Artist Pam Hopkins’ impression of Billy Mateer in 1893 racing through cyclonic weather to Brisbane to warn of the disasterous oncoming flood
Early 1893 brought wild weather patterns when three cyclones swept down the Coral Coast crossing southern Queensland on the 2nd, 11th and 17th of February. This resulted in the worst flooding in the Brisbane River system with record loss of life and property damage. Consequently it was to become known as “Black February”.
Henry Plantagenet Somerset lived at Caboonbah Homestead near the junction of the Brisbane and Stanley Rivers. The homestead, named from the local Aboriginal word meaning “big rock”, was built 60 feet higher than the rock cliff (Weldon’s Knob) during 1890, which recorded the previous highest flood.
During the first 1893 flood, Somerset heard and then saw a huge surge of water “coming around the bend”. Cedar logs, escaped from a drafting camp, raced upstream. He sent Harry Winwood, a bullocky, to Esk with a telegram for the Post Master General, but not a soul was warned, as this telegram was never received. A copy of Somerset’s wire was only pasted on the blackboard outside the GPO. The first cyclone had damaged the telegraph lines in the Brisbane Valley between Ipswich and Esk.
Billy (William) Mateer (1870-1934) worked on Mr William Kent’s station ‘Dalgangal’ at Eidsvold as a skilled stockman droving cattle to Brisbane via the Brisbane Valley. By chance Billy Mateer was at Caboonbah station and volunteered to ride eastwards across the D’Aguilar Range to the Post Office at North Pine (Petrie) to warn Brisbane of the massive flood heading its way.
The journey began with Billy swimming with two of Somerset’s horses, ‘Lunatic’ and ‘Oracle’, latched behind as Somerset rowed his boat ‘Daisy’ in difficult and dangerous conditions across the swollen Brisbane River. These horses were chosen because of their hunting and endurance qualities. ‘Oracle’ broke loose and swam back. Billy swam on with ‘Lunatic’ crossing Reedy Creek, a tributary of the Stanley River.
The ride was in excess of forty miles, in cyclonic conditions over rough bush tracks, flooded creeks and up a steep spur to reach the D’Aguilar Range.
Mateer was an experienced horseman, knowing exactly the limit of ‘Lunatic’, and used his inbuilt sense of direction. He traversed country he’d never seen. He followed the North Pine River to where the town of Dayboro is now located. Finally, he negotiated the eastern hills to reach the North Pine Railway Station to send his warning message.
Due to his heroic effort, it is believed that the telegram did get through and was published in the Courier next morning, warning Brisbane of the impending flood. However, despite this, it is thought that when officials received the message in Brisbane, they noted it had originated from the North Pine, and mistakenly thought flooding was in the Pine River and no immediate action was taken.
A bronze plaque near the Somerset Dam on the Stanley River near Caboonbah recalls the efforts of Somerset, Mateer and the horse ‘Lunatic’ in attempting to convey a warning message during the flood of February 1893.
Perhaps the challenge of the future will be finding out the exact distance and time Mateer covered during his treacherous ride during this flood.
Caboonbah Homestead became Queensland’s first flood warning station, with a telegraph line from Cressbrook. Somerset had to learn and use Morse code, which was used for twelve years before the introduction of the telephone. Somerset was the parliamentary member for Stanley, and pushed for the building of a flood retention dam. Interest was generated during the drought of 1901-1902, but it was not until just before his death in 1936 that building commenced, with completion in 1953.
The heritage-listed Caboonbah Homestead was restored and became the headquarters of the Brisbane Valley Historical Society. Sadly on 10 May 2009, an electrical fire quickly engulfed the home and its contents. Despite the efforts of the caretakers and the Toogoolwah and Esk Fire Units, all was lost. The other six buildings in the complex were untouched.