24 December 2015

Remembering Old Queensland on Facebook

Just below this short article is a list of links to Facebook pages about the history of specific towns, cities and regions in Queensland. The kind of pages with the words ‘lost’ or ‘vintage’ or ‘remembering’ in their titles. The number of these pages seems to be growing all the time so I thought it would be handy to provide a 'one-stop shop'.


These pages vary in size and activity, but together they form a useful jigsaw puzzle of Queensland's photographic history. Apart from bringing people together to think and talk about their memories and local history, they can be incredibly useful for researchers. These pages can contain a lot of anecdotal material and unpublished photos, and allow researchers to directly connect to people with information.

"What is this 'Facebook' you speak of?"
I have attempted to locate as many examples of this type of page as I can, but I expect it is incomplete. The little blurbs come from the pages themselves. If you know of any pages that should be here, please let me know in the comments section below.

  • Adavale Outback Queensland: ‘History, Heritage, Stories, Pictures and Memories from the great Pioneering Outback Town of Adavale and district, Western Queensland.’ 
  • Brisbane Memories: ‘Brisbane, a place to live, visit and remember. Regardless of how long you have spent here in this fair city, there are memories that can be shared...’ 
  • Central Queensland Old Pictures and Yarns: 'Old pictures and yarns from Central Queensland'. 
  • Darling Downs of Yesteryear: ‘A blast from the past! Please place your old photos of the Darling Downs here for everyone to see what has changed and what is still the same!’ 
  • Disappearing Queensland: ‘This page is for anyone to share photos or stories of places in Queensland that are disappearing or could disappear at some time in the future.’ 
  • Early Faces of Queensland: 'Sharing Photos of Early Queenslanders Taken by Local Photographers. Brisbane and Beyond. If you recognise anybody in the photos we upload please contact us.' 
  • Gladstone: Remember When: (Closed Group): ‘We all have enjoyed the reflection down memory lane and the current events. So, here is a page for the Gladstone region to your stories, photos, events, history of the region. Please create albums to add your photos, video’s too, share your school Tonkas, find your old school mates and teachers or maybe colleagues you have worked with. Please share your photos for all to enjoy and don’t forget to LIKE the page and SHARE away.’ 
  • Have You Seen the Old Gold Coast: ‘Lets see the old Gold Coast.... Do you have any old pics of The Coast ?’ 
  • Have You Seen the Old Mackay: Promoting the rich history of Mackay and District and preserving the history we have left so it is saved for future generations 
  • Historical Gympie: ‘A place for historical information and photos of the Gympie Region.’ 
  • I Grew Up in the Redlands: 'A place to find your old class photos.Every Redlands shire school has it's own album here.Please look in your old schools album.Sporting Team and old pics of life in the Redlands are most welcome..!' 
  • Ipswich Leftovers: 'Putting photos from Ipswich's past and putting them into photos of Ipswich now. Showing what's gone and what is left of this wonderful historical city.' 
  • Lost Brisbane: ‘Photos of forgotten Brisbane. See if you can recognise the places in the photos, and tag them if you wish. Please feel free to add photos, make comments or relate any memories you might have about the places in the photos. Enjoy.....’ 
  • Lost Cairns: ‘Photographs of Cairns and district, Queensland - in times gone by.’ 
  • Lost Gold Coast: 'Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Please share your Photos and Stories , lets keep the memories alive!' 
  • Lost Ipswich (Public Group): ‘This is a group for remembering what Ipswich has lost. Not to be negative but more to celebrate this towns Past in Stories and Pictures.’ 
  • Lost Logan: ‘Welcome to Lost Logan. Discover a bygone era of Logan. Everyone is welcome to tag photo's and post their own...enjoy!’ 
  • Lost Maryborough: ‘Photos of forgotten Maryborough (Queensland). See if you can recognise the places in the photos, and tag them if you wish. Please feel free to add photos, make comments or relate any memories you might have about the places in the photos. Enjoy’ 
  • Lost Queensland: ‘This page is for places, people and infrastructure no longer in existence or lost in the mists of time in Queensland. Please add anything you feel would be interesting to this page.’ 
  • Lost Sunshine Coast: ‘This group is for sharing, in any format, all the "lost" beings & characters, things, places, events, experiences, memories, memorabilia, & encounters with the Sunshine Coast of Queensland in our past.’ 
  • Lost Tiara District: Sharing local history through photos of the Tiaro District including Tiaro, Bauple, Gootchie and surrounds. Please feel free to add or tag photos, 
  • Lost Townsville: ‘A way for people to share images of Townsville in past times.’ 
  • Old Brisbane Album (Public Group): ‘Old Brisbane Album is a sister group to Old NSW Album, Old Melbourne Album and Old Sydney Album. It is a group to share your memories of days gone by in Brisbane and surrounds, including the Gold Coast.’ 
  • Queensland School Photos: 'Photos from Queensland Schools.' 
  • Remembering the Brisbane Tramways: 'This page is dedicated to the memory of the Brisbane Tramways, which ran from 1885 to 1969.' 
  • Rockhampton: Remember When: (Public Group): ‘…here is a page for the Rockhampton region to share your stories, photos, events, history of the region. Please create albums to add your photos, video’s too, share your school Tonkas, find your old school mates and teachers or maybe colleagues you have worked with. Please share your photos for all to enjoy and don’t forget to LIKE the page and SHARE away.’ 
  • Stanthorpe History: ‘This page has been created to share Stanthorpe History. Feel free to add your pictures, stories, memories and comments about Stanthorpe and its surrounds.’ 
  • Toowoomba: Remember When: ‘Our mission: to help people experience the joy of recalling forgotten, but happy, memories of Toowoomba’s bygone eras.’ 
  • Townsville 100 Years Ago: 'Breaking news from Townsville one hundred years ago.' 
  • Vintage Queensland: ‘If you appreciate vintage photos (pre 1980) ......you will love Vintage Queensland! Feel free to comment and add your own photos if you wish.’ 
  • Vintage Rural Australia: ‘Post your own photos on Vintage Rural Australia: an album of LIFE ON THE FARM, in times past. Share, and save the memories and history with others.’ 
  • Warwick - Pictures From the Past: ‘The history of Warwick, Queensland, Australia... in pictures. Displaying photographs dating back to 1840.’

06 December 2015

The Story of the 'Executed Prisoners' Plaque

‘Some traces of antiquity are so faint that only contrivance secures their recognition. In the absence of signposts, how many visitors to an old battlefield could tell that it was an historical site? But for markers, people would generally pass by most ancient monuments unaware of their antiquity.’ (David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, 1985)
South Brisbane Cemetery plaque on the graves of executed prisoners

If you are a regular visitor to the South Brisbane Cemetery, then you might have noticed a sandstone block with a plaque near the big green shed in the centre of the cemetery. This marker, unveiled in 2005, identifies the graves of the 42 prisoners who were executed in Boggo Road during 1883-1913. I was the historical researcher for this project, which spanned two years from the time that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society approached the Brisbane City Council with the idea. It was, from start to finish, a bit of a strange project because someone kept trying to throw spanners in the works to stop it, and in retrospect none of the trouble-making made any sense.

The fact that the prisoners had committed capital crimes made the project a sensitive one to begin with, and an early idea to have images of the prisoners on the plaque was discarded, as it was felt this might be 'sensationalist or macabre’. Problems had previously been caused there when a tour operator placed a small plaque on the grave of Patrick Kenniff in 2003, marking the centenary of Kenniff’s execution. The invitations for the ‘solemn and sad occasion’ of the unveiling referred to attendees as ‘mourners’ and asked that they wear black. Prayers were read at the graveside and flowers were laid during the pro-Kenniff ceremony.

Unsurprisingly, about 30 complaints were received from descendants of the people that Kenniff was hanged for shooting, chopping up and burning.

