Author Archives: mjtutty

Researching Bates Cottage and Threshing Floor: an industry placement with the NPWS

“Harry Bates was a tyrant!” exclaims Jayne Bates, the local mayor, who is married to a 5th generation descendant of one of the early pastoral settlers, Ephraim Steen Bates, who arrived on Kangaroo Island in 1861.

I interviewed Jayne last month for my industry placement with the National Parks and Wildlife Service for whom I am documenting the cultural heritage of Baudin Conservation Park on Dudley Peninsula at the eastern end of the island. The park was first farmed by Harry Bates, son of Ephraim, in the 1870s, and today the ruins of several buildings, threshing floors, wells and old farm machinery are testimony to the agricultural enterprise that was once conducted on the property.

Threshing Floor

Bates Threshing Floor, Baudin Conservation Park, Kangaroo Island October 2014

Eking out an existence on Ironstone Hill, where the property is situated, would have been no easy task. With its scrubby coastal vegetation, shallow soils, and exposure to offshore northerly winds, farming would have presented many challenges.

If that were not enough, Bates was also responsible for the local mail contract, which involved crossing Backstairs Passage to the mainland twice weekly in his cutter, Lilly May. He also operated a wine store and boarding house adjacent to Christmas Cove which served as the local port in the late 1800s. Family history and old newspaper reports also suggest that Harry farmed another property at the western end of the island, some 100km away at the same time.

With such diverse business interests, and a total of thirteen children from two marriages, it is little wonder that Harry earned such an intimidating reputation. The real question, though, is what does this lend to our understanding of the history of the property at Ironstone Hill? The crumbling cottage and adjacent threshing floor which are listed on the State Heritage Register are thought to have been abandoned probably no more than thirty years after they were first built in the late 1870s. It is with this in mind that I’ve embarked upon recording the remaining heritage at the site and researching the history of the property and family.

Fortification or furphy?

Today, there is little evidence of the thriving pastoral station that was known as Cambridge Downs, an enterprise so successful that it was once renowned as the largest station in the Burke District (The Queenslander 11/8/1894). But archaeological survey of the site has confirmed that the building would have been sturdily and skilfully constructed. Local historians have claimed that the homestead also had bars in the windows, designed to protect occupants from attack (Authurs 1995:267), but these have long since been removed.

Cambridge Downs Homestead, 2010
Photographer: Matthew Moran

The aim of my directed study was to document the history of Cambridge Downs and reach some conclusions regarding the rationale for the construction technique and style of the homestead. With several other researchers (e.g. Grguric 2008, 2010; Burns 2010) having identified examples of fortified dwellings on the pastoral frontier, it was hoped that this work might further contribute to this field of enquiry.

There is little doubt that the settlers at Cambridge Downs would have been fearful of attack. There is ample historical evidence to suggest that violent conflict was a real and inescapable consequence of life on the pastoral frontier. At Cambridge Downs, the murder of Chinese shepherd Ah Shong in 1885 is testimony to this fact. But although we can be reasonably certain that conflict took place, and that the homestead was strongly built, we cannot definitively conclude that Cambridge Downs Homestead was built to withstand attack from the local Indigenous population.

It can be said with a great deal more certainty, though, that the homestead at Cambridge Downs has become a physical manifestation of the non-Indigenous ideology and lore that surrounds pastoralism in north Queensland today. Burns (2010) argued that the fortified dwellings of the pastoral frontier were built as symbolic talismans to ward off attack. As symbols, these dwellings were designed to convey strength and invincibility, and to demonstrate the settler’s ‘upper hand’ in racial confrontation. Whilst this may or may not be the case, at the very least such buildings have become symbols of pioneering courage and strength. They undoubtedly reinforce the transformation of events on the frontier to a narrative of pioneer triumph.

These stories of frontier conflict sit uneasily within our culture. On the one hand they illustrate accomplishment of European settlers in the face of adversity; on the other they kindle our shame about a past of injustice and violence. Perhaps the crumbling ruins of homesteads such as Cambridge Downs are a fitting tribute to this paradoxical past. They represent our success and failure, our pride and shame, in equal measures.

Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student


Authurs, J. A. 1995 From Wyangarie to Richmond: An Historic Record of the Richmond District of North Queensland. Richmond, Qld: Richmond Shire Council.

Burns, K. 2010 Frontier conflict, contact, exchange: Re-imagining colonial architecture. In M. Chapman and M. Ostwald (eds.), Imagining … Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference, pp.70–80. Newcastle, NSW: Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand.

Grguric, N. 2008 Fortified homesteads: The architecture of fear in frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca. 1847–1885. Journal of Conflict Archaeology4: 59–85.

