Stockman Billy Mateer saves the day!

Our Heritage Collections reference service throws up many interesting stories from our history.  Here is one that we researched recently.

In 1893 it was Henry Plantagenet Somerset of Caboonbah Homestead who observed a fifty foot wall of flood water strike the 120 foot cliff at Caboonbah. As many as five cyclones that had crossed the coast near Noosa and had brought drenching rain to the Brisbane and Stanley River watersheds. It was when the waters broke over Sapphire Gully that Somerset decided to dispatch two men, one to Esk, the other to Petrie. Harry Winwood was dispatched to Esk with a telegram for the Post Master General - this telegram was never sent, its contents warning of the highest flood on record. H. P. Somerset rowed stockman Billy Mateer with two horses swimming behind the boat to high land adjoining the stock route at Reedy Creek, from here he made his way to North Petrie. Billy was able to get through to the telegraph and relay the telegram message to Brisbane.

“Prepare at once for flood. River here within 10ft of 1890 flood, and rising fast, still raining”. Subsequently Caboonbah was made an official flood warning station with a telegraph line from Cressbrook.

One wonders how many lives were saved as a result.

Flood waters on Albion St., Warwick, 1893, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Image No: 199833

Engraving of Vernor Family rescued near Fernvale, 1893. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Image No: 121166

Eagle Street, Brisbane, 1893. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Image No: API-033-01-0005


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Hello followers of this blog,Last Thursday, 5/8, there was a gathering at Caboonbah for a 5 minute movie for Channel 7 to show on 'Queensland Weekend. - for Henry Somerset and Billy Mateer re 1893 flood etc. and for Woogooroo Winery's activity with this. Included in the cast at Caboonbah were Ian Mateer (descendent of Billy's), John Leach (Somerset News) and myself (as Grandson of Henry's and to recite 4 lines from my 'Mateer' poem). After Caboonbah they were going to Woongooroo. This will be shown some time later in the year on a Sat. evening (6.30 pm I think).Regards to you all, Rollo Waite

Hi AllI look forward to seeing the Billy Mateer segment on QWeekend later on, and it sounds from Rollo's report that it was a great occasion.I believe they survived very well without me: I had a prior engagement.On Tuesday John Leach, Phil Close and I visited Seqwater in the city at their invitation. An officer congratulated us on our research, since they had heard of Billy but knew nothing about him. They are in 100% on the Billy story, and have asked us to design info boards to be set up at at the Brisbane Valley dams and info centres. Phil coined the phrase 'bigger than Billy Mateer.' The way things are going, one could be forgiven for thinking that!yoursTony.

Hi All,My winery is not able to continue with further promotion of Billy Mateer. I wish all who carry on with this promotion, continuing and resounding success.Kind regards,Phil Close - Owner/ManagerWoongooroo Estate

Where have you gone Billy Boy Billy Boy,since you last surfaced in August,If not at Woongooroo, perhps up at Kilcoy,or maybe somewhere else in the district.What about Lunatic, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?Do you still ride him hard round the ridges.Does the sight of an ale still bring you joyin a place where's there's no need for fridges

Thanks to the anonymous rhymster above for his valuable contribution, but I fear that in his heaven, Billy wouldn't be drinking ale, but rather a rough red! Unmask yourself, scoundrel!The Billy project is indeed going full steam ahead despite some recent hiccups. Seqwater is preparing information boards with Pam Hopkin's painting for display at info centres in the Valley, and an annual trail ride is being organised to commemorate Billy's feat each February.The sky's the limit!A merry Christmas free from hard labour, and a prosperous (despite the banks!) New Year to all!Tony.

