Reminiscences of a Mackay Newchum and Pioneer 1882-1928

by James Gordon of Mirani West (1928)

First published in the Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld) December 22, 1928

Newchum and Pioneer

The 15th of July, 1882, found, the good ship, “Scottish Knight,” anchored at what is known as the “Fair o’ the Bank,” off Greenock pier, in Scotland, waiting for the 300 and odd immigrants who were to travel with her to Queensland.

For some time previous to the date mentioned the ship was at Glasgow taking in cargo for Queensland, which included most, it not all. of the machinery for the Habana sugar mill. All passengers, some from long distances, from England, Ireland, Wales, and nearly every corner in Scotland, were ordered to be in Glasgow the day previous, and were accommodated in a large hall for the night. Those who were staying with friends turned up to a certain hour and together marched the short distance to the railway station, and thereafter travelled by special train to Greenock. All were cheerful and happy— the long voyage to Queensland and the future were not troubling them when once on board and bidding good-bye to friends who had travelled with them from Glasgow.

The last handshake — and for many, it was the last— brought a few tears from the womenfolk, especially when the sailors began to sing and weigh the anchor; but this only lasted for a short time. The ship was taken in tow by a tugboat, and away we sailed down the Clyde. Hankies were waved to those on the pier as long as they could be seen. All passengers were accommodated between the upper and middle decks, single men in the front part, married people in the centre, and single girls In the after part. Naturally, all wore anxious to have a look at what was to be their living and sleeping accommodation for the next three or four months.

Finding our berth — they were all numbered — was, to say the least, not very inviting. The ship had been a cargo boat, and was cleared of everything between decks, or between the upper and middle decks. Small apartments were put up on either side of the ship, leaving a passage down the centre. These apartments were big enough to accommodate two families, and were separated by narrow openings, or lanes, and before the journey was half over these lanes were all named —such as the Strand, Broadway, Loyelane, Peacock’s Close, and so on. Each apartment was big enough to accommodate two families, say, husband and wife, and one or two children. To get into bed those in the bottom part had to creep in at a very small opening, but when inside there was plenty of room, about the size of a pretty large double bed. Those sleeping on the top half had to climb a few steps to get into their beds, but had plenty of headroom, which was an advantage. We had the lower opening, and after the first peep in at the narrow opening I never forgot the disappointed look I got from my wife. However, there was nothing for it now but smile and make the best of it.

For some reason or other we only went as far as Rothesay the first day, and cast anchor in the bay the tug-boat leaving us there and scudding back to Greenock, to come and pick us up the following morning. Rothesay, being a great bathing station and summer resort for people from all parts, and July being the busiest month of the year, the esplanade and piers were crowded. The famed Rothesay Bay was alive with all sorts and sizes of sailing and rowing boats, the occupants enjoying themselves, some of the younger set not too wisely. In the morning a party, while rowing and splashing about close to where our boat was anchored, got capsized and thrown into the water. A boat was launched from the Scottish Knight and rescued the party, one man nearly losing his life.

During the morning the tug arrived back, took charge of our ship, and away she sailed down the Firth of Clyde, around the Mull of Kantyre, north coast of Ireland, and down the west coast, standing well out to sea so as to avoid the treacherous Bay of Biscay. Somewhere on the north coast of Ireland the tugboat left us, and the Scottish Knight, being a sailing ship, had to plough along on its own. Meeting a strong head wind and pretty rough sea there was a good deal of tacking, or changing of the ship’s course, and here the sailors had a pretty rough time of it, often hauling in and changing the sails. “While this was being done one seaman, ‘Old Ned’ who sang but did not pull, would stand by, while other sailors and as many of the young men as could get a hold of the rope, would do the pulling. “All ready!” Ned would begin.

"Whisky is the life of man.
Whisky — Johnnie."

All would be still when Ned was singing the line, but gave one pull when singing the word whisky, and another when repeating the word, Johnnie. Then Ned would go again —

"Whisky killed my brother John,
Whisky for my Johnnie.
We're on the way to Port Mackay;
Whisky — Johnnie.
We'll got there some fine day.
And whisky for my Johnnie."

