Backward Glance - The oyster gatherers
  • Wednesday 07 December 2016

You may not know that but the small township of Donnybrook on the Pumicestone Passage was once called “Little Caloundra”.

Early stories say it received its present name from the brawling that used to go on among the raucous crews of the boats which serviced the Moreton Bay Oyster Company who camped there.

‘Donnybrooke’ camp was the principal site for the Moreton Bay Oyster Company with the other main site located on South Stradbroke Island. 

The camp had started off originally as a lime burning centre. 

The Moreton Bay Oyster Company started trading on August 11, 1876 and until the 1920s was the largest of its type operating in Queensland. 

During the late 1870s, many families moved to Pumicestone Passage and settled close to the pristine waterway where work camps were set up for the oyster company.

It was an enterprising time and Pumicestone Passage became a busy waterway with more than 100 people employed in the industry. 

There were numerous oyster leases on the banks and on the islands which dot the Passage.

The industry was labour intensive but the returns were worthwhile. 

The oyster gatherers would dredge up the oysters, put them in bags and send them via cutters to market to be transported as far away as Sydney. 

Each oyster bag contained the contents of four large kerosene tins. 

In some places, the oyster beds were three metres thick in Pumicestone Passage. 

Covered oyster docks were built on Passage sites all the way up to Caloundra. 

The oyster company used a mechanised system which raised and lowered the oysters on racks and could be used to load the oysters onto the boats to transport them to the thriving market. 

Thomas Martin Tripcony Sr was one of the early oystering pioneers of Pumicestone Passage. 

Arriving in 1861, he was connected to both lime burning and oystering. 

In 1876, Tripconys acquired a selection of 1215 hectares and built a home they named Cowie Bank positioned between Hussey and Glass Mountain Creek about 20km east of Beerburrum. 

Four generations of the Tripcony family became involved in the oyster industry. 

The Tripconys used an oyster gathering process where they dredged the oysters with a wire mesh rake pulled behind a flat bottomed punt. 

They would transfer the young oysters back to Cowie Bank jetty and place them in a holding area for fattening which allowed the oysters to be covered at high tide. 

Goods and passengers also travelled on the oyster cutters, but after the North Coast Rail Line opened to Landsborough in the early 1890s, the region’s transport needs changed.

The transportation of goods and passengers saw the Near North Coast begin to use rail services and when the train arrived at designated stations, the goods or passengers were met by horse and buggy or cart and transported over rough tracks to their destination. 

Many walked if they could not afford the luxury of horse transportation at the time.

Thomas Martin Tripcony passed away in 1896 and by the turn of the century many of the oyster beds silted over or had begun to disappear. 

After the death of his father, young Tom Tripcony owned and operated a shallow draft oyster cutter named “Cowie” which transported oysters throughout Moreton Bay. 

Most oyster cutter skippers were excellent seaman and experienced in crossing bars with only sail power. 

The early pioneers recalled the sleek lines of the cutters in many of their stories. 

The oyster men were remembered for their knowledge of weather conditions and the sea. 

Early reports in the Queenslander on June 25, 1898 by a southern oyster expert Mr Griffen warned of a worm disease near Newcastle: “The worm disease had been known in the Hunter River district for over sixteen years. The disease had become acclimatized, and in consequence the work of cultivating even small quantities of oysters on clean ground was both troublesome and expensive”. 

It was also reported in this news story that the Inspector of Fisheries, Mr Fison, went on a tour of inspection in June 1898 and reported the dredged section, above the Tewantin reserve, had large quantities of small culture and fat oysters. 

Mr Fison advised a number of the oysters were opened, but no trace of worms was found.

On inspecting the banks near Lake Weyba, on either side of the bridge large quantities of oysters were found on pearl shells in a fine healthy condition, and without the slightest trace of worms or other parasites. 

The oysters both at the Mooloolah Heads and higher up the river were found to be perfectly clean. 

At the time of the visit, the Mooloolah River was well supplied with fish. 

Though a healthy outlook around Noosa and the Mooloolah River was identified, major problems were soon to follow further south. 

Pumicestone Passage oysters had a reputation for being the finest. 

The industry was nearly wiped out in 1909 by the worm infestation which went on to cover all of Moreton Bay. 

By the 1920s, the oyster industry in South East Queensland waterways was in serious trouble. 

It was Thomas Tripcony’s adult sons - Andrew, Con and young Thomas - who played a major role in the foundation years of Caloundra. 

They had continued oystering for some time but then branched out into transportation and fishing as well as opening the first shop at Black Flat, Caloundra.

The ‘Cowie’ owned by Tom Tripcony was later sold to Tom Maloney, of Caloundra, who used it for the shell grit industry. 

Tom’s father was recorded as being an oysterman in the early 1900s, but by 1923, he was registered as a motorboat proprietor. 

Tom and his brothers Norm and Jim were then involved in passenger services meeting steamers and bringing people and goods from the deep water side of Bribie Island’s Bongaree to Caloundra via The Passage. 

Their boats included ‘La Rita’ and ‘Cal-Bri’ which were also used to take people staying in Caloundra’s guest houses fishing for short trips across the Caloundra bar. 

Life had changed for the oystermen and so did their careers.

There are still some oysters in the region. 

This old day’s story reminds us of what has been in the history of our waterways with the oyster cutter and sailing boat transport system a thing of the past.

Thanks to Sunshine Coast Council’s Heritage Library Officers for the words and Picture Sunshine Coast for the images.

Image captions:
Cover image: Charles Nichols with his horse team hauling bags of harvested oysters from the Maroochy River, Bli Bli, ca 1890.

Carousel images:
1: Con Tripcony's oyster cutter Nancy in Moreton Bay, ca 1889.
2: Tom Maloney’s boat ‘Waterhen’ moored at his jetty, Caloundra, ca 1940.
3: Members of the Tripcony family of Cowie Bank who were oyster farmers in Pumicestone Passage, ca 1892.
4: Members of the Tripcony family pictured on the verandah of their first home ‘Cowie Bank’, on Pumicestone Passage in 1892.