A Merry Sharing Christmas


View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969
View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969

We all know that Christmas is traditionally a time when families get together, and I have always managed to achieve this for as long as I can remember. However there was one year, 1968, when this did not happen.

I had just arrived in ‘Swinging London’ (as it really was then – for young people such as myself, the centre of the universe), leaving my family behind in faraway Brisbane. I had set myself up sharing a flat with three young English men of my own age in Earls Court (known then as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because that is where all the visiting Australians had their digs), and I had found work as a Pharmacist with Boots The Chemist at their Victoria Street store. I had even made a new friend with the Secretary there, a charming Irish lass by the name of Phyllis. In short, I was pretty well set up for the winter, before setting out to travel in the Spring.

However, when Christmas arrived, my three English flatmates went home to their respective families in the English countryside, and all of London seemed like my flat – cold and deserted. Even Phyllis went home to Ireland to spend Christmas with her mother in Co Cork. I’d never had to search for a Christmas dinner before, but fortunately there was a friend of mine in similar dire circumstances, so we resolved to share a Christmas dinner together. Of course, finding a restaurant that was (a) open and (b) not already booked out, proved to be a problem, but eventually we found a very ‘unchristmassy’ one to at least satisfy our hunger. After lunch, we celebrated the rest of Christmas day by doing our washing at the local Laundromat.

All this sounds a bit depressing even now, but I did have the thought of Phyllis to bolster my flagging fortunes. My faith in her return was rewarded the following Christmas when I was able to share it with her welcoming family as inlaws, and like icing on the cake, it even snowed!

I hope you all have someone in your lives to share with this Christmas, if not in person, then in your thoughts.



Harry and Jessie Wadsworth in 1978
Harry and Jessie Wadsworth in 1978

Liverpool born Jessie Hill first went to Moreton Island in 1903 at the age of four.  As daughter of the assistant lighthouse keeper at Cape Moreton, she recalls the school lessons with a dozen other lighthouse children from four families at Cape Moreton and one at Yellowpatch.  On Sundays, the children were taken for a picnic down to the beach.  After eating, everyone would collect the week’s firewood in the horse and cart. Jessie’s father later transferred to the Department of Harbours and Marine for whom he kept the Cowan Cowan light from 1911 until it became automatic in 1927.  He then took charge of the Cowan Cowan signal station.

In 1931 Jessie met a young Lancashireman, Harry Wadsworth, who was then holidaying on Moreton Island.  The child of a mill weaver, Harry had been raised in the poorer area of the industrial town of Oldham.   During World War I he had been a signaller, and later in civilian life became an instrument maker.  In 1927, fed up with the tough conditions that existed in England, he migrated to Australia.

With the Great Depression affecting Australia too, jobs were almost impossible to find, and Harry moved north from Melbourne to Sydney, and then to Brisbane.  It was then that he discovered Moreton Island and Jessie, and fell in love with both. Harry’s World War I experience as a signaller was to prove useful at Cowan Cowan, and he would often help out Jessie’s father at the Signal Station.  After numerous temporary jobs, Harry landed a full time job with the Harbours and Marine Department in 1934.  As relief lighthouse keeper for the Howard Range and Bulwer lights on Moreton, Harry recalls that he had to walk four miles to work, which included a 400 yard wade through a neck deep swamp while carrying a can of kerosene on his back.

Jessie and Harry were married in 1938 and in the following year Harry was put in charge of the Cowan Cowan Signal Station.  The couple’s love affair with Moreton Island was to continue for the rest of their lives.  It was an idyllic existence – the stuff of story books.  A casual, shoeless lifestyle with seemingly endless beaches stretching away in either direction from the door of their comfortable bungalow. Although they had Moreton Island almost to themselves, theirs was not a lonely existence, for quite apart from the constant contact with shipping through Harry’s work as a signalman, Moreton Island played host to a large number and variety of people over the ensuing years.

