This article is reproduced here from the Yarrabilba ‘Place of Song’ book, with thanks to Lend Lease, developers of the Yarrabilba Community.
A ‘tall, fair-bearded and handsome’ [*] Irishman was the first major European landholder of the Yarrabilba site.
Thomas Plunkett arrived aboard the full-rigged clipper, Fiery Star, on 20 November 1863 after more than three months at sea alongside an assorted collection of English, Irish and Scottish immigrants. The journey from London was rough but at least they survived; fire destroyed the Fiery Staron its return journey two years later off the coast of Auckland.
After trying his hand at gold mining in Gympie, Thomas selected land at Waterford in 1866 and that same year married an 18-year-old Irish immigrant, Maria, with whom he would ultimately have eight children. Three years later Thomas expanded his landholdings to include the Yarrabilba site, which stretched from the current northern boundary south to the Albert River.
Thomas’ grandson, Paul, says his grandfather, like most immigrants, came with little more than a willingness to work. The family story goes that when Thomas arrived to take ownership of his land, he fished out the two shillings and sixpence left in his pocket and threw it into the river saying “What good is this to me?”
Thomas wasted no time building a hut for the growing family on Clutha Creek—which crossed the southernmost tip of his property—and planting up the surrounding flats with vegetables. The location, however, proved fraught with danger.
Following a heavy downpour, the creek rose waist-deep, within just half an hour, trapping the family on the other side and destroying Thomas’ crops. Unable to meet the government’s requirements to clear and crop his land on time, Thomas asked for an exemption and started out afresh.
By the end of January 1870, the family was settled in their new, wooden Queenslander on the other side of Clutha Creek, bordered to the south and east by the Albert River.
Unpredictable weather made farming extremely difficult for Thomas and his four sons. Neither crops nor dairy herds could survive the unique combination of back-to-back droughts and flooding rains.
Paul says the severe drought of 1902 reduced Thomas’ dairy herd to just 11 head. ‘That year there wasn’t a blade of grass in sight but the following year the grass grew as high as the middle wire of the fence and there wasn’t a thing to eat it.’ Thomas restocked his herd with 90 head of Jersey heifers purchased from the Northern Rivers region for £5 per head.
Sometimes, the river stopped running altogether and during winter it iced over as temperatures dipped to -6°C. Heavy frosts also killed paddock grasses forcing locals to take bullock wagons over the mountain to the Hope Island area where they harvested blady grass to keep the animals alive.
Raising cattle proved largely unprofitable until the invention of refrigeration in the 1920s made meat exports possible but by then Thomas’ dairy was well-established.
Thomas was a respected member of the community and held the seat of Albert in the Legislative Assembly from 1888-1908, save for one term (1896—1899). He also established a general store at Tamborine.
Thomas died in 1913 and ownership of Yarrabilba, together with the dairy, passed to his son, Walter. Walter’s brother, Thomas Flood Plunkett, assumed responsibility for the family property near Kerry and became a national leader in the dairying sector. During these years, Paul recalls milking five cows by hand before walking to Tamborine State School, which his grandfather had helped establish.
When Walter passed away in 1936 at the age of 52, Paul took over his father’s dairy and in 1965 sold most of the land north of Plunkett Road to the Hancock family. Members of Paul’s extended family still own and work the land from Plunkett Road south to the Albert River.
Plunkett Conservation Park now borders the eastern edge of the Yarrabilba site.
[*] Quoted in Routh, Plunkett, Thomas (1840-1913).