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.


18 July 2015

The Sad Case of the Belanglo Forest Ghost Tours

In July 2015 there were national (and even international) headlines about disrespectful 'ghost hunters' in Australia who went too far and brought the wrath of the public, the media and the state government down upon themselves.

The story was about ‘Goulburn Ghost Tours’ in New South Wales and their Belanglo State Forestry ghost hunts/tours. The forest is where psychopathic serial killer Ivan Milat buried seven of his victims in the 1990s. Tour customers could pay $150 per head to visit the forest between 6pm-3am with ‘paranormal equipment and training, snacks and billy tea.’

The mere act of selling a ‘hunt’ for the alleged ‘ghost’ (however you define that) of a real person - especially one who died within living memory - is unethical enough. The main issues are selling use of a fake product (scientificky ghost-o-meters) and disrespecting the dead and their loved ones. What turned the media mob onto Goulburn Ghost Tours was the tactless way in which they sold the event like it was a slasher movie. The promo blurb for this ‘Extreme Terror Tour’ included such statements as:
"Come with us to Belanglo where Ivan Milat buried the bodies of his victims! Once you enter Belanglo state forest you may never come out…"
According to this report, the now-deleted advertising ran like this:
"Are you ready to turn grey overnight? Come with trained and experienced Paranormal Investigators to Belanglo State Forrest where horrific crimes have been committed and bodies have been found. Learn about his crimes and use paranormal techniques to help solve the baffling murder of Angel, believed to be murdered AFTER Ivan Milat was jailed!"
The creators of the post continue to try to entice crime enthusiasts to the tour by asking them if they feel like they are being watched and if there is another victim just waiting to be found. When the shit hit the media fan, the New South Wales government stepped in to ‘block’ the tours on the technicality of the group not having a permit to enter the forest.

Goulburn Ghost Tours sparked controversy with their ghost tours about Ivan Milat's murder victims.

The Goulburn Ghost Tours website and Facebook page were quickly taken offline. In their defence, tour manager Louise Edwards claimed that the tour was run ‘with sensitivity’.
“Lots of people know about Ivan Milat, but not about the people he murdered,” Ms Edwards said. “We wanted to remind people that the victims are real people. They are not just victims of Ivan Milat. They are more than that. We don’t want people to forget about them.”
And what better way to reframe these people as being more than ‘just murder victims’ by charging ‘Extreme Terror Tour!’ punters $150 to visit the scene of their murders and try to find their ghosts?

To my mind, the only real difference between the Balinga State Forest ghost hunts and the ones at Brisbane's Boggo Road (2015) was in the marketing. Goulburn Ghost Tours clearly went over the top in calling their product an ‘Extreme Terror Tour’. The marketing spin for Boggo Road ghost tours and hunts was more subdued, thanks to pressure on the state government from community groups demanding that the prison’s history be treated with at least a modicum of respect. The Boggo ghost hunts were actually banned by the Queensland Government until 2014 because they were deemed to be too disrespectful. The ghost hunts restarted after certain ‘political manoeuvrings’ but were blocked again after a change of government in 2015.

Regardless of the content of their advertising, what all these commercial ghost hunts have is common is that they commodify the tragedy and grief of other people by taking customers to places where murders and/or suicides took place and trying to find their 'ghosts'. They are in the business of cheap thrills. And they often do this against the expressed wishes of those most affected by the tragedy.

What I would like to see is more government regulation of this commercial activity. That means a ban on ghost hunts in all government properties, and strict approval for where other ghosts hunts may take place. We need ‘truth in advertising’ rules for when people advertise the use of electromagnetic field detectors as ghost-o-meters. And hunts should only be allowed at specific locations after a certain amount of time has passed since any death took place there.

As it is, there is nothing stopping ghost hunters crawling over the scene of every horrific murder or suicide in Australia, even recent ones. And this does happen, usually in secret. Groups tend to be more careful these days, but a few years back you could dig around the Internet and find ghost hunters discussing their clandestine exploits. For example, back in 2009, people were visiting a spot at Deep Water Bend, near Bald Hills on Brisbane’s northside. The story was that the bound-and-gagged body of a murdered woman was dumped there and her ghost now haunted the spot, where her distraught spirit could be heard ‘begging for help’.  How would that thought make her loved ones feel?

I also heard rumours of ghost hunters snooping around the place where the body of Brisbane murder victim Alison Baden-Clay was found a few years back.

What this indicates to me is that there are people interested in ghost hunting who have a real lack of empathy for other people. This doesn’t include all paranormalists, as I know some very good people interested in the subject, but there are clearly a few who just don’t get it. They seem determined to prove that, despite your most fervent wishes, your loved one is NOT resting in peace.

I hope that the recent government inteventions with Goulburn Ghost Tours and Brisbane Ghost Tours act as a reminder to other ghost-hunting groups to think hard about the ethics of what they are doing, especially when it comes to respecting the feelings of real people who are struggling with traumatic loss in their lives. Their pain is not your gain.

