Not just a pretty label

Not just a pretty label

Above: Honey label, courtesy of the SLQ, Neg: 190341

By Susan Prior

William Francis and Ellen Lyon (nee Sutton), Ipswich, ca. 1910. Image No. 15460, courtesy of the Picture Ipswich, Ipswich City Council

William F Lyon

It is interesting how a simple honey label, chanced upon while searching the John Oxley Library’s archives, can send you down a rabbit hole, to discover a fascinating story: that of a suburb with the distinction of being the home of beekeeping in Queensland. That pretty little label created a window through which to glimpse a small vignette of our past.

I was attracted to the label’s design, so I decided to find out more about the man behind it – WF Lyon. He established the first commercial apiary in South East Queensland, which happened to be in Oxley.

William Lyon, who arrived in the district in 1863, was an interesting man and an active, philanthropic member of the Oxley community.

In 1891, for example, he built a weatherboard church to replace an old bark non-denominational one on the corner of Oxley Road and Bannerman Street. He was also one of the gents who helped to build a school close by, again, to replace an older building. For a time, in 1891, he held the position of census officer for the district.

In the floods of 1893, the same William Lyon, who was described variously as apiarist, undertaker, carpenter, landowner and member of the first Sherwood Divisional Board (1891 and 1901–2), resourcefully used a coffin as a canoe to ferry people to safety.

But it is his honey business that most piqued my interest. Ethel Eva Crane, a world renowned expert on beekeeping, in her book The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (published in 1999) says this:

In Queensland, W.F. Lyon saw† bees arrive on the second immigrant ship* to Moreton Bay, in 1857. Writing in 1919, Lyon’s memory of beekeeping around 1863 was that the standard box hive was a gin case – in which bottles of gin were transported from England – and that he was presented with a swarm in a tea chest by a timber cutter who had taken it. In 1869 ‘nearly every farmer in the district had a dozen or two hives … I used to go around the neighbouring farmers and take their honey from them … in those days there were no frames or extractors; combs were broken up and placed in bags to drain out … Honey was sold at 1d per lb and bees-wax at 6d.’

When I searched the Queensland Government records, I found that the year of his birth was 1854, which would only make him three years’ old† by my calculations; although, his date of birth is also noted as being 1852, which would make him five years’ old. The second ship* to Moreton Bay arriving in 1857 was the Hastings, from Liverpool, England.

According to Ralph Fones, in Oxley! A Mind of Its Own, William Lyon’s ‘quaint honey house remained a feature near Ipswich Road until the 1990s’. More on that later.

In those days there was a level of altruism among the new settlers to the area. Again, from Ralph Fones: ‘The land on which Nixon Park is located was donated by William Lyon to the council for the use of the people of Oxley. The park is named after Sherwood resident Francis Octavious Nixon [1883–1955], well known as a “Save The Trees” campaigner.’

William Lyon married Ellen Sutton in 1874, and together they had 12 children. At some stage, William and his family must have also purchased a property called Tarampa, outside Ipswich. One of the photographs that I found shows him outside this property in 1884, and another is dated 1905. A further photograph is a portrait of the couple dated about 1910. The description on this reads:

William Francis Lyon had the first established commercial apiary in Queensland at Oxley. He was a member of the Queensland Beekeepers Association being elected at the first meeting held in 1887. He also was a judge with the RNA for 20 years in the early 1900s. He was born in 1852 and died in 1924. His wife Ellen (nee Sutton) was born in 1851 and died in 1926.

Recorded in the Brisbane Courier, on 3 June 1881, is another interesting bit of trivia: in the May of 1881 a ‘W.F. Lyon, Oxley’ donated a dingo to the Queensland Museum. It would have to be one and the same, surely?

The ghosts of William and Ellen live on in the suburb of Oxley; William Terrace and Lyon Avenue are named after him, and Ellen Street is more than likely named after his wife. His hives were originally placed on Lyon Avenue, and later were moved to what is now known as Nixon Park.

And all this information about one of our early pioneers came as a result of a chance observation of a rather pretty label for honey.

The honey tradition in Oxley continues

Another beekeeper who started his business in Oxley is Ken Olley, who established Olley’s Organic Honey in 1956. Ken is getting on in years but he, and his business, are both going strong.

While writing this article, I did some research about Ken Olley, and looked up his new place of business in Clifton, outside Toowoomba on Google Earth. Was I surprised when I saw what looked like the honey hut sitting outside the front of his home and business! Later, I spoke to Ken and asked him what he knew about Mr Lyon’s ‘quaint honey house’, and he confirmed that he still had it! Recognising its historical significance, when the Ipswich Road was widened, he removed it to his property in Clifton, south of Toowoomba, where it still stands outside his home. He also has, he says, the original extractor used by Mr Lyon.

Excerpt from the Sherwood Centenary book produced in 1967. The old honey hut is back left

Ken is an incredibly busy man, still working. I didn’t manage to meet him face to face, but I did get up to Clifton to photograph his honey house. It is quite clearly the same structure as the one represented on the honey label, although it is looking a bit dilapidated.

I must admit, somewhat selfishly perhaps, that I would love to see this hut restored and back here in Oxley or Corinda, where its story began. 

Another honey producer also started in the area. In Richlands is the well-known honey producer Capilano. J.C. (Tim) Smith and his brother H.A. (Bert) Smith began the business in 1953. To this day it is still 100 per cent Australian-owned and business is booming.

Today, the Oxley honey tradition is being kept alive today by Micah Oberon, a young farmer who sells his farm produce, including honey from hives located in Oxley, at the farm gate in Cliveden Avenue. You can read more about Micah here.

Fresh farm produce, from the farm gate in Oxley

Fresh farm produce, from the farm gate in Oxley

The path to art

The path to art