Autobiography of William Joseph Dibdin F.I.C., F.C.S.
Analytical Chemist
1850 - 1925

Section 2    Chapter 1

Australian Experience

[ Note: William Joseph Dibdin was 17 years old when he arrived in Australia, his brother Lowes whom he joined was 26. William returned to England at the age of 23 in March 1874 ]

I left Blackwell Pier in the Flying Cloud on 19th October 1867, my fatherís birthday. This was my first experience of the sea. Fair weather until we passed the Foreland and then headwinds set in and we took exactly one week to reach the Isle of Wight !

[ Foreland is on the Isle of Wight itself. One must assume the WJD is referring to somewhere about Margate ]

[ A number of the family went to Australia including William Josephís daughter, Marian, with her husband Paul Montford, the sculptor, in 1923 until 1939 ]

The voyage on the whole was a pleasant one with the usual incidents of throwing the "dead horse" over board and the coming on board of Neptune when crossing the line. Christmas on board passed off with the usual festivities. My skill at chess gave me many pleasant times with my fellow passengers. Our arrival at Moreton Bay was a repetition of our passage from the Foreland to the Isle of Wight. Fine weather until the pilot came on board, then it began to blow off the land with the result that we were just a week battling with the gale and rough sees before a tug came to take us into the bay.

[ The Flying Cloud of 1851 was the most famous of the clippers built by Donald McKay. She is popularly called an extreme clipper, as are many of his ships, but as her dead rise was less than 40" she was not. Donald McKay built many fast clipper ships but only one, the Stag Hound was an extreme clipper, even if others may have been advertised as such. It was popular to advertise clippers as "extreme" because of the popular conception of speed.

She was built in East Boston, Massachusetts, and intended for Enoch Train of Boston, who paid $50,000 for her construction. ]

[ Moreton Bay is just east of Brisbane which is about 400- 500 miles south of Rockhampton ]

On landing, I was welcomed by a friend of my brother who hospitably entertained me for a few days until the coasting steamer started for Rockhamptom, a trip which took a week. On my arrival my brother met me and I commenced work with him in his business as an accountant and commissioning agent.

After settling down and getting used to the climate and my surroundings I joined him in connection with matters of interest in the town in which he had always taken an active part, such as the volunteers, Fire Brigade etc and eventually I was elected Captain of the Fire Brigade after acting as Secretary and then Captain of the Engine. On being approached by some residents I took an active part in promoting the Young Menís Christian Association. I also became a member on the local lodge of the Sons of Temperance and filled all the offices in an Odd Fellows Lodge. We had a very fine boating club of which I made good use especially in the early mornings, going for a row and a swim before breakfast thus keeping myself in good trim and fit to stand the hottest tropical weather.

Rockhampton is situated on the banks of the River Fitzroy which drains an extent of country about as large as the whole of England and flows into Keppel Bay about 60 miles below the town. The climate is dry and very hot, the temperature in summer often being 1100 F in the shade and in winter generally 850 F to 900 F. I well remember playing cricket one day when it had been no less than 1140 F in the shade and suffered no inconvenience.

Amongst other duties I kept the books of a Building Society of which my brother was secretary and great was my satisfaction at getting out the balance sheet the first time correct to the penny.

At one time the various honorary posts held by my brother and myself, such as secretary, treasurer member of committees etc of local societies numbered no less than 17 and we decided that we were doing too much in that way and cut some of them down. By way of a holiday one year I spent a fortnight on the Gold Diggings at Mount Morgan Mueller and worked a claim only a few feet below one in which some very large nuggets had been found, but unfortunately I was only enabled to earn "tucker" ie. sufficient to pay board and lodging which was not much as I camped with three friendly miners sleeping in a sun-dried bark which one of them split off a tree for me Ė one slip 6 feet long by 3 feet wide and a very comfortable bed it made.

We frequently went fishing trips on the River from Saturday to Monday morning camping out and setting nets across the mouth of a creek at high tide. Wild duck shooting also came in for its turn but I was never much good at that in consequence of my short sightedness, although I could get along very well with the rifle at the butts, as I then could wear extra strong glasses and take a steady aim so much so that on my return to England, when I formed the Queens Westminster Volunteers, I seldom missed my marksmanís badge.

Amongst other experience, I several times carried gold from the Gold Mines or stamping mills into town for the banks. My brother had great experience in this work and I went with him on several occasions and then took charge by myself. The possibility of being stuck up by Bushwackers was by no means uncertain, as on one occasion a man who was bringing in gold from the Mornish Mines about 30 mile from Rockhampton was waylaid by three men and shot and his body thrown into the river where it was subsequently found. The Bushwackers were captured and were hanged at the Rockhampton Gaol where I witnessed the executions.

The immunity my brother and I experienced was no doubt greatly due to the precaution that we took to let no one know when we travelled and by which road we went and to vary that road as much as possible by crosscuts through the country.

After some four years in Rockhampton I went up country to Copperfield in the Peak Downs District celebrated Peak Downs Copper mines where situated, which employed over a thousand miners etc and started business there on my own account as an accountant etc. continuing that with auctioneering, which branch my bother had lately added to his business.

[ The mine was about 300 miles West North West of Rockhampton. ]

My auctioneers licence is now before me, dated 15 March 1873, so that I was only a little over 22 years of age at that time. The principle business in connection with this was selling horses. Pay day at the mine was on the first Saturday of the month when a sort of general holiday and fair was held and it was common practice for dealers to bring in a mob of 20 or 30 horses to be sold by auction and as I was the only auctioneer in the town, I generally had a busy and profitable day.

