2. Yabsley family

William Yabsley (1812 – 1880)
Magdalen Yabsley (1812 – 1896) Founders of Coraki

Born in Devonport, England, William joined the navy and was the carpenter’s mate aboard the Beagle when he arrived in Sydney in 1838. He jumped ship and headed north with the lure of cedar-getting enticing him beyond the colonised zone to the Clarence River. 

The small coastal cutter John floundered at the Clarence bar and the boat capsized; one sailor drowned as they were swimming for shore. A treacherous introduction to his new home. 

A year later his wife Magdalen and his six year old daughter Jane sailed from England and were reunited with William in Woolport (Grafton) to begin their new life in a bark hut in this strange, hostile land. As all successful pioneering families did, they rose to the challenge and adapted to their environment. William worked hard as both a timber-getter and a shipwright while Magdalen created a home for their growing family. Three babies had died in the filth of the Plymouth tenements but now her new arrivals, Eliza and William Jnr, were thriving in the sunshine and fresh air.

They stayed at Woolport for three years where William began to build his first boat the Providence. It was sold before completion as new horizons beckoned.  

The timber around the Clarence River was getting stripped and so the Yabsley family packed up the bullock dray and ventured out overland towards the Richmond River, 50 miles north. Opportunities in The Big Scrub were boundless for a hard-working family. They settled at the mouth of the river at Bullinah (Ballina) where William used his bullock team to haul cedar logs from the cedar-getter’s camps towards the river, for transport by ocean to Sydney. He built a ketch and called it the Pelican which was used for river trading and goods transport to and from Sydney. 

The Richmond River snaked for many miles through virgin forests and swampland – the North Arm leading to Lismore where William and Ann Wilson had begun a settlement and the South Arm heading to Tomki where Clark Irving had erected a pub and store to supply the cedar-getters. William decided that the meeting of the waters would be the opportune place for river trade and a ship building enterprise. They could soon buy the property and really own that too. The Commissioner could not refuse to renew the lease. It would belong to them and their sons.

William took up the lease at Brook Station and adopted the Aboriginal name of Kurrache and thus Coraki was founded. He began building a new home for his growing family; a low cottage on the banks of the river. The nearest neighbours were small cattle stations at Wardell, Gundurimba and Tatham.

In 1849 the family, now comprising of three new additions Ann, Henry (Harry) and baby Magdalen, made the journey upriver from Bullinah in relative luxury aboard the Pelican. Jane, aged 16, had married Fred West and remained at Rocky Mouth (Woodburn) to begin her family. 

Every boat, raft and schooner travelling up or down the river had to pass Coraki and with the addition of a wharf, a store, a sawpit and a shipyard, William had covered all bases to satisfy the needs of the river populace. The Pelican supplied a steady consignment of stock from Sydney until she was wrecked in Port Stephens in 1852.

As the town grew, so did the family. The Yabsley tribe now numbering nine with Charles, Elizabeth and Thomas completing the family. Fred West had gone to seek his fortune at the gold diggings leaving Jane and baby Mary at Coraki.

The 1850s was a period of steady growth and prosperity for the whole district. William replaced the Pelican with the Coraki and resumed shipping timber to Sydney and bringing stores on the return journey.  He still operated a bullock team for timber hauling and was building up his cattle stocks but the shipyard and boat building took up most of his attention.

He was commissioned to build a 17 ton launch Quicksilver for the surveyor Frederick Peppercorne who was travelling the river system surveying the new towns like Lismore and Casino, ready for land sales. The boat was fitted with a new mercury engine but they had to revert to rowing with sweeps when they discovered that mercury oxide vapours were poisonous.

When he began his next ship, he was persuaded by some settlers to take on some thirteen year old boys as apprentices. He named the new 180 ton barque the Schoolboy. She was fast and sleek and could carry timber to Melbourne and Hobart.

The early 60s saw Jane and Captain William Kinny make a new home on the Macleay River. Eliza married John Robinson and began her family at Swan Bay. William Jnr married Frances Cook and they selected land under the Free Selection Act. 

William Snr had not only claimed the original land of Brook Station, but also selected blocks for his three younger sons and helped his employees to do the same by advancing them the first deposit. The village of Coraki was growing with many new settlers claiming the newly surveyed blocks. Donald McKinnon and William built a “Manse” for the arrival of Reverend John Thom, the first Presbyterian minister and the first school was erected at Bally Hill a few years later.