It was rather hypocritical, then, that the same tour operator later tried to stop our project by complaining that it would ‘affect the historic validity of the site’, and somewhat airily claiming that that the official rationale for burying executed prisoners in unmarked graves was that ‘beyond execution was to be eternal punishment in unconsecrated ground and the graves were to remain unmarked; deliberately forgotten’. Codswallop. An 1834 Australian law stipulated that the bodies of executed prisoners could receive full funeral rites, so ‘eternal punishment’ was obviously never a consideration. The graves were unmarked simply because the Queensland Government (which owned the corpses) didn't want to pay for headstones.

And as a member of the public wrote to a newspaper in defence of the project:
‘He refers to the practice of and attitudes of the times – “leaving graves unmarked, unconsecrated and deliberately forgotten, to be eternally punished”. Is it good for society to carry on such an unforgiving attitude? To mark the graves does not, necessarily, mean to honour the dead but to remember the guilty and the ultimate penalty they paid. In doing so we remember their victims.’ (Courier Mail, 2 August 2004)
Another attack on the project involved the claim that not all the prisoners were buried there, that a couple were buried 'elsewhere' and there was secret 'proof' of this (that the complainer refused to produce when challenged). The cemetery records tell a different story of course, and in later years the person making these claims had to concede that he was wrong. Which we knew anyway.

The project received BCC approval in mid-2004 and the planning of form and content began. The marker was to be comprised of a plaque and accompanying stone, with the plaque containing a list of the prisoner’s names, years of birth and death, and place of origin. Underneath this were Ellen Thomson’s words on the gallows when she was hanged in 1887, ‘Goodbye everybody; I forgive everybody from the bottom of my heart for anything they have wronged me in this world. I never shot my husband, and I am dying like an angel’. This quote raised objections from the tour operator, who felt it presented a sympathetic view of prisoners. It was subsequently replaced with a statement from Joe Lesina, a politician who had pioneered the parliamentary push to abolish the death penalty in Queensland:
‘The criminal is not a wild beast… he is an erring brother whose feet have wandered from the narrow path which we all weakly strive to follow. To take his life is not the way to cure him; you only brutalise him. It has been condemned by history as a failure… If I should fail I can only fail and somebody else as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, will take the matter up where I leave it. I feel perfectly satisfied that it will not be many years longer before the humanitarian feeling now spreading through the colony, and through all civilised communities, will demand once and for all the abolition of flogging and the death penalty.’ (Queensland Parliamentary Debates, Vol.82, p.60)
The project was supported by politicians and such groups as the Brisbane Council of Elders, but the tour operator STILL wanted to stop it. He even contacted the Queensland Police Union about the project, and a November 2004 editorial in their journal criticised it, arguing that the historical validity of the graves would be compromised, and that the marker was intended to commemorate the prisoners. The QPU were reassured that the project was not intended to commemorate ‘killers’, and in the absence of any further opposition the BCC and BRGHS agreed upon the final version of the plaque in early 2005. A sandstone block from Boggo Road stood behind the plaque, embedded in a concrete base. The top lines of the plaque read, ‘This stone marks the place where forty-one men and one woman are buried. They died by the gallows of Boggo Road Gaol. Only one man’s grave was marked’. This was followed by the list of biographical information about each of the prisoners. Underneath this was the Lesina quote, and then:
‘This stone was placed here by the Brisbane City Council and the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society on 6 May 2005. This sandstone block was carved by convict labour for the construction of Boggo Road Gaol. Two broken pieces that have come back together – representing Reparation; the fabric of imprisonment reappropriated to commemorate a humanitarian shift in social policy. May these executed prisoners and the victims of their crimes rest in peace.’
The unveiling ceremony was held on a lovely morning in May 2005 and attendees included local and federal politicians, several religious ministers, descendants of the victims, and representatives from the Brisbane Council of Elders, heritage organisations and various government departments. The first speaker, from the Council of Elders, set the tone for the ceremony when she described the executed Aboriginal and South Sea Islander prisoners as her ‘forgotten brothers’. The local Councillor who unveiled the plaque - and the Federal Senator who spoke after her - both voiced their opposition to capital punishment. The tour operator then gatecrashed the ceremony and demanded that he be allowed to speak. To the obvious bemusement of the guests he declared his support for capital punishment and described the prisoners as ‘vile’. It was a badly-judged tirade that went down like a lead balloon. The following week, in a newspaper article about the unveiling ceremony, he described the marker as ‘totally offensive’. Michael Banks of the BRGHS countered that:
‘The plaque’s focus was to inform and educate the public and to show that Queensland became the first part of the British Empire to abolish capital punishment. If people think we are glorifying criminals, which is what these people were, then they have missed the point.’ (Southern News, 12 May 2005)
The marker was actually making several points. The conflicting opinions of it were shaped by differing attitudes to capital punishment and criminals, and also to the intended function of the plaque. As for the persistent attempts to derail the project and even disrupt the unveiling ceremony, well, we think the motives were more linked to commercial interests than any genuine concerns.

As a result of this process, the marker evolved from being a local history plaque into something that also commemorated the political shift to abolition, a shift that was the first of its kind within the British Empire. It also served to act as a defacto gravestone. So it was that the South Brisbane Cemetery plaque came to represent heritage significance at local, State and international levels, and even took on a religious significance.

Councillor Helen Abrahams speaks at the plaque unveiling ceremony. (BRGHS)
Councillor Helen Abrahams speaks at the plaque
unveiling ceremony. (BRGHS)

The plaque project was the subject of a grant-funded documentary called ‘The Plaque’. It was produced by Griffith University academics Ann Smallwood and Marilyn Carney.

11 November 2015

Gallipoli Sunday

There is a place where, towards the end of every April, locals gather in the streets to watch military parades and remember the World War 1 horrors and heroism of Gallipoli. The occasion is not known as ‘ANZAC Day’ but is instead ‘Gallipoli Sunday’, and it takes place not in Australia but in the town of Bury, just north of Manchester, England. This is my birthplace.

It would be hard to find any place in Britain where Gallipoli is remembered as determinedly as it is in Bury. During World War 1 this Lancashire mill town (population 50,000 at the time) was home to the Lancashire Fusiliers regiment. This was one of the 84 British regiments that served at Gallipoli, and they lost nearly 2,000 men in the nine-month assault on the Dardanelles. Their landing spot at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915 later became known as 'Lancashire Landing', and it was during the landing on that day that six men of the 1st Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers earned Victoria Crosses - the famous 'six VCs before breakfast'.

Bury men (the 'Bury Bantams') reporting for duty early in the war.  Many were to die at Gallipoli.
Bury men (the 'Bury Bantams') reporting for duty early in the war. Many were to die at Gallipoli.

'The Lancashire Landing', Cape Helles, 1915.
'The Lancashire Landing', Cape Helles.

The effect on the town was profound. After cheering the Fusiliers off to war with romantic ideals, the town reeled as news of the unfolding catastrophe filtered back from the front. By the time the war finally ended three years later nearly 14,000 Fusiliers had lost their lives. Geoffrey Moorhouse’s brilliant book Hell’s Foundations: A social history of the town of Bury in the aftermath of Gallipoli details the profound repercussions the war had for the town, not only for those who lost family and friends, but also those who survived but were maimed physically and psychologically and could be seen on the streets of Bury in dwindling numbers for decades to come. The ‘broken families and broken men’ wanted to ‘forget the war and get on with life’, but decades later the town still marks every Gallipoli Sunday and, much like in Australia, disaster has metamorphosed into legend.

Fusiliers march to the parish church, Gallipoli Sunday, Bury, 23 April 1923.
Fusiliers march to the parish church, Gallipoli Sunday, Bury, 23 April 1923.

