Remembering the Past Australia

Reminiscences of a Wide Bay Pioneer - 1853 to 1870

Originally published in the Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser
9th and 12th April 1870

Slab Hut with a Loaded Dray Outside c.1860-70

Slab Hut with a Loaded Dray Outside 1860-70. State Library of Queensland

Part I

On or about the 3rd of October, 1853, the good brig Triumph, Johnstone, came over the Wide Bay Bar, at 6 o’clock in the morning. The sea was tolerably smooth, and all hands were on deck to inhale the land breeze, and to take a good view of the island upon which Mrs. Fraser had passed so many of her days among the aborigines. All eyes were strained to see what could be distinguished on shore. The brig going at the rate of eight knots an hour, we were soon a good way up the bay, and the dusky forms of the blacks could be seen running to and fro on the sand, waving whatever came to hand to attract our attention towards them; but when they found that we neither stopped nor sent a boat, some that were in advance of us made towards us in a bark canoe, and as they drew near all eyes were upon them — the lady passengers looking between their fingers, and commenting on the impropriety of their coming so close in their nude condition. they were now under our counter, trying with might and main to throw some fish on board; but as we had a fair and steady breeze the brig was forging ahead so fast that, in spite of our appreciation of the value of such gifts, we had to leave them behind. We had the beautiful bay now open to our view, and Bopple mountain away to the west, towering on high like a large cloud in the distance. The day being still young, and the sun low on the horizon, everything breathed peace and serenity. The stroke of the lumberer’s axe had not yet roused the echoes of the forest, and all things yet remained as Dame Nature had planted them. Nothing transpired to mar the pleasure that every one felt in contemplating the scenery around, until we reached the mouth of the Mary. Here was seen the schooner Hannah, high and dry upon a sandbank, through the incompetency of her self-styled captain. In consequence of this mishap, our bay was thought by some mercantile men not to have sufficient water to float a vessel of ordinary tonnage, until, some years after, that practical mariner, Captain Knight, brought up the City of Melbourne, steamer, and afterwards the Yarra Yarra, of 500 tons burden. Some of the passengers from the schooner followed us in an open boat until we were able to heave to and take them on board, after which we proceeded rapidly up the river until we reached Saltwater Creek, where we anchored for the night. We weighed anchor in the morning. The passengers were all again on deck, admiring the foliage of the dense scrubs, with their large pine tops towering over the neighboring trees on the right hand, and the beautifully grassed bank on the left, until we reached the place of debarkation, known at that time as the Boiling-down — the only establishment of the kind in the district — which stood within a few hundred yards of where the Queen’s wharf now stands.

As soon as the anchor was let go, the captain permitted us to go ashore; but disappointment seemed to be felt by nearly all when they found that the only living beings that came to welcome them were a score of blacks naked as the day they were born, and dancing and capering about with their waddies over their heads; the males painted in stripes of white and red, and the females all bedaubed with pipeclay and feathers. Such a reception was not anticipated. You must know that we had on board the son of a baronet, and his wife, the daughter of a well-known judge. This happy pair had but one child, and yet they could not think of dispensing with any of their four servants on leaving Sydney, but brought them down here, unsuspecting dupes. But How were they to know that they were being duped by a baronet’s son!

It was a considerable time before anyone could make up his mind to land, until the gentleman came and ordered his servant to go on shore, take his compliments to the only resident magistrate there was at Maryborough, or within a day’s ride, and say he had arrived. The boat was got ready, and a few of us ventured, after getting proper directions, to seek out the magistrate’s dwelling. Wharf of course there was none, and it being only half tide we had to scramble out the best way we could, knee-deep in mud. On reaching the bank we were greeted with such jabbering from a dozen darkies as would have puzzled a Mahomedan or a latter-day saint.

On commencing our journey towards the settlement, now known as ‘ The Old Township,’ nothing could be seen but a faint track leading through a dense brush, and from the yards of the boiling dense scrubs extended on all sides, reaching up to the spot where the court house now stands. Here commenced the open forest, with the same faint track, shewing but small signs of civilized occupation or traffic. The majestic iron bark and gum still grew on either side ; scarcely one had been removed until drawing near the Yululah water-holes, and here could be seen a few head of cattle grazing, near the magistrate’s house. One of the party had to deliver his message, and we all went to see the reception he got; but being noticed by a Chinaman, who was acting in the double capacity of cook and washerwoman, the younger branches of the family seemed all life, trying which would be first to meet the new comers. By the time we arrived at the house the lady herself had appeared, and graciously received the message, ‘with thanks,’ but not a word of invitation to enter and rest. To describe the house minutely is superfluous, suffice it to say that it was a good slab house, standing on the Maryborough side of the Yululah waterholes. On the opposite side of the said waterholes stood the court house — a slab hut, about 20 x twelve, with a mud floor. At the back was a smaller hut, used for a kitchen; the clerk of petty sessions sometimes living there. Queer looking places indeed. But, the township had to be reached, so we toddled on for another mile, when ‘the old township,’ as it is now termed, opened out to our view. Being pleased to see an addition to their population, nearly all the inhabitants came out of their huts to welcome us, and make enquiries as to our numbers, qualifications, and positions, and it was now that we found out, for the first time, that our aristocratic passenger, with four servants, held a government appointment at £200 per annum. I merely mention this to show what a shine such people could cut in those days, when you could not tell whether a cheque, or order, would be honored or not in less than two or three months from the time it was drawn; neither was it impossible in those days for a gentleman that could not pay his hired servants to bring them to the slab humpy and — their wages.

