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"Water Baby"- History

Water Baby was constructed in the blacksmith at Yandilla head station in the period 1876-1878 by Frances Gore, the then manager of Yandilla, and his shipwright John Patrick Purcell.  It was built to assist in the rescuing of valuable stud sheep during floods as Yandilla was situated on the confluence of Grasstree Creek with the Condamine River.  The vessel was not designed to carry the sheep but was used to tow one or more other boats loaded with sheep to give stability against the fast flowing current.  This was the only vessel of its type built on the Darling Downs in the nineteenth century.


"Water Baby - The Yandilla Station Steam Launch" A history of a remarkable feat in nineteenth century inland marine engineering.  

This book, written by Grant Uebergang in 1992, is available for purchase from the Museum for $16.50.

An extract from its Foreword reads:

"Here is presented a history of a remarkable and unique feat in nineteenth century inland marine technology.  Water Baby was the only vessel of its type to be built on the Darling Downs last century.  Most of the parts were manufactured in the Yandilla Station blacksmith, displaying great skill on behalf of the architect and shipwright.  Designed initially as a management tool in assisting to rescue marooned sheep during floods in the years before a flood warning system, which advised of any impending danger, was in place along the Condamine River Valley.  In its heyday, Water Baby saved the lives of hundreds of expensive stud sheep, rescued people and personal possessions and kept the lines of communication open during floods.  Neglected for over 70 years, Water Baby was given a new lease of life in 1988 when the Millmerran Historical Society restored the hull..."  

"Water Baby"- Restoration

Restoration work commenced on the hull in January 1987 after it had been moved to the Museum and housed in the Ron Houston Collection shed.  After 15 months of voluntary labour restoration of the hull was completed with principal participants being Tom Lawler, Lloyd Weedon and John Twidale.  Valuable assistance was also rendered by Ron Twidale, Ron Houston, Ron and Kelvin Scragglier, Andy Plunkett and Grant Uebergang.  The hull was made of wrought iron and iron bark timber originally, and the metal frame showed very little corrosion at the time of being retrieved.  All timber for the frame and seats was renewed as was most of the galvanised iron skin except on the extreme stern where the only piece of original skin was reused.  More on the process can be read in Grant's book mentioned above.

Restoration of Water Baby sparked community interest in the project.

The bronze propellor was donated by Marshall Lindenberg of Pittsworth.

The Salomon family of Tummaville donated the anchor which had been

found many years previously along the Condamine at Tummaville bearing

the stamped initials of the shipwright - JPP.  




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The Second Flood Boat.  

During Water Baby's hull restoration, another Yandilla Station iron flood boat had been found in 1984 by Grant Uebergang and donated to the Historical Society by James Cowlishaw.  It had been been embedded in thick vegetative growth on the banks of Yandilla lagoon near the homestead.  This vessel was also brought into the Society's grounds and restored by Society members under the auspices of a $400 Bicentennial Grant.  It has also been registered by the National Australian Maritime Museum.

For the Yandilla Flood Boat Story CLICK HERE

Significantly, restoration of this flood boat preceded that of Water Baby.  Many of the skills obtained from this project were utilised in the Water Baby restoration.   Since the flood boat's restoration in 1987, it has been displayed at the National Bicentennial Travelling Exhibition in Toowoomba and then at the Jondaryan Woolshed Heritage Festival in August-September 1988.  On Australia Day in 1988 in Millmerran, this boat was used by a "convict" to ferry "Arthur Phillip" and other dignitaries around the Bicentennial Project Dam behind the Millmerran Dairy Co-op.

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1988 Bicentennial Project

During Bicentennial celebrations, Millmerran Shire Cr. Revan Macqueen and chairman of the local Bi-Centennial Committee dedicated the restored historic steam launch at a function hosted by the Historical Society on 20 November 1988 - 110 1/2 years after it was initially launched in 1878.  Cr. Macqueen said the launch would undoubtedly travel far and wide and be exhibited in the years to come, so he modified the traditional launching words as he said, "God bless this boat and all who travel with her".  

Replacing the Steam Engine and Boiler

The current steam engine in Water Baby was donated by Dr James Walters in 2016.  Dr Walters purchased the engine from Mr Ross Horton after the death of Ross' father, Mr Bill Horton in 1979.  The late Mr Horton had acquired the engine in the late 1960s.  Ross told us his father was an avid steam man, being brought up on the Downs in the Allora district. He used the engine regularly to run a generator for power during blackouts, but it sat in a box unused for many years after his passing.   Ross eventually sold the engine to his good friend Dr James Walters.  However, a few years back, upon hearing a story about Water Baby on ABC Radio, Ross contacted James who was immediately fascinated by the story and only too happy to see the engine go to a good cause and be preserved for people to enjoy for many years to come.  

The boiler was purchased by the Historical Society in 2018.  

Installation of the engine and boiler was carried out by Henry Baillie, Richard Sizer and Rodney Campbell (pictured below). 