A military fort was built at Cowan Cowan between the wars and strengthened during WWII.  A naval station and jetty were also established at Tangalooma then, as well as a road across the island at that point. After WWII a huge demand for whale oil triggered a world wide interest in whale hunting.  To help satisfy this demand, a whaling station was opened at Tangalooma in 1952.  Over the next decade Harry and Jessie Wadsworth would often play host to the families of the whalers, notably for christmas dinner.

The Tangalooma whaling station had an annual quota of 600 Humpback whales.  However, when vegetable oils were introduced to replace whale oil in margarine production, the price of the whale oil fell dramatically.  Quotas were increased to 660 to offset the price drop but the increased cull served only to deplete the whale numbers to such an extent that in the 1962 season, only 68 whales were taken, and in August of that year Tangalooma closed down due to a lack of whales. However, this was not to be the end for the buildings at Tangalooma, and in December 1963 the Tangalooma tourist resort was opened.  The old flensing deck where the whale carcasses had been dismembered was converted to a tennis court and the factory below to a shop, squash courts, and laundry.

Also in 1963 with the closure of the Cowan Cowan signal station Harry Wadsworth retired from the Harbours and Marine Department.  Erosion of the shoreline had on three previous occasions forced the Wadsworths to move house.  Next to the now deserted signal station was a large cement slab, which had previously been the foundation of a club for the officers of the 1000 men who had been stationed there during WWII.  This slab proved to be the ideal foundation for Harry to build a retirement bungalow for himself and Jessie.   They named it “Jessanarry”.  They played bowls on its extensive lawn, while inside, Jessie now had a home for her extensive shell collection, the result of a lifetime’s beach-combing.

Signalman's house and wartime searchlight pillbox Cowan Cowan (photo courtesy Kevin Mohr)
Signalman’s house and wartime searchlight pillbox Cowan Cowan (photo courtesy Kevin Mohr)

Harry knew Moreton Island like the back of his hand, and, more importantly for his many visitors, where to catch the fish.  This knowledge and news of his catches quickly spread to such an extent that prominent identities from businessmen to the Governor himself would take him fishing with them.

Harry Wadsworth holding Lunar Tailed Rod Cod, Cape Moreton 1978 (photo courtesy Alan Counter)
Harry Wadsworth holding Lunar Tailed Rod Cod, Cape Moreton 1978 (photo courtesy Alan Counter)

Harry and Jessie Wadsworth became known as the King and Queen of Moreton and visitors to the Tanglaooma resort would ask to be taken up the beach to Cowan Cowan for an audience.  Conversely, the Wadsworths would visit the resort once a fortnight to pick up their stores and for a chat.

When Harry became sick, because he could not see the water from his house, members of the Moreton Bay Boat Club built him a shelter overlooking the Bay.  Adrian Dalgarno, one of the Boat Club members and a frequent visitor to Moreton, recalls Harry sitting there for hours with a tape recorder capturing the sounds of the water, birds, and anyone who came to visit him. Harry died in 1979 after 41 years of marriage to Jessie.  She followed him in 1985.

At age 82, Jessie was to say of her lifetime on Moreton: “It’s the sort of life I have liked – it’s never been too quiet or too isolated for me.  I think you have got to be the type of person who loves Nature and loves the quiet and doesn’t want to be rushing around to discos and all that.  I reckon I am a good advertisement for the lifestyle on Moreton Island.  I can still look after my own house, keep the garden in reasonable order, cook and teach my neighbours how to crochet.”

During her last years she had campaigned to restrict mineral sand mining on the island and the use of 4 wheel drive vehicles, maintaining that future generations were entitled to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of Moreton’s unspoilt bush and beach.  Groups such as the Moreton Island Protection Committee are continuing the fight, which she began.

In his later years, Harry was to sum up the philosophy of his life with Jessie: “We’ve always walked everywhere, and barefoot at that.  This island has been a paradise, which for years we had virtually to ourselves.  To live together so isolated for so long, you’ve got to have the right woman.  And if you have your health too, what else do you need?”

