Phil Schaffert, Gregory Downs Manager 1931 to 1944

Guest Post by Beverley O’Hara


In October 1876 three Watson brothers left from “Walwa” on the Upper Murray in Victoria, following a survey trip by Greg, one of the brothers, in 1875, to settle on the Gregory River at “Gregory Downs” some 120 kilometres south of Burketown, arriving in August 1877.

Two of the brothers, Harry Frederick and Philip Sidney were twins aged only 19 at the time and the youngest Robert McGregor (Greg or Greggy) Watson was only 17 years of age.

When they arrived, a family friend, who travelled with them and was to be a partner, returned immediately to Victoria and sold his share leaving the three Watson boys to “sink or swim”.

Greg and Sidney Watson with a Crocodile at the 20 Mile in 1917

In later years, possibly after the turn of the century, the ‘Swearing Watson’s’ employed managers and only spent the winter months at Gregory and the rest of the time in Sydney at the old Metropole. Harry had a home “Whitley” in Moss Vale. They also spent time at the Upper Murray. They made their yearly pilgrimage to “Gregory Downs“ via ASN boat to Townsville and then to Thursday Island by coastal steamers and then by another vessel to Normanton. They rode from Normanton to Gregory Downs.

Professor Archie Watson, Sidney Watson, Harry Watson and Greg Watson on an ASN Boat

During the period that Phil Schaffert was manager they also came by train to Dobbyn  where they were collected by Schaffert in the station vehicle – a long trip in those days. They always came during the winter months and stayed for around 3 months. (ASN is Australasian Steam Navigation Co 1851 to 1887 and later Australasian United Steam Navigation Co 1887 to 1960’s)

The original Gregory Downs homestead.

Philip Sidney Watson died in 1936 aged 79 and his twin brother Harry Frederick died in 1942 aged 85 leaving “Gregory Downs“ to the last surviving brother and partner Robert McGregor ‘Greg’ Watson who subsequently died in 1943 at age 84 leaving no children. Prior to his death and as his health prevented him from looking after “Gregory Downs“ Greg Watson decided to pass the property on to his Grand Nephew, Lewis Kinleside Blackmore whilst he was till alive provided that Lew could get leave as an engineer from the RAAF to take over the supervision of the property.

The Estate was tied up for quite some time as Harry Frederick Watson had died in 1942 and his share had yet to pass to the Estate of R M ‘Greg’ Watson before it could be wound up and title passed to on to Lew Blackmore. Lew eventually took over the property from the executors, the Burns Philp Trust Company in January 1948, some 5 years later!

Phil Schaffert to Gregory Downs

Phil and Alice Schaffert (nee Shadforth) with their daughter Beverley in 1937

“My father, Phil Schaffert was born in Georgetown, Qld in 1906. His father, Max Schaffert who had been involved in gold mining on the Etheridge field, had died the year after Phil was born so his mother had quite a task in raising five children on her own.

Phil left school at a very young age (12-13) to go droving and was involved in the cattle industry for the whole of his working life. He first came to Gregory Downs to take up a position as head-stockman. He knew nothing of Gregory other than scant information that the house was on the banks of a beautiful river and there was a large Aboriginal population in the area. Phil left Georgetown in December, 1930 and arrived at Gregory Downs on 3 January 1931.

Gregory Downs homestead on right with kitchen and store 1937

He always spoke of his surprise, on arrival, to see the beautiful running Gregory River and was not at all daunted by the old pioneering style slab homestead. He quickly fell into the pattern of running the camp. He told of the good horses and the Shorthorn/Devon cross herd. By September of 1931, the manager (whose name escapes me at the moment) had resigned. Phil was somewhat apprehensive about who would be appointed as there could often be staff changes with appointments of new managers.

One evening, whilst standing at the sliprails just near the old house, Phil was pondering this when R.M. ‘Greg’ Watson came to stand beside him and asked if he, Phil, had thought about who the new manager might be? Phil told R.M. that he had been watching the newspapers to see any advertisment calling for applications for the management but had seen nothing. R.M’s response was “Oh, he is already here”. Phil quickly glanced around as he had not seen any new arrival. It was then that R.M. told him the job was his if he wanted it. Did he want it ever!! It had been his ambition since childhood to manage a cattle station so he readily accepted at a starting salary of ₤4 per week.

