George Vowles and C.F. Chubb: Two Ipswich Originals
You have to start somewhere.
Poetry in the place we now call Queensland began of course with the songs of the first nations people who occupied it for thousands of years before European settlement. Rhyming English language verse was published in the early editions of the Moreton Bay Courier and other regional newspapers from 1846 onwards.
But these songs and poems don’t (at least to some minds) qualify as Queensland poetry because Queensland didn’t exist as a separate political entity until 10 December 1859, when it legally separated from NSW. It is generally accepted that:
- The Ipswich Solicitor Charles Frederic Chubb issued a leaflet in 1859 which ‘was the first separate publication of verse in the State’s history’; and
- George Vowles, a school teacher also from Ipswich was the first Queensland born poet to be published in book form.
Both men lived extraordinary lives full of incident and achievement. That they were able to find time to write verse within their crowded hours is remarkable.
Chubb was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1822. He came from a legal family, and trained as a solicitor in his father’s firm and then in London. He was politically active, and for a time a member of the London based, Honourable Artillery Company. In 1857, he migrated, with his wife and 3 sons, first to Sydney, then to Ipswich (at that time a township of some 3000) where he commenced legal practice early in 1858.
Almost immediately he threw himself into community and civic affairs. He was active in the establishment of Ipswich as a separately governed municipality, and served for a time as alderman and then mayor. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Ipswich Grammar School, the first Queensland railway (from Ipswich to Grandchester), and the Ipswich Agricultural Society. In short, he was in everything. When an Ipswich cricket team played a Brisbane team to commemorate Queensland’s separation from NSW, Chubb was one of the scorers.
So it is no surprise that when Queensland’s first Governor paid a visit to Ipswich on 20 December 1859, Chubb was among those present at the official dinner. It is also not surprising that by then he had ruffled a few feathers. According to the Ipswich newspaper The North Australian, Chubb was part of a committee appointed to prepare an address to the Governor, but it seems that in fact he wrote and presented the address to the Governor himself without consulting the committee further. Chubb denied this, but it is clear that he did prepare and circulate on satin cloth an ‘Ode to Governor Bowen’ at the formal reception to the Governor held at Ipswich on 20 December.
The poem itself was the subject of much ridicule at the time. The contributors to the North Australian said:
The ode is, we learn, a most ridiculous piece of nonsense, such verses as neither gods nor men tolerate’.
In truth, it’s no masterpiece. But Chubb’s Ode opens up on two themes much beloved of Queenslanders now. The first is disdain for NSW and more particularly its government from Sydney. Queensland is ‘but an infant in his swaddling bands’ whose ‘growth hath been untimely checked’ by the ‘dubious nurses, from an uncouth school’ that is, the Sydney administration. The second is the enormous potential of the new State: now that ‘Fortune’ has broken ‘the chain that rivets us to Sydney’, men may develop Queensland’s ‘fallow ground, unbless’d with yellow grain’ and extract her ‘teeming mines, with sparkling gems, yet hidden from the gaze of man’.
The Ode became available in book form in 1881, when Chubb’s only book of verse Fugitive Pieces, was published. It’s a collection of occasional public verses, which he says was published ‘at the request of friends’. That is the way in which contemporary reviewers received it. Perhaps the most sympathetic review is that of the Queensland Times, from Chubb’s home town:
“Fugitive Pieces” will, we should think command a pretty extensive circulation in this town and district – more, probably on account of the many happy local hits and familiar names which are introduced rather than because of the intrinsic merit of the book itself. 
For the interested reader who knows a bit of regional history, there are still some interesting things to explore in Fugitive Pieces, from the intrigues of Ipswich local politics, to the development of the sugar industry, and the opening of the first Qld railway.
Chubb says nothing consciously about himself in these poems, but of course he reveals a good deal. For example, in his comic piece ‘Australia: a fragment’, he betrays his own prejudices about the aboriginal inhabitants:
Once the free, unsubdu’d nature’s child, now terrified and accursed savage.
Forget the dodgy scansion and the bad syntax. Ask yourself what was this man, who came to Queensland 150 years ago, thinking about the people he displaced? You can learn a lot about him, good and bad, from these lines.
By contrast, George Vowles, in his only book of verse, is all about the poet, but you learn very little about him from his work. He was born at Ipswich, Queensland (then known as Limestone) in 1846. His father was a carpenter, who built the first house in Ipswich (in Bell St on the site of the present Caledonian Hotel), and George was the first white child born in that town.
