Thursday, August 18, 2011

“Old Tom” visits Ipswich and the Darling Downs (Part 1)

Brisbane 1855 (Conrad Martens)
(Extracted and edited from articles by “Old Tom” in The Brisbane Courier and The Queenslander of June 1869.)

In January 1843, Tom Dowse was commissioned by a Sydney firm to deliver a summons regarding a debt, to a Darling Downs’ squatter. The Darling Downs had been settled by Europeans only three years previously. The first arrivals were squatters who took over large tracts or “runs” of Crown Land to graze sheep and cattle.  At the time they had no right of ownership of the land, they merely occupied these areas by being the first to arrive.

Dowse writes glowingly of these squatters as if they were the nascent aristocracy of Australia.  In fact they were commonly referred to as “Grass Barons”.

On his way to the Downs, “Old Tom” stops overnight at the tiny settlement of Limestone (now the city of Ipswich).

Although a generation has quietly passed away since I made my first pilgrimage to the fertile tablelands of the then northern districts, I retain a vivid recollection of the various incidents of the journey; and, as the contrast exhibited between 1843 and the present year of 1869 is something to remember, I think the readers of your paper will pardon me for occupying some space with reminiscences of "Old Times."

A ride twenty-six years ago to the upper country, with all the experience of bush life, and the guidance of one who knew the lay of the land, was not all pleasure; but to a town bred man like Old Tom, without guide, mentor, or friend, it was like taking a voyage to the North Pole.

View from South Brisbane (Conrad Martens)
Reader, did you ever experience the inexpressible delight after a weary journey through the almost untrodden wilderness, of finding yourself unexpectedly at some wayside shepherd's shanty, and, after hobbling out your jaded horse, sit down to a feed of salt beef and damper with the usual accompaniment of post-and-rail tea[1]? If you have not, the Lord pity you and keep you from complaining of hard times.

The cause of my taking this first trip to the Downs, was in consequence of having received a commission from Sydney to deliver into the hands, or upon the premises, of a Darling Downs squatter, a polite request couched however in very forcible language, that he would, on a certain day, attend in a well-known place in King-street, Sydney, and then and there show cause why he should not hand over to one McDermot a sum of money, to wit, thirty-five pounds.

In the early morning of a fine day in the opening month of 1843, I left Rowbottom's paddock in South Brisbane, mounted on a fine leggy Valparaiso mare, warranted by Rowbottom to carry Caesar and his swag to Maitland, if necessary. How this warranty was carried out, the sequel will show. Suffice it to say that, believing, in my ignorance of horse flesh, the animal I then bestrode was up to my weight and the journey before him, I rode off, after kissing the wife and bairns[2] at starting, with something of the courage that would be shown by a mariner cast adrift on the ocean upon a raft.

The track-road - there was none-between Brisbane and Ipswich, nee Limestone, was not altogether uninteresting. There was certainly no grand forest scenery to pass through to the head of the navigation; still, as you travelled along the ridges of the hills, whose slopes terminated in the valley through which the peaceful Brisbane ebbed and flowed, there was much to admire and speculate upon. Below the traveller's vision, spread out the pine scrubs bordering the river.

Bremer River at the Ipswich landing place (Conrad Martens)

To cross Woogaroo Creek without the aid of a bridge may be imagined by the passing traveller of the present day if he will just give a glance as he goes over the present structure. Beyond the Red Bank Station, the navigation of the Iron Bark Ridges was a matter of some difficulty to those drays which had to come to the Settlement for their up-country loading; the present road, carried close to the banks of the river, being a great improvement over the old track. However, towards sundown I found myself on the top of Limestone ridge, overlooking the valley of the Bremer, with the unpretending house of accommodation for the weary wayfarer, occupied by George Thorn, close at hand. From this ridge the eye roved over the flat which was then fixed upon as the future site of the inland metropolis, just below the foot of the hill. Some five or six seedy-looking shanties formed the whole of the erections of the present populous and thriving city.

Standing as I did on that summer's evening under the verandah of Thorn's hospitable home, and looking around on the sublime forest stretching away to the foot of those everlasting hills that form the back bone of the colony, I felt then as I do now, that this wonderful Australian continent, abounding with hidden wealth and fertility, was a suitable home for millions of the poor and oppressed of our father lands. A night's rest, after an evening's gossip with George Thorn, Thompson, and a few other old cronies, found me prepared for the next day's stage.

I found a fitting guide in the person of a stockman proceeding to old Niel Ross', then located on the borders of the Downs country, some ten miles beyond the Gap. The company of this bold rider was to me, a perfect novice in the bush, a source of comfort and security.

After a half hour's chat with the village blacksmith, and condoling with him and his kind-hearted wife about the death of a bright haired bairn, who was a short time previously ruthlessly murdered, within a hundred yards off her father's door, by one of the aborigines of the district, in revenge, it is said, for injuries he and his tribe had received by the hands of the white settlers. Such was some of the dangers to be encountered by those who first made a settlement on the waters of the Brisbane and the Bremer.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2011.

[1] A rough tea with floating leaves and stems resembling a post-and-rail fence.
[2] Children.

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