Saturday, September 22, 2012



Dunwich Jetty 1890  (John Oxley Library)

Remember previous stories about Uncle Pat, a True Gentleman from Straddie, and his wife Aunty Margaret Iselin, respected elders of the Minjerribah Moorgumpin Elders in Council?

I wrote at the time about the early written history of Stradbroke Island, about the people who had always lived there. About their love for their island and their affinity with the sea.

Over the centuries the island has seen its share of ship wrecks...  The sinking of the cargo laden American liberty ship Rufus King in 1942 that resulted in a great deal of wartime largesse for the heavily rationed locals...
... The disastrous Cambus Wallace in 1847 with a cargo of explosives that detonated as the boat sank in a ferocious storm causing the separation of Stradbroke Island into the two separate entities of North Stradbroke and South Stradbroke Islands...
  ...The 1902 sinking of the Prosperity off Deadman’s Beach that years later in 1956 gave the beach its name when a skeleton complete with a boot on one foot and believed to be the ships cook was found buried in the sand...

...And back as early as 1847 when the islanders of Moreton and Stradbroke  figured in the rescue of sailors and crew aboard the sailing vessel Sovereign when it sank in the South Passage that separates the two islands.  They were rewarded with a small boat, and shiny breast plates, considerably larger than bravery medals of today. 

The island’s history of boats and bravery, the sea and its people continued on in an almost continuous thread until this very day.

This is yet another Straddie tale, this time about Pat’s grandfather Alf and a little 35 foot Government schooner that connected the island to the mainland back in the early 1900’s.



The Karboora

Pat’s grandfather Alf Martin was an engineer on the motor launch, Karboora.  Charlie King, or Ginta as he was known, was the boat’s skipper, and together they made up the crew of the little 8 ton boat when it made the three times a week trip between Cleveland, Peel Island and Dunwich.  Before the Karboora, built in 1910. the journey was made by sailing boat...not all that reliable if the day was calm without a breath of breeze.

   Alf and Ginter had grown up on Stradbroke. The island and the waters around had been their playground since childhood... and that of their parents and grandparents before them.

    They knew the  bay’s every island and sand cay, they could read like a bible Moreton Bay’s ever changing moods, knew the habits and whims of the bream, squire, flathead and whiting.  They could sense imminent change in the day’s weather, read the changing clouds, a wind shift that morphed a calm bay inlet into a frothing, surging nightmare of disaster.

   Officials made a wise choice when they put these two in charge of the Government launch Karboora back in the days of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum.

   Ginter had spent just about all his life on boats of one description or another... sailing ships, whale boats, steam and motor.   As a youngster his father had taken him on oyster gathering expeditions along the shores of the bay.  In 1883 at the age of 15 he took charge of the Goomple and its crew of four men when it was commissioned to carry provisions from Dunwich across to Bird Island where passengers and crew from the Duke of Westminster had been quarantined in a small pox scare.

Oyster fishermen on the Bay.

Alf Martin was growing up in the same small village,  attending the Mission school, going off on fishing trips around the bay,  riding the horses running wild in the bush, tumbling and playing in the clear waters surrounding his island home.

Myora Mission 1906 (John Oxley Library)

In their lifetime great changes had taken hold of Dunwich. They had seen the Asylum old folks shelter grow, houses built.  They had seen the age of telephone communication arrive by way of  under sea cable, the electric light, the wireless and even the twice weekly picture shows or cinema held in the Asylums great hall.


At first sight it didn’t seem such an extraordinary long crossing to the mainland, after all Cleveland was clearly if distantly visible from Dunwich, but it was a stretch of water to be respected, its waters known to erupt in a fury of tossing waves and eddies when a big storm blew.
  The trip across or back was only a mere 8 miles as the crow flies, considerably longer when the boat had to thread its way around sand bars and accommodate varying tides.  

 In those days Dunwich was well known as the place where a lot of Queensland’s old and homeless and destitute were sent to live at the Benevolent Society Home, or Asylum as it was known then...a sprawling collection of buildings and staff accommodation for the army of people that cared for the inmates health and wellbeing.

  Many of the Karboora’s passengers were nursing and medical staff going home to the mainland on leave.  It’s not surprising the Karboora was considered the island’s lifeline to the mainland,  along with the much larger Otter.    
  The Otter carried goods and passengers from Brisbane, sailing down the river to the Bay’s entrance. across to the prison on  tiny St Helena Island,  continuing on to the Lazaret on Peel Island, and from there across to Dunwich on the much larger Stradbroke Island;  Dunwich originally settled as a convict settlement, then became a quarantine station, and after that the Benevolent Society’s Asylum for the aged.