The following is a review of 'Trombone's Troubles' by Peter Malone. Henry Plantagenet Somerset's book can be purchased from Boolarong Press at a cost of $39.95.TROMBONE’S TROUBLESExperiences of a Queensland Jackeroo in Early Pastoral Days Henry Plantagenet Somerset(Edited by Denise Bender, Boolarong Press, 2010)Henry Somerset sounds a sufficiently elegant English name, but Henry Plantagenet Somerset!This edited account of Somerset’s life and career in outback Queensland is one of a number of memoirs that are being published, offering a detailed look at life in particular areas of Australia and bringing to life the characters and events of past times. This is a most welcome development preserving the Australian heritage.There was a time up to the 1960’s when going back into the past was not something one did. In fact, Australian History did not have much place in school curricula. Academic pioneers like Russell Ward and Manning Clark brought Australian History as a discipline into the universities. But, during the 1960’s, a renewed interest in preserving documents for archives led to many theses on Australian characters, on significant events and on particular areas like exploration, on squatting and farming, on religious issues. We remember that it was not until the 1970’s with films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Getting of Wisdom that our history became part of the wider public’s consciousness and there was a greater recognition for our novels and poetry.Since then, also with the growing interest in Australians investigating their family trees, we take for granted that we should know about the past and preserve the memories in such books as Trombone’s Troubles. Henry Somerset (nickname Trom, because of his deep voice at school) wrote the manuscript in 1935 and hoped it would be published at the time of his death (in 1936).This did not happen. Now 75 years later, Denise Bender, who explains her long interest in Somerset in the Prologue to this book, has been successful in seeing the memoirs in book form, well produced with quite a number of photos accompanying the text.At times, the memoirs read like a novel. Somerset had a flair for words and for description. He does not write in a style which draws on metaphors. Rather, he has an eye for detail and for factual information that makes the book also like a documentary. His style lures the reader in. He speaks directly, quite conversationally at times. While he was clearly from the Victorian era (and his photo suggests a likeness to, say, George V, upright, bearded, fit) , and espoused the values of the times, he is also a common-sensed man who adapted from a British way of life to an Australian colonial experience with some ease.The early chapters tell of his coming from India to England, his family background and his schooling, especially his schooling. This part of the book is reminiscent of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, bringing the behaviour of boys and staff to life, the detail of the classes, choirs, sports.This penchant for detail continues throughout the memoir making it a source for historians to explore. Place names and dates. Books read (like Lorna Doone).Descriptions of flora and fauna, of birds, of trees offer comparisons with the land as it is now. And plenty of outback characters.If one wants to know what it was like living in Queensland in the later decades of the 19th century, there is plenty of information here. This also means that Queenslanders, familiar with the towns and country described, will particularly relish reading this past. For those not familiar with Queensland, comparisons can be made with their own state history. And there are some amusing anecdotes, like the history of the initially reluctant bushranger, James McPherson. There are stories about the aborigines, referred to as ‘blacks’ and sometimes as ‘niggers’. (And one is reminded of changes in language when there is a footnote re the word ‘faggot’, explaining this is a word for ‘a bundle of twigs, sticks or branches bundled together’).And for the more serious historian, the book contains 15 Appendices, consisting of letters, poems, of family trees, documents and an account of the floods of 1893 (which were the subject of Denise Bender’s feature film, Deluge, which depicted Somerset’s role in warning Brisbane of the potential damage, which led to the building of the Somerset Dam on the Stanley River, named in his honour).The tone of the book can be gauged from words of the author himself in the Foreword. But, as it is of myself and my own doings, as well as sufferings and experiences, thatthe tale has had to be truthfully told, how could it be written down by a very ordinary individual otherwise?Review by Peter Malone.

