Pioneer – Felix ROSSER

The son of British convicts, Felix was a fisherman of colourful character who lived in Torquay all his life.

His parents arrived in Port Phillip from Tasmania with their first son Frederick between 1843 and 1849. Both parents had been transported to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) ten years earlier. Isabella (his mother), a farm servant, had been convicted in a ‘Court of Justiciary’, Inverness on 23 April 1836. She was convicted for stealing clothes and departed Woolwich on 12 August 1836 with 185 other female convicts arriving in Hobart on 3 December 1836 aboard the ship ‘Westmoreland’. On arrival she was to work in a nursery serving her time. Isabella was given her free certificate in March 1847. Frederick (his father) was sentenced at the Old Bailey, London on 28 November 1836 to 7 years’ transportation for steeling four watches. He was transported aboard the ship ‘Recovery’ leaving London on 27 May 1837 arriving in Hobart three months later. The ship report indicates that he was a bit troublesome during the journey. On arrival he was appropriated to Mr Romney, Acton Vale to serve his sentence which he did with some challenging events seeing him being punished further and more time added to his sentence. Frederick was given his free certificate in 1843.

Isabella and Frederick sought and were granted permission to marry. They did so on 24 April 1843 in Hobart and William was born later that year. at New Norfolk, north of Hobart on the Derwent River. Later the family travelled across Bass Strait to Port Phillip and were living in the Geelong area when William was born in 1849. John was born in 1851 and Felix 1852, the same year that Frederick, his father passed away. Isabella married John Bright in 1853. There were two sons born in the Geelong area from this union, Frank John born 1855 and Alexander born 1857.

Taken 1892
1892

Felix was often known in the early days as Felix Ross, was reared in the Bream Creek district, and took up regular fishing off Zeally Bay. Fish were plentiful at Spring Creek and bream in particular. Crayfish could be found near the mouth of the creek.

Felix and Charlie Miller were two professional fishermen in the early days catching garfish and salmon in the area too. Felix had a hut for several years before the first sale of allotments in the Puebla (Torquay) township. The hut sat on the present site of the Esplanade extension (Ocean Parade) near the site of the bowling green. In 1903 the Torquay Reserve Trust fenced off the area around

Taken 1892
1892

what was called Picnic Park near where Rosser and Miller had their huts. There was a gate to enter The Esplanade near their huts (corner of Beach Road and The Esplanade). Felix had to go through this gate to get to his shack which was near the bowling green is now.

Felix lost his favourite son, Harold during World War 1 and subsequently he struggled with his emotions. Herb Voss [7] recalled that after Harold’s death, whenever he saw Charlie Miller he would start ridiculing and abusing him. This occurred mainly on Thursdays when Felix was intoxicated. It would finish up with a fight, Felix would be fined and head off the next Thursday to pay the fine from the Thursday before.

When land was opened up for sale in the township of Puebla during 1866, Felix was one of the first landowners. He acquired 2 one acre allotments on Torquay Road; one at £24, the other at £25. He later purchased other property in the township, including the allotments that the Education Department bought for the first primary school, now the Coles supermarket is located on that site.

Felix was resourceful, not only was he well known for being a fisherman, he also was one of the early builders in Torquay having built a house for local dairy farmer Ted Charles. He was also commissioned by the Torquay Improvement Association in 1889 to construct a road over the sand hills to Spring Creek (Torquay). He laid logs across the sandy track in corduroy fashion making travel easier to Spring Creek from Geelong.

Felix married Florence Klemke from Germantown (Grovedale) in 1889. Together they had six children, Alice, Myrtle, Arthur, Victor, Harold and Joseph known as Roy.

 

1892

Torquay PS Committed to children in our community 1900-2000
Torquay PS Committed to children in our community 1900-2000

Florence was active in community affairs, in particular the development of a school for Torquay. She was a member of an early Torquay State School Committee.

