Fate intertwined the lives of four very different men, bringing them together to a single event in 1870 centred on the steamer ‘Leonie’ exactly 150 years ago this week. It was an outwardly innocent Saturday afternoon sculling race on the Bremer River at Ipswich in Queensland that erupted into public controversy.
The race was between two railway hands Charlie Betts and Jim Charlton. It was from the Leonie which was moored under the railway bridge, to Basin Pocket and back.
Betts went first and did it in eighteen minutes.
Charlton – after breaking one of his sculls on his first attempt – got to go again and won by one minute and fifteen seconds.
The event drew quite a crowd on the bridge and at the starting point.
A tempest broke afterwards, however, when it was suggested that Betts and Charlton were paid £5 each. This wasn’t the done thing back in the Victorian age of gentlemanly amateur sport. I was also whispered that there was betting involved.
The outrage was stoked with the suggestion that one of the organisers was none other than the builder Harry Evans who happened to be the chairman of the Ipswich Temperance Society.
Evans denied intentionally being involved, although as it turns out, he accepted the role of official timekeeper and happened to be onboard the steamer Leonie which hosted the betting ring.
Evans remained a much-respected member of Ipswich society and lived well into his nineties, passing away in 1927 .
Regards the competitors, the runner-up Betts later got in trouble for letting his goat stray and for having a pig at his house on Lennon Street in North Ipswich. His wife was convicted of assault for throwing boiling water over the neighbour who she thought had dobbed them in.
The winner of the race Charlton invested his £5 wisely and later bought an orchard in Brassall. When he died in 1898, two of his daughters went to the Queensland Supreme Court to contest £520 in his estate which in today’s money is almost half-a-million dollars based on average weekly earnings.
The Leonie’s engineer on the day of the race was probably Alex Angus. He was later captain when the Leonie was steaming timber and sugar between Brisbane and the Logan and Albert district. On one fateful trip in 1884, the Leonie left Yatala and got stranded on the bottom near the mouth of the Logan River at Ageston flats.
The following morning, Angus went on deck as usual. But as the crew were readying to get underway, they looked for their captain in his cabin but all they found was his watch and a sovereign, and his coat and hat hanging on the pegs. Angus had suffered a fit, accidentally fallen overboard and drowned.
The Leonie herself has vanished into the mists of time.
Large paddle steamer docked at the wharves at Ipswich c1870 – State Library of Queensland
Harry Evans – Queensland Times, 27 April 1925, page 7