RQYS base at Canaipa Point on Russell Island

In addition to its Manly facility, the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron (RQYS) also has its own private island retreat at Canaipa Point on Russell Island in southern Moreton Bay, complete with a caretaker, campsites, open fire pit, an amenities block and swimming pool, for the exclusive convenience of their Full Members and their guests. 

FOPIA Cruise 2004

In 2004 the Friends of Peel Island Association (FOPIA) held a money raising cruise down Southern Moreton Bay and stopped off at Canaipa Point for morning tea. While waiting in line for my cuppa I reflected on the Willes family, who originally lived here. 

David Willes remembers …

An Oxford man, my grandfather, John Willes had arrived in Queensland as one of England’s landed gentry in 1865.  First settling at Gladstone, he became a partner in a successful saltworks there.  When he learnt that a similar saltworks had been established at Canaipa in 1867 by Messrs. Alexander and Armour, he left Gladstone and purchased the Canaipa plant.  At that time, there was an import duty of £4/10/- per ton on salt coming into the country, so the saltworks flourished.  However, when this duty was abolished, sailing ships were able to bring salt in as ballast and the price of salt plummeted as it became freely available.  My grandfather then turned his attention to farming.

After settling at Old House Point, he then built Canaipa House for his wife, Catherine, and their five children.  It was a decent size with large glass doors all round and a detached kitchen which we later purchased for use as a shop.  The site of Canaipa House is presently occupied by the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron (RQYS).

Firstly, my grandfather grew sugar cane so that he would be entitled to employ Kanakas, cheap labour bought in from the South Sea Islands.  Often my grandmother would be left alone while the menfolk were out working and the Kanakas were a source of protection from the aborigines who would come ashore from time to time.  In keeping with their English origins, the Willes had their Kanaka labourers dressed in livery, the traditional dress of English servants.  I never knew them myself, but Dad did.  He reckoned they didn’t work much anyway!

Next he brought cattle and pigs to the island and when they were ready for the market they were ferried across to the mainland in large flat punts towed along behind a sailing boat.  On occasion the punts would capsize, throwing men and pigs into the water together, or the cattle would jump overboard and would have to be swum across behind the punt.


Often night would fall before the men’s boats returned to the island.  In those days, there were no navigation lights nor house lights to guide them home, so my grandmother, Catherine Willes, developed the habit of lighting a hurricane lamp and hoisting it onto a pole outside their home at Canaipa to guide her menfolk to safety.  

Other mariners using the Canaipa Passage on their journey south from Brisbane to Southport also came to depend on Catherine Willes’ beacon, thus earning her the title of “The Lady of the Lamp”.  Eventually, the Department of Harbours and Marine acknowledged her contribution to maritime safety by erecting a more substantial affair and supplying her with kerosene.  For thirty-eight years she tended the lamp, only relinquishing her duty when old age intervened.  In 1910, boat owners presented her with an Illuminated Address, a scroll formally acknowledging her services.

My grandmother died on Russell when I was very young. I still remember watching her body being taken to the mainland on the deck of the Gibson’s fruitboat “Roo”, nestled amongst its cargo of bananas and protected from the sun by a huge tarp strung up like a tent from the mast.

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.

(To be continued)