The Crossing

Bob heard the roar of the water well before he saw it. Was this yet another barrier between his sick father and the Cooktown Hospital? Then, as Bob and the others approached the banks of the Laura River, the heavens opened. The men carried Jim the last few yards through a terrific downpour. He was lying on the stretcher Bob had found at the old, deserted hospital at Maytown.  As if the rain wasn’t enough to dampen Bob’s spirits, his heart sank when his eyes confirmed what he’d heard. Sweet, gentle Laura, usually so quiet and placid, was filled with flooding water and awakened. Animated, she became an angry she-devil, gathering small trees and bushes in her arms to bring them along for the ride. How would she treat Jim when it was his turn on the water? 

There was a short distance left to get to the Laura township, the other side of the river. It was the last section of their 52-mile trek from remote Maytown. Once there, Bob would telegraph Fred Schipke, the stationmaster at Cooktown, to bring a special train the 68 miles to Laura.

Despite being sick, it was the perseverance of James Watters, publican, businessman, former prospector and miner, that took him to Maytown. As the promoter of a syndicate of investors, Jim had secured permission from the Queensland government to lease 300 acres on the old Palmer River Goldfields. The syndicate guaranteed to spend at least £10,000 to explore the old mines, hoping to reopen the field. The mining companies abandoned reef mining on the field 30 years before, in the financial crisis of 1893. Too much capital was needed to pump the water from the mines, and the gold had petered out above a layer of shale. Jim, an experienced reefer, was convinced there was more gold below the shale.

Palmer Goldfield Syndicate
(click the image for the full article)

Bob worried about his father. Although Jim’s fever had improved since Bob first saw him a week ago at Maytown, he complained about a stomach ailment. It was crucial Bob took him to hospital. They had left days ago and encountered rivers, rough tracks and two rugged ranges. Here was that she-devil Laura between them and the railway line of hope.

The rain cleared and Bob saw the four Aboriginal men with the bark boat Sergeant Wedderick had asked them to make if Bob attempted the crossing. The boat was formed from one large piece of bark, tied at the ends with rope. It looked flimsy and was smaller than the old tin boat they had repaired and used to take Jim across the Palmer River two days before. Bob rubbed his chin, took off his hat and ran his hands through his hair.

“Crikey, Sandy,” he said to his offsider, “I can’t see us getting Dad across in that.”

Bob doubted his decision to leave Maytown. He knew there had been enough rain to flood the river. They should have stayed put, instead of carrying Jim over rugged country for three days to have him drown so close to Laura Railway Station. He kicked at the wet ground. Everything was soaked. The men were soaked; the tents were soaked; the horses were soaked. His father was soaked. The rain gave temporary relief from the heat, but the oppressive tropical humidity stifled Bob. It cloaked his skin and hampered any cooling. He was desperate to fathom an answer to this predicament as the suffocating air perforated his brain. Should they put the tents up and wait for the river to recede? But the wet season had set in and Jim’s illness might worsen. Should they risk the crossing? Sandy interrupted his thoughts.

“Nah, she’ll be right, Bob. We’ll go downstream. The water will be quieter where the river deepens. And don’t worry about the boat. Those fellas know how to build them strong.” The sound of Sandy’s voice and his reply was the relief Bob was looking for.

He had worked with Sandy Connors before. Sandy was of mixed race, Aboriginal and Caucasian, and Bob had asked Sandy especially to go with him from Laura to Maytown. That man knew his way around the bush. He had grown up and worked with cattle and horses in this area all his life. Flooded rivers weren’t a big deal to him when cattle needed driving somewhere. If Sandy Connors said they could make the crossing, Bob trusted him. That was one thing Bob had learnt from his time at Gallipoli and the battlefields of France – you could rely on your mates.

“All right, let’s do this.”

Bob walked over to his father, who was lying on the stretcher where the men had left him. “We’re going to take you across the river, Dad.” Jim nodded with a smile and then grimaced as another cramp gripped his stomach.

Sandy approached the boat builders and Bob joined him. “Thanks, fellas,” he said with a smile as he shook their hands. Sandy spoke with them in their language and they carried the boat downstream.

“Can you bring Jim down here?” Sandy said to the stretcher bearers, raising his voice above the sound of the water. Grabbing the halter of a packhorse, he motioned them to follow. Four men lifted the stretcher and picked their way through the bush beside the rushing waters.

Part of the map of the Palmer District 1896 - RL Jack - annotated
Part of the map of the Palmer District 1896 – RL Jack – annotated
Click image for original

Sandy found a suitable launch place. He filled the boat with pack saddles and tents equal to a man’s weight and tested it on the water. The boat floated; no water swamped it. Sandy turned to Bob with a smile and a thumbs up gesture, then a wave to bring Jim. Bob helped his father to his feet, and Jim, holding his side, limped over, while the men unloaded the boat and held it steady in the shallows. 

