Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thursday Island in 1885

In 1885, Thursday Island was a remote and sparsely populated island, over 2,000 kilometres from Brisbane, and lacking many basic amenities, not to mention the luxuries that a family of Douglas’s standing were accustomed to in their Brisbane home.  Nevertheless, his family followed him to the island shortly after.  What Sarah Douglas thought of the conditions can only be imagined.  The English travel writer, Lady Brassey, who visited the island in August 1887, left a vivid depiction of the tiny settlement:
The chief building material used in the settlement is corrugated iron, embellished by verandas supported on wooden posts and nattily painted, making the little dwellings both pretty and comfortable.  The residency is a larger bungalow on the top of a little hill, and half a dozen fairly good houses cluster around it.  There comes a row of stores along the sea-face, and a few more houses stand at the back.  A soft sandy track runs in front of the stores, but there are no roads, and consequently no vehicles, and no draught beasts.  There is no communication, except from the visits of occasional steamers, nor are any provisions available except canned meats and fruits.  The vegetables are grown by the invaluable Chinese, on some of the islands opposite.  Even the water, of which the supply is scanty, is condensed.  The only servants available are people of colour.  The ladies have to do everything for themselves.[1]
It was, as one long-time resident remarked, “a hard rough life” for all who resided there.[2]  There was also the incessant wind.  As Lady Brassey observed:
The residency is a pleasant house, open to every breath of wind that blows; of which, according to our experience of these parts, there is plenty…it roars and whistles and shakes the house like an incessant hurricane.[3]

[1] Annie Brassey.  The Last Voyage to India and Australia in the ‘Sunbeam.’  London, Longmans, 1889, p. 405.  For further descriptions and illustrations of life on the island during this period, see Wanderer.  Thursday Island and its Surroundings.”  Queenslander, 4 July 1885, pp. 13-14; “The Ministerial Northern Tour.”  Queenslander, 22 May 1886, pp. 806-7 & Town and Country Journal, 19 April 1884, p. 744
[2] Brassey, p. 406
[3] Ibid., p. 405.  The one attraction of the house was sitting on its verandah with its commanding view over the surrounding archipelago.  (John Douglas.  Thursday Island and the Japanese.  Port Darwin, 5 June 1895.  Dixson Library, State Library of New South Wales, Ad 39.)  Douglas bought three allotments of land at a Thursday Island government auction on 29 June 1885.  (“Sale of crown Land at Auction.”  Queensland State Archives, LAN AB/46, also on microfilm at Z1547)