Of the large number of horses which passed under my "hammer" I had only one in question and that was when it was subsequently found that one of a mob had formerly been stolen and the seller had been twisted in his purchase. The matter was speedily settled by the return of the money to the buyer and no more was heard of the transaction.

Amongst other experiences at Copperfield, was that in connection with a local co-operative stores which I formed at the request of a number of the miners and for a time I acted as secretary , but when it was suggested that I should also act as retail salesman I declined and resigned as that position would have stopped my other business. As it was, I found that the business men of the town were much upset at my action in forming the society.

At the time of my arrival intemperance was very rife, especially on pay days and for a week after, and I was approached by some of the residents to form a Lodge of "The Sons of Temperance". This I agreed to and on representations being made to Head Quakers in Sydney, I was appointed, as already mentioned as "The Deputy Most Worthy Grand Patriarch" for the purpose of opening the only Lodge in that part of the Colony of Queensland.

The success was immediate. I initiated some 20 members the first night and the Lodge rapidly increased with marked results on the sobriety of many of the worst cases; one in particular being a man of considerable influence in the town.

In Queensland at that time the local affairs of even such small towns were administered by a mayor and corporation, the members being Aldermen corresponding to our English old Local Boards and now District Councils, and I had the compliment paid me of being elected as an alderman. I have before me a letter from my father dated August 25th 1874 on receipt of the news. He wrote:

"We have just received your letter telling us that you are made an Alderman and it is a subject of much congratulations because it shows in how much estimation you are held by your fellow townsmen.

"When Severn ( my brother in law ) heard it he said "let me have the pleasure of shaking hands with the father of an Alderman, it is the sort of person very seldom seen in London. That you write for the papers and do so many other extraordinary things is not to be wondered at, as the acknowledged versatility of talent inherent in the Dibdin family leads me to expect everything from one of its brightest of sons. There is only one thing Ė Donít get married or we shall never see you back and at present if things donít go right there is always a welcome home for you and we all agree here that if you return to us you can soon get into a berth in London."

In another letter my mother simply urged me to return home saying "Your father wants you"

The reference in my fatherís letter to "writing for the papers" was in connection with my temporary Editorship of the local Newspaper. The Editor was taken suddenly ill and his brother in law who conducted the printing etc. side asked me to take up the work, as he knew that I wrote shorthand and consequently presumed off hand that I must of necessity be a skilled journalist. Nothing loath, I agreed and I shudder to think of the slashing leaders which appeared and startling reports. But they answered and

the circulation went up and if circumstance had been otherwise I might have become a respectable newspaper hand in time. Anyway I did my best and they willingly paid.

It was an amusing experience. The paper came out weekly of Saturday. The staff consisted of the Editor, (myself) , the manager and owner and one compositor. All the type being set up by Friday night we three set to "work off" the paper. The press was one of the old fashioned "pull one" type and we took it in turns to act as "Feeder" "Fly-boy" and "Pressman".

It was one of the jokes to get a stranger from one of the outstations who might be staying in the town to see the paper printed which he would take as a compliment. After seeing several printed he would be presented with a copy and invited to print one. Then came the joke. The knack was to catch hold of the long handle and pull it hard over with a good swing. If one stopped at the "dead-point" just before the press came down on the type, no printing took place and although one might have considerable strength it was hopeless to pass the dead-point when once it had been stopped, tug they never so hard and it was ludicrous to see a great big strong man pulling at the dead-point for all he was worth without result. Of course, the visitor was shown the trick and in gratitude for the compliment, invariably stood supper for the "staff".

We generally finished printing our 400 copies by 3 a.m. and then the manager and editor started off as paper boys, to deliver the paper to subscribers and so home to bed about 5 a.m.

At this time, I had the opportunity to take up photography as a recreation and thus came about the change in my life. I always had an inkling for chemistry but never the opportunity. When I took up photography there were no such things as dry plates etc. and we had to make up all the solutions, baths, sensitise the allumerized paper.

In order to become well acquainted with the processes I procured from Sidney "Hardmanís Photographic Chemistry" and then I obtained a copy of "Townes Chemistry".

[ Unsure about the word allumerized. Ė the book referred to may be Hardwickís Photographic Chemistry ]

This settled it and added to the persuasion of my father and mother, I determined to return to England.

For many reasons I was sorry to leave so many good friends and happy surroundings, and I am always grateful to remember the kindly farewells when I was presented with a watch guard made from local gold and other momentoís at a farewell "banquet".

As I left Copperfield by Cobbs Coach, I will remember looking back at the town as we passed over the hill and wondering whether I should ever see it again.

I was happy there. The climate suited me and if by chance it had happened that I had settled there for life I should have had little to complain of; but my destiny called me away to vastly more important work, although I had but little idea of what it might consist. I well remember once being in the Chemistís shop at Clermont, a town about 4 miles from Copperfield, when I expressed my desire to see a real chemical laboratory and the chemist told me of what he had gone through at University College in Gower Street and I envied him with a great envy and wondered at his being there, little thinking that in a few years time I should be closely associated with the great Alexander Williamson, as I afterwards became.

And so to Rockhampton 250 miles by coach and 30 by rail (only 30 miles of Railway from Rockhampton inland in those days.

Then farewell to Rockhampton friends and my brother and home by the sailing ship 600 tons "Lady Douglas" a three month voyage, on which I was the only passenger.