Reflections on Magnetic Island and Times Past

Magnetic Island is a jewel in North Queensland’s crown and I look forward to each weekend when we can take the ferry across the bay and completely relax in our little paradise.


Last weekend I started to think more about the first white settlers who came to the island. We were walking along the shady path by the beach at Picnic Bay, which in itself is worth a visit. The old banyan fig trees that line the shore are fascinating with huge aerial roots and plenty of climbing opportunities for children who can let their imaginations run wild. There have been plenty of stories of goblins and fairies, dragons and monsters lurking deep in the twisted branches and all the while the cockatoos screech and play above looking for seed pods.




At the end of the walk there is a plaque remembering the life of the first known white settler. Harry Butler came to the island in 1876 after emigrating from Lancashire in northern England in 1867. My own family ancestors were also from Lancashire and at that time the county was important for it’s cotton mills and the industry arising from cotton. The countryside was beautiful and there were small villages and farms where people lived either from farming or spinning and weaving, which was done at home. They would send their bolts of cloth to the mill or factory via canal boat and canals criss-crossed the county with longboats providing much needed transport for coal and produce. The cities were grimy and crowded and living conditions harsh. I wondered about Harry Butler bringing his family across the oceans to the unknown and then choosing to settle on a small island off the mainland where there was nothing except opportunity.


Life would have been tough. A passenger, William Westacott, on a quarantined vessel Sir William Wallace noted in his diary on 3rd October 1878 : ‘there is a hut and a man, his wife and six children and two brothers beside…..they have a fine garden….sweet potato, pineapples and corn …a lot of fowls, ducks and a dog.’ I tried to imagine Elizabeth Butler working in her garden in long skirts and heavy shoes in the heat and humidity of the tropical summer. Her English roses complexion would have suffered under the harsh sun in spite of large hats which were always worn. How different it must have seemed to them after Lancashire. Perhaps they thought it was their own little paradise.


The family planted an orchard and built another hut made from coral blocks and began to cater for people who came across from the mainland for picnics. Eventually they built thatched cottages so people could stay overnight and then, recognising the demand, they ran their own boat service to Picnic Bay from the mainland and built a temporary wooden jetty.

Thus began the first tourism venture on the island.