Gallipoli Sunday isn't as grand or frenzied as ANZAC Day, and Lancastrians have not mythologised the Fusiliers with idealised attributes, but the commemoration has dignity and reminds us that Gallipoli was an international disaster that left its mark on many countries, from India to Senegal to Canada to France and most of all on Turkey.

Gallipoli veterans Bob Spencer (Lancashire Fusiliers) and Benny Adams  (Manchester Regiment) march on the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, April 1990.
Gallipoli veterans Bob Spencer (Lancashire Fusiliers) and Benny Adams (Manchester Regiment) march on the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli, April 1990.

I have only ever attended two ANZAC parades in Brisbane. For the first one I found a quiet spot and it was especially moving to see the World War 1 veterans up front and the bands of foreign service people from places like Vietnam and eastern Europe further back. I watched the entire event. However, I left my second and last Brisbane parade halfway through. This one I watched from a more densely-populated part of the route, where flag-draped spectators constantly yelled out 'Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi'. It felt more like a one-day cricket match instead of the solemn remembrance seen in Brisbane in decades past.

I only attend the smaller events now, where the flag capes and the chants are usually left at home. My youngest two children marched with cubs and scouts at local ANZAC services in Brisbane. My eldest two (including my eldest daughter who was also born in Bury) attended at the dawn service over in Gallipoli itself in 2014 and also visited the Lancashire Landing Cemetery there.

With my background, I can't help but see the events of Gallipoli and the rest of that war through an international context, and recoil from any nationalistic exploitation of that horrific carnage.

22 October 2015

The New Farm Shark Attack of 1862: Fact or Fiction?

One of my favourite subjects of historical research - no doubt driven by my irrational phobia of being eaten alive underwater - is Brisbane River shark attacks. There are slim pickings in the modern era, but back in the 19th century people were much more inclined to jump in the river. In a sub-tropical environment with no refrigeration, no swimming pools, no on-tap domestic water supply, no air conditioning, the sparkling-clean estuarine waters were a great temptation, especially in summer. This was also the same time of year that some rather large specimens of the river’s apex predator, the Bull Sharks, were in abundance. Humans and sharks (also dogs, as seen in this story) are an eventful mix.


One of the earliest recorded fatal attacks (although there must have been plenty during the millennia of previous Aboriginal activity in the Moreton Bay region) took place in December 1862, but it has to go down as ‘unconfirmed’ because there was no official record created. It involved Aboriginal people, who at the time were still ‘outside the system’, so there was no death certificate, no police report, and no cemetery funeral to be had.

The only European witness was a young boy named Tom Murphy. He was shooting birds near the first Brisbane racecourse, which had opened near New Farm in the 1840s. The exact location of this racecourse is unclear, although it was probably in the vicinity of the modern-day Brisbane Powerhouse. Tom was evidently a decent shot and he managed to hit a flying bird, but it fell wounded into the middle of the river.

According to Tom, a group of Aborigines were camped on the opposite bank. One of them was a young boy who saw the bird hit the river and immediately jumped in after it. He had swum about thirty yards from the bank when he noticed a large shark nearby. The boy quickly turned round and headed back to shore but the shark was in pursuit. The youngster dived three times, but reportedly ‘upon his rising the third time the shark was seen to turn upon his belly and seize the boy, who gave one scream and disappeared’.

His family and friends screamed out but there was nothing they could do. They were heard mourning loudly all night.

Tom was reluctant to officially report the incident because he thought he might get into trouble for shooting near the racecourse, but the story was relayed to the Courier newspaper by a reportedly ‘respectable correspondent’. A summary of the incident appeared a few weeks later, noting that victim’s body had disappeared and ‘was never afterwards seen’.

Bull Shark.

I treat this account as being probably reliable, if only because of the detailed and realistic description of the attack. It was also in the same stretch of river where, 60 years later, a man carrying his young son out to a moored boat was attacked by a bull shark. The father was badly injured and the boy fell into the river and was swept away, also ‘never afterwards to be seen’.

The 1862 attack certainly has more credibility than a story which, quite bizarrely, formed part of a real estate ad for Newstead House, near Breakfast Creek, in 1878. The ad featured a fictional conversation between Captain John Wickham, a resident of the house in the 1840s, and ‘King Talloo-woobulloowagoapilly’ (aka ‘King Billy’) about a shark attack that took place near Newstead in the years preceding European arrival at Moreton Bay.

‘King Billy’ recalled his group, including a young sister Eullah holding onto their small brother Oollu, swimming in the river one morning. A shark was spotted and a scream went up as the people swam for shore. The shark’s jaw gripped Eullah:
‘My dear sister’s form, with her long hair floating above the surface, was seen amidst the foaming spray, caused by the velocity with which she was being hurled through the water, while each hand encircled the ankles of Oollu, whose little head just peeped above the wavelets, fortunately face upwards… Eullah’s life’s blood mingled in the track she was forced along…’
The two children disappeared beneath the surface and hope seemed to be lost, but a young man named Warkoona (also identified as ‘Duke of York’, leader of the Brisbane clan in a similar ad) had swum to their rescue. After an underwater struggle the shark surfaced, ‘his entrails protruding’ and then sank, quite dead.

The children survived, although Eullah lost the calf of her left leg. Warkoona had cut the shark’s belly open with the fish-bone he had in his hair. He later married Eullah.

Now there could be a germ of truth in the story, but the style was so excruciatingly awful it is hard to take seriously (for example, as the children’s mother watched this scene her eyes ‘seemed literally to shoot in and out of their sockets involuntarily’). Unlike the Tom Murphy account of 1862, it is best ignored.

New Farm shark attack in 1862? It's probably true.

02 September 2015

The Stammerer in History

There are a surprising array of historical heavyweights who were (like myself) afflicted with a stammer (or stutter, if you prefer). Given the obvious lack of audio recordings from centuries past, there is some real debate over the extent to which some of these people actually stammered, and in the interests of accuracy I will point out where that debate exists.

Here, quickly, are a few numbers: 1% of all people (and 5% of all children) have a stammer, and there are about 70 million stammerers in the world. The following list is very male-heavy, largely due to a patriarchal bias in history that we are only just beginning to overcome, but also partly because stammering is five times more common in adult men than women. This list includes people who either stammered as children and overcame it, or had the problem through adult life.

A good place to start would be none other than Moses, one of the towering figures of Jewish, Christian and Islamic history (he is mentioned more times in the Quran than any other individual). There are several Biblical references to Moses having speech issues, such as him being 'heavy of tongue', which have been interpreted to mean stammering. In Exodus 4:10 Moses speaks to God:
Then Moses said to Yahweh, “Excuse me, Adonai, I have never been a man of words, neither yesterday, nor before, nor since you have spoken to your servant. For I am heavy of speech and heavy of tongue.”
This being the Bible and all, scholars still dispute what was meant by this phrase, but I'm happy to claim Moses as a stammerer, especially as he attributed with performing feats like this:

Moses parts the Red Sea

A somewhat less impressive stammering leader of the Ancient world was the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was described by the historian Suetonius as also having weak knees that gave way under him, a shaky head, a tendency to slobber, and a nose that ran whenever he was excited. Still, despite all that, he was an emperor...

Here's a surprising did-you-know fact: At least two of the all-time great U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore - Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt - were stammerers. There are some who claim that George Washington also stammered, which would make Abraham Lincoln the odd man out here. As a search of the www will show, there are those who believe Barack Obama stammers, but this tends to be people who dislike him and think they can point and laugh at him for it. Obama is not a stammerer, although his vice-president Joe Biden used to be.

Mount Rushmore

Other political A-listers who stammered, and whose level of greatness probably depends where you sit in the political spectrum, include Napoleon Bonaparte, Vladimir Lenin and Winston Churchill.


(Fellow stammerer and post-WWII British Labor minister Anuerin Bevan may be a lesser-known historical figure than these three, but he led the establishment of the National Health Service and is one of my own political favourites).

