The pages of history are littered with characters of enormous significance. Even on a slow news day, there are incredible tales of literature, adventure, and disaster. Here’s just one day in the life of the Queensland town of Ipswich 164 years ago – Saturday the 28th of November 1857 – and it’s a fine example of history presenting itself in unexpected ways. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
The Ipswich column in the Moreton Bay Courier that day began with, “In respect to the news, the past week has been remarkably dull.”
The man responsible for this column was the editor of the Moreton Bay Courier, Mr William Charles Wilkes. He was a convict who’d been convicted in the Old Bailey in London of ‘stealing in a dwelling house’ and in 1833 transported to New South Wales for life. He received a conditional pardon in 1848 and became editor of the Moreton Bay Courier the following year. He was a champion of the separation of Moreton Bay from New South Wales and an opponent of the resumption of transportation to the northern colony.
Due to his his descriptive literary talents, Wilkes was said to be a combination of the French illustrator Émile Bayard, English novelist Charles Dickens, and the Dickens’ character Harold Skimpole who claimed to be a child who didn’t understand human relationships but understood them very well.
It therefore seems very likely that Wilkes knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote that Ipswich was ‘remarkably dull’, because he would have got everyone in Ipswich reading.
In the column that day, Wilkes reported on a political rally in Ipswich for Mr Patrick Leslie who was nominated as the member for Moreton, Wide Bay, Burnett and Maranoa in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly.
Wilkes wrote, “Mr Leslie is not much of a speaker… His style is much disfigured by frequent use of irreverent and slang terms.” In other words, the politician’s language was a wee bit rough, even for an ex-convict.
Leslie was the second son of the Laird of Warthill and Folla in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. He married Catherine Hawkins Macarthur of the famous pastoralist family in Sydney. He was the first pastoralist on the Darling Downs and is regarded as the father of stud breeding in Queensland. Leslie chose the site for the town of Warwick and purchased the first block of land there. He built the historic Newstead House in Brisbane, sat in the first New South Wales Legislative Assembly, and on the Darling Downs, like Wilkes, was the leader of the Separation movement.
It should be noted that Leslie could be a vigorous opponent, and more than once backed his arguments with his fists.
Also in the Moreton Bay Courier that day was the announcement that the Ipswich auctioneer Mr Gideon Andrew Scott had married Miss Helen Macdonald also of Ipswich.
Scott had been a well-known grazier who had tried his luck on the Queensland gold fields. But from the day that he got married in 1857, things went downhill.
In 1858, Scott was in court accused of fraudulently detaining over £148 from a deceased estate. In 1859, he was declared Insolvent and his wife later disappeared from the records. In 1863, things were so bad that Scott agreed to work his passage home to Scotland aboard the Black Ball Line clipper ship the Whirlwind.
Scott was identified boarding the Whirlwind “a good deal the worse for liquor”. The next morning, his body was seen floating past the ship.
So the pages of history – even on a day in 1857 when one town was described as “remarkably dull” – you could still read about a Dickensian convict, a swearing politician, and an unfortunate auctioneer, and a whole lot more. There’s history out there everywhere you go.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON WEST BREMER RADIO
The Moreton Bay Courier – Brisbane, Saturday, 28th November 1857, page 1.
William Wilkes – State Library of Queensland
Patrick Leslie – State Library of Queensland
Clipper ship James Baines of the Black Ball Line of Australian Packets – National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London