Friday, September 28, 2012

The River Boat Captain

The River Boat Captain, George Holt

In May 1928,   The Brisbane Courier published the obituary of Ipswich resident George Holt.  He was 100 years old and had arrived in Australia 79 years earlier, one of the first free settlers to arrive in the Moreton Bay District. He was to become a pioneer of river transport between Brisbane and Ipswich.

In the early years of the settlement, Ipswich was the transit point for supplies to the western district and the wool sent down to Brisbane. The easiest and most proficient mode of transport was by river boat along the Brisbane and Bremer Rivers.

Studio portrait of George Holt

At his birthday celebration in January, he told his story to a reporter from the Brisbane Courier newspaper.

Yesterday a representative of the   "Courier" journeyed to Blackwall, which is about seven miles by road from Ipswich, to pay a call on the veteran, who is still residing on the farm that he selected exactly 70 years ago. The homestead is perched on a knoll overlooking the Brisbane River - the river upon which, in his young days, when he was "Captain" Holt, he navigated some of the earliest river steamers in this State.[1]

Mr. Holt loves to find a good listener to his stories of the "good old days," as he calls them. 

"I'm one of the original 'Pommies,' " he declared with a smile at his own joke."I was born at Poole, in Dorsetshire, and to this day I can remember the beautiful stretch of river between there and Wareham. As a youth I was apprenticed to my uncle, Mr. Robert Cribb, who was a baker in London."

Robert Cribb in old age

Robert Cribb and others were recruited by the Reverend Doctor John Dunmore Lang, a prominent figure in the colonies and a champion of emigration from Britain and later from Germany. Cribb became a wealthy merchant in Ipswich.

"The late Rev. Dr. Dunmore Lang managed to persuade Mr. Cribb to emigrate to Cooksland, as the worthy doctor termed Moreton Bay, and Mr. Cribb, in turn, induced me to come, also. We sailed for Brisbane in Dr. Lang's first ship, which was named Fortitude, with about 250 other passengers, and we dropped anchor in Moreton Bay on January 20, 1849 - 73 years ago to-morrow.

I remember that at first we were quartered in tents on a site near the Exhibition Buildings. Brisbane was a very small place in those days - mostly bush. There was a running creek where Finney, Isles' building is now. The only means of crossing it was by balancing on a log which had fallen across it."

The immigrants were not expected in Brisbane, an oversight by the entrepreneurial Dr. Lang, hence the tented accommodation in what is now the inner city area known as Fortitude Valley. George soon found employment in Brisbane Town.

The emigrant ship Fortitude

"I first worked for Mr. William Pickering, who had a wine and spirit store on the corner of George and Queen Streets, where the Bank of New South Wales now stands. I got a wage of 8/ a week and found, my job being to bring water in casks from what was known as the 'Red Clay Waterhole,' near the site of the new Brisbane Town Hall. In those days there was a large lagoon there, caused by the drainage from Windmill Hill. 

Then 'Yankee' Wilson gave me a job in bringing down stone from a quarry near Oxley Creek for the erection of St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, in Elizabeth Street."

George soon began his career piloting river boats between Brisbane Ipswich.  His first vessel was a punt, a long narrow flat-bottomed boat usually powered by a pole-man standing at the stern.  Because of the depth of the Brisbane and Bremer Rivers, George’s punt relied on the tides to travel up and down river, steering using a rear mounted oar.

The experience I gained then gave me a little later the position of 'skipper' of the punt Jenny Lind. The vessel was 50 tons burthen[2], and was named after the famous singer[3].   The vessel carried goods between Brisbane and Ipswich. She had neither steam nor sails. She just floated up the river with the tide, and came down in the same way.

 There was a long steer-oar at the stern, with which I guided her course, and I can tell you that in those days the navigation of the river was a ticklish job.

The ambitious young river pilot soon went into the transport business by himself, finally moving from punts to paddle steamers.

Large paddlesteamer docked at the Ipswich wharves

I managed to scrape up the money to buy a punt, and I then entered into competition with the Jenny Lind, and the small steamers Experiment and Raven. I carried squatters' stores up the river, and brought down bales of wool and tallow from the four boiling down works.

I subsequently sold my punts to Captain Bobby Towns,[4] a widely-known navigator, and in this way I had £400 in cash. By this time I had secured a bay and river navigator's certificate, so I put the whole of my money into the Bremer Steam Navigation Company, which had just been started, and was appointed captain of the Bremer, and subsequently of the Hawke, which was owned by the same company.