As a republican I will ignore the several stammering British kings because their place in history was determined by merely being born in the right place at the right time. However, some people who struggled with stammers or worse and worked hard to earn their place in history as giants of science include Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Steven Hawking, although Newton is one of those whose presence on this list is very much open to debate.

Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Steven Hawking

In Philosophy there was Aristotle and Ludwig Wittgenstein, although Aristotle was wrong on many things, including the idea that stammering was caused by a malfunctioning tongue.

Aristotle and Ludwig Wittgenstein

As for the world of Arts, we might not be able to claim such giants of Literature such as Shakespeare, Twain and Dickens, but John Updike, Arnold Bennett, the Roman poet Virgil, and Aesop were stammerers who found a way to express themselves via writing. Lewis Carroll was a life-long stutterer, as were his father and most of his ten siblings. The main character in W. Somerset Maugham's semi-autobiographical classic Of Human Bondage had a club foot, a device used to convey Maugham's own struggles with his stammer.

Singers who suffered with the condition at some point include Carly Simon, Noel Gallagher (Oasis) and Chris Martin (Coldplay). Three kings who also stammered were B.B. King, Nat King Cole, and Elvis Aaron Presley. A doctor encouraged the young Elvis to sing as a way to gain confidence and stop stuttering. Children at his primary school used to throw fruit at him and taunt him because of his problem, which continued into high school.

While some used singing to overcome the problem, others turned to drama. These include half the main actors in Pulp Fiction - Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis and Harvey Keitel. Willis said of his childhood,
"I could hardly talk. It took me three minutes to complete a sentence. It was crushing for anyone who wanted to express themselves, who wanted to be heard and couldn’t. It was frightening. Yet, when I became another character, in a play, I lost the stutter. It was phenomenal."
Other actors on this list include Jimmy Stewart, Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, the mighty Anthony Quinn, and James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader, and who overcame his own severe case by reading Shakespeare "aloud in the fields to myself". One icon who used a slow, breathy way of speaking to overcome her condition was the legendary Marilyn Monroe.

Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe

So while there might have been times in their lives when they would have struggled to say the word 'history', many of these people left their mark on it in a big way.

29 August 2015

The Exorcism of Ernest Austin's Phony Phantom

Ernest Austin was sentenced to death in 1913 for the vicious murder and sexual assault of an eleven-year-old girl, Ivy Mitchell of Samford, and he was executed at Boggo Road. The crime was particularly atrocious as he had raped the girl and then cut her throat. The people of Samford never did forgive Austin, and his crime haunted Ivy’s family for the rest of their lives.

Ernest Austin, 1913. ('The Truth')

Austin found a kind of infamy as the last prisoner to be hanged in Queensland. He has also found a place among the pantheon of alleged Boggo Road ghosts, and there are rather fantastical versions of his death and afterlife currently being circulated on a number of paranormal-themed websites. There are some serious issues with these stories.*

'But there's a conspiracy theory to hide the truth!'

The story - from a 'ghost tour' company - goes that as he stood upon the scaffold awaiting death, Austin shouted out that he was proud of his crime and that his victim ‘loved it’, and then he laughed heinously, mocked the assembled witnesses, and told them he would return from the grave and cause even more suffering:
"As the executioner released the trapdoors beneath his feet, the murderer began to laugh, all the way to the very end of the 13-foot rope. Even then he tried to force out one last little chuckle from between his lips. It was said that the laughter was often heard in the early mornings in the cellblocks."
The historical record actually tells a very different version of events. Austin’s execution was witnessed by several reporters and officials, and although there were some minor discrepancies in their reports on the event, they all told a very different story to the later version. His last words, probably spoken under the influence of morphine, were reported in one newspaper as:
"I ask you all to forgive me. I ask the people of Samford to forgive me. I ask my mother to forgive me. May you all live long and die happy. God save the King! God save the King! God be with you all! Send a wire to my mother and tell her I died happy, won’t you. Yes tell her I died happy with no fear. Goodbye all! Goodbye all!" (Brisbane Courier, 23 September 1913)
A very similar account appeared in the Truth newspaper, this one reporting that ‘God save the King’ were his actual last words. Did the reporters lie? One person defending the ‘evil laughing’ story to me claimed that the reporters were part of an official cover-up of the disturbing events on the gallows, as the authorities were trying to maintain public support for hanging and did not want the awful truth of what Austin had really said getting out.

However, the Courier and the Truth took opposing editorial stands on capital punishment, so why write the same story? Surely it would have suited the anti-hanging writers at the Truth to print a story with Austin laughing at his executioners, showing the failure of the death sentence to impress any sense of repentance upon him. The angle they instead took was to portray Austin as a ‘feeble-minded degenerate’, someone with a ‘mental deficiency’ who was raised in a home for neglected children and lived an institutionalised life that had made a monster of him. Their headline proclaimed ‘THE STATE SLAYS ITS OWN CREATION’. Blame for the crime was apparently to be shared with government authorities, his Frankensteinian creators.

The illogical conspiracy theory (with zero evidence) used to defend this ghost story can be safely ignored.

'But old timers say it's true!'

In later years, Austin was re-created as a supernatural demon. It has been claimed - again, from 'ghost tour' people - that prisoners would see a face appear outside their cell door, and when they looked into his eyes they somehow knew it was Austin and that he had made a deal with Satan to deliver their souls in exchange for his own. Having locked eyes with the prisoner, the ghost of Ernest Austin would then come through the door and try to strangle them, driving some to madness… or so the story goes.

I have spoken with many former prisoners and officers, and while some of them have a weird story or two about 'ghostly' happenings, none of them knew anything of this 'soul-stealing Austin' story. This includes people who, during the 1960s, were confined in the dormitory area of 1 Division that in earlier years had been the gallows area itself. Not only did people not see or hear anything spooky there at all, the prisoners weren't even aware that the place was supposed to be haunted. Quite simply, the story did not exist, much less the ghost.

He haunts the wrong part of Boggo Road!

One of the mysteries of this story is that Austin is said to haunt No.2 Division - a place he never set foot in. In 1913, No.2 Division was actually a prison for women. Austin was confined and executed in a cellblock in a completely different part of the prison reserve, one that was demolished back in the 1970s, but his spirit somehow moved to another building to conveniently haunt part of a ghost tour route.

Be gone, demon!

So how did this Austin story come to be? How did it gain currency after the closure of Boggo Road despite strong contradictory evidence? One plausible explanation is that the story was well suited to the theatrical tenor of a commercial tour. It just takes one person to refer to someone else repeating it, and the ‘evil Austin’ ghost story spreads on the Internet, as the desire to tell a sensational story overrode a proper reading of the historical record.

The transformation of Austin from a vicious but all-too-human murderer into a (literally) satanic monster is an injustice to historical enquiry and an insult to intelligence. The existence and propagation of this story also demeans the memory of Ivy Mitchell. Not to mention overshadowing the historical importance of the abolition of execution in Queensland (the first part of the British Empire to do so). We can only hope that the debunking of the phoney phantom of Ernest Austin will help this ridiculous aspect of the story fade into history.

'They Don't Know What Death Is': Ghost Hunting at a Suicide Scene

WARNING: The following article contains details relating to the death of an Aboriginal man in custody at Boggo Road prison in the 1980s.


Brisbane's Boggo Road Gaol has been home to a number of cheap and tawdry events in recent times, including ghost hunts, ghost tours and even parties with a 'haunted house'.* I've explained the incredibly disrespectful aspect of these 'hunts' before. In short, people have died in terrible circumstances in the Boggo Road cellblocks, and well within living memory. Those people have living relatives and friends whose dearest wish is for the dead to be left alone to rest in peace.

