River Rats

Glenys Powell remembers:

I’m a river rat from Bulimba. We were Reliance River Rangers and we sailed out of Watt’s Boat Building Business next to the Apollo Ferry. We sailed in the sailing season and rescued little boys in the overturned moths. We had an old English-style sailing boat, clinker hulled sixteen foot – a scream of a boat. We used to sail down to Bishop Island and back in it.

When Britannia came with the queen who was a Ranger in her day, we went to welcome her, along with a whole flotilla of small craft. Our ship put up a message in flags and someone on the Britannia’s bridge read it, quickly ran down and told the queen, and she came around to our side of the ship so she could see our message, gave us a wave, and actually strung up a message in flags in reply to us.

Royal Yacht ‘Britannia’ heading up the Brisbane River on 29 September 1982

They took Bishop Island away – we used to sail there in the early 1960s. I sailed in the Water Rats from 1959 until 1965 when they kicked me out because I was getting married.

SRS (Sea Ranger Scouts) Reliance was formed after the war. We were the older girl guides. Once you got to 14 you were too old for the guides and you could become a cadet (we didn’t think they were too exciting). Then there were land rangers, air rangers, and sea rangers. If you were a land ranger you went hiking and camping. If you were a sea ranger you went sailing and camping and hiking. Air rangers were taught about flying and occasionally were given a flight by someone generous enough to offer. We used to have great regattas at Bulimba out from the Watts’ place and the 18 foot sailing club. 

I must have been 14 when we rowed from the Apollo Ferry up to the gardens in this great heavy boat. I went to school next day with great blisters on my hands and the school principal wrote to my parents saying they should curb my tomboy tendencies at the weekends because it was most unladylike and it was interfering with my school work because I couldn’t write. 

As well as sailing to Bishop Island and sleeping overnight we sailed upriver to Lone Pine and slept on the land there overnight. Watts had a motor boat called Winslow and he used to come with us so that we could change crew so that all the girls got to sail. In 1964/65 another sea ranger crew – Moresby – also started off.

We also sailed to Russell Island where we camped overnight – some camped on the island while others stayed on Winslow if they wanted to get to fish that night. Reliance was tied up behind Winslow.

I lived near the army gates at the bottom end of Bulimba – not the Aopllo end – opposite the park. When we had cyclones the surrounding roads would flood.

Then they used to ship the cattle out from Colmslie. Many a night I would go to sleep to the sound of bagpipes while the live cattle were being shipped out. The noise used to settle the cattle. Even in those days they were shipping live cattle overseas. I don’t think too much was being said about it at that time, but we locals certainly knew about it.

On the Brisbane River at the end of Taylor Street where my uncle had built a small jetty, there was quite a nice sandy beach that stretched from the army barracks to the small creek that came out next to the Cairncross Dry Dock. Mum took us there as kids to play. The water was very clear then and we could see the fish. An old gentleman called Lulla Palfreyman used to take his dinghy down on wheels and he went prawning on the river. When he came back he used to whistle a certain song which meant ‘I have prawns’ so his wife would immediately go down and start the fire under the copper. Half an hour later we could go down there, and for two bob (20 cents) mum could feed seven of us for two meals. They were very tasty.

The fishing off the jetty was good too – bream and mullet. We used to swim there and see the occasional shark. The Borthwicks Meatworks were there – blood and guts were pumped into the river but they went downriver not up. I remember seeing shark fins there – to the consternation of mum when we went swimming.

Mud crabs were also plentiful in the river. A Bretts wharfie lived next to us and used to bring home at least one mud crab every day. All the wharfies used to set their traps under the wharf at Bretts. If he got more than one he’d boil them up in the copper and send us some. This was all petty cash for him. In the 1950s the Brisbane River was a wonderful river! We knew when the Blue and Black funnel ships came in that we’d get rain, and sure enough it would bucket down! Even the teachers would look out when it was raining and see the Blue and Black funnels moored across the river.

Flying boats used to land at what we called the old hockey fields.

For a kid coming from the coal mines at Ipswich, the river was a fascinating scene. All the ships coming in and turning. I remember the Himalaya – a large ship – turning in the river, and it just made it around in the limited space for a ship of its size.

I lived at the industrial end of Bulimba – there was some noise from the Cairncross Dock but it was aircraft that were noisiest. The people at Hamilton got a reduction in their rates because of it but we at Bulimba – just across the river – never got a bean.

In the non-sailing season, we were more Navy than the Navy – scraping the boat down and re-varnishing the woodwork. We even got help from the land rangers. They came down to take us hiking but we weren’t allowed to go until we’d got the boat done so they said they’d help. They even had blow-torches and spray paint so we got the job done in no time and were allowed to go hiking then.

In all the years I sailed between 1959 and 1965, I never went in the drink once. We went over, but I managed not to get wet. They were great days.

Glenys Powell

April 2008.

Extract from The Port of Brisbane, Its People and its Personalities