R.M. had a few words of advice and these were:-

“Do not take to heavy drinking – feed the men and Aborigines well- work like Hell – do not get a swelled head”. Fine words from a very wise old gentleman.

He managed Gregory Downs until December, 1944 when we moved to Miranda Downs, Normanton – a property Phil managed for 28 years until his retirement in 1972. Charlie Schaffert, Phil’s half-brother, took over the Gregory management until 1959 when he died and Bill Foster after that until 1972.”

Max Kinleside (left) a grand nephew of the Watsons, with Phil Schaffert and Alice Schaffert (nee Shadforth) at the Gregory Downs Homestead in 1933. (photo colourised by Charlie Hanna)

Swagmen Were Given Help at Gregory Downs

This is another of my father, Phil Schaffert’s reminiscences. It was published in The Northerner, Issue No 22 in February 1982. (some edits for accurate interpretation)

“When the Depression of the early 30s was at its worst, there were as many as five swagmen arriving every day at Gregory Downs Station. They carried their swag, billycan, water bag and their meagre rations in bags.

Those men were genuinely seeking employment. They had to walk long distances in those days, and to give an example, the distance from Burketown where they had received their last ration card, was 80 miles (approx 129K). From memory they were issued a ration voucher to the value of approximately twelve shillings (worth about $46.40 in today’s dollars ) and the vouchers were issued each Wednesday. We were always glad that no swagman was refused a free issue of meat and rations.

Many of the men had a good sense of humour. I said to one man that it seemed strange that they always arrived with their ration bags quite empty of supplies! He grinned and replied “Well mate, when down and out you soon learn all the tricks of the trade. Keep any rations you have hidden and produce only empty bags.”

Often they arrived footsore and with worn out boots. They simply could not afford to buy new ones. I recall the arrival of one unfortunate swagman whose feet were in a shocking state. We told him to rest in the stockmen’s quarters and have meals with them.

My wife, Alice, gave treatment to his feel until they healed. Then he was given a pair of boots to continue his journey. Believe me, he was over-joyed. We also gave him a few tins of tobacco, cigarette papers and matches.

About 40 years later a man approached me in a city street and asked if I was Phil Schaffert from Gregory Downs? I did not recognise him until he told me that he had called at Gregory Downs and was that swagman. His gratitude was still evident for what he said was our generous handout, and the kind attention given to him by my wife. There were others whom I later met at various places. They all expressed similar gratitude for the little keep we had been able to provide.

On one occasion a man came to Gregory Downs after he had completed a droving trip. He was suffering with a very painful hand which had become very swollen and obviously infected. Fortunately, Professor Archibald Watson, a professor of anatomy, was at Gregory Downs at the time. But unfortunately our medical supplies were low, as it was before medical chests had been supplied by the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Professor Watson or “Proffie” as he was known to us all, advised us to gather clean coolabah ash. Then he soaked the man’s hand in hot water with the addition of the ashes. Professor had feared that he was suffering from blood poisoning.

As we not have the required drugs, we had to send him to hospital as quickly as possible. His thumb had to be amputated, but the hand was saved. So the old bush remedies often served a good purpose.

The pioneers claimed to avoid beri-beri, they would collect green ants’ nests to boil in water, which they then drank. Many times ti-tree bark was soaked in water and then strapped around broken joints to serve as a plaster.”

Harry Watson, ‘Harry’, ‘Bonny’, Miss Blake, Alice Schaffert with Beverley, sawfish  and Phil Schaffert

Wild Times on the Gregory.

This is my father, Phil Schaffert’s version of events concerning King Tabby’s death. I am unable to establish definite dates but it occurred somewhere between September, 1933 and end of 1936.

In those days, it was usual for Aborigines to go on walkabout towards the end of the year and so around the end of September it was generally accepted that they would all, usually between 100 to 150, head off to the Accident Creek area where initiations and other traditional practices were conducted. It was about 70 to 80 miles of walking and it would normally take 7 to 10 days. Of course they hunted and fished along the way as time was their own.

