Rhyming Journalism - the first poems published in Queensland


Rhyming Journalism 

The first poems published in Queensland



When free white settlement was first allowed in Brisbane, in May 1842[1], the city we know today had been reduced to about 10 freestanding buildings, all of them convict built, most in disrepair. Yet within four years, Brisbane was large enough to support a newspaper, the Moreton Bay Courier

Like essentially all newspapers of the time, the Courier published poetry. The poems it published in its first 5 years capture the preoccupations of its readers at the time but also foreshadow the course of the settlement, the colony and the state, for the next 150. 

For those who came in late

From 1770 until 1859, the land we now know as Queensland formed part of the territory of New South Wales. 

The United Kingdom government had established a convict settlement at Sydney in 1788 and ‘free’ (i.e. non-convict) settlement soon followed. But by the

Patrick Leslie, circa 1830
Patrick Leslie, circa 1830

1820s, the quality of life in and around Sydney, especially under the humane administration of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, was seen in the UK as too good to provide a real deterrent to British criminals. [2] As a result, a convict settlement was established in Moreton Bay, at first at Redcliffe, and then, in about May 1825[3], at a site which now forms part of the Brisbane central business district. Free settlement was banned within an 80 km radius of the convict base. 

At about the same time, however, white explorers, most notably the botanist Allan Cunningham, began to map, and identify the commercial potential of, the countryside to the west of the Great Dividing Range.  By the early 1840s, much land had been taken up by squatters, chief among them the Leslie brothers, in the area we now call the Darling Downs, and in the Lockyer and Brisbane Valleys. 

The squatters sought access to southern and export markets for their produce, through Ipswich (then known as Limestone), which had the easiest land access to their properties, and Brisbane, which had the best access to the sea. 

As public sentiment in the UK had largely turned against the transportation of convicts, by 1842 Brisbane had practically ceased to function as a convict settlement and free white settlement began. Unlike other Australian capitals, Brisbane as we now know it came into being to serve its agrarian hinterland, a service centre for the prosperous squatters on the fertile land to its west.[4]

The first newspaper

By 1846, the white population of Brisbane was still less than 1000[5], distributed among separate settlements at North Brisbane, South Brisbane, and

Front page, first edition
Front Page, first edition

Kangaroo Point. 

It was into this tiny market, that the printer James Swan, and the sometime journalist Arthur Lyon launched the Moreton Bay Courier, in June of 1846, from a hand printing press on the top floor of a hotel on the corner of Queen and Albert Streets, Brisbane.  

Like most Australian newspapers of its time, the Courier was limited to 4 pages, and just 16 columns of type. The front page was given over exclusively to advertising; the second page featured shipping news, an editorial, and letters to the editor. The principal news item was about fundraising efforts for Dr Ludwig Leichhardt’s planned trans-continental expedition[6], but equal space was given to reports of a 3-day race meeting held at New Farm. 

News itself was hard to come by. There was no telegraphic link between Sydney and Brisbane until the 1860s, so the editors depended on the arrival of ships once or twice a week, carrying letters, newspapers from other towns and gossip from passengers, for news of the wider world. The Courier was published once a week, on Saturdays, for a cover price of sixpence (5 cents). Within a year, it had achieved a circulation of 200. [7]

The first poems 

From its earliest editions, the Courier reprinted poems from other journals (under the heading ‘Selected Verse’) and published original poems (usually under the heading ‘Original Verse’). A space at the top left-hand corner of page 4 was generally reserved for poems, but often they were fitted in on pages 2 or 3, as space permitted. Poems were almost invariably published under pseudonyms. 

The third number of the Courier included its very first published poem. It was a reprint, from the Maitland Mercury[8], with the helpful (if lengthy) title ‘Song of the Scottish Shepherd on the Hills of New South Wales’.  It showed the twin themes of exile, and of Australia as a new home, that were common preoccupations of pre-1850 Australian poetry:

Far, far from my home in the Highlands so grand,

And attending these sheep on a wide distant land,

I feel myself happy wherever I be,

With my lass of Australia sweet smiling by me.[9]

It’s perhaps not surprising then, that the first piece of original verse that the editors published took a similar theme: 

The songsters of home still around him to charm,

The flowers love planted still breathing their balm,

Early loves and old friendships still pressing his hand.

His home is around him, though far be the land.

