While a fair deal is written about the 20th Century public contact with Lady Musgrave Island and the Capricorn-Bunker group, not much is recorded about the region's early history. It is reasonable to assume that the islands have been visited for at least 150 years. The first European recorded contact was by the HMS Fly, on its travels to North Queensland in 1843. In fact, it's believed Lady Musgrave Island was first charted on this voyage.
It is also safe to say that Lady Musgrave was the scene of various exploitative industries. Notably Asian beche de mer fishermen, and several groups of guano miners.
The most successful guano (phosphate) miners were from a British firm, John T. Arundel and Company. This company was first established in the 1870's or 80's, as an enterprise planting and harvesting coconuts on various mid-pacific islands. Some of their junior employees at the time was Albert ElIis and several of his brothers, who were introduced to the company by their father. Albert Ellis was a New Zealander and 18 years old at the time but bound for much greater things.
J. T. Arundel and Co. worked many pacific islands, including the Phoenix group (now Kiribati) planting and maintaining large coconut plantations, for the copra industry. They were also pioneers of the phosphate mining industry, working these tiny pacific atolls, and shipping the valuable top-dressing back to Britain.
For about 10 years Albert Ellis worked with the company, in its infant phosphate operations in the pacific. But, by 1890, the deposits were all-but worked out, so the company transferred its operations to Queensland. Mining then started at Raine Island, in the far northern section of the Barrier Reef, This island is best known for its large convict constructed tower. It was during their stay on the island that the Ellis family contributed the only other visible structure on the island a lonely headstone, erected when Annie Ellis, mother of Albert, died after a short illness.
The other island visited was Rocky Island, in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where operations continued for several months. Then the company focused its attentions on the Capricorn Bunker group of islands, off the Central Queensland coast.
Lady Elliot Island was the company's first port of call in 1893. The labourers consisted of Japanese and Malay men, and "five whites", who relished the company of the lighthouse keeper and his daughters. By all reports, the island was an economic success, and the team of workers stripped almost all the vegetation. They took about one metre off the island.
Next in the chain, Lady Musgrave Island. Although they knew the name, the guano miners called the place Bunker number 1 - Fairfax Islands were known as Bunker number 2.
An extract from Albert Ellis' book "Adventuring in Coral Seas" best describes his early contact with the island. "We had a good run across, and pitched camp a short distance above the crown of the beach, the cutter anchoring in the capacious lagoon. This has the important distinction of having a narrow deep-water entrance, enabling small vessels to enter or leave at any time of the tide. Being narrow it is somewhat difficult to locate. A permanent beacon at each end of the channel would be very useful"
So it seemed The lagoon entrance was certainly in place in 1892, putting paid to suggestions that guano miners blew the channel.
Later, Ellis wrote: "Investigations at Lady Musgrave were completed in a couple of days. The phosphate-guano deposits proved very meagre. Taking the whale boat we then sailed down to Fairfax Island (Bunker No.2), only: four or five miles distant. Fairfax Island was a difficult place to work, particularly as to the shipping; tide work was necessary and a launch was used for the long tow out to the anchorage. Operations on a minor scale were carried on at Lady Musgrave at the same time, a ketch being employed to lighter cargoes across to the sailing vessels loading at the other island. It was out of the question to use steamers in the trade, the rate of loading being much too low".
In his book, "Adventuring in Coral Seas" Ellis makes reference to another excellent book partly written at Lady Musgrave, "On the Barrier Reef" by S. Elliott Napier.
Of that book, Ellis wrote: "It is particularly interesting to read of the impressions the island conditions made on people coming fresh to the scene. This large party of scientists and friends were considerably puzzled by the presence of a healthy, well-fed flock of goats on Lady Musgrave Island, in view of its small size and the absence of water. These animals are the progeny of several we left there in 1898 - a few were also left at Fairfax Island."
Albert's brother George Ellis was the manager of operations at Lady Musgrave Island, and he had a "hut" just behind the dunes on what is now the camping beach. It seems to have been built at the Western end of the beach. At the same time, Albert Ellis was manager of operations at Fairfax Islands.
John T. Arundel and Co. weren't hugely successful in the Central Queensland operations. The workers moved their way through the Capricorn-Bunker group, finding significant deposits only at Heron Island and North West Island (where they released chickens - now of great scientific interest, because they have reverted back to feral form). The Queensland income was barely keeping the company afloat - and everyone dreamed of finding the phosphate equivalent of El Dorado.
In the year 1900, Albert Ellis was working in the company's Sydney laboratories; during a lull in operations. The company by this time was in grave danger of folding, until Ellis made a historic discovery. For some years, an unusual rock had been used to prop open the lab door - said to have been collected on a mid-pacific voyage some years earlier by a disinterested fellow employee, Ellis tested the material, which proved to contain the world's highest known concentration of phosphate. The rock came from a tiny atoll "Ocean Island" north east of the Solomon Islands, Ellis led an expedition to the island, and thus discovered, along with nearby Nauru, the world's largest phosphate deposits, The discovery made a mint for the struggling company, and earned Ellis international celebrity status. Operations at Nauru and Ocean Island were then taken over by the Pacific Phosphate Company.
Ellis went on to write three books about his exploits in the pacific and Queensland. The first, "Ocean Island and Nauru" , were followed by "Adventuring in Coral Seas" and then after the Japanese occupation of the two islands in World War 11, "Mid Pacific Outposts". Of particular note in this last book, are several photographs showing the author present at the Japanese surrender at Ocean Island and Nauru. Ellis' presence is an indication of his respect and celebrity status at the time - he was widely regarded as the father of industry in the tiny island nations (and in fact a monument still stands in his honour on Nauru), The surrender document signing's took place on board the HMAS Diamantina, an Australian frigate on war time service in the Pacific. This particular vessel now sits in the Cairn cross Dry docks in Brisbane, where it is open for public display, On board the Diamantina are several rooms full of WWII naval memorabilia, including more photos of the Japanese surrender ceremony which took part on the boat!
Sir Albert Ellis died in 1951 at the age of 82, after being knighted for his services to the mining industry.