Tuesday, 25 April 2017

But you’re gone, Digger, gone – all your troubles are o’er – May the soft winds of Ingham blow over your rest

Seeing the Celotto/ Sheahan family members proudly riding their horses in the ANZAC parade today reminds us that late in the nineteenth century an Ingham resident, Captain Alfred Henry, bred horses for use by the British Army in India for Australian horses were in high demand by the British military. Australian mounted units too were held in great esteem for their riding and shooting skills.
Further, as the parade files past the Mafeking Tree and turns eyes to the saluting officer it is a moment to reflect on the valour of local servicemen and women, and the heartache of families waiting at home for their return. The story of the Mafeking tree is the story of John (Jack) Simpson.
Jack Simpson volunteered for the Second Boer War which began on October 11 1899 and ended on May 31, 1902. The Boer War took place in what is now South Africa. The area was then divided between the British held territory of Cape Colony and Transvaaland Orange Free State held by the Boers who were descendants of Dutch settlers. The Boers declared war on Britain but the actual reasons for the discord between the two, the Boers and the British, and which of those reasons precipitated the war have been the subject of contention. Certainly, the Boers had reason to wonder about Britain’s interest in Transvaaland as they had already made a raid on the Boers in 1896 for the gold mines in Boer territory. Furthermore the Boers regarded the positioning of British troops on their borders as confrontational.
Jack arrived in Australia as a baby in 1878. His father, Stephen, took the position of Telegraph Master in Ingham in 1882. There was an Army tradition in the family with Stephen having served in the British Army. Along with the other Australian volunteers, Jack served in the Queensland Mounted Infantry and was reputed to be a fine horseman and a tough bushman. He was one of those troops besieged in the town of Mafeking for seven months from October 1899 to May 1900 and was wounded during the relief operations, His father planted the Mafeking Tree, a blackbean tree, on Palm Terrace, to commemorate the military relief of Mafeking. Celebrations of a similar sort were held right across Australia simultaneously.
Given his descendants’ annual presence in the Ingham ANZAC parade, with their horses and uniforms giving us all a real taste of the past, the last word on war here should rightfully be that of Dan Sheahan, our local bard, who’s pen never failed to nail the sentiment. In 1944 he poured out a poem ‘The Death of “Digger” Martin on the death of George “Digger” Martin of Long Pocket. Mourning the loss of a friend and reminiscing about their shared youth and hopes he ended his poem with these stanzas:
And we’ll saddle the ponies and solitude seek
Where the black bream were biting on Broadwater creek –
And there well away from the world’s mad strife
We’d smoke and we’d talk on the problems of life.

But you’re gone, Digger, gone – all your troubles are o’er
And the shade of Broadwater will know you no more –
May the soft winds of Ingham blow over your rest
In peace and in war, you were one of the best.

Soldiers of the Light Horse Brigade 1914, Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection

Sheahan, Dan. “The Death of “Digger” Martin,” in Songs of the Canefields. Ingham: Josephine R. Sheahan, 1972.

Vidonja Balanzategui, The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Ingham's iconic Water Tower

