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John Williams - Pioneer Trader in Colonial Brisbane

First Free Settler

In whatever period of history the general activities of mankind are considered, it generally will be found that whether in the field of discovery, development, improvement, initiative, or where some progressive change occurs, it is due to the active enterprise of some one person. The bestowal of this distinction, as far as the beginning of trading in the Colony (now State) of Queensland was concerned, could well be placed on the name of John Williams (Bio).

He was born in Somersetshire England in 1797 and as a young man engaged in a seafaring career. After his arrival in Australia, he settled in Sydney N.S.W. for some years and in the year 1841, when the idea of furthering his interests came to his mind, he sought permission from the New South Wales Government to come to the northern part of that Colony the Moreton Bay Settlement which is now, of course, contained in the present State of Queensland.

Permission to trade was duly given to John Williams by the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, and, as was quaintly put, to squat, i.e. to settle without title, on the banks of the Brisbane River (at South Brisbane) which, at that time was public land.

Williams arrived in 1841, about two years before the first land sale to the public was held. The land then sold at that sale was eight allotments of 36 perches situated on the eastern side of Queen Street from the corner of George Street to Albert Street. Subsequently, an additional eight allotments of a similar area were sold and extended to the corner of Edward Street.

The Permit to trade was numbered 1 and was granted to him to open a store for the sale of any goods excepting ammunition and spirituous liquors. In the light of modern acceptance of the now prevailing less restricted conditions, the full importance of this permit may not be fully recognised until the fact that for a considerable period after the cessation of the Penal Settlement, no person was allowed to come within 50 miles of Brisbane, is taken into account.

South Brisbane Established

A small store and house were built on the corner of Russell and Hope Streets South Brisbane from a shipment of sawn timber which Williams had brought from Sydney. Local slabs of timber for the outer walls and bark for the roof were used. Subsequently he built a long (50 feet) one storeyed building in Russell Street and called it the Captain Piper Hotel the licence No. 1 for which was issued in April 1843.

This hotel was situated on the main track from Ipswich to Brisbane via Boggo (Annerley) Road and traffic went over the river by the Russell Street ferry. It thus was Queensland’s (Moreton Bay Settlement) first hotel and the supplies of beer were brought from Sydney. Click Here for Further Reference

The residence of John Williams was the first privately one built in Brisbane Town (cf. Andrew Petrie's residence was an official one built by the New South Wales Government for him as Clerk of Works). The sailing ketch John the first ship to trade to Brisbane had been placed on the run from Sydney in 1841 by Williams. This small vessel of 35 tons register was replaced by the larger schooner Edward of 80 tons and in addition a steamer occasionally brought supplies.

Coal Exploration

John Williams commenced business by supplying the pioneer squatters and subsequently, those who followed in the area now known as the Darling Downs. He expanded his efforts in the search for coal which, he foresaw, would be required by the steamers for the return journey to Sydney. In 1843 he made an extensive search for coal and the first shaft he put down at Fairfield, Brisbane, was unsuccessful, but he subsequently found it at Softstone on Oxley Creek about eight miles from Brisbane.

After working this area for some time he abandoned it when he discovered an outcrop at Redbank about 16 miles from Brisbane. The Redbank seam was worked for some years but later he moved his coal plant to Moggill (a few miles further from Redbank) where large quantities of fine coal were obtained.

He had thus accomplished the object he had set out to do, that of supplying the steamers which called here with sufficient and suitable coal for their requirements. John Williams disposed of his coal interests at a satisfactory figure to a group of residents in the Moggill district.

River Trader

His business interests included the building of punts for use in conveying supplies to and returning with wool from the head of navigation of the Brisbane River at Limestone as Ipswich was then called. In 1843 he lodged a tender with the New South Wales Government for the lease of the punt ferry which was then officially established between North and South Brisbane for the first time, to carry passengers and cargo. Click Here for Further Reference

After retiring from the coal business, he built the S.S. Gneering a stern-wheeled paddle steamer and several barges for the carriage of timber which he carried on for some years. He also made several further attempts to find coal in the area of Bulimba east towards the present Brisbane Abattoirs but was unsuccessful as the seams were only a few inches thick.

These efforts caused him the loss of a great deal of money. In this district, he established an orchard in his area of land which consisted of 49 acres bounded respectively by Lytton, Queensport and Creek Roads. This area is nowadays identifiable as the resting paddocks of Thomas Borthwick and Sons Ltd. Meatworks at Queensport on the Brisbane River.

John Williams died on 18th September 1872 at the age of 75 years and was buried in Milton General Cemetery then situated between Milton and Cemetery Roads (Hale St.) and the area north of Caxton Street towards the foot of Red Hill. This Cemetery was closed in 1875, after the opening of Toowong Cemetery in 1872 and the site was eventually resumed for playing fields, and some of those buried there were reinterred in other burial grounds.

He had been the first settler to come to Brisbane Town outside the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement apart from the officials thereof.

Andrew Petrie had come to that area as an official occupying the position as Clerk of Works and when he relinquished his official duties he remained as a free settler. Although John Williams was our first trader, free settler, the discoverer of our first coal and altogether a man of outstanding enterprise, he, like the epochal incidence of Separation (from New South Wales) has had no commemorative column raised in his honour.

Perhaps he died at a time when the rapidly growing population was composed of cautiously reserved newcomers who were slow to stir in recognition and commemoration. It may have been that general intercourse and communications were aloof and distant or that the struggle for existence in those far off days in this young State, with its primeval conditions, precluded the engaging of mellowing thoughts of worthy remembrance of a pioneer.

It is perhaps safe to assume that John Williams in the last seven years of his life spent with his wife and son on his snug little farm and orchard perceived his own monument enshrined in the confident resource, industry and progress of the 10,570 people who lived in Brisbane Town in the year 1872 the year in which he had the Great Experience of life and death and time and eternity.

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