Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral histories 2015: Memoirs of Samuel Jabez Pickersgill, Griffiths Point, 1870s and 1880s part 2

Last updated on 27-Apr-22

This talk was one of a series of 17 broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3 MFM durign 2014 and 2015 with assistance from a Local History Grant of the Public Records Office of Victoria.


Last week we heard about Samuel’s brother Will and his wife Jennie and their heartbreaking struggles as early settlers. In this the second part of Samuel Jabez Pickersgills memoirs, written in his old age in the 1950s about the early days of Griffiths Point, we hear about shipwrecks, misadventure, the horrors of diphtheria and unusual characters of the time.


Samuel continues:

My brother Will and his wife Jennie were like many others who took up land in the 1880s. Most of the selectors were struggling to keep going, trying to earn a few pounds wherever they could and clearing up the farm in what spare time they had between whiles. There was no way of getting any surplus they might have to the city market, no local demand, no export of any produce or meat either. Frozen meat was not thought of at the time, separators were unknown and milk for cream was set out in large tin dishes and the cream skimmed off for butter making.


I remember Mother sending casks of salted butter in small wooden tubs to Melbourne for sale. Captain John Lock of the ketch Swan used to arrange the sale of same for her. On his return trip from the city he would invest the money it brought in groceries or whatever she wanted. Captain Loch was well trusted by the old residents and always did his best for them. Butter never brought much of a price, sometimes as little as three pence a pound. Most people had plenty of beef from the wild cattle run though. You only needed a rifle and a horse. The cattle were the descendants of the a few that were left at Settlement Point many years previously.


In the early 1890s there was an outbreak of diphtheria at Griffiths Point. Captain Clarke who then had the SS Genista, carried the mail from there to Hastings. The Captain had married Constance Grant, our neighbour. They had a family of five. Two of the children contracted diphtheria – a boy and a girl. Most of the residents were very afraid about the risk of contracting it. Mother was very good in sickness and did what she could to help.

There was a Doctor living there at the time, but he could do nothing to save the children. Great sympathy was felt for the Captain, who was a great favourite. There was a daily ferry service across the bay and the captain used to rush home every day after arrival to see his son and daughter. They were ill for a considerable time before dying. The boy died first and three days later the girl died. The Doctor insisted on her being buried at once. The whole little township was scared of infection and no one favoured opening up the boy’s grave to receive the second body. It fell to my lot to do it.


It was a dark night and I had to work on my own by the light of a hurricane lamp to get the grave ready, then get the horse and trap and help the poor old Captain fix up the coffin and help in any way I could.


Mrs Clarke, the mother, was very worn out and very distressed over losing her two lovely children. The Captain and I drove up to the cemetery. No one else appeared on the scene. The father tried to read the burial service with me holding the light for him, but he was too upset, so I had to complete that part of it. It was a rather trying time and I felt a quite upset myself and could not get it off my mind for quite a time.


The opening of the grave was a dreadful experience, very disagreeable in the dark, for the hurricane lamp was not one of the best. Mother had given me a cloth soaked in Eucalyptus and a bottle of same to sprinkle over my face. There was a smell of corruption from the grave that I never forgot. The poor old Captain was sobbing all the time and I felt very sorry for him. But we finally finished the gruesome business, which I will never forget.


In the early years there was quite a few shipwrecks. Some years before we came to the farm, a small ship loaded with potatoes and palings from Tasmania for Melbourne, was driven ashore close to the quarry. She just missed striking the rocky headland on either side. She swept in on an even keel, bow first, at the only spot where there was any chance for her survival.


The early settlers were shaking hands with eachother, saying “Plenty of spuds and palings, they will never get her off”. But much to their disgust a tug came from Melbourne, and at high tide they were able to pull her off without any damage.


She was resting on a level sandstone bottom. At low tide a track for the tow was cleared of large boulders and, when the tug made fast at high tide and put on the pressure, the spuds and palings passed, much regretted by the sorrowing settlers. The cleared track through the boulders is still plainly to be seen.


Some years previously there had been a vessel lost on the rocky coast near Bore Beach and some lives lost. The vessel was a total loss. The captain’s wife, who was accompanying him, was lost amongst others. It was very early days before I was born. The name of the ship I remember was “John Mussey”.


The “Moroki” was a sailing ship, a barque bound for Melbourne, with one thousand tons of coal. During a storm in the strait she tried for the shelter of Western Port Bay, but, for some reason, probably not knowing the Eastern passage very well, she struck the end of the sand bar near the channel entrance close to Cape Woolamai. She became a total loss though there were no lives lost. The hull of the ship with one thousand tons of coal did not break up, owing possibly to the action of the waves, but worked its way completely out of sight in the sand. No portion of the wreck was ever seen washed up on any shores, so it must still be there. I have seen at varying times water worn lumps of coal on the beach below our farm. Many times I have thought they may have been from her.