If you follow my blog you undoubtedly follow the two Facebook pages ‘Lost Ingham and District’ and ‘District Archival History’ which are hosted by two other ladies keen on unearthing and sharing Ingham's history. In the last couple of weeks they have been theming floods and cyclones. With so much water everywhere – rivers, creeks, streams, waterfalls and regular floods and annual monsoonal downpours it seems strange to think that a clean, healthy water supply for Ingham and its outlying communities has not always been a given.
Households in early Ingham town had their own private wells, while there was also a town well. But cesspits for human waste contaminated these wells causing sickness and the threat of epidemics. The introduction of a nightsoil service helped lessen the incidence of wells being contaminated by cesspits, but even so the Council was acutely aware that this was not a long term solution. As the town grew there was an increasing number of private homes, public buildings and factories which increased the chances of the town well becoming contaminated with effluent. Two health concerns that persisted well into the twentieth century were typhoid and hookworm and these were only brought under control with an improvement in sanitary conditions.  
The Health Department inspector recommended that a water supply be taken from the Herbert River. As a result C.E. Deshon, an officer of the Department concerned with water supplies, was invited to report to the Council on a suggested scheme. His findings recommended a water tower to supply 45 000 gallons, sufficient for around 1 500 people, which would cost £8 957. At this point the Council did not act despite the disastrous performance of the town well during the 1915 drought. The water level dropped so low that the pump was unable to work, and water had to be carted from the river. The result was, as could be expected, considerable sickness due to contaminated water.
It was twenty years before the town water problems were finally solved. Jack Mulholland, consulting engineer, guided by Irrigation Department's plans, recommended that the Council apply for a loan of £36 750 with a 50% subsidy similar to that granted for other water schemes.  The subsidy would have been £8 000, but it was determined that the Council would pay only a third of the cost while the other two-thirds would be contributed equally by the State and Federal governments. This was a ground breaking offer and the first grant of its kind for a water supply. Work began in May 1937 and proceeded using the unemployed as day labour to lay pipes.
Work  involved  construction of a concrete well at the intake on the Herbert River, a concrete tower 120 feet high in the centre of Ingham, mains between those points and reticulation pipes throughout the supply area with consumer connections being the householders' responsibility.  In July 1938 water began to be supplied with the aid of pressure valves until the tower was ready. The new supply was first available for limited hours, which became more generous as the number of consumers increased. The scheme was finally completed in March 1939 with nearly 500 consumers already connected and extensions being planned soon after.
The introduction did not go without teething problems. Experimental fibrolite pipes leaked, excessive consumption had to be checked because though the source of supply, the river, was boundless, delivery was restricted by the capacity of the power house plant. Water restrictions were imposed during periods of heavy consumption, particularly during the war when electricity generation was reduced. Excessive domestic use was curbed by house to house inspections looking for leaking taps, educating consumers and even prosecuting where flagrant waste occurred.
The water was cleaned by natural filtration through sandbanks in the river bed and generally the quality was good. However the supply was vulnerable to discolouration which occurred when floodwater from the river entered the pump well or if there were dredging operations in the upper Herbert. Rusting of the pipes was caused by significant numbers of bacteria releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide. A chlorinator was installed to treat the water which largely solved the problem.
The supply was received so well by the community that within the year there were requests for extensions from Trebonne, Halifax and Victoria Mill but the looming war put a hold on such plans. The concrete tower itself, a 120 feet high structure, was now however, the highest structure on the skyline and would be clearly visible to enemy warcraft. This caused some consternation in the Council chamber.  There were some councillors who argued that the tower should be camouflaged, but not all agreed.  In the end, shortages of both labour and paint put paid to the idea.
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
Wegner, Janice. “Hinchinbrook: the Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 1879-1979.” MA diss. James Cook University, 1984.
Wegner, Janice. “Hinchinbrook Shire during World War Two,” Lectures on North Queensland History,

Source: State Library of Queensland. 2211512. Large Water Tower, Ingham Queensland, 1953

Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photographic Collection. Herbert Street during 1967 flood 

Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photographic Collection. Aerial photo of Herbert Street 1971

Source: Hnchinbrook Shire Library Photographic Collection, Aerial photograph of Ingham during 1977 flood

