SS Walrus: Rum on the river

The planting and cultivation of sugar cane in Queensland was paramount to a booming industry: the production of rum. In 1869 there was even a floating mill that produced and delivered rum to eager Queenslanders.

The Walrus had been an unassuming sailing ship purchased by James Stewart in 1869 with plans to convert it into a steamship, and much more. Young entrepreneurs J. Campbell Moffat and John Falconer wrote to the Colonial Secretary on behalf of the Pioneer Floating Sugar Mill to ask for a protection for two years to produce mill sugar and make rum. The protection was granted and the SS Walrus became a floating distillery.

A letter to the Premier requesting protection for the SS Walrus, 1869
A letter to the Premier requesting protection, 1869, ITM846850

It cruised up and down the Logan and Albert rivers, servicing the local plantations in the area, turning sugar into copious amounts of rum. From 1870 to 1871 the SS Walrus produced approximately 53,000 litres of rum. In comparison to other stationary distilleries at the time, this amount was huge.

Unfortunately, the SS Walrus came under the attention of local authorities. The Chief Inspector of Distilleries reported on the floating mill after visiting the area and agreed that even though it was servicing a need, the vessel was not fit for purpose. Considering this, the Chief Inspector did not renew the licence in 1872. Instead he recommended that a stationary distillery be established.

Cross section drawing of the Walrus floating mill and distillery, 1869
Section of sugar mill Walrus, 1869, ITM846850

Was this the end of SS Walrus? In early 1876, after being abandoned and expected to break up at sea, the ship was rescued and salvaged by Samuel Crawford. The matter ended up in civil court, as the owner needed to pay for the salvage cost (not paying usually meant that the salvager got to keep the vessel). Crawford must have seen the value in the Walrus at the time. The owner, Joseph Hogan, eventually came forward, paid the cost and recovered his ship. After this, it is assumed that rum production recommenced, this time illegally.

In 1883, the SS Walrus was found beached on the banks of the Albert River. What happened to the vessel remains a mystery, but it is believed that Francis Gooding then purchased the still from the SS Walrus. Mr Gooding would eventually obtain a licence in 1884 for the Beenleigh Rum Distillery, which is a functioning distillery to this day.

Beenleigh Rum Distillery on the river bank, circa 1912

Beenleigh Rum Distillery, Queensland, ca. 1912, State Library of Queensland

Cover image Historical Ships SS Walrus Travelling Sugar Refinery, 1872, ITM435759

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