Unfortunately, there are some in the paranormal industry who refuse to let a bit of common decency stand between themselves and a dollar, and so they dismiss the concerns of the deceased person's loved ones. This is the case at Boggo Road Gaol, and this is why the Queensland Government had to step in and ban 'ghost hunts' there.

One of the most powerful statements against the immaturity of the paranormal industry came from an ex-officer, long since retired, who carries with him the vivid memories of being a 'first responder' to suicide and murder scenes inside the old prison. He, and several other officers, have described to me in detail the experience of coming across a dead body inside a cell, the sight and smell of it, and how it stays with you.

'They don't know what death is', he told me when he heard about 'ghost hunts', 'And now they're making a fucking mockery of it'.


I don't personally class any one type of death in custody as being worse than another, but the insensitivity of commercial ghost hunts at Boggo is particularly highlighted by Indigenous deaths there, which have been the subject of major reports in the past.

One of these was the 'Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody', which took place during 1987-91 and investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal prisoners around Australia during previous years. These included cases at Boggo Road. The report went into great depth on the background stories of the individuals concerned, looking at the life circumstances that led to their eventual incarceration and death. Most of the material is now available online at this website. In some cases the names of some deceased persons are not included, in accordance with Indigenous customs.

The following text is an extract from the report on an unnamed man who died inside the F Wing of Boggo Road in December 1980. It is taken from the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody website and describes his final night and the circumstances in which he was found the next day. As I warned before, it does contain some explicit details.
The Man Who Died in Brisbane Prison on 4 December 1980: Events That Occurred in Custody
...While he was on remand the deceased received visits from three of his sisters and a brother and mail from his mother. During the visits by family members the deceased did not discuss the charges against him or at any stage profess his innocence. He did not complain of any harassment or ill-treatment from police, prison officers or other prisoners, or request any medication or assistance. Similarly, at no stage did he give any indication that he might attempt to kill himself.

At 4.30 pm on 4 December 1980, Prison Officer Jack Krikorian escorted the deceased and five other prisoners from 7 Yard to F Wing. He then placed the six prisoners in their respective cells and locked them up. When he locked the deceased in cell 4 Krikorian noticed nothing unusual about his manner. According to Krikorian the deceased did not appear to be depressed. He was then left alone in his cell.

At about 10.00 pm that evening, a prisoner, Christopher William Hudson, who was in cell 2, which adjoined that of the deceased, heard gurgling sounds coming from the deceased's cell. There is no evidence that Hudson attempted to draw anyone's attention to what he heard.

At 6.05 am on 5 December 1980, Prison Officer John Robert Adam, who was performing duty in F Wing, began to release the prisoners from their cells and noticed that the deceased did not come out of his cell.

Adam went to the cell and found that the bed had been pushed against the door. When he gained entry he saw the body of the deceased hanging from the bars of the cell window by a rope made from strips of sheet material twisted together. It was in a noose around his neck and tied to the last two bars of the cell window. Adam tried to find a pulse but without success. The position of the deceased's body was consistent with his having jumped from the bed with the noose tied firmly.

At about 6.07 am Chief Prison Officer Frederick Henry Colebourne was advised by 1/C Prison Officer Phillip Anthony Latimer that a body had been found hanging in F Wing. He directed Latimer to assist in lowering the body and he contacted Prison Officer William Ronald Martin, a medical orderly at the prison hospital. He asked Martin to attend at F Wing.

On his arrival at Cell 4 Colebourne observed:

'Senior Prison Officer Collins and I/C Prison Officer Latimer in the process of lowering the body of a person from a position at the rear of the cell, onto a bed; the body appeared to be stiff and my observations at this time would lead me to believe that the death had occurred some considerable time before the body was discovered. The body of the person, now known to me as [deceased 's name] was examined by Prison Officer Medical Orderly, Mr R. Martin.'

Martin went to F Wing and entered cell 4 where he saw the body of the deceased on the bed with the rope of sheeting tightly knotted around the neck. Martin felt for signs of life but the body was cold and stiff. He notified the hospital to inform the Government Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth John Morrison, and then instructed the Senior Prison Officer Neville Raymond Collins to lock the cell door until the doctor arrived.

At 7.20 am Dr Morrison arrived and examined the body. He noted in the deceased's prison medical record: '... Deep ligature mark. Knot on right side. No petechiae noted. Face swollen. Cold. Life extinct ... '. Dr Morrison told investigating police officer, Constable Jeffrey Gordon Thorpe, that in his opinion death had occurred at about 10.30 pm on 4 December 1980.
One important point I have made in the past is that people like this died while in the custody of the Queensland Government, and inside a government facility. That is why I felt it particularly inappropriate that the Queensland Government gave the go-ahead for commercial 'ghost hunts' to take place there in 2014 and, by means of rents charged, draw indirect income from them. Fortunately a change of government led to a change of heart and the ghost hunts have since been stopped.

I have published the report extract above because F Wing has been used for commercial ghost hunts in which people pay to use bogus equipment to 'hunt ghosts'. It shows that beyond the corny schlock-horror approach to ghost tours in places like this, these incidents involved real people.

I have already requested that a refurbished Boggo Road historical site feature some culturally-appropriate marker of respect and remembrance for all those who died and suffered within the walls of the old prison. They should be allowed to rest in peace.

23 August 2015

My Night Alone in a Boggo Road Cellblock

What happened when I spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock?

I once spent a night alone in a Boggo Road cellblock. In fact the entire prison was empty apart from me. The 'lights out, gates locked, 3:15 a.m.' kind of empty. As far as I know, I'm the only person to have ever done this.

The answer to the first question that always comes after I mention my little sleepover is 'no, I didn't see a ghost'. There again, while there won't be some Edgar Allen Poe-ian narrative here, it actually turned out to be an interesting test of the limits of my skepticality.

It was October 2003 and the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had organised a special Centenary Day to commemorate the passing of 100 years since No.2 Division opened as a women's prison in October 1903. To mark the event I had designed my first big museum exhibition, '100 Not Out: A century of escapes from Boggo Road', which used escape tools from the museum collection to tell the story of escapes from the prison. This exhibition took up the whole ground floor of D-Wing, including the cells, and took months of planning and construction by the museum volunteers. Being the first project of its kind that we had attempted, it turned out to be a great learning experience as there were a number of hiccups along the way. In fact, come the evening before the Centenary Day it was still not quite finished, so I volunteered to stay back until it was all in place. Darkness fell, and after turning out all the lights except for our office and D Wing, the other volunteers left, locking the big prison gates behind them, and I was alone.

I anticipated the work would take a few hours to finish, but after a few hours of glueing industrial felt onto backboards, laminating text boards and applying the finishing touches to various display cabinets, it was clear I would have to stay much later. Maybe even right through the night. All by myself in a Boggo Road cellblock. Which shouldn't be a problem as I don't believe in ghosts. I've never seen or heard anything in my life that couldn't be explained in a rational manner.

Even so, as the night wore on and I got into the wee small hours working away alone in that cellblock, it felt rather spooky, but only because I let myself start thinking about scenes from movies like the 'Sixth Sense', the original 'Woman in Black', and the original 'House on Haunted Hill'. I also remembered some paranormal investigation report I once read about the prison, reporting some 'dark energy' they had 'sensed' on the top floor of D Wing. If I turned around suddenly, would there be some horrible thing standing there staring at me? Would there be a dark shape on the top landing, watching over me? A little girl sat on the steps? A man hanging from unseen gallows? After walking over the grass circle outside, would there be faces watching from the upstairs cellblock windows? Of course not, but it's much easier to imagine such things in a setting like that than in a supermarket at lunchtime. It's an inherent quality of old deserted buildings, especially at night, that we are culturally conditioned to fill the blanks in the familiar scene with stock characters.