Pulling the ropes was great sport for the young fellow; they did not seem to get enough of it. The strong head winds and rough sea on the west coast of Ireland caused a good deal of sea-sickness, especially among the women and children. Many of the men also had to chuck their dinners over the ships side. Sickness did not trouble me very much so I could quietly look on, sorry for some of them, having a laugh at others. One young married woman was very bad. After feeding the fishes for a while she would flop down on the deck with a pillow below her head, grunt and groan and blame everybody and everything for her trouble. “Oh dear! I wish I had stayed at home. Why don’t the sailors make the ship go steadier. Oh, me, me.” Even the immigration agent, Mr, Fleming, of Dundee, who had arranged for the passages of most of the Scottish Immigrants. came in for his share. “Dash old Fleming; I’ll give it to him yet.”

Our ship kept zig-zagging down the Irish coast, standing out to sea in the evening, and returning next day to find we had gained very little ground. Eventually the south-west point of Ireland, Cape Clear, was left behind, and we were not sorry. With a more open sea better headway was made. The weather getting more settled the passengers began to find their sea legs, and get acquainted with each other. Sports were arranged, tug-of-war and other amusements; concerts were got up and carried out nicely. Some very good singers were on hoard, one single girl contributed some very nice songs, and could sing them well. The married quarters put some good singers on to the platform, Mrs Lintz. and Mr and Mrs Rody M’pherson. The chorus of one of Rody’s songs was:

'Twas a'fore the courting o' Sandy M'Farlane.
In spite of the auld folks sniffling and snarling.
Jennie was bent to stick to her darling,
Bonnie young Sandy M'Farlane.

Among the songs rendered by Mrs M’Pherson was “Rothesay Bay.” Who of the old Scottish people have not heard Mrs Craik’s song or lyric, “Sweet Rothesay Bay.” wherein she describes the district of Ardbeg, where during the harvest time old and young had to work hard and long hours, where

The puir hairst lassie wha works the lee lang day —
Among the hairst rigs o Ardbeg,
Acune sweet Rothesay Bay.

Another of Mrs M’Pherson’s songs had for a chorus —

It was all for the grog, the jolly jolly grog;
It was all for the grog and tobacco;
I hae spent all my tin on young ladies drinking gin,
And to cross the wild ocean I must wander.

This chorus went with such a swing that everyone on board, old and young, joined in, and raised such a volume of sound that it could be heard in the next parish. Two brothers named Dewar, good violinists, were much wanted at concerts and dances, and gave their services willingly.

Church services were conducted every Sunday by the captain, or at times by one of the immigrants. Mr David Hutton — singing of hymns sounded nice at sea — as anywhere else.

Sailing down the North Atlantic the weather calmed down, and for a time our ship made little progress. Crossing the Equator was a day to be remembered by many of the young fellows. A sail was hung up and filled with water. Neptune came on board, and those who had not crossed the line before, were dipped, shaved, given medicine in the shape of a pill, and a smell out of a bottle — what was in the bottle I don’t know, but those who smelt it drew back their heads very quickly. The ship’s cook, a foreigner, and a crusty old beggar at that had previously declared that they would not dip him. When nearing the end of the day’s fun, a number of the single men went towards the cookhouse, and before he could make any resistance he was seized, carried struggling along the deck, and thrown into the water, shaved, given his medicine, and the rest.

South of the Equator the weather was very unhealthy, wet, and muggy, and there was a deal of sickness among the children — tropical fever. I believe six died, but during the trip there were six births. About daybreak one morning we got a rough shake up. The ship was struck by a squall broadside on and sent rolling and rocking like a cradle. The second mate was on duty, but in a moment the captain and all hands were running, shouting, and stamping along the deck: hatches were fastened down and we were imprisoned. There was nothing for it but to lie down or hold on to something. Everything was loose. Tin dishes of all sorts were sent rolling from one side of the ship to the other, and back again. 

The blow only lasted a few minutes, and I believe it was the ship’s cook, the crusty foreigner, that saved the ship by cutting the rope of the mainsail when the storm was at its height. I remember the captain thanked him for it, but everyone didn’t know that.

