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Sarah Balls


Sarah Balls was an extraordinary Brisbane businesswoman but who would have imagined that she would build a fish cannery on Bribie Island in 1908.

Sarah found her talent for management in Ipswich when her husband was running the Queensland Hotel in 1893. John Balls went off to the gold fields in 1895 handing over the Hotel to her which she managed as well as looking after their four children. 

Three years later, after his death in the Kalgoorlie gold fields, Sarah went first to Maryborough where she leased the Queens Hotel then to Brisbane where she leased the Stock Exchange Hotel in Queen Street.  Hotels then couldn’t sell alcohol on Sunday, so Sarah leased the Brisbane Central Station Cafe from the Government as it allowed her to sell alcohol as long as the trains were running and at Central Station that was nearly 24/7. Within three years Sarah was leasing thirteen more railway cafes and all were successful as she handpicked her managers.

In 1907, aged 45, Sarah turned her attention to the new Federal Bounty Act which was presenting opportunities in manufacturing. With no fish market in Brisbane at the time she thought that canning fish from Moreton Bay was a great prospect. By the next year she had leased eight acres of land on Bribie, just north of the Bongaree IGA, and set up her factory which was capable of handling nearly 10 tons of fish a week. 20 people were employed turning out 200 cases with each case containing 4 dozen tins of mullet, snapper, tailor etc. Local fishing families were paid £150 for the season. With no local ice works, Pumicestone fishermen couldn’t take their catches to Brisbane, so the new cannery was a godsend.

Sarah first brought an expert from Scotland and put him in charge of the venture. The cannery in the early days lacked a refrigerator/freezer and after tons of fish were dumped by fishermen on the cannery wharf, some of the fish weren’t quite fresh enough for canning and many tins “blew”, and Sarah’s Diver brand got a bad name. Sarah then took over, putting local fisherman, Ted Crouch, in charge of the factory and made the decision to only can from April to August. Sarah received the nickname of ‘Mum Balls’ for her hands-on approach to the business and won the locals respect.

The Bounty period finished after five years and by 1914 the canning works wasn’t as profitable so she sold the business. Cheaper imports had flooded the market and though she was also canning asparagus and pineapple a lack of tin, due to WW1, caused production problems. The Cannery still was giving seasonal employment to many locals up to 1922 then the factory and lease were sold to J.E. Burnard & Co, Jam Manufacturers and Fruit Preservers. All the equipment was moved to Brisbane leaving only the Jetty which became a favourite fishing spot.  J.E. (John Edwin) Burnard owned three blocks of land in Bongaree in Banya and Nulu Streets.

In 1915 Sarah’s son John had been injured at Gallipoli and she sailed to England to nurse him. In 1917 the Government found that Sarah was making too much profit with her Railway Cafes and took back control of the leases. There were many a complaint that the service and refreshments were not like they were in Sarah’s time. Sarah, when she retired, was a very wealthy woman.

Sarah, travelled to the United States in 1926 and fell in love with the modern Hacienda/Mission style houses and built her dream home “Santa Barbara” in New Farm. The house, an architectural gem, was featured in many magazines of the time. Sarah died in 1932 and was remembered as Brisbane’s most successful businesswoman

Written by Lynne Hooper from information sourced from BIHS database and the public domain.

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