Sunday, 15 July 2018


Canneries of the Pumicestone Passage
By Lynne Hooper
President, Bribie Island Historical Society

The digitisation of regional Australian newspapers and magazines by the Australian National Library has revealed some fascinating “new” facts about fish canneries on and around Bribie Island. Why is this noteworthy? Until recently Bribie’s history has relied on the memories of early Bribie residents, and many of these memories were captured in the Bribie Star’s newspaper’s Souvenir Edition published in October 1963 to mark the opening of the Bribie Island Bridge.  Stories were related about the history of the Island, its early residents, and when shops, churches, police stations, water and electricity commenced. Since the recent digitised newspaper roll-out we have been able to ‘fill in the gaps’ of our remarkable Island’s past.

The history of one early industry has been clarified -  the Canneries of the Pumicestone Passage.  The first cannery was in 1897, owned by James Clark and Reginald Hocking, trading as the Toorbul Fish Company. They sold canned fish from their factory situated on the bay-side of Toorbul Point.  The business was sold to Charlie Godwin for 160 cases of canned mullet in ca1900.  Godwin, an early settler, had bought 250 acres of land in the 1890s, in the area now known as Godwin Beach.  In 1901 the supplies of locally caught fish were so erratic that Godwin moved the cannery to the northern end of Bribie Island opposite Golden Beach.  Godwin’s fish was marketed under the name of “Anchor Brand Sea-Mullet”.
Maloney Bros. Lighthouse brand
Photo courtesy Audrey Abrahams

By 1906 the Maloney Brothers had commenced a fish cannery beside Charlie Godwin’s Cannery on Bribie Island and marketed their product as the Lighthouse Brand. The Lighthouse Brand won a “highly commended” award at the Brisbane Exhibition but by 1910 the cannery closed and the family moved into the oyster and shell-grit industries.

Charlie Godwin sold his cannery for £240 in August 1907 to Lionel Landsborough, son of the pioneer William Landsborough, but by 1909 Landsborough had left Australia to settle in California.

Sarah Balls
In 1907/8 the Federal Government introduced the Bounties Act and Sarah Balls, a well-known entrepreneur from Brisbane, decided to take advantage of the half-penny per pound being offered for preserved fish (including canned). Without widely used refrigeration it was reported that Australians were only consuming 9½ pounds of fish per head, whereas in Great Britain the quantity was 47½ pounds per head and Australia was spending over £300,000 annually on importing canned fish. 

Sarah leased 8 acres on Bribie Island just north of where the IGA stands today.  Fresh water is required for the canning process and this was readily available from the springs that were once used by the Joondoburri people.

Sarah’s “Caloundra Fresh Fish Preserving & Canning Company” were canning sea-mullet, whiting, snapper, bream, flathead, tailor, kingfish and jewfish, packing them in one and two-pound tins bearing the brand “The Diver”.  The Diver canned fish was retailed at 5½ penny though snapper and whiting were a more expensive option. The newspapers extolled the product advising “the fish is deliciously appetising and will undoubtedly supplant imported canned fish as the public were getting tired of the everlasting salmon, herring or sardine”.

Sarah erected a new factory in 1908 which measured 110 feet long by 20 feet wide with 16 feet walls (30 x 6 x 4.5m). 20 people were employed at the cannery producing 200 cases per day with each case containing 4 dozen tins.

Sarah originally employed a manager from Scotland who was experienced in preserving fish. She had to take control in July 1908 when during a “glut” fishermen dumped tons of fish on the cannery wharf during hot weather. Lacking refrigeration some of the fish took too long to be processed and many tins “blew” so the product got a bad name.  Later Sarah hired local men to manage the Cannery, but kept a firm hand on her investment, earning the sobriquet of “Mum-Balls”.
Canning works jetty

A new Linde refrigeration system was purchased in late 1908 and by 1909 “The Diver” brand entered a boom period.  In 1910 Sarah expanded the factory by purchasing the cannery equipment previously owned by Lionel Landsborough.  The Cannery now measured 150 feet x 50 feet (45 x 15m) enclosing a refrigeration and freezing room, an engine and boiler room, four retorts for cooking, and an area to stack the product. Adjoining was a 40ft jetty. 

The main suppliers were fishermen Ted, Julius & Leo Freeman who were paid five shillings per hundred-weight for mullet and one and halfpenny per pound for mixed fish. It was noted that fishermen had benefited in net cash by over £150 in this period. The Freeman’s delivered about six tons of fish at a time onto the jetty where it was scaled, cleaned and filleted before moving into the processing plant.  The tins contained two belly pieces and one tail piece (packed perpendicularly) of mullet all other fish were packed side-wise with a pinch of salt added to each tin.

Sarah diversified in 1913 by leasing a further four acres so she could raise pigs and grow and can asparagus and pineapples. But by 1914 the five-year period of the Bounty had ended and the shortage of tin and men caused by WW1 were impacting on the her business.  The greatest obstacle though was that Queensland fish are mostly “hot water” fish and altogether unsuitable for canning as they contain a large amount of phosphorus and the tendency to decompose rapidly.
Circa 1922. Huet family and
canning works jetty in background.
Source: Vera Campbell photos VC8_42

In August 1914 a newspaper advertisement advised that the Cannery could be leased as a 'going concern', and although Sarah had left the business, the cannery was still operating on a seasonal basis until 30 April 1923 when the lease and equipment was transferred to J.E. Burnard & Co, who were Jam Manufacturers and Fruit Preservers in Brisbane. 

By the 1920s the Cannery Jetty was all that was left of a once thriving business and was a prime spot to get a feed of fish.

Early fish canneries on Bribie Island by Lynne Hooper. 
The Bribie Islander issue 47, June 2018, page 36.

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