Grguric, N. 2010 Staking a claim: Fortified homesteads and their place in Australian settler identity construction.   Archaeological Review from Cambridge 25:47–63.

‘The shearing dispute’  1894 The Queenslander 11 August, p.283. Retrieved 1/3/2014 from

Bark hut or stone fortress? The architecture of pastoral Queensland.

In South Australia we tend to take for granted the robust forms of farmstead architecture that proliferate in the agricultural regions of our state, and that are synonymous with our pastoral history and heritage. Little old stone cottages, homesteads, and ruins are so ubiquitous in the rural landscape that it’s difficult to imagine that they might be considered somewhat of an oddity in other parts of Australia.

In northern Queensland, European settlers constructed very different dwellings on the pastoral frontier during the late 19th century. In his rather poetic description of the architecture of the frontier, E.B. Sorenson writes of Queensland houses in 1911:

Though one finds all sorts of curious habitations sprinkled over the country, there is a certain architectural style marking the periods of settlement. What may be accepted as typical of early selection days is the ‘old bark hut.’ … The roof, as its name implies, was covered with stringy-bark, secured with bits of green-hide, and held down with crossed poles, called riders and jockies. The doors and shutters were made of split pine battens, and swung on leather hinges. There wasn’t a pane of glass in it; neither was there in the shingle-roofed cottages that became the vogue at a later period.

Whilst it’s true that this type of dwelling was typical for the earliest phases of settlement, architectural historians have noted that even the more permanent homes, intended for occupancy over the longer term, were still constructed predominantly of timber, or sometimes mud and rubble (Bell 1984; Sumner 1974).

No 10 Cambridge Downs, Stawell - Cambridge river in backgrou
Cambridge Downs n.d., Burke District, Queensland
Original stone homestead to the right was replaced by the timber building on the left, probably in the 1890s.

Cambridge Downs homestead, built sometime in the 1860s or 1870s, is therefore rare, although certainly not unique, for the region. Examples of other stone homesteads do exist, like Old Westmoreland Homestead and Elderslie Homestead, both on the Queensland Heritage Register. Nevertheless, in north Queensland, these types of buildings are few and far between.

The massive stone walls of the first Cambridge Downs homestead, the remains of which still stand today, were skilfully constructed from ‘flagstones’ collected in the vicinity. Photographic evidence and archaeological survey suggests that these walls were broken only by three to four windows, and a door to the front and the rear. Given that most settlers built much humbler bark and timber dwellings, what then, was the motivation for the construction of this comparatively substantial residence? Did the threat of attack really inspire the earliest settlers on this pastoral run to build a stone fortress?

Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student

Bell, P. 1984 Timber and Iron: Houses in North Queensland Mining Settlements, 1861-1920. St Lucia, QLD: University of Queensland Press.

Sorenson, E.B. 1911 Backblock homes and builders: The architecture of the pioneer. The Catholic Press, Thursday 13 April 1911. Retrieved 29 March 2014 from

Sumner C.R. 1974 Pioneer homesteads of North Queensland. In Dalton, B.J. (ed) Lectures on North Queensland History, pp. 47-61. Townsville: James Cook University.

The murder of Chinese shepherd Ah Shong at Cambridge Downs Station, Queensland, 1875

On the day after Christmas day in 1875, the Chinese shepherd referred to only as ‘Ah Shong’ in historical records, was allegedly murdered at Cambridge Downs Station by a large group of local Indigenous people. Although it is the only official account of violence on the station it helps to paint a chilling picture of the atmosphere of terror that likely prevailed over many years as a result of the conflict between Aboriginal inhabitants and pastoral settlers.

On receiving the news that the shepherd had been murdered, Sub Inspector M. Tyrell Day of the Native Mounted Police stationed in Bowen reportedly “proceeded in pursuit of the murderers and continued the pursuit for ten days travelling in that time over two hundred miles” (Queensland State Archives 1876). He followed the suspects without success and was similarly unable to find Ah Shong’s body or other evidence of the murder. Finally returning to Cambridge Downs Station, some two weeks after the incident had taken place, Sub Inspector Day, in collaboration with the station’s managers, questioned ‘witnesses’, “but elicited nothing to prove the murder except that the Blacks were near the place when the Chinaman disappeared and destroyed about fifty sheep” (Queensland State Archives 1876). According to the inquest documents, a young Aboriginal boy informed the police that the man’s body had been cut up and buried in a waterhole.