                                                                        From Emigrant’s Song[10]

Though the readership was small, it seems to have been be well read, as within the first 5 years, poems were published that assumed a fairly good knowledge of poets such as Byron[11] and Goldsmith[12].  Despite this, none of the 40 or 50 pieces of original verse that appear in the Courier’s pages over the next 5 years constitute high literature. So far as I know, not one of them has ever even been reprinted. To read them for their literary qualities would be to read for the wrong reasons. But as Elizabeth Webby notes, ‘The work of minor writers… often reveals more about the cultural and intellectual life of a period than that of major ones’.[13] What do the poems of the Courier reveal? 

A land to be conquered

While, like ‘Emigrant’s Song’, a number of the early poems in the Courier show pastoral themes, other poems also recognise the occupation of the land by aboriginal groups. They portray the traditional owners as hostile and warlike, to be subdued, assimilated, and if assimilation was not possible, eradicated.[14] 

Two of the early poems take the point of view of aborigines. ‘King Mungo’s Dream’ takes the perspective of an ‘aboriginal chief of a London tea party’, that is, a ‘do-gooder’s’ vision of an aborigine, who wages war on those who have stolen his lands from him: 

Arise, arise, you fallen chief!

Your tribe collect, and stem your grief.

Despair not, though you're humbled low;

Be bold--Australian courage show!

Those white thieves--who have us hurl'd

From glory to another world

Of vice, disease, and demon ill--

These, Mungo, lead thy tribe to kill,

And all who will dispute thy power.

Arise, bold chief! 'tis now the hour...[15]

Another poem, ‘The Death of Kennedy’ takes the viewpoint and narrative voice of ‘Jacky Jacky’, the faithful aboriginal guide of Edmund Kennedy, who was the sole survivor of Kennedy’s overland journey to Cape York of 1848:

We dare not light a brand[16] to keep us warm,

For hovering round our path the savage natives swarm.

Contemporary engraving, note Jacky Jacky's back turned
Contemporarysketch, note Jacky jacky's back is turned

            We kept our course for days.

At last I, from a tree, espied the Cape !

Oh ! joyful sight, our drooping hopes to raise

All doubt is gone ! We shall-we must escape.

To-morrow makes us safe !—We scarcely thought

On the blood-thirsty fiends who our destruction sought.

But the trailing aborigines surrounded them ‘in snake-like coils’ and Kennedy falls ‘struck by their cursed hands’. So the narrator calls for retribution: 

How will the State he serv’d avenge his fate? 

The blood of all the tribe could scarce allay my hate. [17]

Curiously, the poet does not, in 72 lines of verse, mention that the putative narrator is himself aboriginal. 

Once the aborigines have been conquered, there is a sense that it is the destiny of the settlers to tame the land. Take this example, from one of the contemporary poems that assumed that Leichhardt was still alive, and heading towards the west coast: 

Down shot the sun’s burning rays,

Hot mists in the valley there lay,

All thirsty, through sand and through blaze

Ludwig Leichhardt, 1846 portrait
Ludwig Leichhardt, 1846

They wearily wended their way.

Through brush, where the close-woven vines, 

Like meshes, their struggles oppose;

O’er cliffs, over mountains of pines,

Through watchful and treacherous foes…

Onward, for league after league,

Hopeless of shelter or rest,

They must toil till they drop with fatigue,

Or find the salt waves of the west.

                                                           From Leichhardt[18]

A workforce to be found

Once the land had been conquered, workers were required.  The social conflict between town and country that developed over the next decade had its origins in the means of procuring labour for the squatters.  The presumption in the city was that labour should be white and voluntary. But times were too good and labour was in short supply. Workers could basically name their own price (and eat the lambs they were tending):

Shepherd tends his flock 
Queensland Shepherd tends his flock

I want a situation as a shepherd, be it known,

On a comfortable station--not too far from town

The country must be timberless, the waters full of game,

(For I like a little shooting), and the blacks extremely tame.

For fifty pounds a year with a stranger I shall strive,

But I wouldn't mind engaging with a friend at forty-five;

I'll only take a slender flock,--a hundred ewes or rams,--

And cannot treat with any man who basely counts his lambs.