In looking about, prior to our return to the ship for the night, we found that the inhabitants consisted of two publicans, three store keepers, two pairs of sawyers, one shipwright, one tailor, two carpenters, one butcher, a government surveyor with one or two labourers, four constables, and one or two gentlemen out of luck, besides the resident magistrate, and the C.P.S., and the commissioner of crown lands, who had both just arrived. There were also representatives of two very necessary crafts— a blacksmith and a shoemaker.

Being now satisfied that we had thoroughly explored the township, we returned to communicate to the female passengers the result of our tramp, and, alas! it was now that the false impression conveyed to us before leaving Sydney was rudely dissipated. Some of the females began to weep, others were for having their agreements cancelled, and returning in the same vessel. After carefully considering the matter, and finding that their own employers, or their friends, would have to adjudicate on each particular case, it was thought advisable to see it out, and make the best of what was considered a bad bargain.

Part II

EACH one in the morning began to prepare for his or her destinations: some of us being ensconed in the best hostelry, kept by mine host of the ‘ Bush.’ No conveyance being at hand to remove those who had to travel farther up the country, we had an opportunity of walking out to see the features of the country, and what progress had been made in agriculture by the first settlers, but nothing of this kind could be seen beyond a small patch of garden cultivated for the use of the kitchen of the ‘ Bush,’ with a few valuable tropical plants and trees, and small plots, as gardens, cultivated by two of the police, until we followed the river bank down a short distance, when we came across the house of Mr. Cleary. There this pioneer of the settlement had, by the assistance of the darkies, cultivated a few acres in the middle of the then existing dense scrub. To this gentleman the few inhabitants had to look for whatever vegetables they might require, and, of course, had to pay handsomely for what they got. Here, then was the extent of cultivation, if we except the magistrate’s garden, until, crossing over to Tinana Creek, the residence of the commissioner for crown lands. Here, also, was a number of tropical plants and trees, planted with a view to ascertain what would be best for the district. All else to be seen was heavily timbered forest, or dense scrub. Even where the post-cum-telegraph offices, and principal buildings in Kent-street, now stand was a dense scrub, and many were the pigeons that fell at our hands on that and the succeeding days. But it may well be asked how did these people live? But, as I have shewn, the principal portion of them were government officials; the storekeepers were either connected with stations or commission agents; and, even in these days, I have seen as many as twenty-five bullock teams in from the distant stations at once. The blacksmith, was kept busy; shoes had to be made or repaired; the tailor was also brought into requisition; and the butcher had to supply the beef. As soon as the teamsters had unloaded, and sent their drays to be repaired, they generally adjourned to one of the pubic-houses, lodged their cheque with the host, and went in for a real jollification, and, in many instances, they have had to go tick for grog for the road, and, when they had left, others took their places. In fact at this time it was nothing strange to see either a quarter cask of wine or a five gallon keg of rum planted at the tail of a dray, the pint pot at its side, with “help yourself” chalked on the keg in large letters. A regular jolly set I assure you.

The sawyers had to get their timber from the adjoining scrubs, bring or float it to their pit, and saw it up, to supply the new comers with material to build. All were consequently kept pretty well employed.

About this time it was thought that the Boiling would be the best site for the town. Allotments were offered for sale by the Government, and many were sold, chiefly at the upset price of £12 per acre. Some few considered, those mad who went to purchase; but mine host of the Bush was always persistent in saying that Maryborough would become the leading agricultural town in the colony. Through his instrumentality many of the leading firms in Sydney bought up land on speculation, and by doing so have since blocked up one of the best sites in the town. Yet, to give this gentleman his due, he has done much to advance the agricultural interest, by his persistence in writing to the Sydney and Brisbane papers, endeavouring to impress upon the minds of capitalists the fine opening existing here for agricultural enterprise. To show his pluck and faith in the place in 1855 he commenced to lay the foundations of the present Royal Hotel. Our population was now increasing fast. The stores and the post-office were shifted down. The other public-house was also down here; houses were springing up in different parts; timber was procured for the Sydney market; and from this time we may begin to date its rise. The schooner Blue Jacket was built by our respected townsman Mr. John George Walker in 1854 and 1855, and proved, under the management of Captain Prout, who was both captain and owner, the fastest vessel between here and Sydney, having cleared from heads to heads in three days.