The station Aborigines had been gone for about 10 days and one night my parents were sitting in their usual spot on the verandah at Gregory Downs when my father became very unsettled. He had a premonition that something was not quite right! After several turns around the house and outbuildings with a torch, he was not satisfied and then scouted further afield. Who should be standing in the dark but Riversleigh Jack. On being questioned, Jack informed my father “I not want to go on walkabout, I am full of it”. Dad found this explanation unacceptable so questioned Jack further. The result was that Jack had stolen Lorna, the youngest of King Tabby’s three queens! King Tabby was the head Aborigine of the area and lived in a camp at Lawn Hill.

It appears that Jack had hidden Lorna down on the Gregory riverbank. My father requested Jack to bring her up to the station where they were settled for the night in a room at the back of the store. My parents’ concern was that King Tabby would not take this action quietly and would be delivering retribution in very hostile terms.

Dad was also somewhat anxious as he had planned a trip to the 20-Mile the next morning. Some bullocks had been paddocked there and required checking. He decided to take Jack with him and hurried so they could return to the station by approx 5.30pm. Dad was reluctant to leave my mother and Lorna on their own in case Tabby and his men arrived.

Whilst he was away, Erle Munro, then manager of Lawn Hill (1932 to 1939), called my mother on the pedal radio (and it was pedal in those days). Gregory’s call-sign was 8XI and I think Lawn Hill’s was 8XY. Earl advised that my parents needed to be prepared as King Tabby and two of his men were on their way over to deliver vengeance to Jack. It was about 50 miles by road from Lawn Hill to Gregory Downs in those days and very little water, especially so late in the year.

This photograph was taken on 13 September 1937 at Gregory Downs. My mother’s writing on the back states:- Erle Monro, manager Lawn Hill, Rev Fred McKay (AIM) and Phil Schaffert, manager Gregory Downs. A message being sent for a doctor to come to Gregory Downs to attend Mrs Carrington of Planet. My father then wrote that the plane arrived two hours later.

Days passed and there was no sign of King Tabby and his men. My father again contacted Lawn Hill to confirm the whereabouts of the party as they had not arrived at Gregory. There was quite a large Aboriginal camp on the creek at Lawn Hill in those days so it took a little while before Earl Munro could confirm that Tabby had not returned and no-one seemed to know what had happened to him or his men.

About two months later, some of the station Aborigines returned from walkabout, the first of these being Wollogorang Dick and Sandy. Others were due back a week later. My father wanted brood mares and foals to be brought in from Macdams’ Plain and instructed these two men not to gallop them and just bring them along quietly. Within a couple of hours, Dick arrived galloping back and in a terrible state of fear. My father was ready to reprimand him for rushing the mares and foals when he said “Please don’t go crook Boss, I been find one white man dead on Macadam’s Plain”, he really white”.

Dad could not think of anyone who was missing so contacted Eric Thornton, the policeman then based at the Gregory police station on the other side of the river. They headed off in a utility accompanied by Dick to indicate the location of the body. As they neared the area , they could see a corpse that indeed was King Tabby. His skeletal remains had been bleached and dehydrated by the hot sun and was just skin and bones. Undoubtedly, the hot, dry winds and then rain had added to this bleaching. His brass king plate was around his neck and his old dilly bag, spears and other items nearby. The temperature would have been approximately 102 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (39 to 40 debrees Celsius) and no decent-sized trees in sight. They buried him in a grave not far from the road. My father always said there was a small whitewood tree close by. My childhood memory of Macadam’s Plain was of nothing but dryness and whitewood trees!

About six weeks later, the body of another Aborigine was found about 20 miles from the homestead. My father described this area as being desert type country with a lot of scrub but also sandy. This second man was buried where his body was found. To the best of my father’s knowledge, the third man was not found nor did he return to Lawn Hill. Names of these two latter men are not known.

Dad was not satisfied about the cause of deaths of these two men as he knew how well they understood the dangers of thirst in dry times. When the second body was found, he searched in long grass nearby and found a half gallon tin. He described it as having a little spout that protruded and could be corked. On upending the tin, he found “poison” imprinted onto the bottom. Earl Munro confirmed that he had purchased six tins of a new brand of dip and when used, the tins had been thrown in what was considered an inconspicuous part of the rubbish heap.

