By Mark Svendsen | Posted on January 14th, 2018
In our busy household of four children, bedtime is a carefully followed sequence of events. Dinner is eaten, baths taken, teeth are cleaned and stories read. When finally the lights go out, it’s time for tales from Mum and Dad’s childhood. My husband started this tradition, regaling our children with small-seaside-town stories of magpie swoops and trips to the corner store. The kids hang off every word and often ask follow up questions the next morning. Lying in the dark beside expectant little minds is how I came to think once more of the Woolwash.
Growing up in Rockhampton, I could not understand why it was home. The wide, straight streets offered little in terms of entertainment. The searing heat was undisturbed by sea breezes thanks to the barrier created by Mt Archer. It was a mystery to me why my parents chose to raise four children in such a place. Yet now, as a mother of four myself, I understand the pull of small town life.
Dad was from old stock stretching back to the earliest days of the settlement. Born and bred in Rocky, he had a short stint in Armidale for boarding school and then on to Brisbane to study law. The progressive government of South Australia held its appeal but the tight strings of Rockhampton pulled him back. I can’t imagine him living anywhere else. His face always beamed as he taught us the names of the streets along Upper Dawson Road on the quick drive to Allenstown State School. Nathan, MacGregor, Lamington, Wiseman, King, Queen, Brecknell, Spencer, Ward, Penlington, Parnell, Brae Ross, Larnach, Glencoe. He would patiently correct our pronunciation and I don’t remember a day we recited it correctly. He truly loved the history in those streets.
Mum was an outsider, convinced to trade the quality timber country of rural north-west Queensland for the relentless heat haze of riverside Rockhampton. She had grown up on a sheep property north of Richmond before six long years at boarding school. Her passion for childhood education saw her train as a kindergarten teacher which led to work in Townsville and then finally, after her marriage, Rockhampton. She was a joiner, a talker and a fabulous cook so she made friends easily. Our neighbourhood was the epicentre of our world and it was through my mother that our lane became our extended family.
There was a ritual to our weeks. Weekdays were school, work, swimming lessons, piano practice, sport and homework. Saturday mornings were drama classes and then, by lunchtime, the freedom of the weekend stretched before us. For me, that meant infinite possibilities with my dearest friend in the world, Ben. The Woolwash would always be on our list of places for escape.
For such an important location in my childhood memories, it stuns me that I never really considered the history of the Woolwash. The big hint was in the name but the number of sheep producers from the early days had dwindled to almost nothing by the time I was visiting the murky water dotted with bright green lily-pads and the occasional tall water-hyacinth bloom standing to attention. It seemed as if we were among a select group of people who knew of its existence, but there was no sign of the infrastructure that once must have been vital to the region.
In the 1980s there were over 50,000 people living in my hometown.
We knew it as Rockhampton, ‘the town by the rocks in the river’ name declared by Lands Commissioner William Henry Wiseman in consultation with Charles Archer who first spotted the potential site by the mighty Fitzroy River with his brother William. They also consulted one Richard Palmer who has the distinction of being my relative. He built the town’s first general store with his brother John, my great, great grandfather who would have a pivotal role as the first mayor of Rockhampton in 1861. The Darambal clans called the wide river “Toonooba” and yet this name was never taught to me even though my primary years culminated in the Bicentenary of 1988. Any local knows Rockhampton is the Beef Capital of Australia, a title fittingly celebrated at the triennial Beef Expo. Surprising then that the first decade of settlement, sheep grazing and wool production were the major primary industries. The success of the Lakes Creek Meatworks packaging canned, frozen and then chilled meat enabled Rockhampton to enter the European market for beef. The pastoral priorities in the region began to shift.
Merino sheep were introduced to Australia in 1797 when John Macarthur and Reverend Samuel Marsden attempted to kick-start the Australian wool industry. It would take decades to gather momentum but eventually several strains of Merino sheep were spread across Australia. The hardy and very popular Peppin Merino was the choice for Central Queensland flocks but the native grass and tropical climate proved unsuitable in the long term. In early production, sheep needed to be washed before shearing. Through the shallow lagoons they would be driven to remove grease, dirt, grass seeds, twigs and burrs. The next stop would be a tub of soapy water and a final rinse before heading off to the waiting shearers. Cleaning the wool and reducing the transport costs were essential to Australian wool holding its own in the global trade.
In 1855, the Archer Brothers were the first graziers to steer their flocks to the banks of Serpentine Lagoon (named for its tenuous link to the English Serpentine). They soon discovered that the spear grass surrounding the water made washing the sheep almost futile, as their fleeces were a magnet for the spears. Their abandonment paved the way for William Fraser who established the Balmoral Wool Scouring and Fellmongering Works in 1884. Fraser had three sons and one, also named William, became the owner of my childhood home on The Range, a link I have only recently discovered. It seems that my connection with the Woolwash was even in the walls of our house at number 7 Bowen Street.
