Recollections of a Pioneer in Australia

Part 2

George Whiting Crommelin (1845-1905)

From Bendock (about 1868) to Cardwell (1872)

From Bendock I went to Mr. Whittaker's Tubbutt Station where I was employed mustering and droving cattle to Gippsland. I had much experience of rough riding on the Snowy River. Some of the renowned riders of the Snowy River were George the Gaffer, the two Williams brothers, Jack and Jimmy Brindle, Mr. Jamie Whittakers and John Bourke.

When at Tubbutt, Mr. Whittaker's property, I broke in an iron grey horse and the first day I rode him the ladies came to see me mount. I went into an old cultivation paddock on the river bank, blind-folded him and got on. When I took the blind off, he bolted straight to the river, bucking all the way. I let him go and he went clean off the bank into the water - luckily it was deep. All I could hear was an exclamation of "Ohs!" from the ladies. They all rushed to the bank thinking I would be drowned. When we came up out of the water I was still on its back and when I got him to a shallow part they threw me a rope. I dismounted, tied the rope around him and got help to bring the horse back up the bank and dry land. Then I got on and rode him again. But never did he buck again - the dunking had quietened him.

I then joined the Survey Camp of Mr. E.L. Bruce, the chief surveyor who was surveying the Snowy River to the Entrance. He laid out the town of Orbost while camping near Mr. McLeod's Orbost Station, managed by his brother, Dan McLeod.

Once we were camped on a flat on the Orbost River where there were thousands of black snakes and rats. We could see snakes coiled round tussocks and eating the rats. We would regularly kill five or six on the way home. On several occasions they were in our beds. It was wonderful that nobody ever got bitten. A year or two afterwards a big flood destroyed them all.

From there I went to Bruthen, and then to Bairnsdale where I was surveying for a long time, camped at Eagle Point. One day while having dinner (on a Saturday half holiday), we were surprised by a peculiar noise. Looking around we saw a huge black and yellow iguana (about eight feet long) eating the fat out of the frying pan. We all ran after it. There were trees close by, but not near enough for it to run up. Pat Murphy, one of the men who took part in the fight, turned his back for a minute and the iguana ran up his back. Poor Pat yelled and screamed, and at last I got the iguana by the tail and dashed it to the ground. Pat had a tent pole in his hand which he used to batter the creature to pieces. When his shirt was torn off him, there were great scratches on his back. At first we couldn't help laughing as it looked so ridiculous, but after a while we got very serious.

While in Mr. Bruce's camp, we used to come across a great number of Emus. They are very curious birds, and if you keep still they will come right up to you. We would keep the red flag still and they would come very close; but the moment we moved, off they went. The grass in those days on the flats and plains would be up to your shoulders. On all the Monaro district there were also Emus, Kangaroos, Native Companions (which are seen very rarely now), and wild turkeys.

While at Bairnsdale, Mr. Howett and a friend of mine, the Warden, found it difficult to get anyone to take the Census from Bairnsdale to Genva - a very rough and lonely country. Mr. Bruce, the chief surveyor, gave me the time off and put a man in my place till I returned, so I volunteered to take the Census through. I received twenty-one days' salary at 1 pound per day. The journey took me from Bairnsdale via Snowy River, Black Mountain, Tubbutt, Bendock, Mahratta and Nangutha through to the Entrance, Genva, where Devlin had his hut.

"The Entrance"

I stayed at Devlin's all night and he came with me to the Entrance. I had to swim my horse and self across the arm of the sea, a couple of hundred yards, to take the Census at Turton's survey camp, Ninety Mile Beach, surprising them very much as to how I got there. Mr. Turton said he would not have swum across the arm for a hundred pounds!

Entrance to the Gipps Lakes

I stayed there and rested a couple of days. I had to camp out twice. I received great kindness from the freeselectors. The first day I was out fishing I went in the boat. There were fish in any quantity and of all kinds. It was a very pretty place. I was glad to get back to Bairnsdale, however, after such a lonely trip. At night while camping I could hear the howling and sniffling of the dingoes which were very numerous. They made little tracks down the Black Mountain to the Snowy River. I'm sure if anyone had met with an accident, the dingoes would have quickly eaten him.