As Jim stepped into the boat and sat down, Bob thought about his mother and having to face her if something happened to Jim. His guilt was still raw, arriving home from the war when his brother hadn’t. Bob wanted to tell his father to get out, but Sandy had already moved the boat out into the current. Sandy swam behind, giving the boat a push now and again to guide its direction, some men swam alongside, downstream, in case of a capsize.

Bob walked along the bank to keep the boat and the swimmers in sight as the flooding waters forced them further away. His stomach churned, and his breath came in bursts. He watched helplessly as the men traversed the river, not knowing where they would land on the opposite bank, not knowing if they would land on the opposite bank.

Bob held his breath. The boat was nearly there, only a yard or two to go. A fallen tree reached out into the water and two figures swam ahead and pinned themselves against its leafy branches, reaching out towards the boat. Sandy manoeuvred the boat to them and they held it against the rush of water. All the men were suddenly there. Bob strained to see his father among the figures, and then he saw Jim pulled from the boat and on to the bank. Jim clambered a few yards and sat down. With great relief, Bob exhaled.

Bob Watters

TO SAVE A LIFE. The Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1903 – 1926) 13 March 1922: 6. from
Jack, Robert L & Fox, W. H & Queensland. Geological Survey Office & Geological Survey of Queensland. (1896). Map of the Palmer district, retrieved from

Genealogy Snapshot

Name: James Watters (1857-1942)
Parents: Samuel Watters and Hannah Shannon 
Spouse: Caroline Jones (1866-1942)
Spouse’s Parents: Henry Russell Jones (1840-1890) and Mary Simmes (abt 1838-1917)
Surnames: Watters, Shannon, Jones, Simmes
Relationship to Chris: James is Chris’s great grandfather
(Bob Watters is Chris’s great uncle)

  1. James Watters (1857-1922) (great grandfather)
  2. Mary Izetta Watters (1890-1966) (grandmother)
  3. Mother
  4. Chris

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Time to Shift up a Gear

I was busy in 2018, writing on my 52 Ancestors Blog. But now I’ll be giving that a break and have returned to move along again on this blog. I hope you’ll join me to share in some of the stories of my children’s ancestors, which will include:

  • another shooting death in the family. See the first one I wrote about
  • stories of the Palmer River Goldfields in North Queensland
  • what happens to a convict’s family left behind in England
  • a mining family that turns to farming and then back to mining
  • more on the Irish Barretts and maybe the Irish Bennetts as well
  • stories of a sea captain, a musician, a city mayor, a yeoman and a convict
  • a tragic mining accident
  • a hidden cemetery
  • gold medals for elocution
  • Cape York Peninsula pioneering
  • watermen in England and watermen in Australia

Here is a link to my first story for 2019 to mark my 3-year blogiversary.

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Signals at Sea

This  carries on from a previous blog post – Crossing the Line

The visit from King Neptune was a welcome interruption to the routine of the previous four weeks for those aboard the William Money. Richard and the other emigrants gained their sea legs, and life settled into a schedule of domestic chores.

Wednesdays and Saturdays, if fine, were reserved for washing. Wet clothes and linen draped over every available surface and hung from ropes strung between the rigging. Richard thought it looked like the rag fair selling secondhand clothes that he had seen in Plymouth.

On Sundays, the captain created the perfect place for the church service on deck. He fashioned a reading desk by draping the Union Jack over the harness cask and hiding its usual purpose, which was to soak the daily salted provisions. It was here he delivered the prayers of the established church to passengers and crew, who were seated on barrels  and boxes. The numerous Methodists on board had their own, separate prayer meetings on Sunday evenings and sometimes on Fridays as well. Richard and his family were Anglican. They had the choice of the service on deck, or the Methodist prayer meeting with their Cornish brethren. Continue reading

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Crossing the Line

“Please, Mother, pleease.” Richard tugged at Ann’s arm hoping it might encourage her to change her mind. Ann, scraping the porridge pot ready for washing up, pulled her arm away from his grip. Mary Ann looked on, hoping for a positive answer. Richard’s new friend James Thomas was nearby, also anticipating Ann’s reply. 

“No, you got absolutely soaked last night in that foolish nonsense. ‘Tis a wonder you haven’t woken up with a fever. Lord only knows what could happen to ‘ee today. You could come back bald as a coot.”

The previous night, Richard had been on deck with James, driven there by the warm, oppressive air below. The days and nights were getting hotter. Some passengers resorted to dragging their straw mattresses onto the deck and sleeping there in their clothes. 

As they stepped in amongst the temporary beds of other passengers, Richard and James pondered on what they’d seen during the day. 

“What do you suppose they are going to do with all that stuff?” Richard asked James.

His friend shrugged. 

The actions of some of the crew mystified them. The sailors had been gathering dresses and wigs from below and storing them in the fo’c’stle. Razors, lather and pill bottles joined the booty. When the boys stole glances at the stash in the sailor’s den, the secretive crew chased them away. 

