay from 1942-1944.  

* By 1943 the Beagle Bay mission comprised 79 buildings including 30 quarters for married couples and two convents.

* In 1957 another cyclone, with winds of 193 km/hr destroyed houses and windmills at the mission.

* The last Pallottine missionary left Beagle Bay in 2000.

* The tower on the Sacred Heart Church collapsed in September, 2001.


Visitor Information

There is no Visitor Centre in Beagle Bay. The closest is the Broome Visitor Centre, 1 Hamersley Street, tel: (08) 9195 2200. Open 8.30 am - 4.30 pm.



Check out http://www.kooljaman.com.au/ which offers excellent meals, a genuine local Aboriginal experience, and outstanding, 5 star bush accommodation.


Useful Websites

A very detailed history of the mission activity at Beagle Bay can be read at http://missionaries.griffith.edu.au/mission/beagle-bay-1890-2000.

Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

2 suggestions
  • Can we camp at Beagle Bay?
    Is it dog friendly?

    Julie Smith
  • I am a Beagle Bay (Ngarlan Burr) elder and very much appreciated.
    I have been going over this fantastic information about Beagle Bay history in how it all began.
    I have been searching on several occasions on the internet to find history on the man and woman as Matriarchs of Beagle Bay – Felix and Madalene. I fear that there is not a great deal of history mainly on Felix. Felix was the Leader and a Boss man of Beagle Bay. It’s a shame that Felix is not mentioned much in the history of Beagle Bay who governed the area. I was in the event where I received first hand stories from my “Old People” the Nyul Nyul People, who knew a lot about great grandfather Felix. I would be totally happy to share my stories with you and have his stories put on the internet to be added to the history of Ngarlan Burr ( Beagle Bay.)
    God Bless. Philomena Lewis

    Mrs Philomena. Lewis - Broome