And so it was that at one point during that night, around 3 a.m., I found it increasingly hard to focus on the work at hand because of the niggling feeling that I was being watched (in my defence, this was after about 18 straight hours of work). The cellblock felt colder and colder and quieter and quieter, except for the light classical music playing on my radio. I managed to half-convince myself that somebody was on the top floor walkway, looking down at me. Once or twice I looked up suddenly, to settle my suspicions one way or the other, but saw nothing in the darkness up there. In the end I walked quickly over to the powerboard and switched on every light in the cellblock, on all three floors. Then I switched stations, from classical music to bogan rock and turned up the volume. Maybe enough to deter any ghosts, or at least mask any sounds they might make so I wouldn't hear. I soon managed to refocus on the work and it didn't take long for my rational mind to take over again, especially as dawn and the deadline loomed.

Imagination can have a powerful effect on emotions. Some people get easily frightened and tense on our nocturnal cemetery tours because their minds are running through spooky scenarios. While some see a darkly quiet scattering of headstones and trees, peaceful under the moonlight, others imagine a bustling supernatural landscape of shadows among the graves, the woman in black staring back at them, and lost souls wandering the pathways. Manipulating the imaginations of particularly gullible people to make them tense is what some ghost tours attempt to do, even if it means telling lies to get there ("someone saw a ghost right here during last week's tour"). In my experience, people in this induced state of mind are too quick to slap the 'supernatural' label on anything slightly out of the ordinary.

When I finally put the finishing touches to the exhibition, the sun was rising in the sky, admittedly to my relief. The front gates opened again and the first volunteers entered to set up the museum for the soon-to-be-arriving public. I said goodbye and headed home for a few hours sleep. 

And there it was. As far as I know, I'm the only person to ever spend the night completely alone in Boggo Road prison. I saw nothing (not that I looked too hard), heard nothing, and I didn't get paid $10,000 by Vincent Price for surviving the night alone in a haunted house. However, I did learn that even a skeptical mind can play tricks on itself when placed in a stereotypically 'spooky' situation, and some of us are not as always as rational as we like to think we are.


08 August 2015

The Saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip

In the Queensland winter of 1941, as the Second World War raged overseas, the 290 residents of the small country town of Thargomindah (1,100 km west of Brisbane) were distracted by reports of a strange creature lurking in nearby Lake Dynevor. News spread far and wide and for a few months newspapers around the country followed the story of this new and mysterious ‘bunyip’.

The saltwater and freshwater lakes on the old Dyvenor station cover a wide area, some being about a mile wide and between 10-20 miles in length. Unusually heavy rain in early 1941 had greatly expanded their capacity and they provided sanctuary for many birds, including black swans and thousands of gulls (it is now part of the Lake Bindegolly National Park and home to over 200 species of birds). It was after these big rains that tales began to emerge of an elusive animal creature being seen in the waters.


Locals soon formed a range of opinions on what this animal might be. Ideas included seals, turtles, wild pigs, musk ducks, and the obligatory ‘bunyip’, which was a water-dwelling creature of Aboriginal mythology. Some said the creature had a body between three to four feet long, while others claimed it to be the ‘size of a bulldog’.

Lake Bindegolly National Park.

The shire clerk told the Courier-Mail reporter that about 20 people had glimpsed it. Two men, one a postal inspector and the other a station manager, had chased it in a boat at dawn before it disappeared into some rushes. One of them had attempted to photograph it, apparently unsuccessfully. He claimed it showed up in the negative but was indistinguishable in the print. They saw the creature from about 90 metres away in weak dawn light and described it like this:
‘It was nothing like anything I’ve seen… The head was black and at least a foot long, and the animal was grunting and splashing a lot. From the size of the head I would say it was about 6 feet long. I was told that many years ago a seal was seen in the Dynevor chain of lakes.'
One of the men, JG Utz, also said that 'its head, which raised about 12 to 18 inches above the water, reminded me of a seal'. The news was picked up in Adelaide, where a newspaper reported that about a dozen people swore they had seen ‘a strange animal frolicking in the Dynevor Lake’, with most descriptions matching that of a seal. An implausible suggestion for how a seal would be in a saltwater lake over a thousand kilometres from the coast was given, in that ‘a seagull, one of thousands which flock to the lake, played stork and carried a baby seal from the coast!’

After months of scepticism about earlier sightings, the new reports prompted search parties from Thargomindah to head to the lake, eager to solve the mystery. Mr G. Gooch, owner of Thargomindah station, proposed to place a net across the neck of water where he had seen the creature in the hope of catching it. He also claimed that ‘the bunyip resembles a seal, but it was impossible to say what it was’. He told Queensland Country Life that the Thargomindah bunyip was ‘no mere figment of imagination’ and that he intended to capture it and ‘confound the sceptics’.

The shores of the lake became a drawcard for dozens of travellers on the Cunnamulla-Thargomindah road, and they watched out for the creature near Broken Dam, part of the lake system. Many early-morning bunyip-spotters claimed to have seen it, although it always seemed to vanish before they get close enough for an accurate description.

On 17 August, the Sunday Mail reported that ‘The Thargomindah ‘bunyip’ - now a well-recognised local identity - startled residents this week by appearing with a mate’. There was now speculation that there may be in fact a whole family of the creatures.
‘Last week two of the animals showed themselves at the same time to a party of sightseers. ‘They were as alike as two peas, and we weren’t seeing double,’ said one of the party. ‘They were black, about 2ft. 6in. long, with heads like dogs, and very prominent ears. They swirled away as soon as they spotted us. Probably one was male and one female, but we couldn’t tell from where we were, about 50 yards away. They looked just the same.’
One week later a search expedition armed with guns and cameras was delayed while a local Warrego by-election was contested. Another recent sighting had the creature as having ‘a head like a mastiff and a tail like a duck’.

James Annand, Mayor of Toowoomba, then claimed to have shot at a ‘bunyip’ at Felton, near Toowoomba, some 40 years earlier.
‘As an alternative, he describes it as a moss duck. ‘The moss duck is a queer creature,’ the Mayor said. ‘It has a very large head and short neck. When it appears above water the head is doubled into the breast, giving the appearance of a large, shaggy animal’s head, surmounted by two pointed ears. Those who know the bird have never seen it fly. It dives and reappears anything from 20 to 50 yards away. It is very rare, and possibly the bunyips reported in Broken Dam, near Thargomindah, are moss ducks.’’
There is no such thing as a ‘moss duck’ and I presume what was referred to here was a Musk Duck. The male of this species grows to about 70cm long and has a distinctive large, leathery lobe underneath the bill

Musk Duck.

Despite this, Mr Utz was adamant that what he had seen was not a ‘moss duck’. He saw it twice and still guessed that it was a seal. He told one reporter:
‘What impressed me most about the animal was that it showed much shrewdness and curiosity. On each occasion I saw it, the animal waited until I had crossed the water before it broke the surface to have a look round to see what was going on.’
All the publicity surrounding the alleged bunyip led to concerns about hunters converging on the lakes, so in September the state government appointed G Gooch and JD McLaren as ‘honorary ranger for the Dyvenor Lake bird and animal sanctuary’ or - as was reported in some newspapers – ‘Keepers of the Thargomindah bunyip’. From now on, the bunyip could only be shot with a camera, and Gooch led search parties intent on photographing the beast.

Carnavon’s Northern Times then reported another interesting description of the creature.
‘Mr. R. R. Smith, of Thyangra, who claims to have seen the ‘bunyip,’ said it was about three feet long, two feet six inches around the body, representing a football in shape, but tapering to the head and tail… The head was like that of a pug dog, but more pointed, and appeared to have strings or fibres hanging down from the upper lip. Its colour was mousy brown, with a definite polish, and it seemed to be rather inquisitive.’
Sightings seem to have stopped around September 1941 and interest in the saga of the Thargomindah Bunyip soon waned. It was never seen again, and the search parties gave up their pursuit of it.