So it appears that King Tabby and his men had unknowingly (they would not have been able to read or write) been poisoned by filling the tins with water to tide them over the dry Macadam’s Plain. These men obviously did not work in the mustering camp at Lawn Hill, otherwise they would have known about the dip tins previously containing poisonous material.

My father became gravely ill with pneumonia and pleurisy sometime in 1936 and was not expected to survive. His relatives were notified that life expectancy was no more than three days. He believes that old Matron Kerr at the Burketown Hospital saved his life with her intensive care. During his stay there for several weeks, they discussed King Tabby’s death. My father later gave her the breastplate which was imprinted with the words “King Tabby – King of the Lawn Hill Tribe”. Matron Kerr, an English lady, later donated the breastplate to a museum in England. My father said so “King Tabby is buried on Macadam’s Plain and his plate is in an English museum. I often wonder if they know the story of old Tabby”.

No doubt some members of the Aboriginal community will find this story a little disturbing in that the breastplate was sent to England. Please be aware that it was 1936, in the days when Australia was slowly recovering from the Great Depression. Many people died in isolated places with little interest shown from the general community. Everyone was intent on keeping themselves and families afloat.

Some years ago, Professor David Trigger, Professor of Anthropology at Queensland Uni and who has a special interest in the Aboriginal communities of that area, visited me in Cairns. During our discussions, David advised he could find no record of an Aboriginal king by that name, in that area. Of course, Tabby may not have actually been a “King” as plates were often given by the Government of the day on the recommendation of station managers and owners for whom these men worked and were respected. If anyone reading this can throw light on King Tabby’s tribal name and his descendants, it would be appreciated.

Samples of aboriginal King Breastplates

Karadui Becomes Wood King – A Racing Scam.

My father, Phil Schaffert, related many stories some of which have appeared in newspapers. This is one of them re-edited by me:-

Bill “Smiler” Smith purchased a racehorse, a brown gelding called Karadui, from “Scamp” White in the Newcastle area. At the time of purchase, the horse was still serving a two year disqualification for not being permitted to run to his full capability in the Flying Handicap at Newcastle on 26 July 1930.

“Smiler” took Karadui to a property, Woodstock, in the Croydon forest area where his brands were faked and then registered as Wood King. Sometime in 1931, “Smiler” walked “Wood King” from Woodstock to Mareeba where he was nominated to run at the Mareeba Annual. “Smiler” also had another horse called King Hound.

When passing through Forsayth, a friend of my father had said he noticed that one of the horses was upstanding with a long tail but appeared to be a bit of a “roughie” as he was covered in mud whereas the second horse had a clean coat in preparation to race. This second horse, King Hound, was a cover for Wood King aka Karadui and was an ordinary galloper.

Wood King won his race in Mareeba and according to headlines in the N.Q. Register his win described as being a new Phar Lap winning by 14 lengths! “Smiler” later told Dad that what it took him two years to do, the jockey undid in two minutes – too fast by far.

Wood King later won easily at Charters Towers. Unfortunately, a man named Frank McGrath, a guest of the Charters Towers Jockey Club and one time trainer of Peter Pan recognised Wood King as Karadui. The stewards were informed and checked the horse’s brands and markings. “Smiler” was to appear before them the following morning. No appearance was made as “Smiler” secretly left Charters Towers that night riding Wood King to Einasleigh.

Sometime in 1932, “Smiler” realised that he could no longer stay in the Georgetown/Einasleigh area so, having heard that Phil Schaffert was on a distant property called Gregory Downs, decided to go there in the hope of obtaining work. Dad was stunned at this arrival as he had read in the N.Q. Register that “Smiler” and Karadui (Wood King) had been disqualified for ten years.

The effects of the depression were still being suffered and the Moore Government had abolished the station hands’ award which was ₤2/10/- ($5) per week. “Smiler” was prepared to work for food and accommodation if he could be employed. The owners, Watson Bros, were still paying award wages and Dad said he could not penalise a man who was down on his luck and paying the price for his earlier actions.

