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The Beenleigh Boaties’ Rum Tale

The Beenleigh Boaties’ Rum Tale

The infamous Walrus was engaged in cane crushing, and sugar, molasses and rum production around the rivers of southeast Queensland during the years from 1865 to 1884. She was built in 1859 as a 64-tonne rigged schooner for a certain Captain Winship in Cleveland. The steam boilers and stern-wheel paddle propulsion were added to the 30-metre-by-5-metre-wide vessel later on.



The Logan, Albert and Nerang districts’ river flats were ideal for growing sugar cane, and production boomed in the 1800s. By 1869, 22% of Queensland’s sugar was grown along the Logan, Albert and Nerang Rivers. By 1880, there were 19 mills in these districts. However, transport to the various mills was a problem, with no roads, so the Walrus provided a we-come-to-you service.

Three gentlemen, Scott, Dawson, and Scotsman Bosun, James Stewart, formed the Pioneer Floating Sugar Mill Company. They purchased the Walrus in 1868, and fitted her with two boilers, crushing equipment, and steam-heated evaporating pans to produce sugar.

When cane farmers knew the Walrus, the floating sugar mill, was making its way along their river, farmers would harvest their cane and take it down to their landings. The crew would pull alongside, tie up, and crush the cane to produce sugar juice – which was then boiled in steam-heated evaporation pans until sugar crystals formed.

The mill – capable of crushing two tonnes of sugar a day on deck – was manufactured by an old Brisbane foundry with the unfortunate name of Smellie & Company. Their heritage-listed building, complete with signage, is still there, just near the Port Office Hotel in the city. (Note: Ken Goodman, in fact, has a twin-cylinder steam pump from the same company – probably not from the Walrus, although it was obtained in the Beenleigh district many moons ago, so you never know.)



The Walrus crew found they were producing more steam than needed. So rather than letting good steam go to waste, a ‘moonshine’ pot still was fitted to produce rum from the molasses that was a by- product of the sugar-making process.

It became Australia’s first floating distillery. By all accounts, the Walrus rum was a fairly potent drop. It was aged for two to three weeks. After having caramel added to give it colour, it was ready for sale.

In 1869, they received a distiller’s licence to make the rum, becoming the only licensed floating distillery. But apparently, the number of gallons they declared to pay the government excise differed from that actually produced. Over three years from 1869 to 1871, the official declared production of rum from the Walrus was 18,621 gallons (84,725 litres), but actual production was unofficially a lot more. In the same era, as Southern Moreton Bay Islanders may be aware, there was a rum distillery on Macleay Island, officially known as salt works.



The steamboat Walrus under the command of Bosun Stewart initially travelled along the Brisbane River and Bulimba Creek, crushing cane at various farms. The farmers just had to get their canes to the riverbanks, and the Walrus would do the rest. Sugar and rum proliferated.

The Bosun then brought her down to the Logan, Albert and Nerang Rivers, and rum production started in earnest.

The “G men” (the government excise blokes) had trouble catching up with the Walrus in that area. There were no roads, only tracks that were impassable in wet weather. If they went looking up the Albert River, Bosun would be hard at it, distilling up the Nerang River.

Eventually, it became all too hard for the G men, and Bosun’s licence was revoked in 1872. But this did not stop Bosun. He continued to travel the rivers in the old Walrus, crushing and distilling. This activity kept going until 1884, when he ran Walrus aground on the north bank of the Albert River, just down from the present-day Pacific Highway.

It is not documented what happened to Bosun. He probably went on a holiday to give his liver a rest, and the Walrus eventually faded into history.

The pot still, however, went on a new journey. Francis Gooding and John Davy, who owned a farm named Beenleigh, after their home in Devon, built a distillery using the pot still from Walrus. They named the distillery Beenleigh Rum Distillery, and it is still in the same location to this day. Rumour has it that Bosun sold them the 500-gallon pot still; however, another theory, claimed in the history book of the distillery, is that they found the Walrus washed up on their river bank, diligently tried to find the owner of the still, and eventually just kept it to set up their own distillery. In any case, the Walrus and its pot still do have a fascinating story to tell.



Ken Goodman is a steamboat enthusiast, and one old steamboat that he has always been interested in is the Walrus. The captain and crew of the Walrus were larrikins, it appears, so that’s maybe why they appeal to this good-natured Queensland boatie.

In the 1970’s, Ken lived in Beenleigh, and one of the local tricks was to go down to the distillery and buy the old 60-gallon Hogs Head wooden kegs, after the seven-year-old matured rum had been drained from them. They cost $20. Some people cut them in half for flower pots but Ken took them home, poured two gallons of water in, sealed them up, and rolled them round the yard every few days. Amazingly, in about a month, the keg produced 2 gallons of pure rum, at a very cheap cost Ken adds. One keg Ken brought home still had about half a pint in it. So he was off to a good start even before he began his primitive production method.


By Steamboat Ken (aka ken Goodman)


Published in the August – November 2020 print edition.



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