Sailing down the Atlantic and bearing to the west, feeling for a westerly wind to take us round the Cape, we got within 20 miles of the town of Pernambuca, in Brazil, South America. The Doctor said the climate was unhealthy, so our ship was headed in a south-easterly direction, and rounded the coast of Africa a long way to the south of the Cape. So far we had only seen one ship which was homeward bound. Letters were exchanged and they passed on. Good headway was made in crossing from Africa to the east coast of Australia. It was very cold, and the passengers were tired and fretting a good deal over the long journey. As the voyage lengthened their tempers shortened, and on deck I saw, and others saw it, sleeves rolled up for action, but nothing happened. We came slowly up the coast of Australia but saw none of the southern towns, in fact, saw no land until nearing Mackay. One morning a small boat was seen travelling south, but closer to land than we. It was spoken to by our officers, and if I remember rightly, the name of the vessel was the “James Paterson.” I wonder if any of the old seafaring men in Mackay remember a boat of that name trading on the coast.

It was either on the 1st or 2nd November that, we landed at Flat Top. The captain signalled to a small boat, a tender or something of that sort, and asked to be shown where to anchor. It shifted itself a bit ” out into the bay and signalled the desired information. For that small service, one of the seamen told me they charged £. We could see nothing of the town, nor how we were to get to it, nothing but scrub and mangrove flats before us. There was some delay in the doctor and immigration officials coming out to inspect and pass us as fit to land and when they did come it was in a rowing boat.

The first sugar cane I saw was at Flat Top. The men who brought the doctor brought some cane in the boat and gave it to the new chums – as we were called. I didn’t see that, but going on deck I met Mr Hugh Hossick, with a piece of some sort of a stick in his hand, peeling off the skin, or bark with his pocket knife and munching away. “What’s that you have got, Mr Hossick?” I asked “Sugar cane,” was the answer. “Whree did you get it” “Those fellows that brought out the doctor brought it with them.” “What like is it?” I asked. “Man, it’s gran.” “Let me taste a small piece of it.” “Nae fears,” said Hughie, “Ye can gang and get a bit o’ sugar cane toae yersel.” I did “gang” and got a bit too, and before a week was over I was at Mt. Pleasant (Mr W. S. Adrian’s) working among the sugar cane and kept among it for over 40 years, and at times lend a helping hand yet.

The single men were the first to be taken up to town, married people and their families next, and single women last. That night we camped in the immigration depot — just a shake down on the floor. The depot was afterwards the old railway station.

After tea a few of us took a stroll down the town and visited some of the business places. . Mr Riechelmann had a mixed business, news-agency, watch-repairing, and so on. I got a glass put in my watch. At home a watch glass cost, twopence. This one was sixpence. Picking up a newspaper — I think it was the ‘Mercury,’ a double sheet, and not very big at that — I asked, ”How much for the newspaper?” “Sixpence,” was the answer, which brought the query  from me, “Is anything sold in Mackay under sixpence?” “Well,” said Mr Reichelmann, “not much; we don’t work for half-a-crown a day here.” We next called at one of the hotels the Queens, kept by a Mr M’Clusky. We called for and were supplied with four glasses of beer. Asked how much. “Two shillings, please,” was the answer. “That means that beer costs sixpence the glass?” “Yes,” said Mr M’Clusky, “All sixpence.” This brought a hearty laugh from us fellows, which the hotelkeeper asked us to explain. We told him of the watch-glass and newspaper. He gave us a lot of information about Mackay and district, and before leaving, shouted for us. That was the first time I heard the word “shout,” as being applied to paying for drink.

The following day another party and myself rented rooms in a house near the depot, and stayed there until we removed to Mount Pleasant. Mackay was a very busy district at the time. Several new sugar mills were being built. Homebush was building, or just finished. On the north side, Mount Pleasant. Beaconsfield, Nindaroo, Habana. Farleigh, Ashburton, and Coningsby were all in course of erection. This brought a large number of tradesmen to the district from other parts, and house accommodation was’ scarce, ever so many having to live in tents. On a vacant piece of ground down below the wharf and not far from the depot, there were dozens of tents. Having a look round we were amused to see a young lady strumming away on a piano inside one of the tents.

Sydney and Victoria streets were much the same as they are to-day; of course, better formed and rounded up now, a great many of the old buildings pulled down, and new and more up to date buildings in their place. Marsh & Websters, for instance, and many others are illustrations. No Sydney-street bridge — people crossed in a ferry boat.