Sunday, 5 February 2017

As another school year starts and children head back to big schools, staffed by numerous teachers, equipped with state of the art facilities and cooled by air conditioners it is a far cry from the bush schools of the past which serviced each of the outlying districts of the Herbert River Valley. Today few of the small bush schools remain yet the foundation of schooling in the Herbert River Valley was the small bush school, usually staffed by one teacher.
Thomas Millar, the manager of the Avoca Estate, downstream from the Camping Reserve (now Ingham), on the south side of the Herbert River, first approached the Board of General Education voicing the need for a school. In November 1874 a local petition was organized requesting the establishment of a provisional school. The petitioners were informed that the initiative for establishing a school was theirs as per The Education Act, 1860. If they wanted a school they would have to provide both a teacher and a suitable building. Meanwhile newspaper records indicate that the Mackenzies of Gairloch called a meeting in late January 1875 to gauge interest in obtaining a ‘national school’.  As a result of that meeting a committee was appointed and a subscription list opened, which it is reported “was responded to in earnest.” The correspondent forecast that the school would be opened within six months and would be well attended. The result of this community interest from various quarters  was that in March 1875, Thomas’s wife, Catherine Millar, opened the Lower Herbert Provisional School in the living room of her house with an enrolment of 15 children. Initial optimism prompted a request to the Government for the grant of land on which to erect a permanent school building. Though this did not happen at this point, the usual funding was provided to this first ‘national school’.
Though there had been a speculative land grab and three plantation mills already crushing: Gairloch 1872, Macknade, 1873 and Bemerside 1873 there were very few services or buildings that could be said to constitute a town. The Camping Ground which was then given the provisional name of Sligo consisted, at this time, of a store, public house, blacksmith and wheelwright’s shop and a telegraph office. By November the school was already struggling and the Board threatened to withdraw Government funding. It was remarked that “a number of children who ought to attend do not do so.” But apart from parents who were keeping their children back from school, the low enrolments were due to the community still being a transient one and the newly established sugar industry facing its first big setback, ‘rust’ disease. Clearly, despite the initial enthusiasm of a few, the time was not right yet for a school. Unfortunately enrolments dropped in the next year to ten students and so in December 1876 Mrs. Millar notified the Board of Education that she intended to close the school. Hers had been a thankless job. With financial cost to herself she had supplied the space and furniture and equipment within her own home for a school. An observation was made at the time in correspondence with the Board that the Valley was the most expensive place to live in “civilized Australia”. Alex S. Kemp records that a Mrs. Jim Fisher then opened a school at Log Creek which is supposed to have had an enrolment of 15 children. What happened to that venture is not known.
By 1879 the Government surveyor did survey not only town allotments, but a site for a court-house, school and police barracks. In that year an auction was held for 61 town lots for what was now no longer Sligo but Ingham. The surveyed school area was on the site of the present day Botanical Gardens. Again in 1881 another public meeting was held by Lower Herbert residents. The proposal that came out of that meeting was that two school buildings would be built, one on the Lower Herbert River Town Reserve (named Halifax in 1886), and one on the surveyed land in Ingham. It was proposed that the schools would operate on a part time basis with the teacher travelling between the two. With the realization that funds were not as forthcoming as hoped, and that what funds secured needed to be rationalized with efforts concentrated on the building of one school building, Halifax was the first to secure a provisional school. It opened on September 24 1883 with an enrolment of ten girls and seven boys. Another public meeting was held in 1884 to request a school for Ingham. A year later a school did open  finally in Ingham on May 4, 1885 with 27 students.

Halifax Provisional School (Source: Halifax State School Centenary 1883-1983, 48.)

Ingham State School 1886 (the boys) (Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Collection)
Barrie, Douglas R. Minding My Business: A History of Bemerside and the Lower Herbert River District of Queensland Australia. Ingham: Douglas R. Barrie, 2003.
Kemp, A.S. “The Old Pioneers” and “The Turn of the Century.” The History of the Herbert River. 3rd and 6th instalments.
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
 “Lower Herbert.” Telegraph, January 26, 1875.
“Lower Herbert.” Queenslander, November 20, 1875.
“Lower Herbert Provisional School.” Correspondence to Board of Education, February 26, 1876. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

“Murdered Italian will be revenged” “Bomb outrage at Ingham Police Investigating vendetta theory” “Was it murder to prevent murder?”

