History – Bribie Island Cannery

By Barry Clark – Bribie Island Historical Society

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Tags: Bribie Island history. Queensland. Australia. Historical Businesses. Historical Society.

Sarah Balls’ Cannery Business on Bribie ~ 1910

By Barry Clark – Bribie Island Historical Society

The early pioneers who made a living around Bribie Island did so mainly from the sea. By 1897 the last of the aboriginal people of Bribie was gone, the timber getters had taken most of the big trees, and Fishing and Oysters were as the major industries.

In 1910 there were less than 30 residents on Bribie Island. Into this rough and tumble man’s world came a lady who would set up and operate the islands major business… a Fish Cannery. Mrs Sarah Balls operated a fish cannery at Bribie Island between 1910 and 1914. Earlier attempts to can fish initially at Godwin Beach, and then at the northern end of the island, had proved unsuccessful.

Featured image(above): Sarah Balls

The area was isolated at that time, but fish were plentiful and people were few. Who was Sarah Balls, who had the nickname of “Mum”, and what sort of character did she have, and what challenges confronted her? The footprints left behind by Mrs Sarah Balls (nee Blasdale) initially seemed to be few.

She had arrived in Moreton Bay on the barque “Diana” as an 18-year-old girl with her parents in 1881. Her father Samuel Blasdale was a bootmaker and with his wife, Ann Meats, lived in Radford, Nottinghamshire, England when Sarah was born in 1863. She was an only child and was sufficiently bright to be a pupil-teacher A month after their arrival her parents announced the wedding of their only daughter to John Irwin Balls, a joiner from Glasgow, in South Brisbane.

John had arrived in Australia two years earlier. Sarah and John Balls went on to have had six children, including Eveline and Henry who both died in infancy. In 1890 the population of Brisbane was increasing rapidly and there was a great need for new buildings. John Irwin Balls was a well known and respected businessman as he constructed many prominent Brisbane city buildings during the building boom. The company he had established was Smith & Balls Engineering, in Margaret Street, Brisbane.

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John Balls

In 1893 the great Brisbane flood caused much devastation. John’s business was liquidated during the depression of the early 1890s and in 1896 he went to Kalgoorlie. He died two years later while still in Kalgoorlie in 1898. Their four children were then about 14, 12, 10 and 7 years at the time of their father’s death.

Sarah travelled the great distance to Kalgoorlie so she could be with him at the end. From 1892 Sarah had started to use her considerable management and social skills to independently run a series of hotels in Ipswich, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Ravenshead and in Brisbane.

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Original site of the cannery

She became well known as the proprietress of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Edward Street and the Stock Exchange Hotel in Queen Street. There were no limits to Sarah’s entrepreneurial skills. Although few people lived on Bribie Island at that time she became aware that the Brisbane Tug and Steamship Company planned to run trips there.

In 1908 Sarah obtained a special ten-year lease of eight acres on Bribie Island as a site for a fish canning works. The cost was two pounds per year. Two years later she bought a fish cannery at the northern end of Bribie Island from Lionel Landsborough, son of the explorer, William Landsborough.

She relocated the Fish cannery operation to Bongaree and made many improvements. Sarah then became a major employer of the few men living at Bongaree immediately prior to Bongaree being serviced by steamships to a new jetty. Nothing remains of the Fish Cannery which stood on the site of Cornetts IGA Supermarket on Welsby parade.

Ted Crouch was the manager, Bill Wright the foreman, Peter Rich (known as Peter the Gutter and also as the Groper King), Hoppy Dixon who had one leg shorter than the other, and Harry Gotch who boiled down fish heads and bones to extract oil and gathered the residue to make fertilizer.

The cannery building was 45m X 15m and a 12m jetty extended into the passage where fisherman delivered their catch of mullet, snapper, squire, bream and flathead. Fish were scaled cleaned and filleted and pieces arranged in 450-gram tins with a pinch of salt before being sealed and labelled as “Diver Brand”. 48 tins were packed into each case and 24 cases were produced each day which were transported by boat to Brisbane markets. Sarah spent much time on Bribie developing the business, but when conditions changed after World War I broke out, the business was forced to close and most of the equipment was sold to a jam factory in Brisbane.

Nothing remains visible today, but a bronze plaque beside the waterfront pathway opposite Liquorland where a jetty once stood, commemorates this pioneer Fish Cannery on Bribie Island that was run by Sarah Balls between 1910 and 1914. Sarah then saw a new business opportunity when railways started to open up the State. She tendered for the lease of railway refreshment rooms in Brisbane, Isis Junction, Helidon and from Glen Innes to Rockhampton.

It appears that Sarah had formed sound business relationships with capable business people throughout the State. She operated the refreshment rooms successfully until the State Government took over the running of these facilities in 1917. Sarah also retired from hotel work that year and lived in Brisbane. At 54 years of age, Sarah had the time and money to reflect upon her life.

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No doubt she mourned the loss of her husband when she was only 35 years of age and remembered the effects of the depression on their lives. Nevertheless she had been spurred on to gather all her courage and strength as well as her wits and natural abilities to take care of her remaining four children. Sarah liked to live in attractive surroundings and built her beautiful Spanish Mission style home, “Santa Barbara” at New Farm which was completed by 1930 Sarah Beatrix Meats Balls died just two years later on 13 June 1932 and was buried at Toowong Cemetery.

After Sarah’s death in 1932, the house was transferred to Sarah’s daughter, Eva, and subsequently to Eva’s son, Jack Ernest Lissner who had the house heritage listed. If Sarah’s home for two short years had not been one of Brisbane’s finest and, if it had not been heritage listed, we would probably know very little about its owner.

But sufficient light has now been shone on the owner and her work with several colourful characters at Bribie Islands Fish cannery in 1910, that she deserves a special place of recognition in our local history.

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Santa Barbara

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