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I got my first experience of plantation life at Mount Pleasant. As a rule, ploughmen’s wages were £1 per week and found: head ploughmen got 2/G or 5/- extra; married men double rations, which consisted of so much flour, meat, tea, and sugar. As the baker’s cart called at the mill kitchen we arranged to get bread instead of flour, which was an advantage to new chums. The meat, if not of the best, was supplied in quantity anyhow. As for the sugar, O’ Lord! It was as black as toffee, and if we had not put a basin below the mat to catch some of the thin stuff it would have been all down the paddock.

About wages: I often heard the men talking about a farmer. He had a piece of land on the south side of the river, near the old Meadowlands crossing, and grew cane. A workman called on him one day and asked for a job. “My plantation is not very big, and I only employ a man now and again, but can give you a few weeks’ chipping, if that’s any good.” “I’ll take it, Sir,” said Swaggie, “something better may turn up. What wages do you give?” “I’ll give you 15/- a week and ate you, or 25/- and ate yourself.” It was a standing joke among workmen when one asked another what wages so and so paid! “Oh a pound a week, and ate’s ye.”

Grubbing and clearing of land on the plantations were going on, especially on the North Side; the grubbing was done mostly by China-men, followed up by kanakas under an overseer, who chopped and cut the wood into lengths and carted it to the mill for firewood. The South Sea Islanders seemed to get on all right on the plantations and were fairly well treated.

After the plantations were cut up into farms and sold or rented; the boys were mostly employed by farmers, and spread all over the district, each farmer employing as many as he required. Good working boys were soon picked out and wanted, while good bosses were soon known to the boys, and these had no difficulty in getting labour. Those known as hard wasters the boys kept shy, of, and in that they were assisted and advised by the teachers of kanaka schools, of which there were several throughout the district.

While I was staying at Mt Pleasant, the road from the Pioneer bridge, near the Hospital, and well on towards Hill End could be seen, and it was interesting, to new chums, at any rate, to see the number of bullock teams passing to and from the town, 14 to 18 bullocks in one team, dragging heavy loads, mostly building material and machinery for the new mills. They often got stuck up and would remain there for days. On one occasion a team of 16 bullocks brought a heavy boiler as far as the level piece of road opposite the Hill End reserve, and there it stuck. The driver and his offsider did all they could by using their whips, and calling the bullocks all sorts of endearing names, but to no purpose. They unyoked, and took the bullocks home. Three or four days after two teams of 16 bullocks each, in charge of their drivers, and offsiders, two kanakas with mattock and shovel. and two men on horseback, with owners or overseers came along. The bullocks were yoked up, waggon wheels cleared of dirt, and with seemingly little trouble, away they went, the men laughing and as happy as Larry. I happened to be carting sand from the river for the bricklayers, who were building the mill foundations; and also what was required by the brickmakers, who were no other than Mr Tom Jenner, now of Dow’s Creek, and his mate. Tom was good company, could tell all sorts of yarns — don’t think he was long married at the time, and seemed to be the happiest man in creation. He knew most everybody that passed along the road.

I have often heard it debated, and disputed, as to how many sugar mills there were in Mackay district about that time. I will give the names of the different mills I remember, and if wrong, wish to be corrected. Starting from the north end of the bridge near river, there were the River Estate, Foulden, Pioneer, and Dumbleton, and, I think there was a small mill at Nebica, on north side of the river, opposite Branscombe, but am not sure. Then there were Mount Pleasant, North River Estate – crushing plant only only — Boaconsfleld, Inverness, Richmond, The Cedars, Nindaroo, and Habana. Turning out the Bowen-road from Hill End there were the Miclere, Farleigh, Ashburton, and Coningsby — the last three were building. Thus there were 17 mills on the north side alone, and Farlelgh is the only one of the 17 left. People wondered why the Farleigh company, or its owners, built the mill on top of a hill.

At that time cane had to be carted in drays from Foulden, on the river, to the mill, an up-hill drag all the way: in fact, it’s an up-hill pull from either side. The water supply has to be got from the river, and carried to pipes to the mill, and not too good for mill purposes either.