There were several wool scours in the Central Queensland region and it seems fair to assume our local facility was not well regarded. In a book complied by the Queensland Government in 1914 on Central Queensland, there is the following sentence printed forlornly on the page:
‘It may be mentioned that there is also a wool scour at Rockhampton.’
Of course, there are pages devoted to the famous Blackall Wool Scour. I feel some outrage at the dismissive tone applied to my Woolwash.
Regardless of this condescending description, Messrs Fraser and Co. were lauded in “The Capricornian Illustrated Christmas Supplement” for establishing ‘among the more important of the new industries of the year’. The Balmoral Wool Scouring and Fellmongering Works employed 40 men. Fraser had constructed a large iron-roofed shed which sheltered from the elements a steam engine and centrifugal wool-drying machine. The Capricornian proudly declared the engine to be a ‘Hornsby’s eight horse power traction engine’. This publication described in precise detail the process of wool washing and encouraged squatters visiting Rockhampton to see first hand the brand new establishment.
The industrial revolution had changed the methods and the terminology. Instead of being washed, the fleeces were scoured. Wool was now gathered shorn and sent to the works for processing through large vats containing melted soap, possibly sourced from Boldeman’s Soap Factory found between Queen and Brecknell Streets. From here they were hand washed by teams of men on the Serpentine shore where two floating wharves jutted out from the bank. After a spin in the centrifugal wool drying machine, the men would lay the wool out on sheets in the sun where it would only take an hour for them to fully dry on a sunny day. Next, they would be placed in another patented bailing machine and the ends of the bags sewn up ready to be marked for delivery.
A ‘moderate commission’ was charged for this process but the benefits of retaining the wool in Central Queensland were immense. The long journey to Sydney for treatment was no longer required as the works could send the bags of cleaned wool straight to the steamers bound for the United Kingdom.
Fellmongering involved removing the wool from the skin on carcases supplied by butchers or stations. This process was no less complicated and the products created were also a steady source of income for Messrs Fraser and Co.
I imagine in many towns around Australia there are bodies of water referred to as “the Woolwash”. We never once called it the Woolwash Lagoon. To apply the term lagoon would give the place delusions of grandeur. It was not a place you sought out for beauty or activity but its remote and simple outlook held an attraction.
On Saturday afternoons, just past 3pm, the heat would ever so gently start to shift out of the day in the suburbs of Rockhampton. Ben and I would have cleared a plan with our parents to ride to our Woolwash. We pushed our rusty bikes down Bowen Lane and followed Blackall Street around to the green grass of Frank Forde Park pausing beneath the Santa Gertrudis bull statue (the reinforced steel balls would be added later to deter thieves).
A quick dash across the Bruce Highway and we would be weaving through the dogleg bend over the railway tracks and along Jellicoe Street. It was quiet there, with few cars to disturb our slow creaking of pedals. We would talk about school, television and crack each other up with juvenile jokes as we pedalled in strict line formation. The muted sounds of the Archer pub (formerly the Balmoral after the nearby Balmoral Wool Scour) would start to waft towards us and we would push our wheels faster to avoid the drunken calls. One more intersection and now we would be truly freewheeling along Port Curtis Road past the clanging of the Hastings Deering workshop.
The waters of the Woolwash would catch the sunlight on our right-hand side lined with expansive figs trees. There were a few houses dotted on the left-hand side as we cruised on by. We were under strict instructions not to talk to anyone but there was very little risk of this happening. I think I only ever saw one person from afar stalking towards their long front steps during our regular excursions.
The Woolwash’s gift was privacy. We could climb the trees, wade in the water or just muck around on the banks with no one to disturb our adventures. One summer day, we dragged an inner tube down to the water and floated around picking the water hyacinths for our mothers. I remember bearing them home with a proud flourish although I wonder how we managed to achieve this on bikes.
There were a variety of birds and if we were lucky a black swan. Your breath would always catch in your throat if you saw one gliding indifferently across the surface of the water. Snakes were always about but we had been taught the adage “leave them alone and they will leave you alone”. And of course, there was the endless heat buzz that would sometimes overwhelm you as the sweat poured down your face, pushing the pedals towards the chosen shady tree.
On one visit we had found a length of rope under one of these trees that sent us rocketing back home as fast as we could. Many times before, we had sat on these banks envisaging terrible and wicked things that could happen in this eerie setting. We were victims of our own hype. We were full of courage in the daylight but we spooked ourselves for weeks over that rope, imagining all types of invented murderous individuals who may have left it there. A long stretch of road watched over by ominous figs and a eucalypt lined lagoon, it was the perfect place for creating drama for small town kids. The spirit of Waltzing Matilda was still strong in the new century.
