HISTORY

(Water Baby and boats on flooded Grasstree Creek, Yandilla head station, January 1898.  Francis Arthur Gore, architect of Water Baby, was also a photographer.  This is an image attributed to him.)

Pictured:  H. Clowes in Water Baby, Nickolas McGowan rowing boat.  (From Susie & William Gore, England)

Water Baby - The Yandilla Station Steam Launch

Water Baby was constructed in the blacksmith at Yandilla head station in the period 1876-1878 by Frances Gore, the then manager of Yandilla, and his shipwright John Patrick Purcell.  It was built to assist in the rescuing of valuable stud sheep during floods as Yandilla was situated on the confluence of Grasstree Creek with the Condamine River.  The vessel was not designed to carry the sheep but was used to tow one or more other boats loaded with sheep to give stability against the fast flowing current.  This was the only vessel of its type built on the Darling Downs in the nineteenth century.

In July 1983 when Back Creek near Millmerran was in flood, two canoeists "rediscovered" the hull.  The hull was restored by members of the Millmerran Historical Society under a grant from the Australian Bicentennial Authority in 1986 and in conjunction with valuable financial support given by Kevin & Jackie McGrath of Toowoomba.  (Kevin's great grandfather John Purcell was the shipwright mentioned).  The anchor has the initials JPP on it.

The Museum Exhibition

The Historical Society have been successful with funding applications to build a purpose-built shed for Water Baby.  The Society received funding through the 2017 Millmerran Community Company Ltd/Heritage Community Branch Community Benefit Fund and the Gambling Community Benefit Fund announced on 8 August 2018.  A 2017 Toowoomba Regional Council Cultural & Arts Support Grant enabled the Society to have a Significance Assessment of Water Baby carried out by Grant Uebergang and assistance from Lydia Egunnike, Museum Development Officer - southern Inland Queensland.  In 2016 Dr James Walters donated a steam engine for Water Baby and the Society purchased a boiler in 2018.  The story of floods in the area have been included in the display.

"Water Baby - The Yandilla Station Steam Launch" A history of a remarkable feat in nineteenth century inland marine engineering.  

This book, written by Grant Uebergang in 1992, is available for purchase from the Museum for $16.50.

An extract from its Foreword reads:

"Here is presented a history of a remarkable and unique feat in nineteenth century inland marine technology.  Water Baby was the only vessel of its type to be built on the Darling Downs last century.  Most of the parts were manufactured in the Yandilla Station blacksmith, displaying great skill on behalf of the architect and shipwright.  Designed initially as a management tool in assisting to rescue marooned sheep during floods in the years before a flood warning system, which advised of any impending danger, was in place along the Condamine River Valley.  In its heyday, Water Baby saved the lives of hundreds of expensive stud sheep, rescued people and personal possessions and keep the lines of communication open during floods.  Neglected for over 70 years, Water Baby was given a new lease of life in 1988 when the Millmerran Historical Society restored the hull..."  

Restoration

Restoration work commenced on the hull in January 1987 after it had been moved to the Museum and housed in the Ron Houston Collection shed.  After 15 months of voluntary labour restoration of the hull was completed with principal participants being Tom Lawler, Lloyd Weedon and John Twidale.  Valuable assistance was also rendered by Ron Twidale, Ron Houston, Ron and Kelvin Scragglier, Andy Plunkett and Grant Uebergang.  The hull was made of wrought iron and iron bark timber originally, and the metal frame showed very little corrosion at the time of being retrieved.  All timber for the frame and seats was renewed as was most of the galvanised iron skin except on the extreme stern where the only piece of original skin was reused.  More on the process can be read in Grant's book mentioned above.

Restoration of Water Baby sparked community interest in the project.  The bronze propellor was donated by Marshall Lindenberg of Pittsworth.  The Salomon family of Tummaville donated the anchor which had been found many years previously along the Condamine at Tummaville bearing the stamped initials of the shipwright - JPP.  

