Hannah could stand it no longer. She had placed the dough into the oven earlier, and now the smell of the freshly-cooked bread twisted her stomach into knots. Feeling ill and lightheaded, she raised her hand to knock. Her nerve weakened. She turned and walked back towards the kitchen. Again, as if dancing, she wheeled away from the cooked loaves she had turned out on the table. She advanced to the entrance of the room where her employer’s wife sat, concentrating on her baby on her lap. Hannah tapped with shaking hands beside the open doorway to get the attention of the woman within. Hannah bit her lip. With eyes to the floor and before she could change her mind, she blurted out her request.
“Mrs Phillips, could I please have some of that bread I’ve just baked?”
Mrs Phillips looked up at the slight figure of the young woman framed in the doorway, and then to her baby, which was about the same age as Hannah’s baby, John. Hannah needed strength to be able to work and feed her baby as well. Both of them were so thin.
“Hannah,” Mrs Phillips said, “you take half of one of those loaves for you and Daniel.”
Hannah could hardly contain herself. She ran over and hugged Mrs Phillips, who was taken aback at the show of affection. Then, it was back to the kitchen at almost a run. She bent down and kissed baby John, who was asleep in his basket in the corner. Hannah cut one of the loaves in two, and before wrapping one half in a cloth to take to Daniel, she broke a piece off. That bread appeased her ailment more than medicine, as she savoured the taste of each, small bite.
Hannah was aware that it was a great favour she had asked of her mistress. It was 1833, just four years since Governor Stirling and the first settlers had arrived at the Swan River Colony. They were still establishing themselves and dealing with a reverse climate to what they were used to. The colony was not yet self-sufficient in their food supply. The number of ships with stores from Britain had dwindled as word of problems went back to the motherland, and new settlers were now virtually non-existent.
Hannah’s husband, Daniel Wansbrough, worked for John Randall Phillips to help on his farm, Maddington Park, on the Canning River. The Wansbroughs were in a desperate state. Within months of arrival in 1831, as bound servants to William Tanner, their indentures were abandoned, along with those of two other families, because Tanner couldn’t afford to keep them.
William Tanner’s difficulties had started even before he arrived in the colony. He had, with his brother-in law, Charles Viveash, chartered the Margaret in England to take the two families and all their servants and labourers to the new colony in Western Australia. When they arrived at Cape Town, Captain Biddle refused to take the would-be settlers any further after hearing bad reports of Swan River from returning ships. The group was left, stranded until some weeks later when they and their goods were transferred to the Drummore to finish the rest of the journey.
The Viveash entourage continued on to settle in Van Diemen’s Land.
Hannah excitedly relayed the story to Daniel of how she happened to have half a loaf of bread wrapped in cloth. She had found Daniel planting some seeds in one of the fields.
“What are you planting?” Hannah asked him.
“This is Cape Spinach,” Daniel replied. “Do you remember the seeds I collected for Mr Tanner when we were at Cape Town? I got the seeds the other day from him. These should grow quickly and help Mr Phillips with some extra food.”
Hannah put her hand into the bag of seeds to retrieve some to look at.
“Be careful,” Daniel said, “they’re prickly.” 
Daniel Wansbrough didn’t know in 1833 what havoc that first field of Cape Spinach would wreak. The spinach didn’t prove to be that palatable, and the spiny, woody drought-tolerant fruit of the low-growing plant was easily dispersed on land and in water and spread rapidly. This is, of course, what West Australians know as the Doublegee, the bane of soft padded animals, bicycle riders and barefoot children. No matter which way a Doublegee lies on the ground, one of the sharp spines always remains upright.
The scientific name of the plant is Emex australis. In New South Wales they are Cat’s Heads and in Queensland, Three-cornered Jacks. Various other common names include Goat Head, Bullhead, Prickly Jack, Spiny Emex and Jack Sharp. The Emex of the scientific name is for the genus of plants and australis is Latin for southern, indicating its origin in South Africa. The Afrikanders call it Dubbeltjie – Devil’s thorn, and that is the source of the name Doublegee. It was also known in the early days in Western Australia as Tanner’s Curse.
Descendants of Daniel and Hannah will be pleased with the information that there are two different genotypes (genetic makeup) of Emex australis in Australia, which means that the Western Australian population of the weed wasn’t the source of the plants in other states – they were probably imported by seeds in imported fodder.
1. The story in this blog post is based on two things –
(i) Eli Wansbrough, son of Daniel and Hannah, said in a letter to his son – “I’ve heard your grandmother speak of being so ill with sheer want & starvation that she once begged a piece of bread from her employer’s wife as a very great favour, which did her more good than medicine.” I don’t know if the person who gave Hannah the bread was the wife of John Randall Phillips.
Eli Wansbrough. Letter to Hedley Wansbrough. January 1915. (as cited in Daniel and Hannah: A Wansbrough Family History. Perth, W.A. Frank Dawson (Personal Publishing Press Services, 1999), 88).
(ii) In the West Australian settler’s guide and farmer’s handbook, a statement by Richard Helmo says “My informant is Mr. D. Wansborough, who landed at Fremantle in 1831. He with his wife came from England under contract with Mr. William Tanner. On their way out the ship put in at the Cape of Good Hope, where Mr. Tanner obtained the seed. Eighteen months after arrival in W.A. Mr. Wansborough entered the services of Mr. J. Phillips as gardener, and in this occupation sowed a bed with the seed of this “Cape spinach” at Mr. Phillips’s place on the Canning River in 1833. The seed was obtained from Mr. Tanner, and this is the first authenticated instance of the plant having been cultivated but it is probable that it was grown the year before, and certainly in the following year.”
The West Australian settler’s guide and farmer’s handbook (1897), p 540, Western Australia Dept. of Agriculture; L Lindley-Cowen, (ed) Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/settlersguidefar00westrich [back]
An Old Identity (1933, February 3). The Beverley Times (WA : 1905 – 1977), , p. 3. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article201808875
Perth DPS, Passenger Ships arriving in Fremantle, Western Australia (1829-1889), http://members.iinet.net.au/~perthdps/shipping/mig-wa.htm.
Emex australis (Doublegee), at Invasive Species Compendium, http://www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/20826
Introduction of “Double Gee” Weed. (1919, July 24). Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), , p. 5. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37614451
The West Australian settler’s guide and farmer’s handbook (1897), p 540, Western Australia Dept. of Agriculture; L Lindley-Cowen, (ed) Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/settlersguidefar00westrich
Watch for These Weeds (1950, May 25). Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), p. 15 (The Countryman’s Magazine). Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article39103355