Monday, 28 September 2020

Dipping sheep on Quail Island, Western Port in 1866 by James H. Watson

On June 20, 1927, James H. Watson (1), the President of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney presented a paper to the Historical Society of Victoria - Personal Recollections of Melbourne in the 'Sixties. It was a look at various events and activities of the 1860s including this story - Dipping Sheep on Quail Island. The story was published in the Victorian Historical Magazine, v. 12, June 1928 available on-line at the State Library of Victoria (2). It transcribed below.

The trip to Quail Island took place in 1866 (3). Of interest is a description of Cranbourne at that time and a confession that he was actually responsible for the first release of rabbits onto the Island. 

Dipping sheep on Quail Island by James H. Watson. 
The writer starts the story that he was offered a plantation on a small island in Fiji, but he turned the offer down due to his lack of experience. He then continues the story -
Another island, however, came into view a little later, and one that was nearer home. On it I put in some hard work for six months, and all I got out of it was experience. The fellow passenger that I came ashore with (who has been dead for fifty years and left neither kith nor kin) some little while after our arrival leased Quail Island in Western Port, and put some sheep on it. He had had no experience of stock, and on a visit to me, explained that, if he had a mate, he thought he could make a good thing of it for both of us, my stock-in-trade being youth, strength, and willingness. I agreed to go. I well remember the day, for it was the day the news of the loss of the London (4) reached Melbourne in March, 1866.

We took coach at an hotel in Queen-street, the route being along the St. Kilda-road, turning into the Dandenong-road, passing through Dandenong to the termination of the journey at Cranbourne. I do not know whether the township, as it was called, has grown since the railway went to it, but, when I last saw it, 60 years ago, it consisted of the hotel (a long low weatherboard house, the host being named Duff (5)), the central point of the district. The next was the store, where anything that was wanted could be purchased. Then there was the Presbyterian Church, the minister of which was a brother of the landlord of the hotel (6). Two or three small cottages, and the ruins of another with a big stone bush chimney still standing, completed the town of Cranbourne. The ruined cottage is mentioned because in it lived, or rather existed, the local doctor - a clever man, but one who had the habit that many an otherwise good man has fallen a victim to. The minister kept his books and instruments, and, for special cases, he was sobered up for a couple of days, the hotel being tabooed to him till he had completed the case in hand.

The Grantville coach at the Cranbourne Hotel established by Robert and Margaret Duff. This was the hotel which James Watson visited on his way to Quail Island in 1866.
Photograph scanned from The Good Country: Cranbourne Shire by Niel Gunson.

Having arrived at the hotel, where horses to take us on had been left in the paddock, they were rounded up, and we set off to do the 11 miles which lay between the town and Quail Island, passing the fences of Mr Cameron's run (7), skirting the town, and following a track through the thick scrub over low hills down to the bight of Western Port. This island is directly behind, or north of, French Island, which stood up about 2 miles away. As the shores of the inlet at the crossing-place are low flats and treacherous to walk on, a thick track of tea-tree had been laid, so that the horses got safely to a sapling bridge that connected the island to the mainland. The total acreage was about 1,500 acres of flat open land on the south and timbered low hills on the north, with two good-sized water-holes or lagoons, which were the haunt of water-fowl and ducks. Mud flats lay all round the shore, covered with mangrove.

On this most unsuitable place were about 800 or 900 ewes, with a fair percentage of lambs, and 300 wethers. There were no fences, as there was no necessity for them. I soon learned that the wethers, which had been bought "stores," had brought the squatters' curse - scab - with them, and the whole flock was infected, and it was to help to eradicate this that my services were required. Preparations had been made by having a dip dug out, about 25 feet x 15 feet x 3 feet, on the margin of which several 400-gallon iron tanks were placed on stone foundations, and under which fires were made to boil the water. For several days water was carted in hogsheads on drays and sledges, till the dip was partly filled and the tanks were filled. This was very hard work, as the water had to be hand-loaded by bucket and the tanks filled from the drays in the same way. The dip was easily supplied direct from the hogsheads by pulling out the plug. The water was procured from the water-holes by backing the drays to a sapling jetty and filling the casks by a bucket and funnel. All this was most laborious work, and occupied half a dozen of us from morning till night, but the weather was fine and bright.

Before the dipping commenced, every sheep and lamb on the place had to be "dressed." We rounded them up from all parts of the island where they would be hidden away in the scrub. Our dogs had unfortunately been poisoned by the bait that had been set for eaglehawks which took the lambs, so we had to keep shouting to get them on the run and into a race at the stockyard, when, one by one, they were passed through our hands and dressed with spirits of tar.

