The Norwegians in Queensland

Osmundsens, daughter, grandson c. 1902 copyAt the night of the 2011 Australian census, 868 Norwegian-born persons resided in Queensland, making up a meagre 0.02 per cent of the state’s population. A little over 5000 Queenslanders say they are from Norwegian ancestry. Although few in number, the Norwegians have a long history in Queensland. In fact, the link between Norway and The Sunshine State was established even before Queensland was founded as a separate British colony in 1859.

The Archer brothers have a prominent name in early European history in Queensland. William and Julia Archer from Scotland migrated to Larvik in Norway and settled there in 1825. They had nine sons, all of whom spent time in Australia at some point in their lives. The Archer boys were either born or had grown up in Larvik, a coastal town south-west of the Norwegian capital Oslo (known as Kristiania until 1924).

Being explorers and pastoralists, the Archers came up from New South Wales and into the Darling Downs in the early 1840s in search for land. Later they established themselves in the Burnett district and founded the Eidsvold station, named after the small village in Norway where the Norwegian constitution was adopted in 1814. Finally, the Archer family found their ‘perfect paradise’ – as the eldest brother Charles (1813-1862) described it – at Gracemere south of Rockhampton; a property which has been continuously occupied by members of the Archer family since 1855.

While the story of the nine Archer brother and their many ventures is indeed a fascinating one, this paper will introduce the more average Norwegian immigrant in Queensland in the late 19th and early 20th century. Below I will present some of the findings from my recently completed M.A thesis in history from the University of Oslo, titled A Norwegian Waltz: Norwegian Immigration and Settlement in Queensland 1870-1914.

Immigration from Norway

Between 1870 and 1914, an estimated 1800 to 2000 Norwegians came to Queensland, although quite a few left again after some time. Consequently, judging from historical census data, the number of Norwegian-born living in Queensland at any one time probably never exceeded about 850 (in 1901) during this period.

Although the Norwegians were a tiny group measured against the total population, the Scandinavians (Norwegians, Swedes and Danes) did in fact constitute the second largest non-British immigrants group in Queensland after the Germans.

Readers of this journal [of Queensland Family History Society; where this paper was first submitted] would be familiar with the Queensland government’s efforts to populate the colony by offering assisted passages from the mid 19th century. Thousands of immigrants arrived from Europe, most of them Britons, quite a few from Germany and some Scandinavians – and the Queensland government paid for their passage partly or in full.

The migration program brought more than 1000 Norwegians to Queensland in the early 1870s and in 1899-1900 when the recruitment drive was at its most intense in Norway. Moreover, it is reasonable to estimate that a few hundred Norsemen arrived as nominated immigrants, particularly during the good years in the 1880s.

In addition to those who travelled as part of the government sponsored migration system, quite a few Norwegian seamen came to Queensland. Norway’s mercantile navy counted more than 60,000 sailors in 1875 and Norwegian vessels increasingly sailed to Australia in the latter part of the 19th century; one of the few routes where the ageing Norwegian sailing boats were still competitive against the emerging steam ships. As a result, many a Norwegian sailor came to live in Australia – and in Queensland. A large portion of them had deserted from their ships and entered Australia illegally – but the risk was low. We do not have figures as to have many Norwegian sailors jumped ship in Queensland ports, however, in comparison during the 1880s and 1900s, 1400 Norwegian sailors deserted in Melbourne. Many of them may have drifted north to Queensland at some point.

Social profile

The Norwegian-born population in Queensland prior to World War 1 was heavily dominated by men; for every ten Norwegians, seven or eight was a man.

Generally speaking, the vast majority of Norwegian men and women in Queensland belonged to the working class as labourers, seamen, miners or domestic servants. The Norwegian immigrants worked mainly with their bodies and at sea. Persons born in Norway were almost non-existent in the upper social reaches among pastoralists, and the top managerial and governing classes. However, a number of maritime officers held jobs with a degree of prestige. Some farmers, craftsmen and a few businesspeople also attained more independent positions, mostly gained through hard work more than by prior status.