The caption reads: Killers and victim. Scarcella (white shirt and slacks,) in a group with Dagostino  [sic]  and Femio, Mafia leaders. Femio, on right, has his hand resting on the shoulder of his chief Dagostino.
Source: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/image/7338762-3x2-700x467.jpg (from an unidentified magazine)
When I conducted a tour of the Mercer Lane Mosaic installation I was asked what the little black hand high up on a panel was about. The little black hand is a reference to a little known yet frightening episode in the district’s history that gave plenty of scandalous material for the press to feed on: criminal meetings in the Ingham cemetery, brutal stabbings, gunshots in the night, homemade bombs, hired hitmen from the South, a knife wielding mother-in-law, lovers’ trysts in the cane, it had it all! The events occurred over a relatively brief period of time between Ayr and Mossman in the 1930s. They shone an unwelcome national spotlight on the district’s Italian immigrants and served to reinforce prejudice and negative stereotyping of the worst kind.
Beginning in 1932 Italians, and occasionally others, began to receive extortion letters and threats. Bombings, kidnappings and homicides followed. It was suggested that the crimes were being perpetrated by an Italian criminal organization, known as ‘The Black Hand Gang’, La Mano Nera, with supposed links to the ‘Mafioso’. La Mano Nera came from the emblem of a black hand that was imprinted on the extortion letters. Before this strange drama fizzled out in 1938 with the death of Vincenzo D’Agostino who was the supposed Herbert River ring-leader, three other Herbert River Italians were murdered: Giuseppina Bacchiella, Domenico Scarcella and Francesco Femio.  Since its flowering in 1932 scholars, and scandal mongers alike, have pondered whether The Black Hand was a disorganized small gang of ignorant, opportunistic thugs or a group with legitimate street credentials that was part of a wider international web of crime.
The drama that played out in the Herbert River district was a strange and perplexing one. It most likely, had no relationship to a national or international criminal conspiracy though there were those at the time, and those even in more recent times, who have tried to concoct that link. More realistically, it appears that the events were perpetrated within a narrow circle. The perpetrators were opportunistically attempting to extort money from those immigrant farmers who were beginning to establish themselves. Their bumbling, amateurish attempts indicated a lack of education and organization. Their activities also seemed to have roots in home grown feuds and vendettas, the intricacies of which remain unclear and unexplained to this day. The activities originated as one contemporary put it in all probability when “These gentry here form a small select band who started to terrorise some of the more susceptible Sicilians…They formed a colourable imitation of the Black-hand of their native land and proceeded to carry out extortion on some of the more timid fry.”  At the time however, it provided ample fuel for journalistic sensationalism and the anti-Italian movement.
As Adam Grossetti in his 2016 ABC Radio podcast ‘The Black Hand Gang’ reveals, the episode still reverberates to this day.  While many people were happy to speak openly to him, several sought anonymity. Adam has conducted extensive research and produced a fascinating account in which he attempts to explain the Black Hang Gang event and hazards some suggestions as to who may have killed Vincenzo D’Agostino. Though there is suggestion that D'Agostino knew who is killer was, even on his deathbed he refused to incriminate anyone. His murder went unsolved. Go to the following website to listen the two part radio series (May 9 and 10 2016): http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/earshot/my-very-good-friend/7337670
Sources: Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The  Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
Douglass, William. From Italy to Ingham. Italians in North Queensland. St. Lucia: University of Queensland, 1995.

La Mano Nera - The Black Hand (Mercer Lane Mosaic)

La Mano Nera - The Black Hand (Mercer Lane Mosaic)

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Women, past and present

Recently I saw advertised in the Herbert River Express that local woman Kerry Russo, who is the Associate Dean of Teaching and Learning with James Cook University's College of Business, Law and Governance, gave a talk at a public event. If I recall correctly, part of her talk was about local women having to, or choosing to, pursue careers outside of the local community. Unbeknown to the wider community there are a surprising number of local women who, at this present moment, commute to other cities or towns or out to mining sites in order to hold down a job. They do this for a range of reasons. To pursue their hard earned careers and/or to support their families are two primary reasons. Meanwhile they are still, daughters, wives and mothers and still endeavour to be part of and active in their local community. It is a juggling act. It requires determination, persistence, commitment and grit. I am in awe of my fellow women as I am sure their families are.