What else indeed.

Bob Emmett, of Cleveland recalls:

“In 1950 I went to Cowan to relieve Harry and Jessie Wadsworth. Cowan was a signal station and when a ship came in, when it passed Cowan, you’d ring AUSN for the tugs, you’d ring the agents, you’d ring quarantine, the Harbourmaster, the Port Office, and the wharf and tell them the ship has just passed Cowan. If it anchored at the Pile Light before entering the Brisbane River, then when it weighed anchor, everyone would have to be phoned again. It was the only way to keep track of shipping in the bay.”

Jason Hassard, Offshore Driller:

“In 1969, I was working for Bruce Hope doing offshore drilling for mineral sands in Moreton Bay. We were camped at Cowan on a concrete block beside the house of Harry and Jessie Wadsworth. We had a big diesel generator (ex army) which we used to run for our refrigerators etc. Harry had been having trouble starting his clanky old generator, so we offered them our electricity. We got very friendly with them and Jess was always bringing us fish cakes and other culinary delights. Harry had a lawn out the front of their house on which he used to play bowls. He used to challenge us to a game, and always won because he knew every bump!”

Clarrie Brittain, Tangalooma Whaling Station:

“The cookers contained rotating knives that cut up the meat and bone into a mash that was cooked into a meat meal that was used for feeding stock and for fertiliser. The whale meat looked good, but it was not suitable for human consumption because it was too pungently oily. Jessie Wadsworth, however, used to get some whale meat on her visits to the station and by soaking the meat in milk overnight was able to produce a meal that tasted like corned meat.”

Stories from Cowan Cowan – 1:

Map of Moreton Bay showing the main shipping channel
Map of Moreton Bay showing the main shipping channel

Cowan Cowan is a tiny settlement on the western side of Moreton Island a few kilometres north of Tangalooma. On this map, it is situated just where the main shipping channel almost touches Moreton Island. In the early days, when a ship entered Moreton Bay, a pilot vessel would be dispatched to guide it safely into port. In 1848 because of its proximity to the shipping channel, the Pilot Station was moved from Amity to Cowan Cowan on Moreton where, by 1860, it was recorded as having in residence two pilots, nine boatmen, and others, all living in wretched conditions. Later the Pilot Station was shifted still further north on Moreton to Bulwer.

Crew of the 6 inch gun at Cowan Cowan
Crew of the 6 inch gun at Cowan Cowan

At the commencement of WWII, there were three Forts built to protect the entrances to Moreton Bay. The main shipping channel, via the North West Channel between Bribie and Moreton Islands, was guarded by Fort Bribie, a garrison situated on the northern end of the island where the channel passes closest to the beach, and by a similar Fort at Cowan Cowan where the channel passes closest to Moreton Island. Fort Rous, on the southern end of Moreton Island guarded the bay from any shipping attempting to enter via the South Passage. At each of these Forts was a pair of six inch guns. Bribie was sea firing, Rous was sea and bay firing, while Cowan was bay firing only because the height of Mount Tempest proved too large an angle for the guns to fire over to sea.

Roy Gardner, of Bechmere tells us of his wartime experience at Cowan Cowan:

‘In 1939 when war was imminent, I was sent with the Engineers over to Cowan Cowan to build facilities for a garrison to be stationed there. We firstly cut our own timber to build a bridge over the swamp behind Cowan, then constructed a rifle range where the land begins to rise to Mount Tempest. I’ll bet it’s still there today because we made it out of ironbark. It was backbreaking work shovelling sand.

‘Next we sank a well on the Cowan side of the swamp. Up until then we depended for our fresh water on supplies brought down on the “Grazier”. Washing was done in the bay with the sharks! Then we constructed wooden towers to hold the corrugated iron tanks for the water, then ablution blocks for the showers. We then cut stumps and had them sunk and levelled ready for pre-cut huts brought down on the “Grazier”.