When I was a boy in the 1870s I often heard from the proprietor of a hotel right on the ocean cliff at Kilcunda, when the coal mine there was being worked, speak of a massive anchor that was to be seen at the foot of a certain high part of the coast not far from the hotel at low tide. There must at some time been a ship wrecked there, but there was never a vestige of wreckage to be seen and no-one ever heard of any, so it must have been ages ago.


I do not remember anything about the bore being put down on Bore Beach, so it must have been in the very early days. It seems unaccountable why it was put there at sea level at the foot of those hills and on the exposed ocean. A man named Walsh was in charge. There were no coal seams showing in the face of the rocky cliffs nearby. It was a private company affair. After some considerable work was done and the drill was down something over 1000 feet, the shareholders insisted on an enquiry into things. Walsh was to have the rods drawn so that they could view the latest core and what it showed. But there was a convenient accident while the rods were coming up and they crashed to the bottom again and they are still there – 1000 feet of them.


During the time it was working, two men named the Hayes brothers were washed off the rocks while fishing. One was drowned and the other was badly hurt and later died. Both were buried on the cliff nearby. There used to be a headstone over the grave, but it was weathered away by the action of the salt spray on the sandstone. It WAS well carved,  by one of the other workers on the drill.


Walsh the manager took up some land near the main road. A nice place. Built a house on the rising ground and he and his aristocratic wife lived there for a number of years. Madam Walsh said that when Richard Walsh courted her she was a fine dashing young woman in Glegg. “And now look at me, Richard Walsh, Look at me!”


Mother and I went over at times to their house with butter and milk and oft times heard the sound of pots flying about. I believe Madam was a good shot with the saucepan. Evidently Walsh had made money out of the bogus coal company and for a long time he never seemed to do anything. He eventually sold a portion of his land where the house was and built a hut in a small paddock he had fronting the bay. Walsh, now evidently poorly off, took the contract of carrying the mail to Kilcunda from San Remo daily. Shortly after he was found dead on the road. I do not remember what became of Madam, doubtless she went back to Ireland.


A certain amount of the foreshore below the little township has disappeared owing to the action of the tides. I remember when as a small boy seeing the remains of a house that had been eroded away. It had been at one time occupied by the Davis family. It was built long before I was born, close to the water’s edge, right opposite Bergins’ store.


About the same time two men were oystering in the bay and beached their lugger for the night. It was a very cold stormy night and to help keep warm, they kept the fire going in a fire pot in the cabin of the lugger. They were found dead in their bunks next day, having been smothered by the fumes from the pot. There was no public cemetery those days and they were buried on the foreshore opposite where the post office was built much later. The name of one of the men who died in the lugger that night was W Biglow.


In those days there were quite a number of men oystering in Western Port Bay, sending their oysters to Melbourne per Stony Point.

The stone for building a bank in Melbourne was quarried out of stone from the back of our farm and taken across the farm on sledges cut from the fork of a tree and drawn by bullock teams to the edge of the channel where it curves in close to the bank near the bridge. At that particular spot the vessel could be close to the beach. By the use of some gear rigged up on the ship the stone was hoisted and swung on board. There were no jetties in those days. Where the stones were quarried and dressed the curving track that was cut into the hillside can be plainly seen today. It must have been a terrific heavy haul to get the stone to the top of the hill from where it was dressed. Those responsible were not very mechanically minded or they would have had some easier method. There is still a huge dressed block of stone lying on the beach some distance from where it was quarried . It was evidently too heavy for the team to shift. Over two tons I should say.


Griffiths Point seemed to have had a queer attraction for drifters. There were always two or three living in camps in sandy hummocks under the great Banksia trees – “honey sacks” we used to call them in those days. In the flowering season they used to be alive with wattle birds feasting on the honey in the yellow cones and telling the world all about it. They are very noisy birds. Brush-like tongues may have something to do with the noise they make.


Peter Currie, one of the hermit bachelors, was found drowned on the sand bar, said to have fallen out of his boat. Frankish was also drowned in the channel. His body was never found, but his boat was.


Peter the Hermit, a Russian Finn and the hairiest man I have ever seen, lived half his time at Cape Woolamai and was said to be a Russian Professor. I believe he used to surprise people at times on the few occasions when he cared to talk. He just disappeared.


Jack Sykes, an old chap who lived in a little hut near the school was burnt to death with his hut one night.


Living was cheap those days. Fish were to be had for the catching at almost any time, and a man camping did not spend much on clothes by the look of them.


Probably they all had their reasons for living quietly away from the rush and bustle of life. They added to all the fascinating characters that lived in those days at Griffiths Point.