As I have researched and read our local history over the years I have often felt in awe of the women of the past that I have encountered. Many of the facilities we take for granted today, schools, churches, hospitals and hotels for example, would not have been built if it had not been for their efforts and generosity. Their lives with errant drunkard husbands, with the absence of the finer things of life, far from home and family, living daily with the dangers of childbirth and disease and the menace of a strange environment and animals, their lives tells a tale of unimaginable hardship and sheer  bravery.

Take Maria Ferrero, who, fired by determination to have her children educated in a Catholic school by religious Sisters, rode tirelessly on horseback from door to door in the lower Halifax area seeking donations for a convent building fund. As a result of her and her community’s determination the Halifax Convent School, with boarding facilities for boys, opened on July 3 1927.  In a time of poor roads, unbridged rivers and creeks and most farming families still using horse drawn vehicles school attendance could be spasmodic. The boarding school offered a chance of reliable school attendance. 
Angelina Borello (nee Ruffinengo) came to Australia as a single woman at the age of 21. She already had brothers in the Herbert River district who were cutting cane.  A respected midwife, she conducted a maternity hospital at Lannercost from 1927 until 1937, and is said to have delivered thousands of babies. She offered an accessible, safer and more comfortable alternative than home birth. While she was very talented there were deliveries when complications arose. Imagine her anxiety as she awaited the arrival of Dr. Morrissey and his expert help. But to reach her was no easy matter, especially in the wet season. Just past Erba’s store in Trebonne there was a persistent boggy patch in the road. Whenever he was called by Mrs Borello, her sons, Joe and Ernie, would have to go down to the store to lift his car through the bog. The reverse would have to happen for his journey back to Ingham! Further to the comfort and help she gave to mothers and their babies she was generous in other ways. We learn from Parish records that it was only through her generous donation of land in 1933 that the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii could be built at Lannercost. Like the country schools, bush churches were vital to the life of farming people in the days when going into Ingham town could be a rare event. The country schools and churches were easier to reach and around them developed a sense of community. The school could be a dance hall of a weekend and fund raising for church or school gave families reason to gather at each other’s homes for euchre or florin evenings.

The bravery of women, single, alone or widowed with children who arrived in the Herbert River district in the 1870s when the district was being opened up to European settlement is mind boggling. By the time the Mackenzie family established the Gairloch mill and plantation in 1872 it consisted of father William Mackenzie, a retired Presbyterian Minister, and five siblings and the partner of one of those children. Isabella Mackenzie was unmarried when she arrived in the district. Then Sligo, later Ingham, was no more than a camping ground and potential husbands while more numerous than eligible woman were still thin on the ground. Her sights settled on one William Stewart who had been engaged by the family to manage Gairloch. Apparently she married him “much to the astonishment of every one, and it did not result in a happy life for her.” An episode that happened to him is worth digressing for, for it gives you an idea of what sort of man she had to contend with. He was ‘fishing’ in the river one day, not with a fishing line, but with dynamite. He held the charge too long and it blew his right hand clean off.  Two days passed before a doctor could be got from Townsville to attend to the wound. Luckily the stump didn’t go gangrenous, but healed and from then on he wore a hook attached to it. We don’t know much of Isabella Stewart’s life with the foolhardy William, apart from that one quoted record of community dismay and his illfated fishing expedition, but we do know that when she arrived in the Herbert River district she was accompanied by another Isabella, the plucky widow Isabella Campbell with children in the folds of her skirt and a head full of hearty Scottish recipes. She may have had a better eye for good husband material for she quickly settled on George Wickham. He had a property called Cowden which he had selected in 1872. The landing for river vessels on his property was known as Wickham’s Landing. There he and his new wife, Isabella opened a hotel in 1875 called the Planter’s Retreat. Situated conveniently half way between Gairloch and the Camping Reserve it became an alternative venue to the family home for weddings. It was renowned for its pure liquor and good Scottish cooking.