In retrospect it is safe to assume that what was seen was either dingoes or foxes out to raid the nests of water birds, or other species of birds attracted by the expanded post-rain lakes. Whatever it was, it would be a natural explanation. Unlike Lowood and their hoax bunyip, the locals have not used the ‘Thargomindah Bunyip’ to promote the area, although a Sydney newspaper article of 1941 predicted that could well happen:
‘Should the Thargomindah bunyip prove to be genuine and not merely of the fabulous kind, the little town-ship (which is already notable for having its very own electric street lights) will certainly become very famous Indeed. Tourists will doubtless flock there in gratifying numbers and a monument may even be erected to the bunyip's honour in the main street.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 30 August 1941)
It wasn't to be...

29 July 2015

The Fakelore Finger of the Old Printing Office

During research for an article about the sandstone devils on the walls of the old printing office on Brisbane's George Street, I came across a couple of online reviews of a ghost tour that stops outside that building.* The tour guide - reportedly in a 'prophetic, Lord of the Rings-esque voice' - relayed a rather graphic story of blood and horror there, as you might expect to hear on such a tour. However, when I looked for further details about the gruesome events described in the story, there were no actual historical records to support it. Did it really happen, or was this a case of 'fakelore'?

The Old Printing Office, George Street, Brisbane, has been the scene of dubious historical stories.
Printing Office, George St., Brisbane. (Brismania)

The tour guides are not historians, so these tours are strictly scripted and the story here is quite specific in some details. In the words of one reviewer):
'And in one particular incident here, an apprentice printer (it’s believed) attempted to fix the gut-wrenching noises of a printer against the wishes of his seniors. He stopped the machine, went inside and after a few minutes it started again, as did his harrowing screams. Legend has it, it took three days to clean out the machine and all that was left was his wedding ring finger, ring still intact. Lily [the guide] tells us the printer still exists in Brisbane’s archives, and unlike other printers - which contain black ink stains - this one is still stained blood red.'
Another reviewer wrote that the customers were told about
'...a gruesome workplace accident involving a printing apprentice (spoiler - all that was left was a flayed skull and a finger, still wearing its wedding ring).'
This seems like the kind of tragic - even spectacular - event that should have attracted a lot of media coverage when it happened. My research turned up a host of 'lesser' incidents at the Printing Office that were deemed newsworthy, such as when William Martin had the top of four fingers cut off in 1895. There was coverage of Charles Hampson dying of heart disease in the printing office in 1911, as there was when James Lytton had his hand crushed in a machine there in 1926. There was also mention of the nightwatchman who collapsed and died on the William Street side of the office in 1931.

There were numerous accidents at other printing presses around Brisbane and Ipswich reported in newspapers. A 17-year-old named James Robertson died at the 'Watson and Ferguson' printery in 1893, after being pulled into the machinery. He was pulled three times around the shaft and lost an arm, and suffered several broken ribs and two broken thighs. He also lived long enough to make it to hospital. This suggests that it is unlikely that a printing machinery could reduce a human body to no more than a single finger, as claimed in the tour story.

19th century printing machine.

The following is another example of a lesser accident being reported:
'Sensational Accident. At a Printing Office. Caretaker Falls into Flywheel.
On Friday, William Booth, the caretaker of Messrs. W.H. Wendt and Co., printers and stationers, Elizabeth street, when starting tho gas engine, slipped and fell between the spokes of the flywheel. He was quickly extricated by the other employees, but not before his head was severely cut and crushed. When the ambulance was sent for it was thought that Booth was dead. He was, however, after first aid had been rendered, quickly conveyed to the General Hospital, and after treatment was enabled to proceed to his home. Mr. Booth, who is about 55 years of age, is considered to have had a miraculous escape from being killed.' (The Telegraph, 20 May 1905)
Even the story of a printing worker whose workplace accident left him with no more a bruised hand made the news in 1926. And yet, there is not a single mention of the apprentice-mincing accident described in the tour story anywhere in the records. The reportage on these other incidents shows that it would not have been ignored, so it would be fair to suggest that the incident never really happened. I asked around a few friends, but they knew nothing of any such accident. Which brings us to another big question: Where does this story come from?

Despite the absence of basic information such as names and dates, some quite specific details are provided in the tour story, such as the finger with the wedding ring. Most apprentices were boys and unlikely to be married, but no details of the alleged victim's age or identity are provided in the story. Then there is the old printing machine being stained an unwashable 'blood red', implying that the machine had been soaked in blood that could not be removed. These are minor details of the story, but they must have some origin. How did they make it into a tour script?

Oral History is a possible source, but in the absence of documentary evidence it remains pure hearsay. I have written tour outlines myself and facts are always the starting point for a story, and they are double-checked. The way I see it, if you are selling History to people, as a product, then you have an ethical obligation to make sure your content is based in fact. It is not good enough to simply prefix these claims with 'legend has it' or 'it is believed', without explaining to paying customers that what you just told them probably did not happen in real life. Failure to do so opens the door to 'fakelore'.

The 'devil' outside the Printing office. (C. Dawson)

Fakelore is a recent label for an old practice. In its broadest sense, fakelore has been defined as 'inauthentic, manufactured folklore presented as if it were genuinely traditional'. It can be applied to local history stories and urban myths that have no basis in reality. They come into being via bad research or outright invention and - if left to ferment for long enough - can end up being believed by a lot of people as fact. Once established, these stories can be hard to kill, as I discovered myself when writing about the widespread belief of people from my hometown that hangings used to take place there, despite solid evidence to the contrary.

When it comes to creating folklore, questions of intent are hard to prove. Is this 'finger' story a result of (very) bad research, or invention? Other people have analysed (non-ghost) stories from the same source and also found them to no supporting evidence or identifiable sources. these include tales about an imaginary morgue in one cemetery and non-existent roads in another. This cemetery tour review in the Courier-Mail also questioned the accuracy of information being presented to customers. I have documented a few examples of 'fakelore' myself, such as a cemetery 'Woman in Black' story. In my articles I have asked for any evidence to back the finger story up, but despite several stories being questioned in the public sphere over a number of years, there have been no defending counter-arguments from the tour business.

And so the questions remain.

This case does point to a problem with History tours, in that their content usually escapes the corrective scrutiny that historians apply to the printed word. This particular Printing Office tale is not the kind of data mistake that even professionals can sometimes make, such as getting a date or a name wrong. This is an entire start-to-finish story about an historical event that that simply never happened, and yet it is still being spread via tour stories.

These stories need to be nipped in the bud before they become accepted historical fact, and they should certainly disappear from these tour routines..

23 July 2015

Fatal Shark Attacks in Ross Creek, Townsville

19th-century shark illustrations.

What is the most dangerous city-side swimming spot in Queensland? If you’re talking about shark attacks, the answer is clear. I have written before about fatal shark attacks in the Brisbane River, but the three (possibly four) deaths in that waterway don’t compare to the statistics for the much-smaller Ross Creek in Townsville, north Queensland.

Ross Creek is an inlet that runs through the heart of Townsville and has been a hub of human activity since the earliest days. While the Brisbane River is over 300km long, Ross Creek is a mere 4km. Despite this, more than 50 people had drowned in the creek by 1950. It is also the habitat of large crocodiles, and during 1907-37 at least eight people were killed there by sharks.

While the freshwater of the Brisbane River can only support Bull Sharks, the brackish waters of the Creek can potentially support more species of sharks (and crocodiles). And sharks in estuarine waters such as Ross Creek have been known to establish themselves and remain there for lengthy periods.

Ross Creek, Townsville (undated), the scene of several fatal shark attacks. (State Library of Qld)
Ross Creek, Townsville (undated) (State Library of Qld).

The events outlined below are of fatal attacks only and do not include the many non-fatal incidents, or the dozens of cases of animals such as dogs being killed in the creek by sharks.

