Bushman’s code of honour

Refugees from ‘Wild Time

In Chloe Hooper’s book The Tall Man the Doomadgee family describes the period of the 1860s and 70s in North Queensland as the Wild Time. I describe here Curr family involvement in Frontier Wars in the Gulf Country. Members of the Curr family moved to North Queensland in 1862. My Grandfather, Fred Curr b. 1865, grew up on Abingdon Downs station on the Einasleigh River near the gulf of Carpentaria. This property is aboriginal land. According to the Native Title Register, the traditional owners of this land are the Ewamian People. The Curr’s named their run “Abingdon Downs” after the famous Benedictine Abbey founded in 675.

‘Dispersal’ of aboriginal people. 
I have come across a number of accounts of ‘skirmishes’ with aboriginal people by various members of the Curr family in far north Queensland. Readers may bear in mind when reading these violent encounters that the Curr brothers, their uncles and father were practiced horsemen, keen bushmen and were heavily armed. The aboriginal people that they fought were (at best) armed with spears, nullas nullas, woomera and boomerangs.

Merri Merriwah Station
The first property that the Curr brothers. Marmaduke and Montague, bought was Merri Merriwah on the Burdekin River near Ravenswood in 1862.

According to my Aunt Alice, her father, Marmaduke, paid £6,000 for the property. This money came from the dowry of his bride, Mary Anne Kirwan, whom he married at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney on the 21st of January, 1862.

Later in 1862, Marmaduke went up to Bowen in North Queensland and then on to the Burdekin River where he ‘took up country‘ and stocked it with 400 head of mixed cattle. His brother, Montague Curr, was in partnership with him at the time, and their brand was CB2. 

Robert Grey gave this account of an aboriginal attack on the Curr’s property Merri Merriwah circa 1864.

The Curr’s, who had a station thirty miles farther up the river, experienced a very formidable attack, which might have easily been disastrous. Montague Curr lived with his brother, Marmaduke, and his wife. The latter, who used to milk the cows, told me his brother was out one morning after some horses, but for some unaccountable reason on this particular occasion he himself was late in turning out, a most exceptional occurrence. The blacks were almost at the door when the servant girl rushed in from the detached kitchen exclaiming, ‘Blacks, Blacks.’

He had barely time to seize a firearm before the leading darkies were at the door, and spears came rattling in. He and Mrs. Curr opened upon them with effect. Mrs. Curr, however, was grazed on the wrist by a passing spear. The brother returning about this time and coming to their assistance with his firearms, the blacks retreated to the river. They were followed up and did not renew the experiment of attacking Curr’s station, one of the neatest and tidiest little places to be seen anywhere, not a thing out of place, and no bones or unsightly debris lying about, as there often are on a cattle station, and on a sheep station also sometimes.” – from Reminiscences of India and North Queensland by Robert Grey London 1913.

This incident was also described in Fred Curr’s book The Curr Family in Far North Queensland. According to Aunt Alice, Fred’s account was ‘highly romanticised and full of inaccuracies’. Fred could not have had any direct knowledge of these events because he was not yet born when they took place.

Our first adventure was early one morning in 1865.  My father had taken his black boy Paddy and his big Tranter loading revolver and started out to look for the horses.  Having no paddock at this time, the horses had strayed away some three miles up the Burdekin River. 

My father had been gone some little time, and my uncle Montague was just going to the yard to milk the cow.  When he went outside the house he spotted about thirty wild blacks, all painted and armed with spears, nulla nullas, and boomerangs.  My uncle ran into the house and snatched up a long heavy 40 bore Rigby muzzle-loading rifle, and helped my mother barricade the bedroom. 

My uncle opened the door a few times to show them the muzzle of the rifle, but the blacks took no notice.  They then ransacked the other rooms and also robbed the kitchen and store which were separate from the main house.  Finding they could not get in through the barricade into where my mother and uncle were, they decided to burn us out.  The house was covered with a thatch roof, so they put fire sticks into it.  As there was a heavy dew that morning the thatch did not burn too well.

While they were trying to get it to burn, the horses that my father had gone after came galloping home as horses will do on a cold morning.   The blacks, thinking it was Inspector Fitzgerald and his black troopers, lost no time in disappearing into the scrub and the river. A little while afterwards my father and Paddy arrived.  The blacks had taken all the powder with them, in fact everything they could lay their hands on.

It appears that some days before this event my father had given Paddy a half-pound red canister of powder. The boy had stuck this tin of powder into the thatch of the house, and the blacks had not seen it, so it was all we had.  However there was enough to load two old Brown Bess Carbines, the long Rigby rifle, and the double-barrel shot gun. 

My father’s Tranter revolver was already loaded, so he took Paddy, and leaving uncle Montague to look after my mother, he tracked the blacks to where they were camped, galloping into the camp and firing a few shots.  The charge was so sudden, and with the noise of the firearms, the blacks left in a great hurry leaving heaps of spears, boomerangs, nulla nullas and fishing nets. 