Death was a constant companion to everyday pioneering life. Childbirth was a risky business that Mrs Borello helped to make less risky in the early twentieth century. But maternity and infant mortality in the first days of European settlement were tragically high. When Mrs Skinner’s baby took sick with diphtheria she and her husband set off with the baby from Halifax in a desperate effort to seek medical help in Ingham. Unfortunately as they stopped to rest the tired horse under the shade of mango trees the baby died in his mother’s arms. With death so common, there was little help or sympathy for the grief of those who lost a loved one. Laudanum and sleep were the stock panacea for the first days of grief. The depth of Mrs. Skinner’s grief can only be imagined but her son recalled that it took a long, long time for her to find some peace and recalled that poignant evening when she went for a walk to the gate and looking up at the starry sky she found peace as last and was able to move on from the loss of her baby.
Douglass, William A. From Italy to Ingham: Italians in North Queensland. St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1995.
Recipes of  Yesteryear. Halifax: Herbert River Museum Gallery Inc. 1992.
Skinner, F. Memories of Early Halifax. January, 1979. 
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Portrait of a Parish: A History of Saint Patrick's Church and Parish Ingham 1864-1996. Ingham: St Patrick's Parish, 1998.
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.
Planters' Retreat Hotel, 1876. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection.

Gairloch Plantation House, 187? Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection

Tennis Party at Gairloch Plantation House, 1875. Source: Hinchinbrook Shire Library Photograph Collection

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

'Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade'

You may have recently read Stuart Start, the Eye Feature in the ‘Townsville Eye’, October 8, 2016, which features the post World War 2 Displaced Persons Transit Camp or Migrant Camp located in Stuart. Presently an exhibition of photographs from private collections featuring this Stuart Migrant Camp has been curated and put on display at the City Library, Townsville. The exhibition will move to the Courthouse Theatre from November 16-20 when will Full Throttle Theatre Company will perform a production entitled Displaced, ‘a locally written play inspired by the true story of a Polish couple who left war-torn Europe and settled in Townsville, after spending two years in the Stuart Migrant Camp.”
When my book ‘Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade’ was first launched in 1990 it too was released to time with a play, which was a visiting production of Summer of the 17th Doll by playwright Ray Lawler. I find it rather fascinating then, that just as I have achieved a reprint of ‘Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade’ in 2016 through the auspices of Boolarong Press, coincidently the post World War 2 displaced people and their stories have once more captured the public eye and interest. The migration of Displaced Persons to Australia between 1947 and 1951 was, in character and scale of preparation, unprecedented in the history of migration to Australia. Despite, and possibly because of, the plight of the current huge numbers of displaced people in the world, many of whom are seeking safety and refuge in Australia, just as the displaced persons of 1947 to 1951 did, this post World War 2 story of displacement is still being revisited and re-examined by historians and survivors' children and grandchildren alike.
I wrote ‘Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade’ from a unique position being both an historian and daughter of a displaced person cane cutter. I was therefore in the position to take the reader on a graphic and authentic journey from International Refugee Organization (IRO) Assembly Camp, across oceans to the shores of Australia, through Displaced Persons Camps, and deep into the cane fields of tropical north Queensland. In that journey two major themes of north Queensland history, immigration and the sugar industry, met.
‘Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade’ celebrates and records the days of manual cane cutting through a fictional character Branko Domanovic a displaced person cane cutter. Branko however, is an embodiment of the displaced person cane cutter and a true Gentleman of the Flashing Blade. When Branko arrived in Australia in 1949, the sugar crop of north Queensland was still cut by hand, by the oft mythologized ‘Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade’. Cane cutting was one of the least desirable unskilled occupations to which the displaced persons were allocated and one to which they made an invaluable contribution. Today the days of the manual cane cutter are no more. They are but the stuff of memory, history and legend.
When Branko stepped onto the deck of the Mohammedi, a displaced person refugee, he left behind him a war torn home land and loving family. In the sweat and dust of a North Queensland cane field youthful hopes and ambitions died. But there, at least, he breathed freely and moved without looking over his shoulder. He could dream that when he made good money and his country was free he would go home. He never did.
Reprint of 'Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade' 
'Gentlemen of the Flashing Blade' can now be purchased from: 

