LOOKING BACK: SYLVIA PRIOR
Sometimes we forget how many nationalities were represented by the early white settlers of the Daintree River area. Syvia Prior speaks with Pam Willis Burden
Sylvia Prior’s grandfather and great uncle, Henry and Frank Fischer, came from Germany, and originally their names were Carl Heinrich and Franz. They arrived in Australia in 1879 and were naturalised in 1880, presumably then adopting their English-sounding first names. Henry was also known as Harry.
They headed for the rich mineral fields on the Tate River near Herberton and about 1881 bought the claim where tin had been first discovered. They called it The Tate Prospecting Claim. As more miners arrived, Sylvia tells how they opened a store and ran packhorses over the Bump Track to Port Douglas, carrying the precious tin to the port and bringing food back to the area which became known as Fischerton.
Meanwhile, as the alluvial tin field could only be operated in the wet season because of shortage of water, they also selected land on the upper reaches of the Daintree River.
Henry’s block of 445 acres was registered in 1882 and Frank’s early in 1883, although they were probably claimed earlier, but registration had to wait for an official surveyor to come to the district.
Back in 1873 George Dalrymple headed an expedition along the Daintree coast and named the Heights of Alexandra and the 4500ft mountain behind it Thornton Peak after his friend William Thornton, Collector of Customs in Brisbane.
The Cairns Post said Henry’s house, completed in 1887, had magnificent views over the river flats from the verandah. He named his property Alexandra View and increased his holding to 1200 acres by buying out other settlers who could wait no longer for a sugar mill to be built.
In January 1888, he brought his new bride Roseann Reynolds home to the new house from Cooktown. They eventually had six children.
On our recent trip to Daintree, Sylvia pointed out where Henry and Frank grew coffee on the terraced hillsides and put it through a grinder before selling it in Port Douglas. They also grew tropical fruits and vegetables.
In 1888 the Fischer brothers drove 100 dairy cows north from Bowen to the farm, but the aboriginals cut the hamstrings of some, killed others and the rest scattered.
So life was tough for these pioneer settlers. Henry and Roseann lost their 3 year-old son Henry Leslie, her mother Bridget and her 13 year old sister Marie in the massive 1895 flooding of the River.
The Doyle family, present owners of Alexandra View, have erected a modest plaque to mark their graves, together with several others who drowned nearby over time.
Family history says that Roseann’s hair went white almost overnight after this disaster.
Sylvia and her husband Laurie lived at Alexandra View for 50 years, running beef cattle on the river flats. Sylvia still loves caretaking properties and working with cattle, and visiting her son Lawrence’s beef station near Georgetown.
It must be a family trait because her father Frank and Uncle Louis, sons of Henry, were also passionate about cattle and bred a new strain that suited the tropical climate. The progeny were a mix of Brahman (also known as Zebu) and shorthorn and short-haired cattle who were tick resistant, which was welcome after many herds had been wiped out in the tick plagues of 1896 and later.
Sylvia says she and brother Harry were home-schooled with lessons from the Primary Correspondence School in Brisbane “until we were big enough to catch and saddle a horse”, then she rode for one hour to Daintree School. Although she was left-handed, she was made to use her right hand as was common then, but she preferred “to go out working with Dad, because I liked the outdoors and cattle”.
As kids when the river was flooding, they’d take boats to get floating logs for use as fuel in the stove. Once young Harry chopped the top off his thumb and Mum Marie just stuck it back on and wrapped it up tightly. There were no motor vehicles and no phones to call for help then.
They ate a lot of meat because dad Frank owned the butcher’s in Daintree Village and had a slaughter yard on the farm. Chicken was a treat, but fish were plentiful until the 1960s-70s when a disease called Fin Rot killed most of the fish on the upper Daintree.
Christmas was special and Sylvia remembers how exciting it was to order many bottles of different flavoured soft drink as a treat. Hams were cooked in the same copper that boiled their clothes on wash day – after a massive scrub out.
Ducks and a turkey were specially bought and slaughtered on Christmas Eve. And weeks before, Mum Marie made large rag plum puddings with threepenny bits inside and hung them somewhere cool. She was well known for her very strong rum sauce.
In the 1950s, Sylvia helped to drove cattle from the barge Wewak that unloaded at the Daintree Heads. She rode her horse with her baby daughter ‘on the pummel’ and walked the cattle along the beach to Wonga, then up the main road to Osborne’s dairy yards where they camped overnight before heading for home.
Although Sylvia had four children, Marianne, Lawrence, Mavis and Jim, and 11 grandchildren, the Fischer line has finished because brother Harry and Uncle Louis didn’t have children. But many indigenous who worked on Frank’s and Louis’s farms have taken their surname, as have others who worked with various Daintree families.
Sylvia pointed out where Henry and Frank grew coffee on the hillsides and put it through a grinder before selling it in Port Douglas
Sylvia Prior today (above) and in her youth