Title: Trombone's TroublesISBN: 9781921555534Author(s): Henry Plantagenet SomersetPrice $39.95SynopsisHenry Plantagenet Somerset's Trombone's Troubles depicts the first three decades of his life, including his early childhood days with his family in India at the time of the Indian Mutiny, his schooldays at Wellington College and his years spent as a jackeroo and a station manager in Queensland. Through his eyes, we relive Queensland pastoral life in the 1870 with its rich tapestry of people and events. Henry arrived at Moreton Bay in the barque Polmaise in 1871 after three months at sea. He began his station life in the Brisbane Valley while working for the McConnel family at Cressbrook Station. Henry won the heart of Katharine McConnel daughter of David Cannon McConnel. On their engagement, they travelled overseas and were married at the British Legation, Berne, Switzerland in 1879. Henry established his home property at Caboonbah in 1890 and he and Katharine became an integral part of their local community.Henry days as a jackeroo and stockman left an enduring love of Queensland. which is reflected in his memoirs. Above all his account of his experiences in the bush shines a light on his personality and reveals him to be a man of action and compassion, a capable and caring individual, a grazier, politician and visionary.The reader will delight in the specially selected appendices which highlight their lives and dramatic times at Caboonbah in the Brisbane Valley. Henry is most famous for his role in the 1893 Great Brisbane Flood which is vividly described in Appendix B. The Somerset Dam and the Somerset Regional Council now bear his name, worthy and enduring tributes to the memory of a man of substance, whose favourite quotation was Write me as one who loves his fellowmen.CritiqueLike Queensland which bears his mark, the character of Henry Plantagenet Somerset looms larger than life in this extraordinary epic.Rod FisherBrisbane Historian

Hello out thereJust compare the warnings given with the current Brisbane flood to those sent out in 1893. Henry Somerset sent grim warnings by horsemen of the floods threatening downstream settlement with Winwood to Esk and Mateer to North Pine (Petrie) - though these were virtually ignored. However, with today’s technology, most people were warned, albeit not sufficiently to avert disaster with the Toowoomba incident. Fortunately, back in 1893, there was considerably less settlement in Brisbane and Ipswich.Hopefully, the Royal Commission into this recent flood will sort out the history of recent events so that the River City can relax with some degree of comfort. .Somehow the spirit of those times lingers on. Regards, Rollo Waite

Will Brisbane’s vulnerability to flood disasters ever cease? That is the question that must be resolved. In 1893, Henry Somerset saw the need for a flood warning station ansd the construction of the Somerset Dam. Following the 1974 flood, Joh Petersen had the Wivenhoe built. Although both these dams have served Brisbane well for water supply and flood mitigation, Brisbane is still prone to flooding. In particular it is absolutely essential that there is no chance that the Somerset and the Wivenhoe will be breached. Despite technology and progress. the elemental force of nature is as relevant today as it was in 1893.Rollo Waite

Hi AllRollo's comments are spot on and now I wish to add my own.So once again we have watched a tragedy unfold because Brisbane's flood mitigation measures have been inadequate or ineffective. Once again lives and busineses have been shattered; once again there will be heart attacks due to stress; there will be depression, suicides, and marital breakups; once again property prices will plunge along the river and in low-lying areas; and confidence in the security of our great city is gone, perhaps for all time. As Wayne Swan said, this has been the greatest disaster in Australia's history.The illusion of Wivenhoe the Saviour has been shredded. We now realise that we live under the volcano: a watery one, but one that leads to fear as much as it did for the citizens of Pompeii living under the shadow of Vesuvius.Last year I wrote an article on Billy Mateer and the 1893 floods,and attended the ceremony at Somerset Dam on that brilliant June day when the governor presented a plaque for engineering excellence. Now in retrospect we all seemed like naive children, having no idea what was approaching. Perhaps we are changed forever, and will talk about pre-flood and post-flood, just as the old folk talked about pre-war and post-war. In my research I read of the victims of those previous floods,and now we have a new crop of hapless victims. There is a depressing sense of deja vu for me. Perhaps an honour roll of all the victims of all the floods should be compiled, lest we forget. And major changes must be made.My own children are now what I call Children of the Flood, having joined those of us who lived through the 1974 flood. My eldest son was evacuated from the city and helped clean out a friend's house, and my youngest son was cut off at Caboolture, and witnessed all the damage around Strathpine. They are still coming to terms with the experience, but the memory and the emotions will stay with them all their lives. I can connect to three floods, having known two people who lived through the 1893 disaster. I know what William Faulkner meant when he said, 'The past is never dead; it's not even past.' Perhaps during the floods, which also hit the Brisbane Valley hard, a lone figure stared down from Caboonbah at the river in flood, while a lone horseman rode the bush track over the D'Aguilar range on a mission of salvation.In memoriam.Tony.