I recommend to the reader the PhD thesis by Dr. Jayne Persian entitled: ‘Displaced Person (1947-1952): Representations, Memory and Commemoration. It can be accessed from this link
She has consequently written further on the subject including an academic article called ‘Bonegilla: A Failed Narrative’. There will be people living today in the Ingham district whose parents and grandparents passed through Bonegilla which was the largest and longest operating post-war migrant camp in the post World War 2 period. 320 000 migrants were processed through Bonegilla in the years 1947 to 1971. Persian points out that Bonegilla is referred to as the birthplace of Australian multiculturalism. In her article she questions how this came about and “raises questions not only as to whether Bonegilla is a reactivated or a failed site of memory, but also as to the success or failure of multiculturalism as a historical narrative in Australia.”

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

“clique of insignificant ‘cockies’ with a soul a little above sweet potatoes and pumpkins”

As you walk Mercer’s lane looking at the mosaic you may pause and wonder at a panel where a full moon is seen through an open window. It shines over men sitting inside a cottage at a table lit by lamplight. One of the men’s horses is tethered outside.  Why were they gathered? What were they discussing? Is the full moon significant?

Yearning for a sense of community and needing mutual support in a hostile new environment the European pioneers of the Herbert River district worked quickly towards creating community facilities such as churches, schools and halls. A particular characteristic of settler communities in Australia was the formation of associations and in agricultural areas, farmer and pastoral  associations. The first farmer association in this district was the Herbert River Farmers’ Association formed in 1882.  Its story begins when a number of small portions of land were taken up between 1879 and 1881 in the area between what was called the Washaway and Gentle Annie Creek. This area was formerly an Aboriginal camping ground and the Europeans that came to live there called it Blacks’ Township. August Anderssen and Francis Herron were the first to show active interest in the area for farming. Others who took up land and/or would become significant to the story of this association were Harald Hoffensetz,  John Alm, A.W. Carr, N. Rosendahl, W. Johnson, John Buchanan, J. Loder, Henry Beardsworth and R.S. Alston.
When the Colonial Sugar Refining Company came to the district with the promise of a mill (the Victoria Mill which first crushed in 1883) it gave hopes to the small land holders that they might be able to grow cane that could be milled by the CSR Company because the company was already doing that in NSW.  Two representatives of the Blacks’ Township, August Anderssen and John Alm, were deputised to approach an officer of the CSR Company with a proposal that the smaller landholders grow sugar cane for supply to the new mill. This officer suggested that the Blacks' Township settlers form an association through which they could communicate their proposal to the CSR General Manager via the local officer. Undoubtedly he was of the mind that a collective approach to the Company would be more effective.  Following that a meeting of the Blacks' Township settlers was called at August Anderssen’s farm, Riverview, so that Anderssen and Alm could report back on what had transpired in their meeting with the CSR officer. Six settlers attended the meeting: Harald Hoffensetz, August Anderssen, A.W. Carr, N.C. Rosendahl, John Alm and Francis Herron. It was decided at this meeting to form an association which would be henceforth known as the Herbert River Farmers ‘Association. The founding premise was “to work for and promote the interests of the farming industry in general and the welfare and progress of the Herbert River district in particular”. Given the latter broad aim, membership was open to anyone regardless of occupation. Nevertheless A.W. Carr confirmed, that the new association would be first and foremost, a “Bureau through which the farmers could communicate with the Government or others on any matter of common interest” with one voice. These men were convinced of their ability to work and thrive in the tropics. Nevertheless they still maintained that Melanesian labour was required for certain aspects of field work and that this labour should be available to planter and small grower alike. Harald Hoffensetz is credited with proposing the formal motion for the formation of an association to be named the Herbert River Farmers’ Association and A.W. Carr is on record as the seconder of the motion”. August Anderssen was elected as the first Chairman, John Alm as Secretary mid A.W. Carr as Treasurer. Meetings would be held at the homes of each of the foundation members in rotation. Membership subscription was set at £1.  Our mosaic panel then pays tribute to the first farmer’s associations that came into being in this district including the Herbert River Farmers’ League and the Halifax Planters’ Club and their first informal and then formal meetings held in their outlying cottages .
