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Bett : a tale of old Breakfast Creek by Mary Guthrie

By Simon Miller, Library Technician, State Library of Queensland | 17 May 2012

During our Floodlines exhibition I have been exploring Queensland floods as represented in novels published from 1895 to 2005.  Today we look at 'Bett', a novel published in serial form in The Queenslander between 5 February and 11 June 1931.  The author, Mary Guthrie, had some 20 stories published in The Queenslander between 1918 and 1932 of which 'Bett' is the most substantial, being of novel length.  She seems not to have had any works published in book form.  The Queenslander has been digitised and is available through Trove.  The serial novel can be found on page 5 of each weekly issue.  More information about the digitisation of this important newspaper can be found in this previous blog.

Illustrated front cover from The Queenslander, March 5, 1931

The Queenslander introduces the upcoming serial novel in the 29 January issue at the conclusion of the previous serial.

A fine picture of olden days in Queensland is drawn in our new serial story, "Bett," to begin publication in "The Queenslander" next week (February 5). The author, Mary Guthrie, a Queensland lady, is already well known to readers, and they will find that her serial story is just as enthralling as her previous works. "Bett" is a tale dealing with old Breakfast Creek, life on a Downs cattle station, the early mining days, and life amongst the aboriginals, and the authoress has taken great pains to ensure the accuracy of her account of those distant times. There is plenty of incident, and the characters in the story are admirably portrayed.

The author does not give us a date but the novel seems to be set in the 1860s.  It opens with a description of Breakfast Creek.

BREAKFAST Creek, even now a secluded place, in spite of the electric trams that flash past at all hours, was quite a rustic spot when Jim Aland was in the habit of mooring his fishing cutter to its banks; when the only-wheeled vehicles that passed along the white, dusty road bordering the creek were the woodcutter's cart, the infrequent, horse-drawn omnibus, the vegetable waggon from the mission station called German Station, but now called Nundah; and the schoolboys' billygoat carts. Motor launches, the last word in luxury, anchor in midstream today, but when Jim Aland, fisherman, tied his boat to the big bloodwood gum on the- north bank, and looked up and down the creek, and across to the townward side, he saw only fishing boats, which depended for their motive power on sails and wind. It was a site wholly given over to the fishing fraternity for the mooring of their boats, and to those amphibious creatures who let out rowing boats at so much per hour. Many of the small wooden cottages on the opposite side of the road had benches outside their doors, on which were displayed fishing tackle for sale or for hire, and prawns for bait. A goodly number of the residents seemed to depend on the creek in some way or other for their livelihood, and about the whole place there hung "an ancient and a fish-like air."

Entrance to Breakfast Creek from the Brisbane River, ca. 1891

The novel's main character, Bett, is engaged to Jim, the fisherman already mentioned, but decides to take a job on a cattle station to pay for her trousseau.  While she is away her mother and less good-looking sister trick the fisherman into marrying the sister.  Bett meanwhile has met Pat, a handsome Irish migrant and they eventually marry but complications lead to the couple being separated and Pat being detained with an aboriginal group.  Bett returns to Breakfast Creek and here Jim is murdered by his fishing partner during a flood.  We rejoin the novel in Chapter 17, published in the issue of 28 May 1931.

It rained and rained and rained. The fleet went out, battling against south-easters all the way, and driven home before the squalls next day. Visibility was bad. The boats seemed to feel, or rather smell, their way to the fishing grounds.

At last it grew too bad to go out. Volumes of yellow water rolled down the broad river into the Bay and across to the islands and the mud banks. The salt in the water was overcome by the rainwater brought down by the current. The fishermen gave it up and came home while it was still safe to do so.

And it rained and rained, as it is said in the Bible. Jim and Mr. Scrutty, standing on the creek bank, eyed the roiled water rushing out to meet the water of the river. It was awash with the banks, and creeping in among the mangroves.

"Tom, I don't like this- It's full moon to-night, and the tide is making, and backing up the water coming down from the hills. I think I'll get the missis to her mother's while there's time.

"I don't think they'll be safe even there. The old woman lives in a low cottage on low ground, and they'll set it over the roof before it comes halfway up your back steps," replied Mr. Scrutty.

 "We'll be prepared, Tom. Let's get the boat up here - the flattie, not the dingey. My wife would swamp that little thing. We'll have to row her to some place of safety, and her mother, too, and very likely some of the people of the Flat.

"All right. Jimmy, come along."

They brought the boat up to the back steps and tied it there. Jim told Kate to be in readiness, in case she had to move. She, as well as most of the women living roundabout, was unwilling to move while there was a chance of remaining at home.

They all went to bed in their clothes, Mr. Scrutty lying on a settee in the kitchen, for the lower story of the boathouse was already swamped. About 12 o'clock there came a knocking at the Alands's bedroom door. Jim got up at once.

"Time to move!" announced Mr.Scrutty.

Jim went to the back door and looked out. The rain had ceased, and the full moon, high in mid-heaven, breaking through a rift in the clouds, looked down on a weird scene. The creek had disappeared and a broad lake had taken its place - a lake of greyish-yellow water, queer looking in the light of the big moon. It spread among the mangroves and the tea-trees on the farther bank, up the rudimentary streets, obliterating garden fences, and leaving the few and far-between cottages marooned, the water having reached their floorings.

It was the same on their own side of the creek. A lake of muddy water stretched across the once white, dusty road, and was over the Flat, the site of the present Albion Park Racecourse. It was already on the veranda of the Werners' little house.


View of flooded street at Breakfast Creek Brisbane 1890

 Simon Miller - Library Technician, State Library of Queensland


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