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Backing his beliefs - John Henry and The Oddfellows

by Dr Lyall Ford 

One day in the early 1900s a shrill whistle blast from the ‘old guvnor’ brought about a sudden stoppage of work for the ‘lumpers’ loading a ship at the Port of Mackay wharves.

 

John Henry Williams had been the wharfinger in charge there since 1874. With the men all wondering what the emergency was, he held up a bottle of spirits that he had found hidden on the worksite against the rules. He then hurled it unceremoniously into the Pioneer River without saying a word! Having received the message, the men shrugged their shoulders and returned to work.

But what brought about this somewhat extreme reaction?

John Henry had been a teetotaller all his life and the reasons for his action can be appreciated when we consider his earlier life. In 1851 at 11 years of age he left school to work with his father in a slate quarry near their home at Bethesda in North Wales.

 

The work was difficult, dirty and dangerous, the hours were long and the wages meagre. The death of his mother a few months later brought about a determination to escape that misery and see the world.

He was only 12 years old when he joined the crew of a cargo boat sailing between Liverpool and Valparaiso in Chile. He remained on this route for six years but then criss-crossed the globe on windjammers for another 14 years, eventually acquiring his Master Mariner’s certificate for sail.

In 1871 his ship was wrecked while loading phosphates at Baker Island near Nauru and the crew was marooned for six months. This is where he spent his 32nd birthday. After this experience he decided to acquire a Master Mariner’s certificate for steam and in February 1872 became the Second Officer on the Tynonee, a two-masted schooner with a 30HP engine and twin screws trading out of Rockhampton.

One of his passengers in March 1873 was an attractive young lady named Margaret, newly arrived from England. She joined the Tinonee at Rockhampton with a shipmate whose uncle owned a hotel at Walkerston.

 

They disembarked at Mackay and the uncle took them to his hotel but after one sleepless night she decided to walk back to the wharf, escorted by an elderly gentleman. There she re-joined the Tinonee for the trip back to Rockhampton. John Henry was delighted to see her again so soon, and he proposed on the spot. She promptly accepted and they married at Rockhampton in September 1873.

They settled in Mackay and John Henry took on the shore job of wharfinger in July 1874. Soon after that he became a crusader for the temperance cause in Mackay. In his 20 years at sea, he had regularly observed the tragic effects of overconsumption of alcohol and was committed to total abstention.

Meanwhile, the Independent Order of Good Templars (IOGT) had arrived in Australia from the USA in November 1871. William Abraham and William George Hodges, who had both been initiated elsewhere, together with John Henry Williams, decided to form a lodge at Mackay. Consequently,

 

Belivah Lodge No. 33 was instituted on 16 April 1875. Bro Abraham and Bro Hodges presided at the ceremony with Bro Hodges taking on the role of Worthy Chief Templar, Bro Abraham the Worthy Deputy, and Bro John Henry Williams the Worthy Secretary.

After the opening ceremony, 15 of the 30 attendees were initiated. Before undergoing the long ceremony, the candidates were taken to an anteroom where they were required to answer the following questions:

Will you be obedient to all the laws and rules of the Institution, they not conflicting with your duties as a citizen?

Will you take a solemn pledge to abstain forever from the use of, or giving to others as a beverage, anything that will intoxicate?

Do you believe in the existence of Almighty God, the Ruler and Governor of all things?

After the initiation ceremony, eight officers were installed. John Henry’s wife Margaret was one of the foundation members and their eldest daughter Nell joined in the early 1890s. She became the pianist at social functions. The rest of their children took the pledge as they came of age.

The formal meetings were conducted in a similar manner to other lodges such as the Oddfellows and the Freemasons. They had the usual regalia which included decorative aprons and jewels. A variety of social events such as picnics and dances kept members fully involved.

Meetings were held in the Oddfellows Hall until July 1880 when members decided to build their own lodge room. Land was acquired at 85 Sydney Street (now part of a supermarket car park) and the new building opened, debt free, in October 1881. At the celebration John Henry was presented with a beautiful silver cruet stand for the many and eminent services he had rendered to Belivah Lodge. By then he had filled nearly every office including Worthy Chief Templar.

The order expanded rapidly throughout the district. John Henry was largely responsible for the inauguration of Harmony Lodge at Walkerston in 1882, Mount Britton c1884, the Arc of Friendship at Mackay in 1886, the Welcome Lodge at Homebush in 1891, and the Eton Lodge in 1893 followed soon after by the Hope of Grasstree Lodge.

 

He also organised a huge Great Temperance Crusade in October 1892 with meetings at several different halls and a parade through the streets to Queen’s Park.

Belivah Lodge thrived in Mackay for 39 years until 1914 when World War I depleted the region of men and seriously affected the operation of all the lodges.

 

Then the disastrous January 1918 cyclone struck Mackay and seriously damaged the lodge building. It took months to raise the funds to repair it but by then interest in the order had waned and the Mackay lodge closed in late 1919.

 

John Henry joined a Brisbane lodge to maintain his membership of the order. He and Margaret kept the pledge for the rest of their lives, and it is understood that most, if not all, of his children did also.

Knowing that the temperance cause was such a serious and time-consuming issue for most of the old Captain’s life makes it easy to understand his reaction to the illicit bottle of spirits on the Port of Mackay wharf.

 

Acknowledgements: Against the Odds by Lyall Ford, PhD, phone 0400 772 278.  

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