I remained with Mr. Bruce for some time and then made up my mind to join an expedition that was being formed by Dr. Lang. I sailed from Bairnsdale in the "Tommy Norton" and my friends gave me a grand sendoff the night before I left. They all came down to the boat to see me off soon after daylight.

Steamer at wharf, Bairnsdale, 1910

I stayed in Sydney some time till we organized the trip. We bought a brig, the "Maria" from Manning & Co. I cannot remember the Captain's name, but he was a German. The object of the voyage was to engage in trade with New Guinea. Some of the Sydney merchants were interested in the expedition. Although we all had to ship as able seaman, all hands also had an interest in the expedition.

Some of the crew were Forster, son of the Premier (same as Barton is now), Dalgleish, Tanner - a correspondent for "Punch" - Watson, Wilson, Jack Parnell, Coleman, Hayden, Coyle, Lawrence Hargrave and Zimmerman. All these were gentlemen's sons, but I cannot remember all their names. Others were Peagns and Hyman.

Aviation pioneer Lawrence Hargrave
appears on the Australian $20 bill

[Lawrence Hargrave, the aviation pioneer, joined the "New Guinea Prospecting Association" in January 1872. The old Wooden brig, "Maria", in which the party sailed was wrecked on Bramble Reef, near Palm Islands, Barrier Reef, 26 February 1872. It was deficient in rope and sail, and carried no charts for passing through Flinders Passage. Admiral John Moresby, who helped rescue the survivors, refers to the incident in his book, "Two Admirals" (London, 1909). The adventurers he describes as "seventy-five spirited, harebrained young men from Sydney."]

Hargrave was a great mechanic - a big powerful man over six feet tall; Forster was red-haired, a strong, thickset fellow; Dalgleish was tall, thin, and athletic; Tanner was a tall, dark and delicate-looking man, quite unfit for a trip like this - he had never seen bush life or roughed it before. Parnell was reddish, tall, athletic and very gentlemanly; Hayden, dark big and tall - the real type of an Australian squatter; while Coyle, also tall and dark, was a great horseman. Hyman was a little Jew, and Zimmerman, an oldish man with grey hair, was also a Jew.

There were a lot more young fellows of all classes, some of them very rough. There were two Sullivan brothers. The two classes on board having no commander all being young fellows, great disputes arose over everything in general - meals, etc. There were a great many disagreements and stand-up fights which had to be stopped by the majority.

The "Maria" was a leaky vessel, badly found; the grub was bad and there was much discontent. She should never have been allowed to sail. For the first few days we had very fine weather and all went well. Then very bad weather, with gales, came on when we were not far from Hinchinbrook Island.

Hinchinbrook Island

The old sailors predicted a disastrous voyage and that something dreadful would happen because we all saw the "death's head" on the mast head. It appeared like a huge grey cloud with a bright light behind it, with the "death's head" distinct. It remained for hours. None of us had ever seen such a thing before. We saw this at night and after a time we heard a noise of roaring wind. It struck the vessel, tearing away two of the masts short off and dashing the man from the wheel. It was as much as he could do to save himself from being washed off the deck. The wheel was carried away and smashed to pieces, and the cook's galley was washed clean away. We were left to the mercy of the waves.

Nothing could be done. No man could stand a moment on deck before it came daylight. The storm had been raging since the day before and at near daylight it abated a little. We were all cold and wet, hungry and miserable. We could not get at anything then for we could not open the hatchway. All we had was some biscuits. Just about this time the ship struck heavily on the Bramble Reef and then it was every man for himself.

We had three boats which luckily were not washed away. When daylight came we saw land at a great distance. The Captain with six men deserted the vessel in the main boat before we knew where we were. He called out that they were going to get assistance! Some of us wished to get guns to bring them back, but it was no good and we never saw anything more of them. Hargrave, with a lot of us and the sailor, commenced to make rafts; we had not much time as the vessel was sinking. We managed to make two large rafts. Some would not go on, but others would. Those that did got some tins of meat and biscuits. They were up to their knees in water on the rafts. One fellow, an Irishman, jumped into the sea with a lifebuoy, saying he would swim to land. I think the poor fellow had gone mad. We gave the rafts a cheer and they pushed off. We heard nothing more of that lot. [Apparently some of those who got away on the rafts did, indeed, survive as per this article from the Auckland Daily Southern Cross of March 25, 1872.]

