Sunday, December 19, 2010



When my Reluctant Traveller and I first settled on Straddie we knew little about its history.  To both of us, as it must seem to countless other first time visitors, Stradbroke Island was simply an intriguing location on a map, a holiday destination, a playground full of golden beaches and sparkling water. 

That the island had a long and proud indigenous history was something I took a few years to realise. That my husband had a unique connection to the island’s past we both remained blissfully unaware of for a good 20 years.

Point Lookout

Australia’s timeframe, like countless other countries can be measured in two ways;  it can be taken back a few short centuries to European occupation or discovery, or it can reach much further back to the known existence of its original inhabitants.  The same goes for Straddie.

The island was first documented in 1770 by Lieutenant James Cook on his extraordinary voyage of discovery when the vessel under his command, HM Barque ‘Endeavour’, sailed along the eastern coast of what was to become known as Australia.  Mind you Cook was not the first stranger to sight this land down under, it is estimated at least 54 ships from sea going realms of the time made various connections to the land and its people in the years between 1606 and 1770.

But at that time Cook and the explorer Matthew Flinders after him weren’t aware the island had been occupied for over 21,000 years by local groups or tribes and the land they would eventually name Stradbroke Island had been known to many indigenous inhabitants for countless centuries as Minjerribah.

Britain’s exploration and colonisation of Australia would lead to a massive influx of immigrants from Europe.  These newcomers brought new languages, customs and skills to their new home along with the then European misconceptions of class, colour and intelligence.

The Europeans also brought plague and illness.  As more and more overcrowded migrant ships arrived in Moreton Bay it was decided to establish a quarantine station at a small settlement on an island isolated from but within sight of the mainland.

Dunwich in early years
Image held in Queensland’s Oxley Library

With the passing years the island began to assume the western names of its new occupants.  The small settlement locals had called Pulan became Amity Point named after Surveyor General Oxley’s ship, while  as Cook charted the eastern seaboard he named Point Lookout as a warning to other sailors to beware of rocky outlets

Then in 1827 Captain Henry Rous who also happened to be the Viscount Dunwich sailed his warship, HMS Rainbow into the bay and thus were named the two navigation channels, the Rainbow  and the Rous.  Both these deep water parts of Moreton Bay are now favoured fishing spots. I’ve fished them on numerous occasions, sometimes successfully.

Oops, I nearly forgot to mention, the Viscount’s father was England’s venerable Earl of Stradbroke.  It figures doesn’t it that by such foibles of self importance and pomposity the island and its towns were named.


Image held in Queensland’s Oxley Library

By 1864 the quarantine station had been moved to Peel Island, a tad closer to the mainland and the buildings left behind on Straddie became the Benevolent Asylum.  A lot of modern day readers may take up their cudgels about the use of the word ‘asylum’ confusing it with the term lunacy.  In the 1800’s the word asylum meant exactly that, refuge. The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum became Queensland’s first sheltered home for the elderly, the infirm and the incapacitated.

In those first years of western settlement  Europeans set up farms, introduced oyster farming, logging and fishing,  the dugong was hunted for its oil used in lighting and medicine.  Small schools were established  to educate the children, jetty’s were built and small ships from the mainland made frequent visits.  The Island prospered.

Image held in Queensland’s Oxley Library

As the island’s population grew so too did its small and beautifully positioned cemetery at Dunwich.  Set on a slight rise among tall bunya and native gum trees the cemetery is the last resting place for an estimated 8,426 former inmates of the Benevolent Asylum.  The cemetery registry lists only 800 or 900 official plots and many of the burial sites, including those from quarantine days when whole shiploads of typhus sufferers died are listed as unknown. 
Image held in Queensland’s Oxley Library

Australians are in the unique position of knowing that all their early western or European forebears had no way to reach Oz other than by ship.  And most of their voyages whether voluntary or as convicts can be easily researched. 

Over the years I became obsessed with family history, tackling my grandparents origins first and then my husbands, the Reluctant Traveller.  His family background included Danes and Germans, farming stock from Wiltshire, mill workers from Yorkshire, a Welsh labourer, Thomas Williams from a small town near Cardiff and a young girl called Jane Wall who was born in Somerset.

Delving into family history is a painstaking challenge that at times seems endless though computers have made it a whole lot easier.  Without too much fuss I found the marriage of my husbands great-great grand parents in Wales and then their voyage to Australia on the Parsee in 1853. 

Extract from Moreton Bay Courier 15th January 1853:

The Parsee has made an excellent voyage of 102 days from Plymouth to Moreton Bay, leaving England more than a month after the America and coming to anchor in the Bay a little before her. The Parsee crossed the equator on the 2nd November and came round Van Diemen's Land on the 22nd ult., being the 84th day from England; but was detained on this coast by northerly winds. Sighted land at Sugar Loaf Point on the 1st instant. She brings 493 immigrants, of whom 105 couples are married, 18 males and 106 female adults are single, 144 are boys and girls between one and fourteen and 15 are infants under one year...

I was suitably pleased and amazed because their entry into Moreton Bay would have been right here in Dunwich where all new ships were quarantined. Their first sight of the new country was virtually the same view we wake up to each morning.  But this isn’t the end of Jane’s story nor is it the surprising link I mentioned earlier...

Thomas and Jane Williams settled in the Nanango area of rural Queensland and had three daughters, two of the three married brothers from Wiltshire.  One of their daughters later married Marius Sorensen from Denmark, and in time one of their daughters married a grandson of the immigrants from Yorkshire.

But Jane Williams who could read but not write was a determined lady, she became a respected midwife in Nanango and carved out a life for herself when her husband died and their youngest child was only 14.  Then much later, aged, blind and in poor health she committed herself to the Dunwich Benevolent Home, died in 1909 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Womens Quarters Benevolent Society Dunwich
Image held in Queensland’s Oxley Library

Historical Cemetery, Dunwich

The cemetery in Dunwich is the focal point of the township. Overlooking the One Mile jetty it shares the foreshore with neighbouring camping grounds and The Little Ship Club marina. Vehicles pass the cemetery on their way across the island to Point Lookout and Amity Point. The primary school is just across the main road.  

Tall and thickly leaved shade trees are home to myriad birds and a family of koalas.  If there are ghosts patrolling this last resting spot their days are never lonely with locals and visitors alike frequently strolling through the cemetery grounds.

Grave stones tell the stories of pioneer families, of immigrants from distant countries whose voyage ended suddenly and tragically from typhoid or worse at the Quarantine station.   They also tell the story of doctors and carers struck down with those same incurable afflictions.

And on a memorial wall there are names of just some of the 8,000 or so inmates of the Benevolent Institution who were buried in the cemeteries unmarked graves.

We found Jane William’s memorial plaque on that wall.  Her actual grave like so many others was unmarked and now is unrecognizable beneath the mowed grass.

Distant unknown relations from another part of Queensland had found her last resting place long before us and instigated the memorial plaque.  I wonder do they know Jane now has kin living close by, keeping her company with frequent visits and kind thoughts.

Jane's death was announced in a February 1909 edition of the Queenslander.  I thought it sad to see the four inmates of the Dunwich Home who died in that same week were all immigrants from far away countries.
For nearly twenty years Stan had lived in Dunwich, walked through this beautiful and peaceful cemetery on numerous occasions and never at any time suspected his link to the island was so precious.  Perhaps our move here all that time ago was meant to be.

A great-great grandson honours the past

The Benevolent Society’s memorial wall where Jane Williams name is inscribed.


Robyn Mortimer ©2010

Next Part 7 Straddie-  From Beach to Bush – a 65 year friendship.