Early explorers reported herds of dugong swimming across Moreton Bay, but these seacows were trapped and slaughtered at places like St Helena Island, and their oil exported to England for their supposed medicinal properties.
James Lergessner is the author of several fascinating books on lesser known aspects of the history of Brisbane and Moreton Bay, including Embattled Seacows: Dugongers in Early Queensland.
Other books include Death Pudding, the Kilcoy Massacre, about the killing of 50 to 60 aborigines with poisoned damper left out for them, after an aborigine had speared a European, and a beast. Then there’s Bribie, the Convict Weaver, after whom Bribie Island was named; and Ian Fairweather. A Shrine to the Artist, about the abstract artist who lived in a shack on Bribie Island until the 1960s, sailed to Timor on a raft, and whom the author met in the early 1960s as a teenager.
He’s also written about the Oysterers of Moreton Bay, who worked there until the mudworm killed the industry.
Dr Lergessner said he was just a story teller and not out to make any political mileage. Recently he gave a talk at the Sandgate Historical Society, based on his book I, Thomas Welsby, about an historian who lived on Bribie Island and wrote books on the history of Brisbane.
Dr Lergessner dressed in Victorian costume and assumed the character of Thomas Welsby for the talk, as he had in his first-person history of Thomas Welsby. At age four in Ipswich, Thomas Welsby had witnessed Aboriginal melees on the current site of Ipswich Grammar School. He won academic prizes at school and dreamed of studying medicine. But his father died broke, leaving Thomas’s brother Edwin to support the family, and putting paid to Thomas’s Medicine dreams. He ended up working as a bank johnny, running errands and annotating passbooks, and was ribbed by other clerks when he referred to Bishop Hale as Mr Hale in a passbook.
The book is a bit of a tour through early Brisbane history — back when Brisbane was at its most interesting. Shipwrecks, the Brisbane Flood of 1893, the effects of Europeans on Aboriginal civilisation, are all seen through the eyes of Thomas Welsby. At one stage he goes for a swim down a city street.
Thomas Welsby married in 1893 but some of his children died, and this led to a bizarre habit. He would read and memorise passages out of his beloved books, like Don Quixote and Moby Dick, and recite them to people. By memorising passages he hoped to avoid replaying in his mind the sad events in his life, such as the death of a son from tuberculosis.
I asked Dr Lergessner to recommend any books, and like Jack Sim he cited Moreton Bay People by Peter Ludlow. So I contacted Peter Ludlow. He said his book Moreton Bay People started when he was working in the pharmacy at the Princess Alexandra Hospital, in Brisbane. He met a patient with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) who had been an inmate at the Peel Island lazaret, in Moreton Bay.
This led to his book Peel Island , Paradise or Prison in 1988. After this book came out, people contacted Mr Ludlow with more stories about their lives and those of their relatives in Moreton Bay. This led to his book Moreton Bay People, which is an oral history with memories of people who lived and worked in Moreton Bay; for example, a priest, Fr Nolan, talked about visiting the patients at Peel Island.
I asked Mr Ludlow if he could recommend some books. Ironically, he said he liked the author Thomas Welsby, the subject of the book I, Thomas Welsby, by Dr Lergessner.
He also liked Robert Goddard’s books and his style of writing, citing his novel Caught in the Light.
Mr Ludlow is currently working on a history of the Port of Brisbane, with the working title of Serving the World, which he hoped would be published by mid-2009. He’s interviewed about 50 people for the book, including people who were children when their fathers worked at the port during WW2 when the Americans were in town. The wharves moved from up river, near the current Victoria Bridge, to further down river as ships grew in size, to Hamilton, and now at Fisherman Island near the mouth of the river. His book gives an introduction to the Brisbane River, how it was discovered and developed, and has focussed a lot of the book on the war years, one of the most interesting phases of Brisbane’s history.