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Robert CHRISTISON (1837-1915)

Cheristison was born in England. He was sent to Melbourne at 15 years of age with his brother Tom, about a year older. They arrived in August 1852 without either friends or money. Robert obtained work at Werribee on the station owned by the Chirnsides, and became a good boxer, horseman and horse-breaker.

When about 20 years of age, he had some experiences as a steeplechase rider, and desiring to get capital to buy a farm he tried gold mining, but with little success. He endeavoured to join the Burke and Wills expedition in 1860, but his letter was unanswered. Having tried some exploring by himself and discovered that positions could not be determined without scientific knowledge, he returned to Melbourne and took lessons in navigation and 1863 he went to Bowen in North Queensland, and crossing the mountains engaged himself as a shepherd for three months to learn the conditions of the country.

He then returned to Bowen, bought stores, and with a black boy and several horses struck west. By chance he met William Landsborough the explorer, who told him of good land farther out on the western watershed. Christison found this country and went farther west still, but finding water growing scarcer, returned. Then realizing that settlement was already spreading in that direction, he rode hard back to Bowen and obtained an occupation licence for country which he called Lammermoor.

He then needed to obtain stock, and his own savings were small. Meeting a man named Adam, who had a small flock, they entered into partnership, and the sheep were taken to Lammermoor. The men worked early and late, first in constructing a fold so that the sheep would be safe from dingoes at night, and then in building a house.

Attacks from aborigines were a problem as a vicious circle had been created. A settler had shot some blacks, concluding they had stolen his sheep; the aborigines retaliated by killing another settler and his family; then the settlers banded themselves together, prepared to wipe out any aborigines they met. Christison decided to try what kindness could do. Capturing a young aborigine, he treated him so well that he was glad to work for him, and presently he was sent back to his tribe as an ambassador.

The aborigines were to camp on the far side of the waterhole; Christison would not harm them and they in return must not harm him; they could kill the native game but must not kill horses or sheep. So the compact was made. Both men, however, fell sick and Adam decided to sell his sheep to his partner and return, and Christison then sent for his two brothers, Tom and William.

Christison explored farther west, on one occasion nearly dying of thirst, but his continual difficulty was his want of capital. He managed to obtain some cattle from a neighbouring squatter, Robert Gray, by arranging that the three brothers should do his shearing in exchange for unbranded weaners. But it was a great struggle to keep going. Often they had no flour, and lived entirely on mutton and portulacca. In 1870 he tried to sell 7000 sheep, but the only offer he received was one shilling and sixpence a head. So with three men he set off to drive them to Adelaide.

He reached the Darling River and following it down to Winteriga, was glad to receive six shillings and ninepence a head for them. He was endeavouring to find which was the most suitable breed of cattle and decided on Herefords, but he still had not sufficient capital. The position slowly improved, and he was able to build a better homestead in which his book shelves had a prominent place. He was much grieved at the loss, by drowning, of his brother William, in February 1874, and soon after his father died.

In 1877 he was able to pay a visit to Scotland, and there met his uncle, Sir Robert Christison Bart, physician in ordinary to Queen Victoria, in Scotland. They became great friends and the old man lent Christison a considerable sum on mortgage of his property. Christison returned to his station and bought his Herefords. He had married in Scotland, but his wife died not long afterwards of malarial fever. In 1881 he became interested in the frozen meat trade, went to London and formed the Australian Company Limited, which was granted a lease of Poole Island near Bowen, North Queensland. At that time there was no market in North Queensland for fat cattle, and, though the project proved a failure, it was a plucky pioneer effort to bring a new source of wealth to Australia. Christison visualized that success would only be a matter of time, and refused to worry over his own losses. He made large dams on his property in some districts, and sank artesian bores in others. He had to face many difficulties, much of his land was resumed, and in 1891 he was involved in the great shearers' strike.

Pests and droughts added to his troubles, but his care in providing dams and his refusal to over-stock, stood him in good stead. Even then he was not far from complete ruin in 1903. After the rains came he was able to sell his station and retire to England. He bought an estate at Louth, Lincolnshire, and lived there from 1910 until his death on 25 October 1915. He had married again and his second wife survived him with a son and two daughters. One of his daughters, Mrs M. M. Bennett, wrote his biography.

Christison's success in living in amity with the aborigines was a remarkable achievement in view of the conditions of the time, and it was characteristic of the man that when he sold his properties, he would not discuss anything until the right of the aborigines to remain on the station as their home, was settled. As a pioneer, he showed that much could be done with the northern inland country, by the conservation of water, and his name will always be honourably remembered for his early connexion with the Queensland frozen meat trade. He was a humane, kindly and honourable man, a great pioneer, courageous and untiring. From Dictionary of Australian Biography]


Updated 1 November 2012