While newspapers at the time reported his many escapades with the law as a result of alcohol, bad language or fighting, history has him best known for alerting police to the stricken vessel Joseph H Scammell on the night of May 7, 1891.

scammell alternatives_PrintThe vessel’s dangerous position was first noticed by local fisherman at about 11pm. Mr Felix Rosser, one of the fishermen, bravely attempted to row out to the ship to provide assistance but was forced back by the fierce seas. He sent word to Geelong and lit a fire on the beach to let the trapped passengers know that help was on the way. By morning, the sea had abated and a rescue boat was able to evacuate all passengers but none of the cargo.     (Source Heritage Victoria Database)

The aftermath of his heroism was that in August 1891 Felix was summoned to appear before the Belmont Police Court for selling sly grog during the time people flocked to the coast to view the wreck of the ship Joseph H. Scammell,[1]

Similarly, as a result of the steam ship SS Bancoora running aground at Bream Creek on 13 July 1891 Felix and others including his brother John were charged with looting passenger’s and officer’s luggage. This shocked the community who considered Felix, a name honoured on the beach as that of a man who had done more noble work at the shipwrecks on the Victorian coast than almost any other. It was written that he was largely instrumental in saving life at the Scammell wreck and took the first boat off to the Bancoora. Some members of the community mentioned to the reporter that he deserved the Victoria Cross for his heroism.

Seals often came ashore and on one occasion in the early 1900’s a whale beached itself. An attempt was made by some residents to boil it down, but the stench of the carcass caused them to cease their activity. A significant catch for Felix was when he bagged a Tiger Shark 10ft 6in in Zeally Bay.

During that year (1912) Felix put up for auction a lot of his property – WB room 12×12, fishing equipment and other items. Maybe he gave up fishing as a means of earning an income at this time. Subsequently, he had an increasing amount of run-ins with the law for bad language and aggressiveness. He was hospitalized for mental illness twice.

web whale-3 web whale-2A whale measuring 42ft long was reported caught by Felix near Bream Creek on Friday 2 February, 1917. It was reported in the Mortlake Dispatch that Felix had seen the whale stranded in about four and a half feet of water at daylight near Bream Creek and it was not quite dead. He made the animal secure by passing a line around its tail and fastening the end to the shore. By evening it was lying about 30 yards from the shore. This was the second time Felix had scored a whale; the other one was caught some years before and Felix sold its carcass to a museum, and also disposed of its blubber. Again Felix claimed the whale as his property, this time by carving his initials into its hide. However, Mary Coots denied the claim that Felix had first found (captured) the whale. Her version of the facts is that her sons found the whale washed ashore near Zeally Bay and notified Felix. It was reported that Felix had been offered £100 for the whale.[4]

Many people in town were frightened of Felix because of he was regularly intoxicated. Though Herb and EJ Taylor remember him fondly. When Herb and his sister Dora were little they would go along to his boat and play. Felix would come out full of bluster but they would stop and talk to him. He was good friends with Carl and Sarah Voss and the Taylors. He had no time for most of the people in the town, nor they for him. The Geelong Advertiser reported Felix donating items for school functions, which was a contrast to him shooting over the heads of kids as they passed his hut!

Herb recalled a time when he had lost a button on his trousers and Felix invited Herb and his sister into the hut where he sewed the button on and gave each a piece of cake.

John William Taylor was also very friendly with Felix Rosser. Felix’s hut located on the present road around the water’s edge and partly on the present area of Taylor Park was fondly

Taken 1893
1893

remembered by John A in his Torquay recollections[1]. He remembered sitting many times in the shed with the beautiful smell of Stockholm tar of his nets and his boat rigging. Felix hand made his own nets, rigged and maintained his own fishing boats. On occasions when heavy Southerlies or Westerly weather occurred and Felix was known to be out in his boat, John A and his father would wonder to Point Danger to see that Felix was safe. Though Felix never found himself in trouble because he was an excellent seaman.

Felix took opportunities where he could for work and during 1917 he offered Barabool Council his services in clearing scrub from the Torquay Bridge in exchange for wood. Council refused the offer preferring to inspect first the work that needed to be done. There were also advertisements in the Geelong Advertiser offering to build fences, clear land and other bits and pieces for new land owners in Spring Creek.

web ross-1The outbreak of World War 1 caused two of Felix’s sons to enlist in the AIF. Victor George was discharged on medical grounds shortly after enlistment and in 1918 Harold Leslie was killed in action during conflict in France. Felix was never the same after Harold’s death. His brother died that same year.