So many aspects of this incident warrant further investigation, not least of all Sub Inspector Day’s seemingly relentless search for the ‘suspects’ before he even established the circumstances leading up to and surrounding the ‘crime’. But it is possibly because the victim, like the alleged perpetrators, was not of Anglo descent, that the incident demands our greatest consideration. Ill-feeling between European settlers and Chinese migrants is well documented in Queensland’s pastoral and mining history of the period (Evans 2007); is it reasonable to assume that authorities would have viewed the murder of a ‘Chinaman’ with the gravity that is conveyed in the historical record or, perhaps, more pointedly, is it unreasonable to assume that such an incident provided these men with the slim justification they required to initiate a brutal retaliatory attack on local Indigenous people.

As students of archaeology we are constantly taught to question the validity of our sources. It is now impossible to substantiate the claims set forth in this record, and we are similarly even less able to appreciate the principles and beliefs of those who were involved.   Is evidence such as the inquest report for this murder invaluable to teasing out a greater understanding of race relations in colonial Queensland, or does it simply serve to confound our comprehension of an exceedingly complex situation?

 Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student

Evans, R. 2007 A History of Queensland. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Queensland State Archives: Justice Department I; Series ID 36; Item ID 348647, Inquest into the death of Ah Shong, inquest 58 of 1876.

“Like hyenas…” Conflict on the frontier of colonial settlement at Cambridge Downs Station in 19th century Queensland

 “Like hyenas, the savage crowd come sneaking up to the house, and Charlie chuckles as he coolly drops two of the foremost with his double barrelled carbine. ‘By God! Missus,’ he exclaims, ‘that’s the way to wake ‘em up blackpellow’.”

The North Queensland Register, 21 December 1892

The savagery of conflict on the frontier of colonial settlement in 19th century Australia is apparent in countless reminiscences published in the newspapers of the time, in official documents penned in spidery script using antiquated language, and in the memory and oral tradition handed down through generations of both Indigenous and colonial settler descendants.

Although it sounds like a story from the Boys Own Annual, the above account was published in The North Queensland Register in December of 1892. It refers to events that took place on a pastoral station on the Flinders River in the Burke District of northern central Queensland, presumably sometime during the 1860s, and describes several bloody encounters between local Indigenous people and pastoralists. It is significant in that it describes the spatial context of the conflict – the pastoralist’s hut, and much is suggested by the language and style of prose adopted by the author.

The subjective nature of documentary evidence regarding conflict has resulted in an historical narrative whereby the violent nature of events has been either repudiated or ignored (Foster 2009); that is to say, history has either painted the colonial settler as a valiant innocent, bravely defending their territory, or concealed the occurrence of conflict altogether. And although we’ve long acknowledged the role of bias in understanding history, this is an issue which has been particularly problematic to our understanding of the ‘frontier’. Consequently, some historians have suggested that archaeologists could make a valuable contribution to this field of research (see Attwood and Foster 2003:23).

Cambridge Downs Station, also located on the Flinders River, was established sometime during the 1860s, and was one of the largest and most successful pastoral enterprises in the region. The first homestead built on the property was unusual in that it was constructed of stone, and had a “cane grass roof, flagstone floor, and one inch bars in the windows” (Authurs 1995:267). It was sturdily built and unlike any other homestead in the region. Local anecdotal evidence suggests that the substantial nature of construction was a response to the threat of attack from local Indigenous people and, indeed, other researchers have suggested that fortification of dwellings is apparent in other homesteads in a number of other states (Burns 2010; Grguric 2008, 2010).

The purpose of my directed study, then, is twofold. In the first instance I will be bringing together available documentary sources in an attempt to reconstruct the history of the Cambridge Downs Station during this period of settlement and conflict. I will also be analysing the construction of the homestead in an attempt to ascertain whether it really does provide independent evidence of conflict on the frontier.

Megan Tutty, Master of CHM student


Authurs, J. A. 1995 From Wyangarie to Richmond: An Historic Record of the Richmond District of North Queensland. Richmond, Australia: Richmond Shire Council.

Burns, K. 2010 Frontier conflict, contact, exchange: Re-imagining colonial architecture. In M. Chapman and M. Ostwald (eds), Imagining … Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference, pp.70-80. Newcastle, Australia: Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand.

Foster, R. 2009 ‘Don’t mention the war’: Frontier violence and the language of concealment. History Australia. 6(3):68.

Grguric, N. 2008 Fortified homesteads: The architecture of fear in frontier South Australia and the Northern Territory, ca. 1847–1885. Journal of Conflict Archaeology 4: 59–85.

Grguric, N. 2010 Staking a claim: Fortified homesteads and their place in Australian settler identity construction. Archaeological Review from Cambridge 25: 47–63.

Anonymous  1892  In the Sixties. The North Queensland Register 21 December 1892, pp.14–19. Retrieved 29 March 2014 from