Everything now was in the ascendant. The steamer William Miskin was chartered in Sydney by a person named Mumford, a Yankee I believe, and brought up as far as the old township, as I am bound to call it now. He gave the inhabitants a treat, that they might say they had a trip in the first steamboat on the Mary, by taking them down to the present town. But this spec turned out a failure. The boat was not adapted for the trade, being too small and without accommodation; therefore this was her first and last trip. Though there must have been a loss sustained by the owners, yet the undertaking eventually benefited the district, for the A. S. N. Company took the matter up sent Captain Knight, with the City of Melbourne, and upon his favourable report larger vessels were put on, and then we began to experience another change for the better, and still went on advancing until the flood in 1857, which caused a lull in trade for a few months.

The hurricane that passed over these districts at that time was terrific; the land being soaked with continual rain, the trees were uprooted and strewn in all directions; so much so that the teamsters had to go in companies, and after going a few miles, camp, then turn to and clear the road for the next journey. Some drays were three months on the road between here and Gayndah. The weather afterwards clearing up, and stations produce again coming in, trade began to revive, and we once more began to rise until the Canoona rush, when some of the lumberers and many of the townspeople wished to try their luck in the golden valleys. But they were soon satisfied that it was a sell, and returned to their more lucrative occupations, and this time in real earnest.

Many, now seeing the vast extent of alluvial soil, began to turn their attention to farming, and small patches were beginning to be cleared along the bank of the river. Our host, not of the Bush now, but of the Royal Hotel, still endeavoring, by word and pen, to impress upon all holders of even the smallest patches, the necessity of planting a few canes, so that when the time arrived—which it would—they would have sufficient to extend their plantations without loss of time.

Arrived now at about the year 1860, and having a local press, many letters appeared on different topics, of which the agricultural interest had its share. Some treated of the potato crop, some of pumpkins, wheat, maize, and other cereals; and in 1863 some went so far on some of Alderman Adams’ bread, made of half wheat and the other maize, all grown and ground on his own farm. Sugar, however, was the general favourite. Our respected Collector of Customs has been known to say that he never saw better at the Mauritius; and as he always takes an interest in whatever benefits his neighbour, he sent some to Brisbane in 1864, and had it tested. It was pronounced to be A1, and this brought out the illustrious Buhot, of whom, to listen to his lecture, you would think he had been brought up on molasses. I heard one of the audience make the remark that he was “confounded sweet.” But to say the least of Mr. Buhot, he did good service to the colony, for he persuaded some capitalists to embark in sugar-planting; although it must be confessed that they had afterwards to look farther for practical experience.

We have now got as far as the flood of 1864, but cannot let it pass without a word or two. The damage done on that occasion was not much felt, because there was nothing of importance done in the way of cultivation beyond the precincts of the town.

Yet it was generally thought that sugar and cotton would become the mainstay of the colony, each one striving to become king; but it was found by experience that our rainy seasons come when the cotton ought to be ready for picking, thus spoiling the crop and causing the wood to sprout afresh. The sugar cane thus became king over the cotton in these districts, and all that was wanted now was capital.

While mentioning agricultural pursuits I must not forget another which was and is yet a lucrative industry. The lumberers commenced spreading themselves for some considerable distance around, but on account of the increase of population there were many more employed at the timber trade. This threatened to bring the price of log pine down to an unremunerative point; but just then we got another lift through the enterprising firm afterwards known as Gladwell and Greathead. This was a step in the right direction, and for this firm coming here to settle we were greatly indebted to Mr. H. Palmer, still one of our own old residents. He gave a guarantee of so much per 100 for all they could cut for a fixed period, and purchased pine in the log, so that the lumberer could always be sure of a ready sale. This was not the only way we felt the advantage, as there were a number of additional hands wanted, and these had to be fed and clothed, thereby helping, the farmer by consuming his produce. The mill was also a great benefit to the rest of the inhabitants because they could get prepared timber to erect their dwellings, which sprung up in many instances like mushrooms. There, then, we had the whole interest of the town combined.

The same enterprising firm also erected a sugar mill, which is known as the Central. Although they have come in for rather more than their share of public and private censure, I think that taking all things into consideration we shall find that this firm has conferred lasting benefit on the district. It proved beyond the shadow of a doubt not only that sugar cane could be grown here to perfection, but also that the cane was of such density as would render its conversion a remunerative investment for the capitalist.

Although the development of our resources was not by any means complete, our success was already assured. Messrs. Pettigrew and Sim had erected a saw-mill, one of the largest in the colony. The export trade was largely extended, and our timber caused the name of Wide Bay to be bruited far and near. The farmers who had capital became more alive to their own interests. The prognostications of our host of the Bush are in a fair way of being realised.

Without going more minutely into particulars, we have now arrived at the year of grace 1870, and although in this year we have had plenty to mar and blight the prospects of the farmers — although we have paid dear for what we have learnt — ultimately we shall be benefited by the experience we have gained.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.