But why the full moon?  Getting around the district from one small holding to another, from outlying farm to Ingham town was no mean feat in those times. Clouds of choking dust rose from unpaved roads in dry weather, while in the wet season the roads became a quagmire of cloying mud. Lesser used roads would become overgrown with vegetation after long periods of rainfall and impassability, and would then need the undergrowth to be cut away in order to become passable again. Streams were unbridged and crossing a full stream of water risked an encounter with crocodiles.  Travelling around the district in daylight hours was hazardous enough let alone at night. Therefore meetings of the Herbert River Farmers’ Association were scheduled on the Saturday night nearest each full moon so that the way would be lit and hazards could be avoided. While farmers travelled to the meetings on horseback they might also bring their families in a sulky as the meetings provided an opportunity for sorely needed fellowship amongst the farmers and their families The women especially, appreciated the chance to gather, chat and share a cuppa while their menfolk held their meeting. August Anderssen and his wife had set the precedent from the first of serving a supper for both the members and their wives after the meeting.
These first meetings of the Association quickly proved the value of unified action. Nevertheless there were detractors who regarded the Association members as a “clique of insignificant ‘cockies’ with a soul a little above sweet potatoes and pumpkins”. This attitude changed somewhat when in 1882, six months after its formation, upon receiving an unsolicited letter of support from Frank Neame accompanied by a donation of five guineas, the Association invited him to become the President of the Association. He eagerly accepted the position but due to illness was unable to go out at night to attend meetings. Meetings were henceforth held on Saturday afternoons in a room at the Hotel. At this time membership had grown to around 20 members. Frank Neame had been a long time resident of the Herbert River district, a successful planter and Chairman of the Hinchinbrook Divisional Board in 1880. His approval of the Association and the small grower ideals quietened any criticisms for he “was so universally admired and respected by all sections of the public that they would not adversely criticise anything in which he took a leading part.” As President he pledged to “do all he could to advance the causes of the Association” believing that cooperation amongst farmers was much needed in the district. It is argued that his presidency added weight to the Association’s petitions to both CSR and the Divisional Board. Twelve months after formation the Association was able to boast 30 members.
The Herbert River Farmers’ Association was the first small sugar cane farmers’ association formed in tropical north Queensland (north of Townsville) and did successfully negotiate the supply of small grower cane to the CSR mill. In 1884 the Association received the long awaited letter from CSR offering a seven year contract for cane supply. No limitations were put on how much cane the farmers could supply to the mill. The Mill offered a price of 10/- a ton and would harvest the cane. The Association had achieved a major victory for north Queensland small cane growers and had made them the first tropical north Queensland small growers to sell cane to a mill.
Herbert River Farmers' League Building built 1925
Hinchinbrook Shire Council Library collection

Alm, John. Early History of the Herbert River District being “The Memoirs of the Early Settlement of the Lower Herbert and the Start and Progress of the Sugar Industry in the District. Ingham: Herbert River Express, 1932,33,34.  
Vidonja Balanzategui, Bianka. The Herbert River Story. Ingham: Hinchinbrook Shire Council, 2011.