The Otter in Moreton Bay.  (John Oxley Library)

Their crew and skippers knew the currents and sand bars of Moreton Bay like they knew the backs of their hands.  Not surprising, their forebears had after all been traversing the Bay’s waters for centuries past.

    The little Karboora and its crew, Ginta King and Alf Martin became living legends of Moreton Bay, at the instant call of ships and sailors in danger, relied on by the good people of Straddie needing to journey to the mainland, ready to make a mercy trip at a moments notice.

    In 1930, for instance the Otter, a Scottish built steel twin screw vessel of 242 tons under the command of Captain B. Curtis slipped from its berth in the Brisbane River with 110 passengers bound for Dunwich..      Most of those on board were women and children looking forward to a days sailing and a visit to elderly kin at the Dunwich Hospital.

   But the day was marred by constant rain and rough seas and at midmorning the Otter ran aground near the red beacon marking the treacherous sand bars of the  Pelican Banks.

The Otter was a sturdy vessel and the skipper knew he had only to wait until the next high tide to float free.  But on board was a cargo of perishable foodstuff destined for the Asylum’s kitchens.

The little Karboora answered the call for help, could see the passengers were in no danger despite the rough seas and dismal weather, and set to in difficult conditions unloading the provisions onto the decks of the Karboora.   It would be another eight hours before the Otter could return to Brisbane, though without calling into Dunwich.

Today, though admittedly rare, barges operated by Stradbroke Ferries have still been known to run aground on the contrary sandbanks of Moreton Bay there to cool their heels and test the patience of crew and passengers until the tide has turned..

The Otter, 1928, docked at the St Helena Island prison wharf.  The horse was used on the island tramway for heavy loads.  Once the goods were unloaded, the Otter continued on to Dunwich with supplies for the Benevolent Asylum.(Oxley Library)


  Alf’s grandson Pat Iselin told me these stories as we sat together in his front yard, me with notebook and pen while he dredged back through a lifetime of memories.  It didn’t take long for more stories to emerge,  stories about the sea and of bravery and heroism.

  Many of the stories were documented in Brisbane newspapers, like the day Pat’s uncle, Barney Delaney who married his aunt Bethel Martin,  figured in two rescues on the Bay on the same day and in a public ceremony was richly rewarded for his bravery with a dinner service and a wallet of bank notes. The first rescue involved a doctor and his wife tossed into the sea after their sailing boat capsized.  An hour later the other man he recued jumped off the steamer Otter and intent on drowning had resisted help until Barney struggled with him, attaching a rope to his leg by which he was hauled to safety... the journalist failed to mention if the victim was grateful...or not.

   Barney was known as a strong swimmer; in 1942 he figured in the rescue of a group of youngsters at the gorge at Point Lookout when a freak wave swept a number of the teenagers out to sea and washed two of them into a rocky cave around the headland.

    Barney’s son, Barney 2nd , was cousin, playmate and fellow student of both Margaret and Pat at the Dunwich School.

 The second rescue featured George Martin taking his sick child across to Cleveland on a privately owned launch when another passenger fell overboard.  George, the child’s father dived overboard to the rescue.
The sea and the waters of Moreton Bay featured prominently in Uncle Pat Iselin’s life just as it does for anyone who steps on Straddie’s shores.



A rare shot of Dunwich taken from Peel Island around the year 1885. The Asylum’s buildings can be clearly seen.
    The Benevolent Institution had its own medical staff, but sometimes patients just had to be ferried across to the mainland.  These days medical emergencies are dealt with by either today’s Volunteer Marine Rescue service and their specially equipped speed boat or by an emergency helicopter medivac from the Dunwich Marie Rose medical centre.
    Back then, as it is now, that was more often the case when it came time to bring the communities babies into the world.  One of Pat’s cousin’s has the rare distinction of being born on Bird Island, a small sandy cay between Straddie and Peel Island.
    May (Martin) was about ready to have her second baby and the Island nurse Mona Davis decided it was best if she accompanied the young mother on the boat trip across to Cleveland.  The Karboora was cranked up and off they set, old Captain Ginta in charge with the expectant mum’s dad, Alf Martin the engineer.  But they must have cut things a little too fine because the boat only got as far as Bird Island before the nurse said they’d better pull over.

   Not long after the baby was born.  May called her new baby Mona after the midwife.
    Many years later, the same Aunty May Micheljohn when she moves to Brisbane will sell her sulky to Pat and Margaret Iselin.   The same sulky Alf Martin’s grand children, the five little Iselin’s will fondly remember from their childhood, along with a particularly cantankerous horse called Reverend.

Robyn Mortimer © 2012