The township centred around William’s ship building enterprise.

In 1864 William designed and erected a huge ship shed 30ft by 150ft for building his vessels in. The posts of this shed were 30ft out of the ground and 10ft in it and from 9ft to 10ft girth at the butt, and were lifted into position with the aid of shearlegs tackle and bullocks. Sitting at the junction of the river, there was nothing else like it in all the northern rivers and it became quite a landmark for the next 60 years.

When William’s largest ship, the 265-ton Examiner, was launched in 1870, she was the pride of the river. [read about the Examiner’s mishap in the Shipping section] Impressed by William Yeager’s steam drogher Keystone, the next boat to emerge from the ship shed was the Index, a 50 ton steam tug built to assist the Schoolboy and Examiner on the long trip from Ballina to Coraki and help at the treacherous bar.

In 1866 he built a modest house on the banks of the river for his large family. It was known as Coraki House.
More settlers moved into the district to take advantage of the rich farmland and the strong, tall red cedar timber.

The 70s heralded more weddings, many more grandchildren and the sad deaths of Ann and Harry. Ann had married a chemist James Stocks, and they had twins, a boy and a girl. Ann died just two years later with baby James following 4 days afterwards. 

Two of William’s apprentices became family when Oliver Jones married Elizabeth and Thomas King married Magdalen. Brothers Thomas and Charles Yabsley married sisters Mary Jane and Grace McDougall.

William’s last ship the Beagle was launched in 1876 and more settlers arrived in the district. The town prospered and so did the large Yabsley family. They were well-respected and civic-minded, hard-working and generous.   

In January 1880 while returning from Casino on the Vesta, William drowned when the boat capsized. The town mourned the loss of its founder and the baton was passed to the three young Yabsley sons.

The Next Generations

Lismore and Casino grew quickly with a steady demand for high quality building materials. William Junior converted the big ship shed into a modern, steam-driven sawmill and, along with Yeager’s sawmill downstream, it was the commencement of years of prosperity for the people of Coraki. He bought another schooner, the Lady Franklin, with which to trade appointing Lachlan McKinnon as captain. William had always been far more interested in agriculture and farming and had built up a magnificent herd of cattle and horses. He had been a keen rider from a young age and had won several races so it was no surprise when he developed the race course and Jockey Club on the land behind the sawmill.

Magdalen lived on in Coraki House surrounded by her extensive family. As the 20th century approached, she could barely recognise the small village they had founded 50 years earlier. The prosperous years had yielded great innovations and advancement but at the expense of the environment. She passed away in 1896 aged 84.

William junior was the first mayor of Coraki, occupying the position for a period of three years. He also, at a later time, was president of Woodburn Shire, his brother Charles being a councillor at the same time.

William Jnr built a second storey onto Coraki House to accommodate his large family. His daughter Louisa lived in it until her death in 1940, and then it was torn down.

Yabsley House 

In 1907 William George Mackney of Casino successfully tendered for the construction of a 15 room residence for Mr Albert Yabsley in Coraki. The home was designed by architects Popplewell and Skyes who gave a lot of thought to design and paid particular attention to ventilation, appearance and solidity.

It consisted of 3 bedrooms and a servant’s room, 2 linen rooms, an office, 2 pantries, the drawing room, dining room, 3 fireplaces, a bathroom, box room and kitchen. There were 2 passage ways and a hallway. The ceilings were 13 feet high. On the northern side entrance was a porch and covered carriageway. Verandahs 7 feet in width protected the building on 3 Sides, the north, the west and the south.

Albert Yabsley and his wife Laura (nee Strange) only lived in it for a couple of years before they returned to New Zealand. Various families occupied the house until 1946 when it was purchased by Keith Powell. The Powell family lived there for 40 years and when Michael and Susan Yabsley bought it in 1987, they officially named it Yabsley House. It was redecorated and refurnished in Federation style with the intention of being used as a restaurant and luxury accommodation. This venture was not successful and once again it was back on the market. In 1994 it was sold to Amanda and Theo Poteris who owned 40 acres near Federal – they moved it in three sections to their property, attached it to another house and named the property Yarraga. After spending 15 years renovating and planting gardens and forests, it was sold again in 2001 and has a new life being leased as luxury accommodation in the Byron hinterland.