My father took a lot of these weapons home, and I remember seeing them hung about the house for many years afterwards.  My father told me that it took fourteen horse loads to bring all the stolen goods back to the station.  He also told me that he followed the blacks by leaves from two books, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Dombey and Son”. 

After this episode, the Curr family were extremely careful about keeping their firearms in good order and handy to reach, with plenty of ammunition ready in pouches.  My uncle Montague was wounded just above the eye by one of the spears.” – Curr Family in Far North Queensland 1862 – 1925 by Frederick Carlton Curr.

Montague Curr
The most serious encounter was where my grandfather’s uncle, Montague Curr (b. 1837), participated in the murder of five aboriginal people. I am indebted to my brother, John Curr, who researched the murders described below. I also have consulted Queensland transcontinental railway: field notes and reports by railway engineer and surveyor, Robert Watson, written in 1881; and, based on his testimony, I have come to similar conclusions as by brother.

These shocking events occurred on Montague Curr’s property “Kamilleroi” in the Gulf. The Gamilaraay people, also rendered Kamilaroi, originally came from NSW. They form one of the four largest indigenous nations in Australia. As a result of a split in the tribe, some migrated to North Queensland and this may be the reason Montague Curr’s property was called “Kamilleroi”.  

We came through some splendid country all the way to Kerr’s Station, Camilroy (sic), about twenty miles to-clay, fine undulating plains, lightly-timbered, and most luxuriously grassed.

Very few creeks or water courses; those that there are well defined; only one creek of considerable size, about five miles from camp. This we crossed at its Junction with the Liechhardt; in fact, we crossed it in the river, or rather rounded its mouth. We saw a lot of cattle, all well to do, sleek and happy. We passed a lot of pretty lagoons, but they will soon be dry. The river, wherever we saw it, was very beautiful, and the country very fine. When we stopped for dinner as I was under the impression that we were close to the station (Camilroy).

Map of Curr Family properties 1865-1925. The family had interests in the following stations: Miranda Downs, Vena Park, Iffley, Rutland Plains, Delta, Maggieville, Kamilleroi, Midlothian and Abingdon Downs.

I afterwards found we had fully five miles to travel. We found Mr. Curr at home, and I stopped with him during the remainder of the afternoon.

Murder at ‘KamilleroiStation
Robert Watson then describes the conversation he had with Montague Curr about his participation in the murders of five aboriginal people.

Referring to the unfortunate stockman recently murdered by the blacks, Mr. Curr told me that the stockman and a black boy were hunting for stray cattle. They came upon a black’s trail which they followed to their camp.

Then, they drove away the black men and took possession of the gins with whom they remained in camp. Presently the stockman fell asleep. One of the gins stole his revolver and gave the signal to the blacks who came around, put a spear through both his thighs pinning him to the earth and then beating out his brains with nullas.

Then they cleared out.

This is the boy’s version but he did not report the murder for four days. It seems the stockman had been thrashing him for some days and it is thought he may have had his “revenge”.

Mr Curr told me that he and others had pursued the blacks and shot five and that the police were coming to give them a further dressing as that was the only thing they understand.

It seems hard to steal a man’s gin and child and shoot him when he objects but I believe there is no help for it but a speedy ostensible annihilation. 

The conduct of many of the whites towards the blacks is simply disgraceful.

The name of Brodie’s Station is Lorraine. It is about sixty miles above Floraville, and on the Leichardt River. They were exceedingly hospitable, and we had all our meals with them. This is Camp 49.

‘Kamilleroi’ Station on the Leichardt River

Finally, Fred Curr had this to say about his uncle Montague:

The blacks appeared to be afraid of my uncle.  He was six feet one inch tall, and very strongly built.  He had a long beard down to his belt, of which he was very proud, and the day before the blacks attacked the station he had shaved his head clean, so he must have appeared very uncanny.  Undoubtedly this all helped to scare the blacks away until the horses came galloping home and saved our lives.” – Curr Family in Far North Queensland 1862 – 1925 by Frederick Carlton Curr.

Guilty as charged
These direct testimonies, while shocking, are typical of how settlers dealt with aboriginal people both in the Gulf and elsewhere in Australia. Despite the History Wars the facts are no longer in dispute. Previous generations of the Curr family were coy about their direct involvement in ‘aboriginal dispersal’ which is code for murder. An important aspect of truth & reconciliation is truth telling within our own families.

Discovery of Gold

The Curr family owned ‘Abingdon’ from the 1860s till 1913. If I recall correctly ‘Abingdon’ was sold for what they paid for it. My grandfather claimed that the period just before WWI was the nadir of the pioneering family pastoralists. He may have put the extensive Vestey family interests on another level. The early pastoralists benefited from cheap aboriginal labour and later, stolen wages.

My grandfather Fred thought of himself as a pioneer. He claimed this was no longer possible in Australia after 1913. He later took himself and my father and uncles off to British East Africa. I still regard him as being a wealthy man but little if any of that wealth came to my mother after dad died when we were young. Mum struggled.