“Ain’t nothin’ here for you.” Continue reading

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Sea Legs – September 1848

He moaned with the latest pitch and lurch of the ship as the odours of hundreds of bodies, damp bedding and water closets imprisoned him in his bed. Nine-year-old Richard Grenfell had never felt so ill. He lay there, staring at the bunk overhead and fixed his gaze on a knot in the timber. Yet, still his body detected movement, a conundrum that made his stomach heave. Perspiration gathered in little beads on his skin. His mother, Ann, wiped his forehead with a damp cloth, and Richard managed a feeble smile. He rolled onto his side. Beyond Ann, his two younger brothers played, unaffected by the tilt and rolling that distressed him.

Four-year-old Nicholas usaw Richard looking at him, and with a few wobbly steps to counter the ship’s action, he was at his brother’s bedside. “Be ‘ee sick, Dickie?” He put his hand on Richard’s clammy arm. Richard nodded, but the slight movement threw his balance into confusion. Continue reading

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Denis Bennett in Liverpool

Patrick stood open mouthed. After a time he managed to say, “Oh that is so pretty. I wish I could buy that for Ma.”

Denis smiled.

John laughed, a wisdom bestowed by his extra six years. “Oh yeah, that would look lovely, sitting on the box in the corner of our room.”

Patrick pouted.  “Well I’m going to shoe horses like Bernard when I get bigger and have enough money to buy Ma a silver tea set. It will have writing on it, just like this one. It will say ‘to Ma from Patrick.’”

Denis smiled again. “Come on boys, we should be getting back to yer mammy. You can tell her about the tea set, Paddy. That will be almost as good.”

They left the store window. Patrick’s shoulders drooped, his arms were limp at his sides. He barely managed a glance at the Town Hall, situated at the head of the quadrangle of the Exchange Buildings.

“We can go and see Nelson first,” Denis added. A slow smile brightened Patrick’s face, and he managed a small skip as he moved towards the Town Hall. Continue reading

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Crossed Paths

Denis Bennett stepped out the door of the Old Fort Tavern onto the cobbles of Bath Street and into the dank air. Dark, dreary air that, with one brushstroke, coloured the Liverpool canvas grey. Denis turned up the collar of his coat against the biting north-east wind that licked the waters of the Mersey into short, sharp waves. A forest of ships’ masts stood above him, piercing the fog as it dispersed above the walls of Prince’s Dock.

Ships, that Denis had hoped he would be unloading that day. He had managed only two days work in the past week, earning seven shillings. It wasn’t enough; a guinea and his family could live in comfort, but work was scarce. That morning, after waiting with the other porters and hoping for a day’s work, he’d been rejected again. How to tell Hannah?

Liverpool Docks

Liverpool Docks

It wasn’t his intention to stay long at the tavern, but Paddy Kelly was there after finishing up at Clarence Dock. Kelly told Denis a grim story of famine refugees; a steamer had spilled out another miserable flood of 250 desperate souls from Dublin. Continue reading

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Tasmania to the Transvaal

The change room at the Western Mine could hardly contain those assembled. With much hand shaking and back slapping, the group of men wished their two colleagues the best of luck – give it to them warm, stay alive and come back to us. There was a call for quiet, moderating the din. Mr Deakin spoke on behalf of the mining company, and collective silence filled the room, interrupted only by the occasional murmur of approval when he voiced the admiration for the volunteers. He then presented a silver pipe to Maurice Keys. And to Victor Peers, a gold medal, a fine piece of local workmanship made by Mr Wathen of Main Street.

The two were members of the Zeehan Rifle Company, part of the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment, who responded to the call for infantrymen. Three others from Zeehan were also selected. Australia’s colonial governments sought volunteers to fight for Britain in their war with the Boer Republics. It was 1899, Continue reading

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The Search for my Irish Bennetts

“It’s those Bennetts, again…still,” I said. There may have been a swear word in there as well. Chris had asked how I could spend so much time on my iPad, with the occasional swipe at the screen and tap tap at the keyboard, or ponder over papers, spread out across the table. Those Bennetts have been the main focus of my family history research over the past 3 months, spurred on by a windfall in records that are now available.

Francis Bennett, my great, great grandfather, has led me on a merry chase over the years and there is still much I want to find out about him. Continue reading

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Our Annie

I was impatient to receive John Willis’s birth certificate once I’d sent for it. I had put the required details on the form – “as much as you know,” information garnered from his marriage certificate. He was born in Bowden about 1871 (at that time, a town two miles from Adelaide), father John Willis and mother, Ann Unknown.

If I was ordering the certificate today, I could get a copy emailed within days, but this was the early stages of my hobby of researching my family history.

Weeks later the expected mail arrived. My eyes scanned the document, picking out the relevant facts and mentally checking them off. John Willis, born in Bowden in 1869. The two year discrepancy in the birth date was acceptable. So far, so good. Father – George Gubbins, mother – Ann Willis.  No, that wasn’t right. I sent the certificate back, with a note telling the department they had provided the wrong one. No no, was the reply; this is the only one that fits the date you gave us, and the certificate winged its way back to North Queensland.  Oh, how could I have been so naive! Continue reading

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