One of the other boats went away full and they got safely to land, but we did not hear of them till we got to Cardwell. The third boat, a small one made to hold eight, stood a little way off the vessel. It had eleven men in it and carried hardly any provisions, I think.

I put on a big mackintosh, took two bottles of wine and a loaf of bread and tried to join some of my mates on the rigging. When I got half-way up, the ship gave a great lurch and I felt her capsizing. I knew what was about to happen. She seemed to shoot forward, making a terrible bound with a peculiar sound - something like a bell tolling. I saw my mates shooting off the maintop rigging. I let go of the wine and coat, and jumped as far as I could into the water. I was not unconscious but everything seemed in a mist. The first thing I remember was a drowning man clinging to my legs, so I dived and came up without him.

The water was full of everything: fowl's coops, everything imaginable, trunks, etc., and a poor little terrier (black and tan) kept swimming by me. Then I caught sight of the Bowsprit with nine or ten men on it. Andrews, one of them, was calling, "Oh, Crommelin - save my little dog." Hargrave was there to give me his hand up so I handed up the little dog. Sitting there for a little while we caught sight of the boat that had the eleven men in it.

Hargrave struck out for the boat and they waited as he swam over to it. Just then Zimmerman came to us from somewhere saying, "For God's sake, save me". I got hold of him, told him to take a firm hold of a rope, and Andrews and I pulled him in. But he was very despondent and said he could not swim to the boat. The others also would not leave the wreck, thinking some help might come to their rescue. Therefore I made up my mind to take my last chance in the boat. Luckily I was a first-class hand in water. After a dispute whether they could take me in or not, the fact that I was a Freemason saved my life.

After I had gotten in, we made as well as we could for land. We had four oars, two on each side. We gave a cheer to those on the wreck, wishing them well. The last we saw of poor Andrews he was sitting down with his little dog in his arms. We rowed and rowed as hard as we could, changing hands spell and spell with the oars. After going a certain way and working furiously, we realized we had made no progress because a strong ebb tide was going out. We simply could not get to land. Night was coming on and we were quite exhausted - some of us were lying asleep in the bottom of the boat.

A sailor stood on my hand and tore all the skin off but I hardly felt it. A thunder storm broke over us which we were glad of for the sake of the fresh water it provided as we had none and had not tasted water all day. Towards daylight we found the tide was going in and so we pulled to land. It was about 10 a.m. that we pulled into a beautiful-looking island at a sandy bay. Getting on shore we found beautiful fresh water in little inlets and drank freely. Then we pulled the boat on land, lay down and went fast asleep.

We must have slept for hours. On first waking we had a talk about our situation. Some wanted to go one direction, some another, but we did not separate. Then we looked to see what we had in the boat. There were two tins of meat, 4 lbs. each, and a little canvas bag of biscuits, about 8 lbs., but very wet. The steward made it into two feeds each - each one getting a large shell to place it on. There was one meal for tea and one for breakfast for thirteen of us. Then we turned the boat on its side to sleep under, had a bathe in the salt water and then in the fresh, and took a walk along the beach looking for food. We found a few cockles and mussels and saw beautiful oysters, but could not get them on account of the surf being too strong. We saw what we thought was beautiful fruit on a tree. We ate it, but the taste was unpleasant and we had to spit it out. The little we did taste made us very ill - we turned a yellow colour and vomited. I will never forget the feeling and how ill we were. We found a few more mussels and I was thankful for having plenty of water. I had matches and they were quite dry. I had an ivory match box with a lid that screwed, so we had a fire. The wood, however, was not good to burn.

Towards the evening of the second day we discovered all at once that black aborigines were coming in a good number - between thirty and forty. They came to talk to us and tried to persuade us to go with them by waving to the bush. Some wanted to go but others thought it better to keep together. It was getting dusk then and the blacks got very angry. They drew their wooden swords and struck at us. In an instant it was man for man. Fighting began - some using oars, a boat hook, iron bars, chain, and some using pieces of wood and stones. I was knocked down and crawled into the mangroves feeling sick and faint. Someone fell over me. Then they said they heard a coo-ee. It came from their camp and they left us.