“Smiler” had travelled a distance of approximately 400 miles (643 kilometres) and there were very few motor vehicles on outback roads in those times. His reason for coming to Gregory was he believed my father was the only person who knew him in the district where he wanted to be known as Bill Edwards.

Eric Thornton, the local police officer approached my father about two years after “Smiler” came to Gregory, asking if Bill Edwards was actually W.C. Smith. My father wanted to know why and it appeared Eric had a summons to serve and it was for ₤500. “Smiler” was approached where the summons was read to him (he could sign his name but otherwise was illiterate). He admitted to being W.C. Smith and commented that he was the only one to “cop the crow” as others had been involved in the completely sorry saga of the Karadui scam. Apparently, one of the others who financed Karadui’s purchase initiated the summons. W.C. Smith gave a signed statement to this effect and nothing further was ever heard of the summons.

“Smiler” told my father that Karadui was once stabled with Rogilla, a well-known racehorse of the period. The subject of Karadui’s whereabouts was never discussed but “Smiler”, showing great emotion, once told my mother how he loved the horse and it was now dead. She asked no questions.

My mother always helped with working out gallops of their various racehorses. “Smiler” was very insistent that riding gear always be checked thoroughly. He often double-checked. He was employed at Gregory Downs for approximately seven years only terminating when my parents helped finance him to purchase his own droving plant. He then drove Gregory Downs’ bullocks and other mobs in the district.

My father considered him a top class cattleman, professional jockey and an excellent tracker and bushman. He was never idle. When my parents left Gregory at the end of 1944 to take up the appointment at Miranda Downs, “Smiler” had purchased Bowthorn and was building up his own herd.

Later on “Smiler” purchased two racehorses in Townsville – Kyalla King and Skipper to race at the Normanton Diggers meeting. He telephoned my father asking if he could come to town early on a Wednesday morning, as he wanted to trial Kyalla King. He said the horse was so good he could win the double.

This request was made on a Monday but the next morning Dad received a call from the late Gordon Fitzsimmons advising that “Smiler” had just been killed. He fell off Kyalla King on a working gallop and was struck on the head by the horse’s hind hoof. Apparently, Kyalla King was a strong puller and a stirrup leather had broken so “Smiler” met his end doing what he loved best – riding a good galloper.

Les Henry of Normanton later purchased both horses from the estate and won races with them.

Many different stories have been told about the Karadui/Wood King debacle but “Smiler” related these details to my father as they sat around camp fires in mustering camps.

Bill ‘Smiler’ Smith (left), Phil and Alice Schaffert and Max Kinleside (right) a grand nephew of the Watsons, plus dogs Stumpy and Jacky, at Gregory Downs in September 1933


Brother’s Phil and Charlie Schaffert’s Inheritence

R M ‘Greg’ Watson left the Walwa Holding of ”Gregory Downs”, comprising around 126 to 140 square miles to the brothers Charlie and Phil Schaffert who subsequently agisted/rented the holding to ”Gregory Downs” whilst the property was still in estate and eventually sold it to Lew Blackmore for around 2,000 pounds in 1945 when the estate was finalised. (Phil’s wife Alice also received a monetary inheritance). Phil had decided that working “Walwa” whilst Charlie was manager of Gregory Downs would simply not work and as the brothers did not always see “eye to eye” they decided to sell the block. At the time Charles Schaffert was manager of ”Gregory Downs” and Phil Schaffert was manager of ”Miranda Downs”. (It is interesting to note that the agistment value to Schafferts initially was only sufficient to pay the rent and rates.)

The Walwa Holding had river frontage in the South East corner of “Gregory Downs“ and included the Coppermine Tailing Yards. Carrying capacity was estimated at 9 grown cattle to the square mile or around 1,100 to 1,400 cattle. Walwa holding was around ¼ of the area of ”Gregory Downs” and ran about 1/8 of the cattle as it took in much of the lighter Spinifex country.

Jack Schaffert, a brother to Charlie and Phil was also employed on Gregory Downs as a head stockman and later book-keeper. He was also relieving manager at times.