The Second Flood Boat

During Water Baby's hull restoration, another Yandilla Station iron flood boat had been found in 1984 by Grant Uebergang and donated to the hIstorical Society by James Cowlishaw.  It had been been embedded in thick vegetative growth on the banks of Yandilla lagoon near the homestead.  This vessel was also brought into the Society's grounds and restored by Society members under the auspices of a $400 Bicentennial Grant.  Significantly, restoration of this flood boat preceded that of Water Baby.  Many of the skills obtained from this project were utilised in the Water Baby restoration.  Since the flood boat's restoration in 1987, it has been displayed at the National Bicentennial Travelling Exhibition in Toowoomba and then at the Jondaryan Woolshed Heritage Festival in August-September 1988.  On Australia Day in 1988 in Millmerran, this boat was used by a "convict" to ferry "Arthur Phillip" and other dignitaries around the Bicentennial Project Dam behind the Millmerran Dairy Co-op.

1988 Bicentennial Project

During Bicentennial celebrations, Millmerran Shire Cr. Revan Macqueen and chairman of the local Bi-Centennial Committee dedicated the restored historic steam launch at a function hosted by the Historical Society on 20 November 1988 - 110 1/2 years after it was initially launched in 1878.  Cr. Macqueen said the launch would undoubtedly travel far and wide and be exhibited in the years to come, so he modified the traditional launching words as he said, "God bless this boat and all who travel with her".  

  

Replacing the Steam Engine and Boiler

The current steam engine in Water Baby was donated by Dr James Walters in 2016.  Dr Walters purchased the engine from Mr Ross Horton after the death of Ross' father, Mr Bill Horton in 1979.  The late Mr Horton had acquired the engine in the late 1960s.  Ross told us his father was an avid steam man, being brought up on the Downs in the Allora district. He used the engine regularly to run a generator for power during blackouts, but it sat in a box unused for many years after his passing.   Ross eventually sold the engine to his good friend Dr James Walters.  However, a few years back, upon hearing a story about Water Baby on ABC Radio, Ross contacted James who was immediately fascinated by the story and only too happy to see the engine go to a good cause and be preserved for people to enjoy for many years to come.  

The boiler was purchased by the Historical Society in 2018.  

Installation of the engine and boiler was carried out by Henry Baillie, Richard Sizer and Rodney Campbell. 


Discovering the abandoned Hull

A lot of the following information has also been sourced from "Water Baby - The Yandilla Station Steam Launch":  Water Baby was permanently laid to rest in 1955 after being on display, a little worse for wear, during "Back to Millmerran" celebrations. (See photos above)  Nearly thirty years later, Andy Plunkett and his mate Greg Bowdla made a surprise discovery on a flooded Back Creek in 1983.  Here is Andy's story:

"I remember paddling down a flooded Back Creek with Greg and as usual I was looking out for machinery and vehicle relics which are often found dumped on creek banks by farmers.

We were canoeing around a bend in the creek when I noticed the hull of a large boat on the creek bank.  What particularly took my eye was the shape of the hull.  It reminded me of ship's hull shapes from the early period of screw (propeller) steamers.

Greg was also curious so we pulled into the creek bank and made a closer inspection of the hull.  We were surprised to find the skin comprising of think galvanised sheets with soft solder sealing the lapped riveted seams. This type of construction was atypical of water storage tank making up until several decades ago.  The sheetmetal skin was attached to a framework made from flat rectangular wrought strips.  These had been accurately shaped into ribs and stringers with them being hot riveted together.  My thoughts at the time was that the skin and framework construction was possible in a well equipped sheep station blacksmithing workshop of the period.  But someone with previous marine boat building experience must have had some input into the hull design and propulsion layout.  It was a case of uprising what was capable by the station smithy in his workshop to come up with a working boat fit for the purpose.

Steam launch Water Baby is a historic time piece and it is important that these substantial remains are protected for the future.  Water Baby can tell so many stories, bot in its use, construction, shape and propulsion layout.  It is like an early steamship in miniature but not like other steam lunches I have seen in Australia and the UK.  These had timber framed and skinned hulls...."  Andy Plunkett, Capella, 4 August 2012,