                                                              From A Chance[19]

The cause of white immigration was taken up by the Rev John Dunmore Lang (after whom Lang Park is named). Lang, a Scottish Presbyterian, chartered 3 vessels to bring immigrants to the settlement. But when the first boatload of some 250 passengers arrived on the Fortitude in 1849, the Government did not encourage them, and after a period as trespassers under the old Windmill at Wickham Terrace, they were forced to relocate to what is now Fortitude Valley[20]. In contrast to official attitudes, the Courier (perhaps with an eye to its circulation) welcomed their arrival. It noted they had escaped from:

That loathsome sight, England's New Poor Law prison,

Where poverty is punished more than treason;[21]

and welcomed them in a way Australians have (on occasion) welcomed migrants since: 

The Fortitude 
The Fortitude

Hail! strangers, hail! right welcome to our shore,

We wish you joy, — Eden could yield no more.

We bid you welcome to Australia wide,

Land of the sunny clime, — the ocean's pride.

                                                           From The Welcoming[22]

But the Lang-sponsored migrants were largely tradesmen and their families, and consequently not well suited to working on the land. 

Meanwhile, pastoral interests had begun agitating for the resumption of convict transportation, so that they would have free labour on the land they had acquired for nothing. The transportation debate caused a split between the editors of the Courier, and soon Swan, an anti-transportationist, took over sole proprietorship of the newspaper[23]. Poems like this championed the anti-transportation cause:

Here are the germs of great prosperity,

" Soogee"[24] orders and felon severity.

How could this colony ever know care,

If shepherds were hired for nothing a-year ?

Free men are now so imbued with democracy,

Every snob's striving to wash off his grease ;

They scarcely respect the white kids of squattocracy—

Question the brains of a justice of peace !

                                                            From The Song of the Transportationist[25]

But the UK was fast losing its interest in transportation, so no more convicts were to be had,  no matter how keen the squatters were.  After a brief experiment with Indian ‘Coolee’ labour[26], pastoralists attempted to solve the labour shortage by importing it from China. The racist, never far from the surface in 19th century Australia, soon emerged:

The murmuring tide was falling fast, and sultry was the day,

A barque upon a sand-bank stuck, not far from Moreton Bay;

Her deck was full of China slaves, - for B & B & Co. ;

Long had they been at sea detained, and now their grub was low.


Strange tales of plague and cholera dire in Brisbane were rife:-

‘Twas told how these poor Chow-chows - each was weary of his life ;

And what with hunger and disease, t'was said, they dwindled fast.

And when they died, to save expense, were in the river cast.[27]

Meanwhile, white workers, following the money trail as part of a mobile global workforce, were off to the goldfields of California: 

He thought of sugar canes and cotton,

Dr John Dunmore Lang

Of Dr. Lang and emigration;

He thought how half his sheep were rotten,

And him without a single ration. 

His tin[28] was done- his credit flown-

‘Twas time, he thought, that he was gone!

                                               From Start from Squatterland for the Diggings[29]

With gold soon to be discovered at Bathurst and in Victoria, the recruiters turned their eyes to the south seas. 

A landscape to be understood 

Throughout its first five years, the Courier featured poems about exile, about a home across the oceans:

Letters from home! from the happy band,

So far away in a distant land;

From a father beloved, from a sister dear,

Bearing words made dim by a mother's tear;

Oh ! welcome are ye, though a sigh will start

From the innermost cell of the wanderer's heart-

                                           From Letters from Home[30]

And some of the political poems concerned UK politics, most notably the Irish famine[31] in a way that reveals a kind of ‘pan-British’ world view.

But from the outset, the editors began to feature pieces of verse about purely local matters, such as the squabbles between north and south Brisbane, the proposal to move the settlement to Cleveland, the dilapidated state of the Breakfast Creek Bridge, the need for husbands, and unpaid subscriptions to the Courier! 

Pretty quickly, the land that had been conquered and tamed became a land to be enjoyed. 

I'll tell thee of a spot where Nature sheds

Her richest treasures with a lavish hand,

Where, bright and soft, her verdant mantle spreads

'Neath pleasant bowers, by softest breezes fann'd.

From Moreton Bay[33]


The problem with poems like this, which tell us that a place is nice, without telling us what makes it distinctive, is that they could have been written about basically anywhere. However, by the end of its first five years, the Courier was publishing pieces of verse that struggled gamely and with some success, to capture with specific language, the essence of a place. Take this poem, published in 1851, which identifies the canopy of a tropical rainforest (near the present suburb of Ashgrove), in affectionate terms: 

In close companionship are seen

The varied shades of nature's green,

And dwarfish shrubs and giant trees

Together woo the fresh'ning breeze.