Discovering the abandoned Hull

A lot of the following information has also been sourced from "Water Baby - The Yandilla Station Steam Launch":  Water Baby was permanently laid to rest in 1955 after being on display, a little worse for wear, during "Back to Millmerran" celebrations. (See photos above)  Nearly thirty years later, Andy Plunkett and his mate Greg Bowdla made a surprise discovery on a flooded Back Creek in 1983.

Here is Andy's story:

"I remember paddling down a flooded Back Creek with Greg and as usual I was looking out for machinery and vehicle relics which are often found dumped on creek banks by farmers.

We were canoeing around a bend in the creek when I noticed the hull of a large boat on the creek bank.  What particularly took my eye was the shape of the hull.  It reminded me of ship's hull shapes from the early period of screw (propeller) steamers.

Greg was also curious so we pulled into the creek bank and made a closer inspection of the hull.  We were surprised to find the skin comprising of think galvanised sheets with soft solder sealing the lapped riveted seams. This type of construction was atypical of water storage tank making up until several decades ago.  The sheetmetal skin was attached to a framework made from flat rectangular wrought strips.  These had been accurately shaped into ribs and stringers with them being hot riveted together.  My thought at the time was that the skin and framework construction was possible in a well equipped sheep station blacksmithing workshop of the period.  But someone with previous marine boat building experience must have had some input into the hull design and propulsion layout.  It was a case of uprising what was capable by the station smithy in his workshop to come up with a working boat fit for the purpose.

Steam launch Water Baby is a historic time piece and it is important that these substantial remains are protected for the future.  Water Baby can tell so many stories, bot in its use, construction, shape and propulsion layout.  It is like an early steamship in miniature but not like other steam lunches I have seen in Australia and the UK.  These had timber framed and skinned hulls...."  Andy Plunkett, Capella, 4 August 2012,

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These photos of the washpool site in Grasstree Creek at Yandilla were taken on 13th June 2018. The images are shown from various angles of Grasstree creek. From a local landholder’s knowledge, (the late Rodney Mundt), the water level in Grasstree Creek at this time was at an all-time low, due to the severe drought being experienced at that time. He had never before seen the structure of the jetty and posts being exposed to the extent, as shown in these photos. History had been revealed due to nature.

Grasstree Creek is now replenished after recent good rainfall and these sites are no longer visible. (See recent photo 30th April 2021).

Images and information courtesy Jason Mundt


Washing wool on the sheep’s back dates back hundreds of years and was widely adopted in England, Spain, Germany and Australia. Wool was the most valuable commodity produced on Darling Downs sheep stations in the nineteenth century and therefore required extra close attention. It was most important for a clean fleece at shearing time.


After 1820 English manufacturers demanded wool from Australia be free of dirt, grease/lanolin, burrs and vegetative matter. Fleeces embedded with the foreign objects were harder to shear with the hand-held shears requiring more frequent sharpening thus more downtime at shearing and shears had to be replaced more often adding more cost to the shearer and station owner. Also, wool was transported by bullock or horse teams and was charged by weight.


Washed wool was lighter and therefore cheaper to freight. In order to accomplish this, washpools were constructed from the 1850s to remove every type of impurity from the wool before shearing. The simplest approach, and albeit a crude method, was to swim the sheep through a stream and have men stand in the cool water to work on and agitate the fleece. Yandilla washpool was located on a large waterhole of Grasstree Creek. The sheep then had to be dried in “clean” paddocks, free of dust, burrs etc., sometimes planks and sheets of bark were laid down over a large area for this purpose. It was hard work for the shepherds and wool washers who may have been asked to stand in very cold water all day, hold the sheep to stop them from drowning and then work the fleece to remove the dirt, grease and burrs. Several men were employed as the washpool complex was quite a large establishment having numerous buildings attached to it – huts for employees, pens and races and holding shed.


When wool washing was introduced on Yandilla (which was most likely in the 1850s), the station was carrying over 100,000 sheep. Wool washers were paid 5 shillings a day and provided with unlimited tucker and various extras. After washing, the sheep were walked to the sweating shed, about three miles away, allowing them time to dry. In the sweating shed the sheep were held overnight at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit to make sheep sweat to bring the fresh grease back into the wool fibres, “to make the wool rise again” using the old term of the day. This grease was called yolk and it added about 25% more weight to the wool, enough to pay for the freight from Australia to England. The yolking also attracted a higher price per pound of wool. By the end of the washing and sweating process the station owner would have a clean snow- white fleece to shear. 


Later more sophisticated wool washing systems were used. Warm water jets/spouts from elevated tanks fired by a steam boiler and the application of soft soap, followed by a cool water rinse ensured a more advanced method was more comfortable to animal and human alike.   Wool washers were still required to enter the water but the improved method allowed many more sheep could be washed in a day.

It is not known who constructed the washpool complex on Yandilla station, but it was most likely the owner at the time, Francis Arthur Gore of the firm of Gore & Co. The Porter Bros. (James, Robert and Alexander) of North Branch, once part of Yandilla station, built many of the station washpools on the Downs in the nineteenth century – Felton, Western Creek, Gowrie, Jondaryan, St. Ruth, Balgownie, Eton Vale and North Branch. Gore Bros. may have consulted the Porter brothers for ideas? Wool washing before shearing finished on the Darling Downs in 1903.

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