If you continued further down Port Curtis Road, the water dropped away and a remnant of the old highway loomed. Rockhampton almost straddles the Tropic of Capricorn and, at that time, 1950s white brick gates proclaiming the fact still framed the road. They lost their glory when the route of the highway was altered yet they remained as an echo of the decades.
Sometimes the whole family would pile into the car for a good old Woolwash picnic. Mum would have already split the rolls and lathered on the butter. Big Rooster provided a cooked chook to be torn and shared amongst them. Dad would pull the car up underneath a vacant fig tree and spread the tartan picnic rug out on a patch of grassy bank. There would be other day-trippers but the evenly spaced fig trees would allow you to enjoy your solitude. If our parents had managed to squeeze in the bikes, we would ride along the bitumen, swerving on to the dirt verge when we heard or saw a car. The road was unforgiving on knees that made contact with it but the long stretch afforded a decent run before a mum or dad called you back.
Gradually, what was once a weekly excursion became less frequent. By my mid-teens, I may have even professed to being bored by the Woolwash. The freezing air conditioning of the movie theatre was suddenly more appealing. In Year 11, I was an avid Film and Television student. One assignment was a documentary on the effects of the drought in Queensland and so the Woolwash was called upon once more. My team of amateur filmmakers somehow convinced Mum to drive down Port Curtis Rd with the door of the Tarago open so we could get our all important tracking shot of the dwindling waters. I think I barely registered how brown and depleted the Woolwash was looking – too busy striving for acceptance by my classmates.
When it came time for driving lessons, the Woolwash became useful again for the grumpy teen who had neglected to visit for so many years. I was a keen but slow learner in this area. I can vividly recall bunny hopping along Port Curtis Road as I struggled to come to terms with gear changes. Dad had to take over full time teaching duties as Mum did not have the patience or nerves for my learning. After weeks, perhaps even months (my woolly memory does not recall), I gradually started to improve. The space and quiet of the Woolwash had worked its magic.
The cycles of flood and drought have not been kind to the Woolwash. I remember the swollen rivers erasing it, but months later it would be as if nothing had happened, the birds, reeds and weeds had all reclaimed their territory. When the level would dip perilously low, the stench would be almost unbearable. This unpredictable nature of the Woolwash has prevented it from permanent parkland status but it is still a popular spot for fisherman and grey nomads alike.
There is also a dark side to the isolation. I remember reading with creeping horror that divers were searching the lagoon a few years ago looking for clues in a double murder case. Despite all the bravado of our younger years, it did not sit right for this place to be sullied by terrible violence. I am quite sure the Woolwash of my childhood was a completely different place after dark but, with little evidence of this during daylight hours, our innocence was preserved.
My parents have now retired to the balmy climes of Emu Park so I haven’t been back to visit for many years now. The road doesn’t lead anywhere so I never drive past. After an eight-hour drive north to Rockhampton and another 30 minutes before we reach Emu Park, taking a turn off to see the Woolwash again seems indulgent. I don’t think I want to – I want to remember the Woolwash of my childhood. Green and brown in equal measure, it was a reminder of the infinite possibilities of childhood freedom.
But there is another reason. As a mother I now see danger in the most mundane of journeys. Now I can’t imagine allowing my inner-city darlings to take such a dangerous trip across a highway and down a sparsely populated road. At the same time, I recognise that this small town freedom is exactly what made my early years so full of wonder. When I see my own children discover the perfect climbing tree, or when they splash about in clothes-caking mud, my mind returns to the Woolwash. Although I have forgotten the spear grass and the heat, I can’t help but think this most humble of places deserves to be appreciated.
Nostalgia is the soapy water that swooshes through the woolly tangle of my mind, taking with it all the burrs and dirt of my childhood. Rockhampton will always be home and even though the strings have not yet pulled me back, the legendary tales of the Woolwash are passed down in my bedtime stories. It lives in my children’s minds as a mystical place from long ago, just as I, in my youth, imagined it to be a secret destination. Perhaps I should tell them of the industry that once thrived on the shore that I was never aware of as child. However, I suspect steam powered engines and hand washing in fresh water are concepts too complex and foreign for tales in the darkness. It is probably best to stick with the everyday drama of long bike rides and picnics in the shade. Either way, the Woolwash remains one of the great joys of my fortunate, sun-kissed childhood.
 Queensland Past and Present: 100 Years of Statistics 1896-1996 , Office of Economic and Statistical Research, http://www.qgso.qld.gov.au/products/reports/qld-past-present/qld-past-present-1896-1996-ch03-sec-02.pdf p.69
 Central Queensland, compiled by Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Board, 1914, p. 54
Photograph: Peter Lawrence
Image Credit:Peter Lawrence