In April 1959 Eric William (Billy) Foster (wife Wilma) who was previously managing Riversleigh, took over as Gregory Downs manager and continued in that role for 13 years until June 1972.

Beverley O’Hara, the contributor of these stories, is Phil and Alice Shaffert’s daughter. Frances Alice Schaffert (nee Shadforth) was a daughter of Robert (Bob) Henry Shadforth and grand daughter to Francis Henry (Harry) Shadforth. In 1876-7, F. H. (Harry) Shadforth and his son Bob overlanded a mob of 900 heiffers (branded WY), from the Watson’s birthplace at Walwa on the Upper Murray, for the purposes of stocking Gregory Downs. They had been on the road for some 10 months.

Harry went on to own “Lilydale” (in 1881), later part of “Riversleigh”, and 70 miles upstream from Gregory Downs. Harry passed away in his 84th year at Mt Garnet in 1914.

In 1897, whilst a managing partner at “Wollogorang”, just inside the NT border, Bob Shadforth was speared by natives at 4.00am, on the verandah of the homestead. The spear, thrown from behind, went right through his side and having replied by then firing both barrels of his shotgun Bob proceeded to enter the house through the doorway, however the spear prevented him doing so as it had passed through his side and projected, partially, on the other side. Bob then broke the shaft off and, along with the assistance of a visiting commission agent, Gus Matthies, pressed the remaining part against the wall and pulled the spear right through and carried on to beat off the blacks but nearly bled to death. Bob went on to become Shire Clerk of the Burke Shire, a position he held for 31 years. In 1934 Robert Henry (Bob) Shadforth, died and was buried at “Lilydale”.

Wollorgorang Homestead as described by Harry Anning in an article in the “Graziers Review” dated 16 July 1928.
“Wollogorang” Station is 150 miles from Burketown just over the NT border. House consisted of two bedrooms, a dining room and store. Strongly built by Bob Shadforth. Ant bed floor, roof and sides of iron, posts etc squared bush timber. Doors and windows strongly constructed and could be secured by heavy pieces of seasoned timber let into the posts. Windows covered on the outside with several layers of wire netting to prevent entry of spears.

Another of F H (Harry) Shadforth’s son’s Harry Cecil Shadforth (wife Elizabeth) managed Gregory Downs from approximately the late 1890’s until 1902 when he then became the manager for Watson’s half brothers, Leo, Grandie & Eddie Watson of Merluna (Yorke Downs) on Cape York Peninsula. Harry Shadforth Jnr returned to manage Gregory Downs again around 1908

Later, In 1937, Harry Jnr was gored in the groin whilst drafting cattle in the NT.  He was taken to Katherine Hospital , where he seemed to recover and then deteriorate so was then taken to Darwin Hospital by Dr Fenton of the Northern Territory Aerial Medical Service, where he was given a blood transfusion.  He was then shipped to Brisbane for further medical attention and Proffie Watson saw him on the ship at Thursday Island.  Proffie wrote to Phil and Alice Schaffert and told them that Harry would not live.  He was quite correct.  Harry died from septicaemia three months after he was originally gored.  It appears that a segment of cloth from his trousers had lodged in the wound, resulting in his deterioration and death. 

2 thoughts on “Phil Schaffert, Gregory Downs Manager 1931 to 1944

  1. Greg what an amazing amount of history you have captured in this blog. I’m impressed too with the many images you have for each blog you write. All so clear too. What a collection you must have!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind words Colleen. As you know, most of my stories are connected to ancestors and places they have been. The intent of the blog was to put something together so that the children and grandchildren can access some family history in the future. The photos have come from family members, or I have found them in searches. In the case of the story above about Phil Schaffert, I am in touch with his daughter Beverley O’Hara who has contributed valuable photos and stories. There are also some Facebook sites like Vintage Queensland and Tales from the Top Rail that have 30,000 to 60,000 members and invariably, photos and story lines turn up there as well. I noticed that you are taking a 6 months rest from your blog on Kandos History. Sometimes I think I have come to the end of what I can write about and then someone gets in touch with more information on a topic that gets me going again, even if only adding more to a current story. Enjoy your break. Kind Regards, Greg


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