Vowles Jr was one of the few Queenslanders to volunteer in the New Zealand Wars (then called the Maori Wars) as a 16 year old, in 1863. On his return, he began to publish poetry in local newspapers, while qualifying as a school teacher. He worked at many schools throughout the State, eventually serving as head teacher in southern and central Queensland, and on the committee of the Brisbane School of Arts. Like so many pioneer poets, he was a polymath, learning Italian in his late 70s, so that he could translate the bible form Italian into English. Like Chubb, he was interested in politics; his son became the leader of the state opposition in the 1920s.
His book of verse ‘Sunbeams in Queensland’ appeared in 1870. It was the third book of poems published in Queensland, and the first published by a Queensland born writer. Vowles’ preface begins:
‘I believe myself to be a Poet; yet, as no man is perfect in his vocation, I am sensible errors must have crept into my book, in the noticing of which let it be hoped the Critic will not fail of giving me credit for what deserves commendation.’
His hopes for his critics were so misguided as to be delusional. Every one of them seized on his claim to be a poet, and, in true Australian fashion, debunked it. The Sydney based Freeman’s Journal, for example, advised ‘Mr Vowles to give up Poetry for a time, and turn his whole attentions to Prose…. and for Mr Vowles’ own sake, [we] exhort him to observe more, and write less – or rather not to versify at all, till he can satisfactorily embody his conceptions in prose.’ Vowles seems to have taken these and other criticisms to heart: he published no more verse after his book appeared.
Yet if his book had not appeared, Vowles would be completely forgotten today, and Sunbeams in Queensland, for all its many imperfections and weaknesses, remains one of the few records of what a relatively ordinary person was thinking and feeling in Queensland 150 years ago. His poems explore love (there are at least 6 pieces addressed to girlfriends and one ‘To an Old Maid’), war, peace, progress, the landscape, and settlement of the land coupled with some empathy for the plight of the aboriginal. ‘Soliliquy of an Aboriginal’ addresses ‘white man’ from the point of view of an aboriginal narratory:
For harshness to my people’.
As poetry goes, it’s pretty prosy, but his sentiment is unmistakable, and unusual for its time. And while his critics are all anonymous, Vowles' work is still available to a curious reader today.
Critics may even debate whether Chubb’s circulation of a poem at a private function counts as the first publication of a poem in the newly formed state. In any event, given that the Ode was not circulated in that form until the 20th, it is probably not the first poem published after separation. That honour probably belongs to ‘Stylus’ whose poem ‘To Lady Bowen’ appeared in the Courier, of 17 December 1859, 3 days before the circulation of Chubb’s Ode. Contemporary critics also doubted whether Vowles was really the first ‘native born’ Queensland poet.
It doesn’t much matter. They are certainly among the first, and what they left behind informs and enriches us today. Good luck to them.
Only books to buy: Chubb, C.F., Fugitive Pieces, Brisbane, Warwick and Sapsford, 1881, Vowles, G, Sunbeams in Queensland, Brisbane, Rogers and Harley, 1870.
Further reading: Clarke, C.G.D. The Chubbs – Separation and since, Royal Historical Society of Queensland Year Book of Proceedings, Vol VIII, no.3 (1967-68), p460. Annand, P. Chubb’s Ode, an historical note, Makar, Vol 7, No4, Dec 1971, p12. ‘George Vowles, Obituary’ in The Queenslander, 29 November 1928, p22.
 Hadgraft, C., Queensland and its writers, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, 1959, p 1.
 Ibid, p5.
 ‘Cricket Match’ Moreton Bay Courier, 10 December 1859, p2.
 ‘Local Intelligence’ The North Australian, 6 December 1859, p3.
 Letters to the Editor, Moreton Bay Courier, 8 December 1859, p2.
 Annand, P, Chubb’s Ode, An historical note, Makar, Vol 7, No 4, December 1971, p12.
 ‘Local Intelligence’ op cit.
 Brisbane, Warwick& Sapsford, 1881.
 Queensland Times, 20 December 1881, p3.
 A pidgin expression for ‘sugar bag’ or more likely wild honey.
 A “Native” Octogenarian, The Queenslander, 18 October 1928, p61.
 ‘Mr George Vowles’ The Queenslander, 29 November 1928, p22.
 Freeman’s Journal, Sat 30 July 1870, p11. See also the review which appeared in The Australasian, Melbourne, 23 July 1870, at p 3: ‘”I believe myself to be a poet,” says the author of these watery sunbeams in a brief preface to his work. We fear he is the founder of a faith which will never have more than one disciple’.
 See the review in the Freeman’s Journal, Sydney Saturday 30 July 1876, p11, ‘In the dedication we are told these are “the first poems of a native of Queensland” which we know is not the fact’.