William Williams
In February 1907 a group of eight or nine youths were taking a Sunday morning swim in Ross Creek when a nearby fisherman saw a shark fin about 60cm long emerge near them. He called the alarm and the boys struck for shore, but when they got there they found that one of their friends, 17-year-old William Williams, was missing. One of them had seen splashing were Williams had been, and the water there was ‘crimsoned with blood’. Williams had gone without a sound.

The police dragged the river for days afterwards with no result. The shark was reckoned to be up to 4 metres long, and attempts were made to catch it by baiting a line with a young goat. Five days later a member of the public spotted two legs in the river. A post-mortem showed that the shark had bitten clean through the abdomen and spine. Some lower internal organs were still present. It was left to the boy’s obviously distraught mother to identify these remains.

In the weeks following this tragedy a number of dogs were killed by sharks in the river, including one retriever that was bitten in half. The remaining part of its body was attached to a hook and used as bait, but the shark took that half too without getting hooked. Such attacks were happening on an almost daily basis and it was thought that the same shark – being of ‘enormous proportions’ – was responsible.

A shark hunting expert called Jim Walker came to town to try and catch the creature but he had no success.

Victoria Bridge over Ross Creek, 1887. (State Library of Qld)
Victoria Bridge over Ross Creek, 1887. (State Library of Qld)
Samuel Tristing
Five years passed before the next tragedy. It was New Year’s Day 1912 and a young man called Samuel Tristing was swimming with his friend in Ross Creek near the railways cleaning sheds when he was seized by a shark. He called out desperately but before anything could be done he was taken away. Tristings body was found by the police two hours later, disembowelled, flesh torn from the thighs, and both arms missing.

A few weeks later a big shark attacked and killed a horse in the river, and a hunting party set out to capture the fish. After a two hour battle they landed a shark reported to be about 4 metres long.

Jack Hoey
In January 1919 Jack Hoey, the father of six children under the age of 12, was crab fishing with a friend in Ross Creek. When they finished he went in the creek near the railway bridge for a swim, and he was wading out, with the water just up to his arms, when almost immediately a big shark gripped his leg and wrenched the limb off between the knee and thigh. Hoey’s companion dragged him from the water and an ambulance rushed him to the hospital. He had obviously lost a massive amount of blood and he held on through the night in a critical condition before dying in the morning. Hoey was 38 years old.

Ross Creek, Townsville,1932. This was the scene of several fatal shark attacks. (State Library of Qld)
Ross Creek, 1932 (State Library of Qld)
Robert Milroy
Even more horrific scenes followed in January 1922. Some unemployed men were in the habit of camping near the railway yards by the creek. Among them was Robert Milroy, aged 54, who entered the creek with three other men one Sunday afternoon with the intention of crossing to the other side for some prawning. Milroy was attacked and pulled under by a 3.5-metre shark, and very soon another four or five sharks were fighting over his body in the bloodied waters.

The police dragged the river for his body but found nothing. A fisherman helping with a net actually pulled in a 4-metre shark that then managed to escape. Milroy’s right leg was found some days later, stripped of flesh apart from the foot.

A few months later J Rennie, a recent arrival to Townsville, fell off the Victoria Bridge one night. He probably drowned, but when his body was found on the bank of the Ross Creek several days later it had no head and the flesh had been stripped from the legs.

Edward Hobbs
The next victim of the river sharks was 42-year-old Edward Hobbs. Walking along a concrete wharf by Ross Creek one afternoon in September 1929, Hobbs slipped and fell into the water below. The tide was low and he fell some way before landing flat. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, because almost as soon as he hit the water a shark attacked him, ripping the flesh off both his legs below the knees. A second bite practically took his right leg off. Hobbs cried out and two men on the opposite bank immediately rowed to his assistance in a boat and drove the shark away, but he died just a few minutes after they got him back to the ferry landing.

Unidentified Male
Just three months after the death of Hobbs, a naked body was found floating in the Ross Creek near the Victoria Bridge. Nobody knew who it was, but it seemed to be a man about 50 years old, 6 feet tall, and with a ginger moustache. His right arm was missing and only the bone of his left arm remained. The flesh on his right leg had been ripped away, and his chest and abdomen had been ‘torn away’. A post-mortem revealed that he had died of shock and shark bite, and had been in the water for about 48 hours. He was never identified.

Shark caught in Ross Creek, c.1900. (CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection)
Shark caught in Ross Creek, c. 1900.
(CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection)
Arthur Tomida
The next fatality was 19-year-old Arthur Tomida, who died while prawning with his father in Ross Creek in March 1931. Their net had become snagged so the two men waded out into the chest-deep water, where Arthur attempted to free the net with his foot. Suddenly a large shark gripped the back of his leg, tearing most of the flesh from his thigh. He cried out and his father rushed to his aid, pulling him back to the bank about 3 metres away. Unfortunately a main artery had been torn away and Arthur bled to death within minutes, in his father’s arms.

William Tennant
Six years passed before the river sharks claimed their next victim. William Tennant was 33 years old and well-known as a member of the North Queensland representative rugby league team. After having a few drinks, he swam across the Ross Creek one Saturday night in May 1937 to ‘take a short cut’ to the city, and had almost reached the other side when he was attacked by a shark. He cried out for hep and a ferryman hurriedly rowed over to the scene, but there was a swirl and Tennant was carried about 20 metres out into the water.

By the time the ferryman reached him, Tennant was ‘bleeding profusely from fearful injuries’. His left arm was gone, and his left leg had been stripped of muscle and flesh. He was rushed to hospital but was dead upon arrival, the cause of death later given to be cardiac failure, haemorrhage, and shark bite.

A 3-metre shark that had been seen near ferry pontoon that day was thought to be responsible for the attack, and baits were set the next day to catch it. This did not seem to succeed, although a 4-metre shark was caught one week later in Ross Creek (see photo below).

A 4-metre shark caught one week after a fatal shark attack in Ross Creek. (Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 May 1937)
(Townsville Daily Bulletin, 22 May 1937)

It should also be noted that at least five people were killed by sharks off the coast at Townsville during this time, making a total of 13 fatal shark attacks in the direct vicinity of the city during those 30 years. And then...

There has not been a fatal attack in the Ross Creek since. Shark attack deaths continued to occur off the coast, but none in the inlet. I'm not sure why this is the case. Is it down to more sensible use of the creek, or increased river traffic, the periodic pollution (as with the Sugar Shed Fire of 1963), or just good luck? If anyone has any ideas on this, I'd like to hear them.

For now, reading through the horrible events that did take place in the creek all those years ago, we should just be thankful they have stopped.

* * *

Thanks to Liam Cussen for sending the following information, June 2020.

"I've recently read your article regarding historic shark attacks in the Ross Creek in Townsville. Great read by the way. Confirms a lot of stories my old man used to tell me when I was a kid.

Now mate I saw your concluding thoughts about why shark attacks ceased to occur in the Ross Creek after 1937. I have the reasoning behind this. All but anecdotal evidence passed through local knowledge and my family who has lived in Townsville/Burdekin since before WW2.

The Townsville Meatworks started in 1891 and closed 1995 was situated right on the banks of Ross Creek (see attached). As part of operations there, they would throw cattle carcasses into the Ross Creek as waste. Thus attracting bull sharks and crocodiles and as a result, the area had the most shark attacks anywhere in Australia in the early days.

I'm sure you could dig up more information regarding this, but these are the stories my family has discussed with me many years ago and it really makes sense. The meat works attracting shark activity due to an abundant food source and eventually people figured it out and the shark attacks reduced. I've also been told they stopped throwing the carcasses into the river well before modern times, around the 1950's. Makes sense as to why there's now almost no shark activity in the Ross and why there's been no fatalities since 1937.

Link to info on the meatworks below:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ross_River_Meatworks_Chimney"