From memory I first read about Montague and Marmaduke’s role in the cover-up of gold discovery in the Charters Towers Museum in 1980.

However there are conflicting accounts. D.C, RODERICK states in his memoir:

“… Montague Curr is accredited with the first find of gold in the Ravenswood area; while mustering in the Elphinstone Creek area he found a ‘show’ of gold in his pannikin when drinking at the Creek…”

The Curr brothers (were) interested in land and cattle and subsequently made their way to Townsville to purchase large areas of land adjacent to the new town subsequently to become Aitkenvale.

Mr Roderick does describe how Marmaduke Curr took prospectors to one of the sites. This conflicts with family oral history passed down. I will have to check my grandfather Fred Curr’s memoir to see what he says happened. At least that is a written record.

My great Aunt Alice gives her own (more reliable) version of some aspects of Fred’s account. Historians may note these Curr men were bushmen (see photo) – they were largely self-taught – so their stories are anecdotal and sometimes difficult to reconcile. Aunt Alice took care in a letter to point this out about Fred’s memoir. My cousin Eleanor included Aunt Alice’s remarks in Fred’s book.

Curr family at Abingdon on the Einasleigh River circa 1870. [Aunt Alice is in loupe].

As the reader may note from the photo the ‘Curr women’ were used to greater refinement. They were keen to leave the bush and seek refuge in the coastal towns. Fred’s mother was killed, thrown from a buggy in the bush when he was young. By the way I knew Aunt Alice when she was a great age. She was an amazing woman (loupe in photo).

Neither of my great uncles benefited directly from the discovery of gold at Ravenswood to my knowledge … they went into cattle, horses and land. My great Aunt Alice says that Marmaduke had nothing when he married Mary Anne Kirwin in 1862, and it was her patrimony that enabled Marmaduke and Montague to establish “Merri Merriwah.”

Fred Curr wrote that the Curr boys (were) without property as another impractical son had convinced their mother Elizabeth to sell their stations. This caused their financial ruin.  Fred wrote: “At this time, gold was discovered in Victoria, and we know that Marmaduke, after completing his time with the Cunninghams, went to the diggings at Ballarat.  Perhaps this financed his trip to South Africa where he planned to buy a farm.”

My brother’s investigation into the murders of the five aboriginal people relies on an account by a surveyor by the name of Robert Watson.There was reference to Robert Watson’s story in Don Watson’s book “The Bush”.

The latter is largely a history of the influence of people, mainly Europeans on the Australian environment. In parts it drifts towards impression and poetic description. In other words, it does not present as a formal history with a strict historical method.My brother wanted to verify from original sources the allegation about our family member and he also wanted to ascertain whether it was Fred’s father Marmaduke or Fred’s uncle Montague against whom the allegation was made.My brother ordered up from archives the original 1881 diary of Robert Watson (no relation of Don so far as we can tell).

Robert was a “Surveyor” sent to explore what the local resources and geography were for the purposes of an inland railway line or transcontinental railway line.What my brother found was that it was certain that it was Montague who was the person implicated in the murders of five aboriginal persons who happened to be in the vicinity of an incident of Kamilroy or Kamilorre station which seems to have been North of present day Mt Isa .

There is a reference to the survey party riding 5 miles from Mr Curr’s home to the junction of the Leichardt River and Gunpowder Creek which is at 19°14’00.0″S 139°58’44.3″E or -19.233334, 139.978975 on Google maps.

My brother relied upon Fred’s publication in the Townsville Daily Bulletin in 1931 which places the brothers in different parts of North Queensland. Fred’s father Marmaduke was at ‘Abingdon Downs’* in the vicinity of Georgetown whereas Montague was much further West.

The only remaining small reservation he had about the identity of the murderer was that Robert Watson’s diary gives the account of the murders of aboriginal people slightly out of chronological order.

In the diary entry made on the day after he left Mr Curr and in the entry when he was at a station owned by a Mr Brodie. My brother had hoped that the entry may have been a mistake and that references to Mr Curr were intended to be references to Mr Brodie. However this is unlikely because there are two separate references to Mr Curr.

The lack of contemporaneity is explained by the fact that Robert Watson may not have wanted to make the entry implicating Mr Curr in murder whilst he was in his company and on his property. It was common at that time to conceal or to be less than specific about the murder of aborigines as people knew that it was murder, hence the common reference to ”dispersal“ of aborigines which we all know meant murder.

Ian Curr
13 Nov 2020

Always was, always will be.


The Curr Family in Far North Queensland 1862-1925 by Frederick Carlton Curr

Queensland transcontinental railway: field notes and reports, with map showing positions of various camps – Watson, Robert, active 1882-1883 nla.obj-116096067

Reminiscences of India and North Queensland, 1857-1912 by Robert Grey https://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/book/a424ad40d00f39499e21ce92fa7dd5c7

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