How does this picture compare with the general population of Queensland? Norwegian men were heavily overrepresented in manual labouring and crafts and especially in the maritime sector. Conversely, there were fewer Norwegians than average in the agricultural/pastoral sector and even more so in commercial pursuits, land transport and white-collar jobs.

Far from every Norwegian was a model immigrant. Some lived on the edge of mainstream society as paupers, vagrants, drunks and criminals. It has been suggested that one in two Scandinavians in Australia had their funeral paid for by the council because they did not leave behind any descendants or financial means. These were typically old, unmarried men – often sailors – who had lived a rambling existence in a town or in the bush.

150 Norwegian-born persons were sent to prison in Queensland between 1864 and 1915. Most offences were minor and very few were sentenced for serious acts of crime. Drunkenness was by far the most common charge throughout the period, in a society where pubs easily outnumbered churches.

By far the most notorious was Halvor Olsen (ca. 1862-1916). Not because he was a seriously dangerous criminal, but because he was an extremely frequent guest in The Majesty’s prisons. Under his own name, often spelled Halver, and his aliases Charles Olsen, Oliver Olsen and Charles H. Oliver, he was sent to jail 59 times between 1896 and 1915 for drunkenness and vagrancy. When apparently sentenced to prison for the first time in 1896, Olsen showed a sallow complexion, he had light brown hair and grey eyes. 160 centimetres high and weighing about 61 kilos, according to the prison records, he was not a big man. Yet he stood out from the crowd: His right wrist had been broken and his left arm amputated above the elbow.

Settlement pattern

The Norwegians resided in most parts of Queensland, although certain clusters existed. Not surprisingly, Brisbane always had the largest number for Norwegians. At the peak of the population around 1900, approximately 150 Norwegians lived in Brisbane and nearby districts Nundah, Enoggera, Toowong and Oxley. Maritime occupations were the chief source of income-making. However, there was a fairly distinct social division among the Norwegians. On one hand was a small, but quite wealthy group of middle-class families, typically led by sea captains who had settled in Australia and did business there. The most prominent figure was Captain Oscar Svensenpictured – (1862-1954) from Larvik who had made a fortune as a planter in the Solomon Islands and who built himself a grand home named ‘Norway’ on top of Galloway’s Hill overlooking the Brisbane River. On the other end of the spectrum were the common sailors, wharf labourers and other workers who typically resided in South Brisbane.

Other locations with many (relatively speaking) Norwegian residents were the district around Yangan east of Warwick, where many Scandinavian farmers settled; in Mackay more than 50 Norwegians lived in the 1880s mostly engaged on the canefields; Charters Towers had a sizeable Norwegian population when gold extraction was at its height. Some of the other coastal towns, particularly Townsville, also had a few dozen Norwegians among their inhabitants.

I have used the term ‘micro-settlement’ to describe a locality where a handful of Norwegians lived together and maintained close interaction through being neighbours, and by common activities and marriage links. A few such micro-settlements existed, most notably in North Queensland.

Along the lower Herbert River, a few Norwegian/Scandinavian families established small-scale sugar cane farming in the 1880s and effectively founded the town of Halifax near Ingham. Also, near the mouth of the Bloomfield River, on the remote North Queensland coast, Iver and Anna Osmundsen from Skudneshavn in Southwestern Norway where at the core of a close-knit group of Norwegian and other Scandinavian farmers and seafarers from the 1880s and until sometime after the turn of the century.

Concluding remarks

The Norwegians in Queensland have always been few, but there was a sizeable influx of immigrants from the 1870s until around 1900. Although the first generation of settlers sometimes stayed together for mutual assistance and comfort, the general picture was relatively quick assimilation and absorption into the dominant British-Australian society.

Today a new Norwegian community has emerged in Queensland, centred mainly around the numerous Norwegian students at the universities in Brisbane and on the Gold Coast, as well as the Norwegian Club of Queensland. The celebration of the Norwegian Constitution Day – the 17th of May – pulls a crowd of several hundred people for the parade through the Brisbane CBD.

BY FREDRIK LARSEN LUND

This article has also been submitted to the journal of Queensland Family History Society in September 2012.

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