Hello all, My comments relate mostly to the Brisbane and Ipswich flood. How boldly can we talk with the Wisdom of hindsigh; and everywhere with this flood enquiry there are people speaking out. Many have been terribly hurt by the various manifestations of the “Great Floods” of December and January. Lives have been lost, property destroyed, people want restitution and people want justice. There are many calling out for this, and there are many ducking and weaving and shivering in their boots if they think they will be seen to have failed in lessening the extent of the disaster. Some see this enquiry as “the day of reckoning”, when all who have been seen as deficient with their various duties are brought to account. Others cynically see it as a waste of time. There might well be some litigious outcomes. However despite all these possibilities, it is essential that some degree of truth, some closure, some commonsense emerges, rather than thousands of pages of documentation that goes nowhere. They talk about the water that was released at the peak of the event which certainly contributed to the Brisbane flood. Had this not been done the very integrity of the Wivenhoe might have been at risk – and what if the whole dam was breached, where would we have been? It might well have been a situation as bad as “the Dam Busters” of World War Two. Whether this crisis could have been averted by more strategic and earlier releases, is a question that needs to be answered. In very simple terms, people of Ipswich and Brisbane need to know that such calamitous events are unlikely to happen again. Furthermore, the event has put so many people under considerable pressure to do the right thing during the times of crisis. Let’s face it, they most likely did their best, even if that is shown to be wrong. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to be put under such pressure. Let’s hope that the enquiry clears the air and points to a more viable flood mitigation measures for the future. Rollo Waite

I am interested in the reference to a Mateer by Rollo Waiter. I would like to know who this Mateer was as I had relastives by this name who arrived in Maryborough from Ireland in 1863.

Hello Patricia Wiltshire, Billy Mateer was a stockman from Eidsvod (Dalgangel Station) who was staying at Henry Somerset's Caboonbah home when the 1893 flood struck.Henry Somerset got Billy to ride over the D'iaugilar Range to Petrie with a warning of the second flood, approx. 17/02/1893. This he accomplished, crossing the flooded Brisbane R and Reedy creek - about a 40 mile ride, over a mountain in torrential rain. Of course if you read the blog entries you will discover more about Billy and others who featured in this drama.There are descendents of Billy's in S E Qld, for example Ian Mateer at Ferny Grove (I think) and Ruth Mateer at Redcliffe or thereabouts. You can always look me up in the phone directory (R B Waite).Yours is the first entry since mine of 28/05/11 and it's good to see that the blog still receives attention. Regards Rollo Waitel

Hi PatriciaThese certainly seem to be your relatives. I am the researcher on Billy and can give you the addresses of Billy's rellatives and also my writings on him. Please cotact me at

Thanks for your feedback Rollo and Tony. I will contact both of you with more details of my Mateer connections.

An interesting addition from Trove: The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933 A Memorable Ride.How Brisbane was warned of the great flood of 1893 has never been recorded in detail in print, and the story makes interesting reading. At the critical moment the telegraph failed. Mr H P Somerset, on whose property at Caboonbah the flood gauges were situated, and who had been advising the heights as the river rose, realized that unless a warning was sent through to Brisbane a fearful catastrophe would occur. He enlisted the assistance of Billy Mateer, a stockman and offered to provide him with two horses in order to ride across the D'Aguilar Range to North Pine at top speed and send a telegram to the metropolis. Rowing a frail canoe, Mr Somerset swam his horse, Oracle, across the river and tethered it on the bank. Then he returned and swam another horse, named Lunatic, across. While he was landing Lunatic, Oracle broke loose and re-swam the river, which was nearly a banker, and run- ning very swiftly, landing half a mile downstream. Lunatic alone had to carry Mateer on his memorable race against death and disaster, and both of them arrived safely at North Pine, whence the message was dispatched Although the message was received in Brisbane much later than if the telegraph line had been working, it prevented heavier loss of life and property.