Unfortunately in the vicarious financial atmosphere of the rapidly growing settlements, the Company eventually went under.

I made a great many friends while I was engaged in the river trade. Unfortunately, the company was not well managed, and after three years it was wound up - and I lost all the money I had put into it.

Cribb and Foote London Stores, Bell Street, Ipswich, 1850s

 I then decided to go back to the baking trade which I had learnt as a boy. My uncle, Mr. Robert Cribb, purchased a bakery business in Bell-street, and put it in my charge. I worked there for three years, and then took up this piece of land here and went farming.

George spent the remainder of his long life on his farm outside Ipswich. His homestead stood on a hill overlooking the Brisbane River.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Brisbane Courier Friday 20 January 1928
[2] the carrying capacity of a vessel, stated as a certain number of tons. OED
[3] also known by the sobriquet “The Swedish Nightingale”.
[4] Robert Towns was a sea captain who became a prominent business man. The city of Townsville is named for him.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

History Queensland Magazine

My article - "Entertainments & Diversions in 1912" - appears in the latest (September 2012) issue of History Queensland Magazine.

History Queensland Magazine is on sale at all good newsagents and is also available online at

Friday, September 14, 2012

Troublesome Characters at Large

In March 1851, two troublesome characters were mentioned in the Brisbane court, one for assault and the other for being assaulted.  The first, a local carouser living at Kangaroo Point, was charged with assaulting her house-mate.

Kangaroo Point Hotel

A TROUBLESOME CHARACTER. - Ann Ferguson, a well-known visitant at the Police-office, was yesterday presented at court by Constable John Conroy, under the following circumstances:-

On the previous evening Mrs. Ferguson had been indulging in vinous fluids to a considerable extent, and reeled home to Kangaroo Point in a state of the most exalted independence; and Catherine Driscoll, who lived in the same house with her, having opened the door for her, was immediately rewarded by the ungrateful Ann Ferguson seizing her by the hair of the head, and buffeting her in a most ferocious and scientific manner.[1]

Luckily there was a policeman nearby who intervened to stop the attack, and was set upon by the bellicose Mrs. Ferguson.

Mrs. Driscoll screamed murder, and Constable John Conroy, bursting open the door to assist her, was saluted by Ann with a blow on the mouth, and his shirt was tom to shreds before he could get her to the watch-house.

The Constable finally managed to restrain the belligerent, but more trouble lay ahead.

She jumped out of the punt in crossing the river, and was nearly drowned. The Bench ordered her to find bail for good behaviour for six months,-herself in £10, and two sureties in £5 each: and, in default thereof, to be committed to gaol.

Boat crossing the river from Kangaroo Point

The second case involved one James Macalister, a resident of Fortitude Valley. After stumbling back towards his residence after celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day in the traditional libratory manner, proceeded to wake up his neighbours. Understandably they did not react well, particularly one William Hyland.  Perhaps there was already some bad blood between Mr. Hyland and his bibulous neighbour.

ST. PATRICK'S DAY IN THE MORNING - The festal day of Erin's patron saint passed off in Brisbane, with remarkable quietness, the only broken head that came under our observation having been that of James Macalister, who appealed to the Magistrates at the Police Office on Wednesday last, by charging one William Hyland with assaulting him.

It appeared from the evidence of the complainant, that he and the defendant resided in that pleasant locality known as Fortitude Valley, in the suburbs of North Brisbane, and that late in the night of the 17th instant, Hyland had beaten him about the head with a broomstick, causing divers contusions, the patches on which were visible enough.

Hotel in Fortitude Valley

A witness named Thomas Crawley threw some additional light on the matter by deposing that Macalister had come home very "glorious" at about one o'clock on the morning of the 18th, and had annoyed the neighbours, and Hyland amongst the rest, whom he challenged out.

The witness saw Hyland come out, and saw a scuffle between him and Macalister, but did not know who struck the first blow. Afterwards witness went to look for a constable, and on his return saw Macalister pick up something and go towards Hyland's house, calling upon him to come out.

Hyland came out, and told Macalister to drop the stone he had in his hand. After this witness went to bed. Defendant stated that he had taken up a broomstick afterwards, which his wife took from him, and complainant then seized it and struck him with it on the wrist, upon which he wrenched it away and beat the complainant with it.

Colonial Residence Fortitude Valley

It appears from the evidence, that there was a strong case for provocation and self-defence, but the bench found that the assault was unjustified.