At the same time John William Taylor was approaching the Land’s Department about Taylor Park remaining Crown Land for public use, the construction of the Great Ocean Road was announced. This construction altered the seaward boundary of Taylor Park and eliminated the area occupied by Felix who was very upset. John William built another home for the Rosser family, likely to be on the land Mrs Rosser owned located on the corner of Walker and Bristol Road (where Woolworths is now located). It was around this time that Felix wandered away into the bush toward Jan Juc.

Sadly on August 9, 1919 Felix’s body was found at Jan Juc.

FISHERMAN’S BODY FOUND. Geelong, Saturday

The body of Felix Rosser, the Torquay fisherman, who had been missing since July 23, and whom black trackers failed to trace, has been found in a paddock at Jan Juc. Rosser had been dead for some days. He was a well-known identity in the district, and 12 months ago roped a large whale, which was stranded on Torquay beach. (Source: Riverine Herald, Monday 11 August, 1919)

Felix was found face down near scrub about half a mile from the home of Charles Baensch at Jan Juc. The discovery was made at 9.30 am by Charles. Baensch and Arthur Hunter. About 100 yards from the body was his loaded gun and his hat. The Coroner’s report of 13 August 1919 identified ‘Exhaustion and Hunger’ as the causes of death which was estimated to be around 30 July 1919.

A post-mortem examination had been made by Dr. J. E. Piper of the heavily decomposed body of Felix. He found there was a cut on his neck, but not deep enough to have resulted in his death. The Coroner found that Felix died of exhaustion and dehydration because the heart was small and contracted, the stomach was absolutely empty, not even any mucus to be found, his intestines and bladder were empty and contracted. The coroner concluded that Felix had “evidently walked until he was exhausted from hunger and his own exertions. The wound on the neck may have been caused by maggots entirely, but it may also have been an inflicted wound which became infected with maggots. It was at the level and in the direction usually found in cases of cut throat, but the wound would not in my opinion have caused death by itself. The cause of death in my opinion is exhaustion and hunger, perhaps accelerated by an inflicted wound in the neck.[5]

James Young, retired butcher, residing at Torquay, stated he saw Felix in the late afternoon of July 23 sitting on a log two miles from the township. He talked to him. Felix had a gun, and appeared then to be completely exhausted, and suffering from insanity. During the conversation Rosser stated “Someone was after him to shoot him.” James Young formed the opinion that Felix was not responsible for his actions, although he said nothing about taking his life. Felix had stated he was going to Jan Juc to see his daughter, “to warn her that someone was going to shoot them.” [6]

Felix died intestate with a personal wealth of £57-2-11. The estate consisted of 1 horse, 2 wagonettes, cash, boat, net, fishing gear and a hut (valued at £20). His wife Florence and 5 surviving children [Alice Hofer, Myrtle Helps, Arthur Rosser, Victor Rosser and Roy Rosser] inherited the estate.

Felix was buried at Bellbrae Cemetery on 10 August, 1919 aged 67.

Revered by the community for his acts of bravery, fishing skills, resourcefulness and his opportunistic character Felix is commemorated as a notable person in the history of Torquay with a street named after him. ‘Felix Crescent’ is not far from where his hut is reported to have been located.

Felix sign

 

webb ross-9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SOURCES

[1] The Argus, Monday 10 August 1891
[2] Gippsland Times, Monday 3 August 1891
[3] Geelong Advertiser 10 May 1912
[4] Mortalke Dispatch 7/2/1917 and Geelong Advertiser 5/2/1917
[5] Coroner’s Report, W.R. Anderson, Deputy Coroner 13 August 1919 – Inquest on body of Felix Rosser
[6] Coroner’s Report, W.R. Anderson, Deputy Coroner 13 August 1919 – Inquest on body of Felix Rosser
[7] Baensch, Follett & Voss Family History
[8] Geelong Advertiser 8 June 1974

 

 

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