I'm writing a version of the story and i would welcome comments.Billy Mateeron a horse called LunaticThe man whoraced the FloodIn February 1893, three cyclones swept down on South East Queensland, drenching the Brisbane and Stanley River valleys. Buninyong, the first of the cyclones, after heavy rain for days, finally unleashed 914.4 mm of rain in a 24 hour period, concentrated around Crohamhurst in the upper Stanley River near Peachester.Henry Plantagenet Somerset, living in the Caboonbah Homestead near the junction of the Brisbane and Stanley Rivers, had watched the river rise above the record 1890 flood. The sky then cleared with the river still peaking. To Somerset's amazement, he heard a roaring sound from a massive flood coming down the Stanley. It was the Cromahurst downpour, a 17 metre wall of water on top of the already swollen river.Somerset sent Cressbrook bullocky Harry Winwood on horseback to Esk to warn the people of Brisbane by telegraph. The message got through and the warning was posted outside Brisbane's General Post Office. Yet because of the fine weather, Brisbane ignored the warning. When the flood arrived the town was devastated. It was one the three worst floods in history, far greater than 1974. Homes were drowned, bridges and roads destroyed and many lives were lost.A week later the second cyclone added to the deluge. Again Brisbane and Ipswich were battered. Then came the third and most damaging downpour, coming as it did on top of the already swollen rivers and flooded lowlands.It was 17 February, 1893. Henry Somerset saw the waters rise up again, this time from torrential rains in the Upper Brisbane, to reach a height of 22.5m above their normal level. Again, Brisbane had to be warned. The Esk line was down, destroyed by the first flood. Billy Mateer, top stockman at Dalgangal and a superb horseman, volunteered to ride out via the D'Aguilar range, treacherous in the best conditions, virtually impossible in the wet.Billy and Henry Somerset took two horses and crossed the swollen Brisbane River. Henry rowed a heavy pine-plank dinghy, towing two horses through what must have been a fearsome torrent running at 30 to 40 knots.One horse, Oracle, broke loose and swam back. It hurtled downstream, nostrils gulping air. The two men just made it with the remaining horse, Lunatic. Over rough bush tracks, through flooded creeks and up steep spurs for over 65 kilometres, Billy Mateer rode in wretched conditions. He followed Reedy Creek to D'Aguilar Gorge, then down the steep range to Terrors Creek and on to North Pine (now Petrie).The warning was sent. Once again, it was mostly ignored. Coming from North Pine, the people in Brisbane thought it was the Pine River in flood. Yet some took notice and who knows how many homes and lives were saved?The skill and courage of Harry Windood, Henry Plantagenet Somerset and Billy Mateer is a testament to the spirit of the people of the Brisbane Valley. Billy Mateer's ride is surely the greatest feat of horsemanship in history.

Hello, I'm a grandson of Henry Somerset's and have the version of the above as written for an Esk Newspaper in 1932 by my grand father. In recent times the whole matter has been given considerable publicity, as reading other entries will show. My grandfather's article has been published as an appendix to his memoir "Trombones Troubles", edited by Denise Bender. Tony Hammill has become an ardent supporter of the contribution made by Billy Mateer. John Leach ex The Somerset Newspaper (lives outside Toogoolawah) has done a remarkable amount of research on these matters.As far as I can see and in its brevity, what you have written more or less agrees with the facts that are known from those far away times.In fact it's good to see some interest being taken in these matters again.Ro9llo Waite

Next week marks 122 years since Billy Mateer made his remarkable ride to warn the residents of Brisbane of the impending deluge. R.I.P - Billy

Billy Mateer was my uncle very proud of him

i HAVE JUST PURCHASED A COPY OF A PAINTING BY PAM HOPKINS of a man on a horse - Billy Mateer riding to Petrie to warn Brisbane of the 1893 flood. I have now read your information of that time. Very interesting!