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.

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