Mr. Roberts, who appeared for the complainant, contended that an assault had been fully proven, as there was nothing to show justification for the violence with which his client had evidently been treated. The Bench, after consideration of the case, fined defendant 20s., with 10s. 6d. costs, which was paid.[2]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 22 March 1851
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 22 March 1851

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ticket-of-Leave Men Behaving Badly

The “Ticket of Leave” system in the colony allowed convicts who had served part of their sentence to take up paid work with allocated employers.  The practice was rigorously regulated and misbehaving Ticket of Leave men often found themselves before the courts.

Ticket of Leave

Some Ticket of Leave men found it difficult to discard old habits when given even limited freedom.

TICKET-OF-LEAVE SUSPENDED.-At-the Police office, yesterday, John Wilkinson, holding a ticket-of-leave, was placed at the bar, and underwent an examination before the Magistrates touching a charge that had been brought against him for having attempted to break into the premises of Mr. Thornton, on Thursday week last. -After a severe reprimand from the Police Magistrate, his ticket-of-leave was taken from him, and he was informed it would be recommended that it should be cancelled.[1]

Others found it difficult to suffer the yoke of regular employment.

BREACH OF THE MASTERS AND SERVANTS' ACT. -At the Police-office, yesterday, a man named Matthew Hatton, holding a ticket-of-leave, and employed as an Innkeeper at Mr. Barker's station on the Logan River, appeared before the Bench to answer the charge preferred against him of disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, and threatening the life of the overseer, on the 22nd instant. The Bench ordered the defendant to be mulcted of the wages due to him, and, at the request of Mr. Barker, his agreement was cancelled.[2]

In June 1847, strange goings-on were afoot at a house in Kangaroo Point in Brisbane.

Early View of Kangaroo Point, Brisbane

A Skulk[3]. - At the Police-office, on Tuesday, a man named Owen Malkin, a ticket-of-leave holder, was placed at the bar, charged with being unlawfully on the premises of Mr. Edward Lord, at Kangaroo Point, on the night of the 14th inst.

Mr. Lord stated that about ten o'clock, Mrs. Fletcher, who with her family were at present residing in his house, were about retiring to rest, and had gone to her bedroom, when she immediately returned in a state of great excitement, and informed him that one of her daughters had discovered a man under the bed.

He immediately went into Mrs. Fletcher's room, and found the prisoner doubled up under the bed. Mr. Lord then pulled him out, and pushed him off the premises. A constable was sent for, and directed to search the Point for the prisoner, who was shortly afterwards found standing by the fire at the brick-kiln, about a mile distant from Mr. Lord's house. [4]

The motive behind this bedroom outrage was soon made known by the interloper himself.  It seems he was previously an employee of the widow’s late husband, and he meant to seek revenge for his mistreatment.

He was immediately taken into custody, and on his way to the lock-up made allusion to the late Mr. Fletcher, saying that "he triumphed over him." He also said that Mr. Fletcher had caused him to be flogged, and that he had told him he would come to poverty himself, and that now his words were verified. The prisoner, moreover, was heard to say that he would "triumph" over this night, and would have his revenge. The prisoner was perfectly sober at the time.[5]

The Death Notice of Mr. Fletcher (The Moreton Bay Courier 2 January 1847)

Apparently the convict had been frequenting the house for some time, ingratiating himself with the dog so that he could skulk about the house without the canine alerting the household.

Mr. Lord also informed the Magistrates that about ten days ago the prisoner applied to him to rent a farm, and that he went with him to the Rev. Mr. Hanly, who was to be his witness to the agreement.   He was constantly coming to his house under the plea of getting the lease signed, until at length he was obliged to tell him that he did not like his coming about the house so frequently, and he was desired to keep away.

His object in visiting the house, in the opinion of Mr. Lord, was that he might become acquainted with the dog. The room, in which the prisoner was found, is at the extreme end of the verandah, up one pair of stairs, and when pulled out from under the bed, he had a heavy stock whip in his hand.

Unable to offer any defence to the court, the skulk was soon on his way back to Sydney Gaol, minus his Ticket of Leave.