So dense their foliage, scarce a ray

Of summer's sun can downward stray;

                              From The Three-mile Scrub[34]

Wrapping up

The very first editorial of the Courier said it was the paper’s ‘great object to make known the wants of the community’[35]. With the perspective of 170 years, we can see that the early editions identify the priorities and preoccupations of the place and time: the conquest of the land, the availability of labour, and the relationships of men and women with the land, and with each other. To read the poems is to look at the times. 




[1] Holthouse, H. Illustrated History of Queensland, Adelaide, Rigby, 1978, p54.

[2] Laverty, J.R. The Making of a Metropolis: Brisbane 1823-1925, Brisbane, Boolarong Press, n.d. (2009).

[3] Holthouse, op cit, p25.

[4] For a further discussion, see Laverty, op cit, pp2-6

[5] Estimates vary, from 829 (Davies and Lack) to 960 (Fisher, R. The Best of Colonial Brisbane Brisbane, Boolarong Press, 2012, p 4.

[6] Dr Ludwig Leichhardt born 1813) had made a somewhat successful journey to Port Essington in what is now the Northern Territory. In 1847, his first attempt to cross the continent from east to west was defeated by weather. A second attempt started in early 1848. He was last sighted in April 1848.

[7] Davies, A.G, ‘Queensland’s Pioneer Journals and Journalists’ in The Historical Society of Queensland Journal, vol III no 4, pp 265-283.

[8] Webby, E. Early Australian Poetry: An Annotated Bibliography, Sydney, Hale and Iremonger, 1982, p 165.

[9] Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 4 July 1846, p4.

[10] Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 25 July 1846, p4.

[11] Nemo ‘A passage from Child Snook’s Pilgrimage’ Moreton Bay Courier, 21 October 1848, p 3. See Byron, ‘The Eve of Waterloo’ in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, XXI-XXVIII.

[12] Frederic ‘The Deserted Village (not Goldsmith’s) Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 30 June 1849, p3, about the possible movement of the settlement to Cleveland.

[13] Webby, op cit, p ix.

[14] See for example editorial, Moreton Bay Courier, 4 March 1848, p2. All idea of training the adult aborigines to any kind of useful labour has been long abandoned by everyone acquainted with their character and habits; not so much from the want of perception in the dusky race, for where their own interest is concerned they evince no inconsiderable acuteness of mind but their innate laziness of disposition and their constant disregard of their promises….’

[15] Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 5 April 1851, p4. The editor notes ‘it would be difficult to recognise in him a Moreton Bay black-fellow’.

[16] Torch

[17] ‘Nemo’, ‘The Death of Kennedy [The Survivor’s Tale]’ Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 24 March 1849, p3

[18] ‘Nemo’ in Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 21 October 1848, p3.

[19] Anonymous, Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 30 October 1847, p3

[20] Melton, C., ‘Fortitude Valley’ in The Historical Society of Queensland Journal, vol II, no2, June 1923, pp 74-80.

[21] Under the New Poor Law of 1834, the poor were forced to reside in a workhouse to receive relief. Conditions were often appalling. This is probably a reference to the Andover workhouse scandal of 1846, where poor inmates of the Andover workhouse committed crimes and went to jail in order to escape the conditions of the workhouse. http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/andover.htm See also the Huddersfield Workhouse scandal of 1848. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/poorlaw/huddscand.htm Both sites accessed 07/01/18.

[22] ‘Frederick’, ‘The Welcoming. To the Immigrants per ‘Fortitude”’ Moreton Bay Courier 24 February 1849.

[23] Lack, C. ‘A century of Brisbane Journalism’ in ‘The Historical Society of Queensland Journal’ Vol IV, No 4 December 1951, pp 471-93

[24] Orders to wash down the deck of a ship

[25] ‘Nemo’ Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 15 December, 1849, p2.

[26] Fisher, R. The Best of Colonial Brisbane, Brisbane, Boolarong Press, 2012, p78.

[27] ‘Frederick’, ‘The Chinaman Transmogrified’ Moreton Bay Courier, 8 March 1851, p4

[28] money

[29] ‘Frederic’ Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 30 June 1849, p3.

[30] ‘Frederic’ Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday, 8 July 1848, p4.

[31] Anonymous ‘Young Ireland’s Gratitude’ Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 7 August 1847, p4

[33] ‘M.A.’ ‘Moreton Bay’ Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 11 May 1850, p3.

[34] ‘Frederick’, in Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 22 February 1851, p4.

[35] Moreton Bay Courier, Saturday 20 June 1846, p2.


The author would like to acknowledge the Queensland State Library's Picture Queensland site, from which all images in this article, apart from the abstracts from the Moreton Bay Courier, have been taken.