After some hours we got back to the boat again, launched the boat into the water, took her as far as we could and tied her to a rock. Taking turns to watch, we went to sleep. The blacks could not come to us without swimming. At daylight we rowed south. We could see blacks running and waving to us, but we took no notice of them. We rowed on till dusk with no food and no water until we came to a thick, bushy, muddy place. There was a peculiar noise, something flopping and beating the ground, but we could not see anything. We knew it was no black for there were no tracks of them. The camp was in a very uncomfortable sandy place. We did not light a fire for it was a lovely night.

I don't like to say anything more about the fight with the blacks. That was when poor Jack Parnell lost his life. I cannot tell it all; it is too horrible. Mr. Hayden was with the other party. You know how his life was saved by his beard being so long.

Waking early, we went first to look for the boat. It was quite safe. Then we saw what we thought were logs, but to our horror we found they were alligators. The minute they heard us they made into the water. We found plenty of fresh water and also a few mussels. We were very hungry, despondent and sick. We rowed away again and after rowing for a long time we came to some buoys and realized that we were coming to some inhabited place. After going about eight miles we saw what we thought were grey rocks. I was the one to tell them it was a town because the moment I saw it, a dream I had in Bruce's camp came back to my memory.

Of course they did not believe me at first and laughed, thinking I was going mad, but they were very pleased when we got nearer and said, "My word, Crommelin's right!" We could see people coming down to the beach - men, women, children, and four or five Police. "What's your tale, lads? What's your tale?" There were nine of us then in the boat. This was Cardwell we had arrived at.

We told our tale and they took us up town. Mr. Quodling, Telegraph master, knew my name and Hargrave's. He took us to their quarters and gave us port wine and beef but we could not eat. Mrs. Quodling kindly gave me gravy and wine. The others were well looked after too. Then the telegraph wires went to work and soon the news of the wreck was known everywhere. Arrangements were being made at Sydney to send a government steamer, the "Governor Blackall" for us. Next morning at Cardwell an enquiry was held and we had to give an account of our trip. A few days afterwards one of the rafts and party arrived, Mr. Hayden being one of them. They were in a worse condition than our party. Some of us were all skinned on our backs from the heat and we broke out with boils.

The Hon. John Bowie Wilson was Premier then. The "Basilisk" (a Man-of-War) arrived about ten days afterward to search for the missing men and to punish the blacks. They found some of the murdered ones but could recognize only a few. One we were sure was poor Jack Parnell. They also went to the wreck where the vessel went down and saw a sorry sight. The mast still stood out of the water and a lot of clothes were hanging on the masts - either put there for signals or so that their owners could swim without them. The place was alive with sharks so we feared they had had a horrible death.

We all returned to Sydney, some on the "Blackall", and others, including myself, on the "Basilisk". On arrival the friends of many came to meet them - wives and sisters. It was terribly sad and not easily forgotten, remembering all the missing ones. Some that came back had lost all they had. A big party of us went to Punch's Hotel. [This was presumably the "Swan with Two Necks" Hotel kept by Stephen Punch at the corner of George and Park streets.] He gave us an open house. Also Gus Wongannie (renowned as the lightning sketcher) was to the front with his hospitality.

After remaining a few days in Sydney, Father came for me and took me to Albury where he was then living at the Rose Hotel kept by Mr. and Mrs. King. Father was then Commissioner of Crown Lands for the Riverina. I then went to Gingerrick on the Murray to see my brother James. Gingerrick was managed by Mr. Sindwick. I stayed a few weeks there for my brother James was taken very ill with inflammation of the lungs and I had to help nurse him.

(Auckland N.Z.) Daily Southern Cross - March 20, 1872 article
(Auckland N.Z.) Daily Southern Cross - March 25, 1872 article

(Note: It would appear that George Whiting Crommelin was unaware that some of the survivors who set out on the rafts were later found alive and rescued.)

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