The prisoner made no defence, but stated that he was totally ignorant of the transaction. The Bench deeming him to be a rogue and a vagabond, sentenced him to six months' imprisonment, with hard labour, in the Sydney Goal, and stated that his ticket-of-leave would be recommended to be cancelled.[6]

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The Moreton Bay Courier 1.5.1847
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier 30.1.1847
[3] One who moves in a stealthy or sneaking fashion, so as to escape notice. OED
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier 19.6.1847
[5] The Moreton Bay Courier 19.6.1847
[6] The Moreton Bay Courier 19.6.1847

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Captain Duncan Takes Liberties

In the spring of 1864, a wagon departed Ipswich en route to Toowoomba. Holding the reins was James Lyle, a professional carriage driver.  Sitting beside him was his wife, and beside her was one Captain Lewis Duncan. Duncan was a ship’s captain who had taken up a landsman’s position as an assistant overseer on a sheep station on the Darling Downs.  Things would soon take a turn for the worst.

The details would emerge in the Ipswich court a few days later.

Carriage with Team of Five Horses


SEPTEMBER 30. Before Colonel Gray, Police Magistrate.

AGGRAVATED ASSAULT.- James Lyle, of Laidley, was brought up on a charge of having, on the 27th instant, committed a violent assault on Captain Lewis Duncan, at the Seven-mile Creek, on the Drayton Road. Mr. Batho appeared for the prisoner, and raised a preliminary objection on the ground that he was not in legal custody, having been arrested. The Police Magistrate said he did it on   his own responsibility. The case was of so serious a nature, he used the telegraph, and ordered his arrest.     

Sergeant Downing proved the arrest, and that on his telling the prisoner the nature of the charge, he said "I did it and the fellow deserved it— he was taking liberties with my wife."[1]

The Captain offered his version of events claiming he was only holding on to the rail behind Mrs. Lyle to steady himself on the rocking cart.  But perhaps as a ship’s captain, he had become accustomed to be over-familiar with his lady passengers.

19th Century Ships' Captain

Lewis Duncan deposed: have been the Captain at a ship; I am now Assistant Overseer of the Warkaw Station; on the 27th, I left Ipswich for Laidley in company with the prisoner and his wife, in a cart; the prisoner began quarrelling with his wife; I had my arm on the rail behind her back; I asked her if it were any inconvenience, and she said not; I put my hand there for the purpose of holding on.

The carriage driver did not react well to the arm placement of the master of the seas, relative to the waist of his spouse.

The prisoner pulled up the horses, and called out, get out of that, you blackguard; he pulled me out of the cart and struck me two violent blows with the butt end of a heavy whip on the crown of the head; I became insensible, and do not know how long I remained so.

The stock was a popular weapon amongst “men of the whip” and could inflict considerable injury.
Further details of the incident emerged as the court hearing proceeded.

According to Captain Duncan, when he regained consciousness he found himself alone and bleeding from the head. He staggered off down the road seeking help.

The attack was quite unexpected, though Lyall pretended as an excuse that he had promised to buy things for his wife. Captain Duncan became unconscious immediately after receiving the blows, and when he revived found the coach had left. He was lying in a pool of blood, his hair was matted, and his clothes saturated. He managed to walk along the road for about a mile, when he came up with some bullock drays.

He stated to the men driving the teams that he had been brutally assaulted, and one of them let him ride on the dray. He afterwards got the loan of a horse from the same man, and was taken to the hotel at the Seven-mile Creek[2], when information was forwarded to the police. Dr. Von Lossberg[3] was also sent for, and went out to see Capt. Duncan.[4]

Dr. Von Lossberg

The good doctor brought his patient into Ipswich for treatment.  A few days later he detailed the Captain’s injury to the court.

He found two severe contused wounds on the head, which he dressed, and yesterday morning he brought his patient into town in a gig.

Dr. Von Lossberg states that if Captain Duncan had remained much longer without medical aid his life would probably have been sacrificed.[5]

Considering the severity of the assault, Lyall received only a modest fine, the bench being of the opinion that the behaviour of Captain Duncan towards the lady contributed to attack.

Lyall was subsequently fined £5, the bench considering that the prosecutor had given provocation by assaulting defendant's wife, although not indecently.[6]

Ipswich Court House ca. 1860

James Lyall subsequently went on to establish his own carriage service between Toowoomba and Dalby.

It appears that Captain Duncan returned to the sea the following year, probably considering it safer given his inland experience.

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2012.

[1] The North Australian Saturday 1 October 1864
[2] Near the present day town of Rosewood, west of Ipswich
[3] A prominent member of the local German community.
[4] The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser Thursday 6 October 1864
[5] The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser Thursday 6 October 1864
[6] The Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser Thursday 6 October 1864