Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Watson, Mary Beatrice (1860–1881)

by S. E. Stephens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Mary Watson, by Louis Buderus

Mary Watson, by Louis Buderus

State Library of Queensland, 67193

Mary Beatrice Phillips Watson (1860-1881), heroine, was born on 17 January 1860 at Fiddler's Green, Cornwall, England, eldest child of Thomas Oxnam, butcher and cattle-dealer, and his wife Mary, née Phillips. She was well educated but in 1877 the family was compelled by financial loss to migrate and settled at Maryborough, Queensland. Mary established a private school there to augment the family finances but gave it up for a position as a governess. Dissatisfied with the conditions she resigned and opened a private school in Cooktown.

Mary was reserved, nervous and delicate but her ability as a pianist attracted many friends and on 30 May 1880 at Christ Church, Cooktown, she married Captain Robert E. Watson, a Scots seaman who shared a bêche-de-mer station on Lizard Island with P. C. Fuller. On 3 June 1881 a son Thomas Ferrier was born at Cooktown: Mary returned to the island with her baby at the end of the month.

In October, when Captain Watson and his partner were two hundred miles (322 km) away, Lizard Island was invaded by mainland Aboriginals. They killed the Chinese gardener, wounded the Chinese house-boy Ah Sam and threatened Mrs Watson. She defended herself with a rifle but realized it would be unsafe to stay on the island. As no boat was available she collected provisions and equipment and left with her baby and the wounded Chinaman in a square ship's tank used for boiling bêche-de-mer. The Aboriginals, probably satisfied with removing her from a ceremonial ground on the island, did not interfere.

From 2 to 7 October the tank alternately drifted and was stranded on reefs or pulled into islands; the presence of Aboriginals prevented the replenishment of dwindling water supplies. On 7 October they reached a small waterless island, No 5 Howick. A few days later a passing ship missed their signals and in five days all three had perished from thirst. Their remains were discovered in January 1882 by the crew of the Kate Kearney and soon after were brought to Cooktown by the Water Police magistrate for a large public funeral.

Mary Watson's diary of the ordeal demonstrated more than ordinary intelligence, self-reliance and imagination. Her courage and initiative in planning and executing the escape emphasized her final misfortune. Her tender care, both of her baby and the wounded Chinaman, has helped to make the story an Australian legend and the tank is preserved in the Queensland Museum.

Select Bibliography

  • Mrs Watson, a Cooktown Heroine (Port Douglas, c1891), also published as The Heroine of Lizard Island (Cairns, nd)
  • R. S. Browne, A Journalist's Memories (Brisb, 1927)
  • Coroner's inquest no 373, 1882 (Cooktown Court records)
  • M. B. P. Watson diary (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

S. E. Stephens, 'Watson, Mary Beatrice (1860–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-mary-beatrice-4813/text8025, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Mary Watson, by Louis Buderus

Mary Watson, by Louis Buderus

State Library of Queensland, 67193