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Harriet Draper (1841–1911)

by Jane Comollatti

Harriet Draper with her husband David, 1880s

Harriet Draper with her husband David, 1880s

Mrs Harriet Draper, wife of David Draper, was well respected in her adopted home town of Duaringa, Central Queensland in the latter part of the 19th century. She experienced a long journey in miles and personal endurance through hardships and deprivation following migration from her prior home in England. The couple with their four children; Harriet pregnant with their fifth child, travelled on the Southern Belle, leaving East Indian Docks, London on 14 November 1873 and arriving off the Keppel coast with a broken main mast early in March 1874. 

Women of rural England in the mid-nineteenth century were industrious and often did piece work at home: what Harriet brought to her new homeland was a dedication to assist women in their confinement, which included aboriginal women. She was a midwife, and in fact the only one apparently in the district at that time as there is no other name that has been mentioned in the community in past times as being prominent in the care of those about to give birth in the latter part of the 1800s into the 1900s.

Harriet is recorded as being mother to ten children: daughter Mary Ann was born on 11th March, 1874, five days after arrival in the ship Southern Belle at Keppel Bay.  The arrival of the 'Southern Belle' was widely reported in the newspapers because it was battered by cyclonic weather as it sailed towards the Tropic of Capricorn off the Queensland coast.  It was going to dock in the Fitzroy River at Rockhampton.  However, due to the circumstances, it was towed to Sea Hill, the quarantine station on Curtis Island, and the passengers were brought up the river by tug. On board were 418 passengers many of whom were expected to work on the construction of the railway line from Westwood towards the west. The ship's cargo included railway iron for the railway construction.[1]

Life in the construction camp was hard for the mothers. Accommodation was in calico tents, and the whole camp moved as work progressed.  In March 1875 the camp was at Boolburra on the eastern side of the lower Dawson River where it was planned to build permanent facilities as there would be need for the steam engines to take water at that point in their journey. However, businesses, residences and camp were all inundated with brown, swiftly flowing water as it covered the countryside, many miles wide, after heavy rain in the catchment. Early in 1876, the railway reached Duaringa. The Drapers, and other families, especially the wives, were exhausted from the camp life and Harriet and David Draper settled permanently in Duaringa. They never moved from the town and are both buried in the Duaringa Cemetery.

As always, despite the threat of occasional flooding, being near a water source was desirable.  Simple dwellings were constructed with a bark roof from the local stringy bark trees and water could not be collected from such a roof.  The Drapers chose to live at the “One Mile” which was south of the main town — on the “Seven Mile Creek” (later “Duaringa Creek”). The “One Mile” was the choice of around ten families in the first few years after the town was established in 1876, judging by the enrolments at the school which opened in 1879. Over time, all families who settled on this part of the creek moved out of the area.

While many houses in colonial times were made with slab walls (rough bush timber adzed into slabs of suitable length and stood upright to form walls), and push out “windows” of similarly cut timber, with rough timber supports for the roof of bark, the Drapers had a house made of timber and mud which was said to be noted for its “... comfort and coolness ...”. In the “Memories” section of the Duaringa State School Centenary 1879-1979 book (ed. Ann Murtagh-Scott, page 69) the following is a reminiscence of one contributor:

Another time we walked up to the One Mile Hut. This was the remains of the home of Mr and Mrs David Draper, the parents of Dan Draper and Mrs Corkill. It was a wattle and daub construction, built of bush timber set in the ground. The walls and partitions were formed by nailing slivers of split wood across on both sides of the uprights. This space was filled in with mud, then the outside was plastered over with more mud made from crushed and wetted ant bed mounds. The floor would be raised a little with earth and tamped, then covered with a thick layer of the ant bed mix, which set hard and could be damped slightly to lay dust and swept clean. The walls were whitewashed or covered with pictures cut out from magazines.

At the “One Mile' the Drapers kept fowls, ducks and turkeys, and grew mangoes, mulberries and oranges, as well as vegetables. [2]

While Mr Draper found work on railway maintenance and was active in the community as a member of the School Committee, Harriet found time outside her commitment to household chores in raising their family of ten children, to provide support and cater for the health needs of fellow settlers and aborigines alike.

Draper descendants recall their ancestor as having a horse and spring cart to transport women to and from the town to the “One Mile”.[3] They also recall being told that Harriet went to out-lying stations to assist with confinements and that she stayed after the birth to ensure mother and baby were well. These visits probably meant she was away from home for at least one to two weeks at a time. Other descendants recall being told that on visits by family living in Rockhampton, they did not recall a time when there was not an aboriginal person sitting by the fire, who was recovering from an illness. The kitchen was a separate room from the main house, which was the custom of the time, with an earth floor and fire place.

Mrs Myra Marshall, great granddaughter of Harriet and David, remembers her father Alf (Alfred Burman Lauga, son of Emma Draper and Alfred Henry Lauga) recounting the visits the family made to Duaringa for Christmas when he was a child — probably in the early years of the twentieth century.  The passenger train arrived in Duaringa around 9.30 pm after the sixty-five mile journey taking approximately three and one-quarter hours. On a moonless night, there were no aids to finding the way unless someone met the train with a kerosene lantern. The quickest way in any event was to follow the track which passed through the aboriginal camp: there was someone on duty as a “look out” and they would say “Who's there, who's there?” Alf used to say “It's me, Alf” and then many helpers would be there to carry children and ports (suit cases) up the track to the mud hut at the “One Mile”. Christmas being a time of celebration, and probably many of her family visiting, Harriet made wine using dried apricots and other dried fruit. The young boys decided to try some, and in due course were found out so got into trouble for their efforts. They also went swimming in the creek without their clothes, and were found out again, this time because of the severe sunburn. 

While there is very little detail about how Harriet carried out her acts of kindness and courage there would be proof on the many birth records of her attendance at the birth of numerous residents during the period. One such record is the birth certificate of Protassie (incorrectly recorded as Prostassic) Comollatti.[4]

In the Duaringa State School Centenary book, the editor, Ann Murtagh-Scott, stated the following which reminds us of the fact that early pioneer settlers took care of each other, without expectation of reward, and without expectation that they would be heralded for their expressions of support and assistance whenever and wherever it may be needed.[5]  In other words, “mateship” and “self sufficiency” were part of their everyday existence in their new homeland.

Someday the full story may be written of the pioneer women who suffered droughts and floods, and fought bush fires; who cooked in stoveless kitchens over open fire places; who made the bread, the butter, soap, jams, preserves; who sewed all the family garments; who washed clothes in creeks and water holes when drought dried out the tanks.  They were real but sought no haloes, no “Woman of the Year” prize, no “Gracious Lady”, no “Miss Australia” crown. Courage and endurance were their only crowns.

So, the life of Harriet; wife, mother, grandmother, was full of everyday activities while coping with colonial hardships and isolation. She forged friendships and shared her skills in midwifery with all who called on her. Her home was the humble dwelling of many colonial settlers with its bark roof. Her husband David died on 22 September 1909 and Harriet died on 23 June 1911. At that time, other settlers still lived in their slab and bark cottages with their detached kitchens so perhaps Harriet and David did too. Some family members settled in Duaringa, so perhaps it was necessary for Harriet and David to stay with them if they needed care later in life.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

  • death notice, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld), 27 June 1911, p 1

Citation details

Jane Comollatti, 'Draper, Harriet (1841–1911)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Harriet Draper with her husband David, 1880s

Harriet Draper with her husband David, 1880s

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Moon, Harriet

Mayfield, Sussex, England


23 June, 1911 (aged ~ 70)
Duaringa, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Passenger Ship