The Immigrant Rose

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“I spent my wedding night there,” I tell my cousin Nadine as we drive past the Horse and Jockey Motor Inn.

“Really? Is there a plaque?”

We’re in Warwick, where our great-great-great-grandfather, Frederick Margetts, was for thirty-two years the medical officer at Warwick Hospital, as well as running his own practice.

We’ve learned quite a lot about Doctor Margetts. He was often involved in dramatic events that were reported in detail in the Warwick papers.

One day in 1878 he was called to attend a horrible accident: a five-year-old girl playing near a vat of hot tar had been scalded. He went at once, but there was nothing to be done – the little girl died before he got there.

The doctor attended many tragic accidents: men killed in falls from horses; people crushed by overturned drays; women burned in kitchen accidents, their long dresses caught in flames; snake bites, drownings, accidents to workers building the railway. There were inquests to be conducted into sudden deaths and suicides, and a time when he had the care, in the lock-up, of a man who had cut his own throat. Warwick was a wild town.

Everyone would have known the doctor, grey bearded and bushy moustached, driving out in his buggy to make a house call, visiting the hospital or walking down Albion Street to Church on Sundays with his wife and grown children. Not everyone liked him, though. His disputes in the Parish Council and feuds with local businessmen were also reported in the paper.

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Dr Frederick Margetts driving a buggy, probably outside his fence. State Library of Queensland

“He was pig-headed,” says Nadine.

“Very argumentative. Let’s find somewhere for lunch.”

Frederick and Ann Margetts hadn’t planned to emigrate. They’d lived for over twenty years in the small town of Ilchester, Somerset, in a house on the market place where Frederick ran his practice and their six children were born. Then, in 1862, middle-aged and, seemingly, settled for life, they moved to Queensland.

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In the market square of Ilchester, Somerset, with the Margetts house and surgery in the background – brown, with two doors

People left nineteenth-century England for lots of reasons – poverty, over-crowding, political unrest, a quest for security for their children – just as migrants and refugees do today. It takes courage and enterprise to move across the world for the chance of a better life.

Frederick and Ann moved for their children. Their eldest son George was consumptive, and the medical advice of the time said his best chance for survival was to live in a warm, dry environment.  The new state of Queensland was advertising in English newspapers for migrants, offering employment, land and a good climate; and Warwick was described as “the Garden of Queensland”. Moving to Warwick seemed a good idea for the whole family.

They embarked on the migrant ship City of Brisbane. Keen gardeners, amongst their luggage they took a rose bush. A white scrambling rose, it survived one hundred and forty days at sea to flourish in the new family garden in Warwick.

The move didn’t help George. He died the following year and was the first to lie in the Margetts plot in Warwick cemetery.

The family endured their share of troubles. In 1870, twenty-five-year-old Edmund was badly injured when his spirited young horse stumbled and rolled on him. Even then, there were reckless young men speeding in the streets of Warwick.

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The Margetts family house in Warwick  Photo courtesy of Helen Lees

“It’s a pretty town,” says Nadine. “Fine old sandstone buildings, and lots of flowers and trees in the main street. And they call it the City of Roses! We can claim some credit for that.”

The Margetts were among the first Warwick residents to plant shade trees along the streets, and in 1876 Frederick was one of the organisers of the first Warwick Flower Show.

He and Ann spent the rest of their lives in Warwick, and today many of their descendants live on the Darling Downs. It was one of them who told me, several years ago, that there is still a family rose bush to be seen, on what had been Edmund Margetts’s farm. I went searching for it.

On a gentle slope where kangaroos bounded away through the long brown grass and curious cattle wandered across the paddock to watch, I found a broken-down picket fence. A few stumps and an old tap show where the farmhouse once stood.

Nearby was a strong and healthy rose bush, two metres high, growing without fertilizer or irrigation, struck from a piece of the rose that travelled across the world in a migrant ship, so many years ago.

I took some cuttings, and now the family rose is growing in my Brisbane garden. Its flowers are sweetly scented and plentiful, but its thorns are vicious. This is not a modern, well-behaved, grafted rose. It’s a survivor.

You have to be, to leave your homeland and put down roots in a strange country on the other side of the world.

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