The Swan, which transported the wool from Quail Island to Melbourne.
Image: Western Port Wrecks and Maritime Mishaps by Arthur E. Woodley (Lock Haven books, 1992)

I may here say, as I remarked previously, that the island was a most unsuitable place; this was so, because the flat damp ground on the shores gave the sheep foot-rot, and great numbers of them had to be treated for that before being "dressed" and dipped. I have overlooked the fact that all these had been shorn previous to the dip, the wool baled and sent by the regular Western Port trading cutter Swan, owned and sailed by a man named Lock (8), to Melbourne. The fires were made up and burning for the two days the dressing was being done. When that was over, the boiling water was run into the dip, with the result that there was a tepid bath, knee-deep, ready for the sheep, which were put through the race and seized by us who were standing in the water and thoroughly soused and rubbed and placed in a draining race at the opposite end to which they had entered. This took two days, the fires going to keep up the tepid heat. After this was completed and some weeks passed to allow the shear-marks to grow out of the wool and the colour of the dip to disappear (as the American Essence of Tobacco, which was the scab cure used in the dip, had discoloured it), a permit to travel was issued by the inspector (which was necessary before they could go on the roads), they were all sent to the Melbourne yards and sold. Then my days as an embryo squatter (as all kinds of graziers in those days were misnamed) came to an end, and I returned to town to take up again a business life.

I should have stated earlier that an incident occurred shortly after my arrival on the island which at the time was considered most laudable, but, if perpetrated now, would bring the strong arm of the law down on any who did it. It was the receipt of several cases of pairs of rabbits. They were purchased in Melbourne and came from Barwon Park, the station near Geelong of Mr. Thomas Austin (9), and were the offspring of some he had had sent to him in 1859 by the ship Lightning, his importation by that vessel consisting of 56 partridges, 4 hares, and 26 rabbits. As I knocked the lids off the cases, the rabbits scampered off into the scrub. I cannot remember how many there were, but I think about ten pairs. The result of the experiment I do not know.

I may add that Messrs. Herbert Power (10) and Reginald Bright (11) took up the island and had placed a big Highland Scot in charge before we left, as gamekeeper, the intention being to stock it with pheasants, partridges, &c. What success attended it I am unable to say.


(1) James Henry Watson (1841-1934). Read his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, here.
(3) Mr Watson wrote a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald  of February 19, 1926 on the subject of rabbits and said they released the rabbits on Quail Island in September 1866. Read letter here. See also Footnote 8.
(4) The London foundered in the Bay of Biscay with 220 drowned and 19 saved.  Most of the passengers were Australians returning from England. Read accounts in The Argus of March 16, 1866, here and the Sydney Morning Herald of the same date, here.
(5) Robert Duff  (1827 - 1861). Robert and his wife Margaret (c.1832 - 1902) established the Cranbourne Hotel, around 1860. It was in High Street, where Greg Clydesdale Square is now and was demolished around the 1970s. Read more, here.
(6) Reverend Alexander Duff (1824-1890), read more here.
(7) Alexander Cameron (1815 - 1881) took over the Mayune lease in 1851. At later land sales he purchased 592 acres, the Pre-emptive Right, on the corner of what is now Cameron Street and the South Gippsland Highway and renamed renamed the property Mayfield, read more here.
(8) The cutter Swan and Captain Lock. The following information comes from Western Port Wrecks and Maritime Mishaps by Arthur E. Woodley (Lock Haven books, 1992) Captain John Lock was one of Phillip Island's pioneer settlers, who for a good many years contributed greatly to the early development of the Western Port area. In 1897 Captain Lock was presented with a bravery medal from the Royal Humane Society for rescuing  the sole survivor of a boat upset, off Mornington. The Swan,  built about 1815 as a French cutter, arrived  in Tasmania about 1837 and traded between Tasmania and Victoria until Captain Lock purchased it in Hobart and converted it into a ketch. It was run down by the steamer Queenscliffe, off Cape Schanck in October 1906, fortunately with no loss of life. Interestingly, Arthur Woodley says that Captain John Lock did not commence trading to and from Western Port with the Swan until late 1868 or early 1869 which does not tally with Mr Watson's date of 1866. John Bamara Lock died August 8, 1908 aged 75 (death notice in The Leader August 15, 1908, see here).
(9) Thomas Austin (1815-1871), of Barwon Park, Winchelsea is 'credited' with introducing the rabbit into Australia. His wife Elizabeth (nee Harding, 1821-1910) was a philanthropist, who established the Austin Hospital in 1882. Read Thomas' Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, here, and Elizabeth's here.
(10) Herbert Power - The son of Thomas Herbert Power (1801-1873) who took up the Eumemmerring Run in 1864 - the run went from  around the Dandenong Creek all the way to Berwick. Power Road is named after him. Herbert Power died in 1919, aged 83. You can read his obituary in the Australasian of June 7, 1919, here.
(11) Reginald Bright - a partner in the firm of Gibbs, Bright & Co. He arrived in Victoria in 1852 and died in London in 1920. There is a short obituary in the Darling Downs Gazette of September 17, 1920, see here.

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