Ruth Blair

Writer Thomas Welsby fell in love with Moreton Bay from his first sighting of it at age nineteen.  Thus began, too, his love of the water, of sailing and of fishing and from that time according to Andrew Thomson the editor of his Collected Works,

until his death at the age of eighty-three […] he sailed over the Bay, walked its islands and shores, talked to its people, and constantly, by assiduous reading and book collecting, added to his knowledge of the Bay and its environs, and everything associated with it.

Welsby was born at Ipswich in 1858, one year before Queensland became a state and a mere 35 years after the first sighting of the Brisbane River by Europeans.  ‘[The] history of the State in which I was born,’ he wrote, ‘is almost sacred to me.  Not so much that I am obsessed with it.  I want to be reliable in that which I set down.’ His principal works from 1905-37 provide a cultural representation of place and contribute to the imagining of Moreton Bay and the Brisbane River.

Schnappering (1905)

Welsby wrote many columns for the Courier Mail about the history and geography of the area, about boating and about his great passion, fishing.  In 1905 he published his most famous book, Schnappering. This extraordinary book clothes a detailed account of fishing grounds (not only for schnapper) in an entertaining mixture of history, geography and personal anecdote.  Izaak Walton is invoked at the beginning, along with Aristotle. The book is driven not only by the desire to share a knowledge of fishing grounds, but by a deep love of place, by imagination, by a conviction that it matters to set things down and a love of the written word.

The Brisbane River, from the Bridge [Victoria Bridge] to Luggage point, abounds in all sorts of fish, including jewfish, flathead, bream, perch, whiting, sole, eel, eel-catfish, toadies, stingarees and catfish.

The fishing in the South Brisbane Reach is ‘best a little above and below the Bridge’; flathead are caught ‘well up the Hamilton reach, but on the downcoming of rain waters from the upper reaches, the fish are driven back to the mouth of the river.’ Thus begins the journey of Schnappering up and down the River and around the Bay, noting changes brought about by the seasons and the weather, movement of sandbanks, and, already, registering loss of habitat and fish due to changes brought about by the behaviour of the settlers.  

Of the decline of the ‘one time famous fishing grounds’ around Flat Rock, off North Stradbroke Island: ‘My experience of Flat Rock dates as far back as 1880, and in those days there were but few steamers that steamed outside our heads…But there were fish in those days.’ This segment on Flat Rock and Amity Point encapsulates Welsby’s approach, with its engaging mixture of clear-headed fishing detail, vivid description of place, with the land fringing the sea always drawn into the picture (‘away across the keen winter sky, Mount Cotton’), reflection on the history of the area and a story, drawing the reader into being part of his expedition.

Early Moreton Bay (1907)

A significant part of the history of the Bay in all Welsby’s writings is the history of the Aboriginal people. He shows a great curiosity about and respect for them, seeking out, particularly around Amity Point, where he had a house, stories from them of their own people, but also their knowledge of early European visitors. In a later work, Sport and Pastime in Moreton Bay (1931), he calls them ‘the true and real landowners’. They are important sources for this work, which is less engaging than Schnappering, revealing more of its origin in columns for the Courier Mail, but important for its dedication to registering details of place and history.  It contains accounts of shipwrecks, as well as the story of a group of Norfolk Island escapees, the details coming from one of the many colourful characters in the writings, a ‘Manila man’ called Fernandez Gonzales.  The book ends with an account of the Glasshouse Mountains – once again showing the importance of the relationship of hinterland to shore in these works.

The Discoverers of the Brisbane River (1913)

Significant in Thomas Welsby’s vast library of 3000 books were the writings of early explorers. He revered Flinders and Cook and spent a lot of time retracing their landfalls in the area. His historical curiosity led him also to explore the ‘real’ story of the first European sighting of the Brisbane River by, not John Oxley, but the castaway ticket-of-leave men, Pamphlet, Parsons and Finegan. Through historical research, including seeking out the accounts of two men on board Oxley’s ship, John Uniacke and John Hoddle (later Surveyor-General of Victoria) he pieces together the story of the castaways and their, in his terms, heroic (he was always quick to acknowledge the part played by ‘ordinary’ men and women) journey across Moreton and Stradbroke Islands to the mainland and eventually to the river which they sighted from Lytton Hill, on or about 14 June 1823.

Bribie-the Basket Maker (1937)

As with Pamphlet, Parsons and Finegan, here Welsby brings from obscurity a convict maker of baskets under Logan’s regime who, upon release, took himself off with an Aboriginal woman to live on the island that came to bear his name. From a reference in Constance Campbell Petrie’s account of her parents’ reminiscences, he pursues the story. Though the story of Bribie’s romance reads awkwardly to us today, it was certainly not a ‘proper’ topic, even in 1937. Nothing is known of Bribie after his settling on the island. The rest of the book is Welsby’s tribute, through historical accounts, to a place increasingly of interest to Welsby’s contemporaries – and good, of course, for fishing.

Chronicler of place

Though Welsby, the historian and observer, often displays a strong sense of loss in the wake of the development of the Colony and State, he has, at the same time an immense pride in its development. But perhaps in this sense he was a true historian, his reverence for the past a gentle brake on the heady rush towards the future of burgeoning Brisbane. His name is remembered through a street in New Farm, a beacon in the Bay and a rugby union cup (he started a gymnasium in Brisbane and was a keen rugby player).  He is the most persistent chronicler of place that Brisbane and the Bay area have had and he has much to say about respect and love for the home place.

References and Further reading (Note)

A.K. Thomson (ed), The collected works [Thomas Welsby], Jacaranda Press, Brisbane, 1967