Norwegian Builders of Australia

“Australia is a country almost exclusively populated by criminals. That is a statement you often hear. Yes, I have often been asked: Do they use knife, fork, plate and such things in Australia?”


These were the words of the Norwegian scientist Carl Sofus Lumholtz (1851-1922  – PICTURED) who travelled to Australia on an expedition in the 1880s. Australia as a territory of convicts is the popular perception of the early days of European settlement in the land of the Southern Cross. However, the vast majority of immigrants were in fact free settlers. Among them a handful of Norwegians were instrumental in shaping the young nation’s society and culture.

If you visit the lush highlands of North Queensland today, you may see a cuddly, fury animal with a long brush-shaped tail, living high up in a tree. If so you have just spotted the Lumholtz Tree-Kangaroo named after Carl Lumholtz. The Christiania University scholar spent four years undertaking field studies among the Aborigines in Australia’s tropics, and the account of his ground breaking work – a book titled Among Cannibals – became a classic. Lumholtz is still remembered today as a pioneer in ethnographic studies.

Norway on the map

Situated about five hours’ drive northwest of Brisbane is a small, quiet town, not much different from other country settlements in Queensland. Apart from its name: Eidsvold. The place was founded as a sheep station in 1848 by the first European settlers in this area, the Norwegian-Scottish Archer family. With a proud interest is Norse history, they named their property after the town where the Norwegian constitution was adopted in 1814.

The nine Archer brothers all left their family home in Larvik, Norway, to explore Australia. Most famous today is Colin Archer (1832-1921), architect of the Polar vessel Fram and a ship builder of great renown. He came to Eidsvold, Queensland, as a young man, although the actual foundation of the sheep farm has been attributed to his two elder brothers Charles and Thomas Archer. Charles later became the virtual founder of the city of Rockhampton when the family moved on further north searching for better pastures. However, Eidsvold is a running farm today with the Archers’ original homestead still standing.

Creative convict

The Archers came as free explorers. That was not the case with Knud Geelmuyden Bull (1811-1889). In fact, he was probably the only Norwegian ever to have been transported to Australia as a convict. He was sentenced to 14 years’ penal servitude in Australia after he was caught attempting to produce a counterfeit banknote in London in 1845.

However, Knut Bull, brother of the violin-player Ole Bull, had a great talent for landscape painting, and this is how Australians remember him today. After he got his release in 1853 he became a professional painter in Hobart, Tasmania, and a pioneer in the development of landscape art in Australia. His works are today represented in all major art museums across the country.

Father of a national poet

Arriving in Australia as a seaman, Niels (Peter) Hertzberg Larsen (born 1832) from Tromøya outside Arendal, followed the rush to the New South Wales gold fields. There he met Louisa Albury, the 17 year old daughter of a storekeeper. They fell in love, married and on 17 June 1867 Louisa gave birth to a son, Henry.

The rest is history: The Norwegian sailor-cum-gold digger fathered an Australian icon. Henry Larsen, christened Henry Lawson after his father’s anglicized name, grew up to become one of the country’s best-known poets and story writers. The portrait of Henry Lawson was featured on the back of Australia’s first 10 dollar bill. In a poem to his son Jim, Henry Lawson wrote of his Norse heritage: ”A strong Norwegian sailor’s blood /Runs red through every vein.”

A golden library

Developing Australia’s rich mineral resources has always been a men’s business. Some of them hailed from Norway, like William Grundt (PICTURED). Born i Berlevåg, Finnmark, ca. 1884, he left Norway as a young man eventually to become a miner in Australia. There he tried his luck at silver, lead, and tin, and got himself a degree as a mineralogist.

On the Western Australian goldfields around the rough town of Kalgoorlie Grundt struck gold – literally – and he made a comfortable life as a successful prospector. He was referred to as “the well-known mining authority” by a Perth newspaper in 1934, but little is actually known about his life. However, he surely left his mark because in 1975 the new municipal library in Kalgoorlie was named in honour of the Norwegian digger.

Almost like a royal

Like with Grundt, the story of one of the richest and most successful Norwegians ever to have lived in Australia is almost unknown 100 years later. Captain Oscar Svensen (1862-1943) from Larvik earned a fortune as a trader and plantation owner in the Solomon Islands. He married a Norwegian girl, Henriette, and they had eight children. In 1907 the family settled in Brisbane.

The family home Villa Norway was a landmark “lying there as a royal mansion on top of a hill with the best view of the entire city”, according to visiting writer Ludwig Saxe (later editor of The Norse Federation’s journal). Card games and bowling were among Svensen’s pastimes when he did not party with Queensland’s top brass – always reported by the local newspapers. Svensen was consul for Norway and his home became a meeting place for his fellow countrymen and women.

Those dam builders

While Oscar Svensen was respected for his business dealings and his expertise on the Solomon Islands, another Norwegian brought his engineering skills with him to Australia. Olav Trygve Olsen (1890-1966) from Søgne, near Kristiansand, was engaged in several hydro-electricity projects in Norway before moving to Australia in 1925.

Nicknamed ‘Tiny’, Olsen was 188 cm tall and weighed 115 kilos and he enjoyed skiing in the Victorian Alps.  It was there, in the high Snowy Mountains, he made a name for himself as the mastermind behind the immense hydro-electrical development schemes which were constructed from the early 1950; a crucial piece of the modernisation of Australian infrastructure.

This is where we can really speak about Norwegians who built Australia: The Aussies needed help from the northern hemisphere to construct their massive dams and power stations. Norwegian engineering firm Fredrik Selmer A/S was given the contract and the first phase of construction was built almost exclusively by workers flown out from Norway, counting nearly 400 people.

By then, Australia had come a very long way from its beginnings as a penal colony. While no Norwegian achieved a truly major position Australian history, a few men at least played their supporting roles in the saga.

(This article was first published in Norwegians Worldwide, January 2012).

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One thought on “Norwegian Builders of Australia

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