‘Then the artillery and foot soldiers moved in to join us 120 engineers. I remember we had Church Parade on Sundays conducted by Padre St.George from Sherwood. Sickness was the only exemption, but one Sunday a few of us buzzed off and went for a walk along the beach. We saw a lot of sharks in the water nearby and one of my mates fired off three quick shots at them. The parade heard this and thought the island was being attacked. The alarm was raised. Needless to say we were not very popular!’

‘Curly’ Meath, of Wilston writes:

‘The fort at Cowan Cowan possessed two 6 inch guns to protect the entrance to Moreton Bay. In one encounter, the bridge was blown off a mystery vessel which failed to respond to its challenge of identification. The vessel turned out to be a ‘friendly’ minesweeper and several crew were killed in the encounter.’

A Peel Island Checklist

A Google Earth Image of Peel Island
A Google Earth Image of Peel Island

I have been invited to take part in a TV documentary some of which involves Peel Island. Here’s a checklist of answers to possible questions they might throw at me. It might also be useful to display your knowledge if you are ever fortunate enough to visit the island!

Its Name:

  • Peel Island is also known by its Aboriginal names of Teerk Roo Ra (pronounced took-a-ra) meaning ‘Place of many Shells’ or Chercuba.
  • It was named the Fifth Island by Matthew Flinders in 1799
  • then Peel’s Island by John Oxley in 1824 after Sir Robert Peel, Secretary of State for the Home Department in England
  • Later this was shortened to Peel Island

Its Pre European History:

  • before the Europeans came, Aboriginal tribes from the surrounding islands visited to feasting and ceremonial purposes
  • The island had fresh water and food from surrounding reefs
  • Many middens remain today

Its Post-European History:

At south – eastern end (Bluff):

  • Quarantine Station (early 1870s until 1910)
  • Agriculture attempts (1906 – 1910)
  • Inebriate Home (1910 until 1916)

At north-western end:

  • Lazaret (Leprosarium) (1907 until 1959)
  • Recreational use (after 1959)
  • The Anglican Church Grammar School (‘Churchie’) leased part of the lazaret buildings from 1968 until 1993
  • In 1993 the island was to be gazetted as a National Park
  • This process was interrupted by a Native Title claim which was not resolved until December 27th 2007, when Peel was gazetted a National Park and Conservation Park under the joint management of Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) and the Quandamooka People – the island’s traditional owners.
  • In 1999, The Friends of Peel Island Association Inc. (FOPIA) was formed to assist with maintenance and restoration work, and to promote public awareness of Peel’s cultural and historic values.

The origin of the term LAZARET:

C.R.Wiburd, a former Quarantine Officer at Brisbane, in his article “Notes on the History of Maritime Quarantine in Queensland, 19th Century” gives the following explanation of the term “Lazaret”:

“Maritime Quarantine, as we know it, commenced in 1348 when the overseers of Public Health at Venice were authorised to spend public moneys for the purpose of isolating infected ships, persons, and goods, at an island of the lagoon. A medical man was stationed with the sick. As a result of these arrangements the first maritime quarantine station of which there is any record was established in 1403 at the island of Santa Maria di Nazareth at Venice. The Venetian Authorities framed in 1348 a code of quarantine regulations, which served as a model for all others to a very recent period. All merchants and persons coming from the Levant were compelled to remain in the House of St. Lazarus for a period of forty days before admission into the city. From this is derived the term “lazaret” which has persisted until now.”

There were two Lazarus mentioned in the Bible. One was raised by Jesus from the dead. He was not a leper. The other, after whom the House of St. Lazarus was named, was the leper mentioned in the parable of the rich man and the beggar (Luke 16:1) which begins, “There was once a rich man who dressed in the most expensive clothes and lived in great luxury every day. There was also a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who used to be brought to the rich man’s door, hoping to eat the bits of food that fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs would come and lick his sores…

Dawn at Lazaret on Peel Island
Dawn at Lazaret on Peel Island