The sugar mills on the south side of the river were Balmoral, Meadowlands, Te Kowai, Alexandra, Palmyra, Palms, Plystowe, and Marian. There was a small mill at Cassada near Walkerston, where a kanaka woman fed the rollers with her hands, just like feeding a thrashing mill. Then there was a mill at the Barrie, also, at Homebush. There was also the Victoria mill. Close beside where North Eton mill is built they tried to get it made into a central mill, but North Eton crushed it out. This mill made 33 in the district. Since then the Racecourse, Cattle Creek, North Eton and Plan Creek central mills have been built; but, as on the north side, the central mills have been the means of closing up a few of the old mills. There were no fewer than 28 sugar mills in the district working; add the four centrals, and you get 32, Victoria near North Eton makes 33. Homebush, in 1882and 1883, was a very busy centre; I have heard it said that when anyone visited Homebush, every second man met was a jackaroo, real toffs dressed in white moleskin trousers and leggings, white starched shirts, laced up with coloured cord, and wearing slouched hats; on their belts they carried three or four leather cases or pouches, one for holding a notebook, another for the watch, and a knife pouch. On flash joker, it was said, had an extra one, wherein he carried the photo of his sweetheart, but I never believed that.

Most of the mills in the district were small; Mt. Pleasant, Beaconsfield and Coningsby were about the same size and capacity. The megass was dropped from the megass carrier into drays and carted out into the yard, spread, and left there until dry, then taken back and used as fuel.

The extraction was very poor. I remember seeing Mr Avery, of Coningsby, while walking across the mill yard, pick up a full-length stick of cane that had passed through the rollers; it was only flattened, just bruised flat. He gave it a wring between his hands like a woman wringing a dishcloth, and the juice ran out. He threw it from him in disgust.

The machinery of the Coningsby mill had been badly put together. Standing in front of the flywheel one saw it swinging from side to side; one half of the round it looked as if it was to clear down the Bowen-road to Mackay, and the other half round make for The Leap.

Employers who indented kanakas from the Islands had for the first three years to find them in clothes. At the weekend and Sundays they usually wore good clothes and were pretty well tucked up, but during the week they wore only so and so. One employer I knew used to dress a kanaka woman in a sugar sank. A small hole was cut at the bottom corners for her arms and a bigger hole in the centre of the bottom for the head to go through. The sack was then drawn over her head. Arms and head put in their appointed places, and there she was, fully dressed.

The worst enemies the Islanders had were the storekeepers and hawkers; they sold them the most worthless stuff imaginable, and at big prices. I will give details of some of the dealings the kanakas had with several of the hawkers some future time, as I am afraid my letter is rather long. At the Palms plantation there was a large number of South Sea Islanders, both men and women and they seemed to stay there, and made very few changes. Most of them attended both church and school. It was nice to see them leaving for church on a Sunday morning, well dressed, and carrying their hymn books with them. There were several schools throughout the district for the kanakas. Some were conducted by the Church of England people, and others by the Presbyterian Church. It was said that when the Islanders had to return to the Islands, some of the teachers sold them tickets to Heaven. I said to one of the boys who worked for me, “Did you buy a ticket to heaven, Jamie?” “No,” he said, “me no go along that school, me no Englishman, me Scotchman, and go along school belonga Mr M’Intryre, alonga Walkerston.” To show that the boys hadn’t forgot all they learned from the Missionaries at the Islands was shown when two of them were sent to sink a well. After going down 25 feet they refused to go further. “To much fright, they catch ’em fire.”

Here is an incident that will stand telling again. At that time the hotels closed at 11 p.m., and on Saturday nights many of the workers from the plantations spent the evening in town, sampling Mackay rum and staying until “Forbes M’Kenzie” turned them out 11 p.m. An Act was passed by the home government closing the hotels at 11 p.m., called the Forbes M’Kenzie Act. When the town clock began to boom the hour of 11 p.m. the remark would be “Here goes Forbes M’Kenzie.” One workman from the Palms carried a heavy cargo, but all went well until he reach TeKowai, when he lost his bearings completely and didn’t know where he was. Leaning against a fence post he began cooee-ing and calling out. “Can anybody tell me if I am on this side of the river or the other side.” A man in pyjamas put him right.

When I began this letter my intention was to give my experience on board ship only when coming from Scotland to Mackay, but I have wandered. Yet I would have liked to give my experience as a can cockey in the Mt. Toby district, but that may come later on. To my shipmates, or those of them who are still on top, I hope they have prospered and done well, even to the second and third generation.

Source: NEWCHUM AND PIONEER. (1928, December 22). Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld. : 1906 – 1954), p. 6 (CHRISTMAS SUPPLEMENT). 

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