These people include this woman, whose 17-year-old grandson was lured into Belanglo State Forest in November 2010 by Milat’s great-nephew and tortured and killed with a double-sided axe. She had this to say about the ghost tours there:
“It is a money-making tour at our expense,” she said. “I can’t stop people from running these ghost tours, but I think it’s disgusting. They are taking advantage of our grief.” 
Mrs Auchterlonie said her family was only just “getting some normality back in our lives”. 
“We are hurting and this is just opening up old wounds again,” she said. “We are just trying to become normal people again. It would be same for the families of all the backpackers who were murdered there.”
In a similar vein, the granddaughter of a man killed at Boggo Road in 1966 wrote to me about her family’s treatment by some in the ghost industry:
“For years my family have been tormented with nonsense in the media and on the internet about my grandfather’s death. This was a traumatic event that affects all of us to this day. My own father wasn’t much more than a boy when Bernard was killed, and the sadness and struggle the family endured shaped the adults they became, and the children that they went on to have. The loss has been compounded in the years since by an awful man perpetuating stupid stories and rubbish about Bernard. He conducts tours and interviews focusing on my grandfather's supposed ghost... This man has even contacted me, as have a few ‘internet crazies’. It has all been very upsetting... 
Personally, the stories are more than ‘vague and unconvincing’. They are also hurtful and distressing. And it makes me so angry that people are trying to make money by exploiting my family history. This man… is still a very large part of some people’s lives.”
I have given other examples elsewhere of how families and friends of the deceased feel about paranormalist exploitation of their loved ones. Unfortunately, in the absence of a media frenzy or government action, the commercial exploitation of their tragedy continues.

08 July 2015

War & Peace & the Inala Civic Centre

Inala Civic Centre
(Photo: Leong Ming)

It was a striking sight. I was drinking tea at a shaded table on the side of the square when a Muslim woman walked past, dressed head to toe in a black burqa, a niqab covering her face. A few steps behind her was a woman in the typically-colourful robes of west Africa, and then came a little Vietnamese pensioner in a conical 'paddy hat'. They just blended into the passing crowd, nobody stared, and I thought 'This is how the world should be all the time'. Of course the world is not like this all the time, but at the Inala Civic Centre it often is. Which makes it my favourite public space in Brisbane. What makes it relevant to the pages of this blog is the surprising undercurrent of history that makes the Civic Centre what it is today.

Just to describe the place first, the Civic Centre is the outdoor shopping space right next to the indoor (and rather nondescript) 'Inala Town Centre' shopping mall on Inala Avenue in the Brisbane suburb of (you guessed it) Inala. The shops there form a rectangle, facing into an open space about the size of a football field. At first approach it doesn't seem overly promising, but while it might not be the snazziest shopping space in Brisbane, it is certainly one of the most alive.

History is often viewed as something that happened in a disconnected past, but in reality it is constantly shaping the world around us. Every street in every Brisbane suburb looks the particular way it does because of what went before feeding into what is happening now. The Inala Civic Centre has also been shaped by history, not the Victorian or Edwardian type, but a more recent backdrop of warfare and diaspora, and it is everywhere you look.

The first connection to war came with the creation of the suburb of Inala in the 1940s-'50s as 'Serviceton', a new housing project built for returned World War 2 service people and their families. Thousands of homes were built here, little houses on little blocks, cheap enough for those families to make a fresh start after the war. There were also post-war refugees from Italy, Greece, Poland and Russia. In later years a strong community of Seniors formed in the area, and they are still very active today, but by the 1970s many of the original families had moved on and the cheap housing saw the area develop as one of the poorer parts of Brisbane with a bit of a tough reputation that persists today.

Serviceton housing project, 1952 (State Library of Queensland)
Serviceton housing project, 1952 (State Library of Queensland)

A massive demographical transformation came with the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. These were the famous 'boat people', and thanks to the cheap houses they made this corner of Queensland their own. Today Inala and the surrounding suburbs are home to the heaviest concentrations of Vietnamese-speaking people in Australia

That influence is quite clear in the Civic Centre, which looks like a 'Little Saigon' because shops with Vietnamese signage and products dominate the place. There are numerous grocer shops with market-style frontages, and butchers, fishmongers selling a massive variety of seafood I'd never seen before, Vietnamese travel agents, movie and music shops, jewellers, hairdressers, vegetarian speciality shops, chemists, newsagents, cafes and restaurants. Even on a midweek morning these food outlets are busy with Vietnamese people, a sure sign of quality food.

Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)
Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)
Shops at Inala Civic Centre
(C Dawson)

There are also many foodstalls here, stacked high with containers of Vietnamese meals and deserts. I'm not sure what some of the food actually is but it all smells great. Adding to the sensory onslaught in some parts is modern Vietnamese pop music. There are always small crowds of men around tables eagerly watching and discussing ongoing games of xiangqi (Chinese chess). come here at Tet (Vietnamese New Year) and the place is going off with firecrackers and lion dancers.

Xiangqi at Inala Civic Centre, 2012  (Brisbane Daily Photo)
Xiangqi at Inala Civic Centre, 2012. (Brisbane Daily Photo)

While the Vietnamese influence is the most obvious at the Civic Centre, the market-like setting of crates of Asian vegetables, herbs and fruit spilling out from shopfronts seems to suit the shopping habits of many other people from around the world. Although most people shopping at the Centre dress much like myself in bog-standard suburban-wear, there is always a healthy sprinkling of of cultural clothing that livens the place up visually. Muslim women in burqas and scarves, their men in white, and sometimes bearded elders dressed as though they have just been teleported from a remote Afghan or Hindu Kush village. There are West Africans in brilliantly-coloured hats and dresses, the occasional Vietnamese person in the famous round-brimmed nón lá (leaf hat). On special occasions and Sundays, Samoan and Tongan men will wear lava-lava skirts, and Indian and Sri Lankan women might do their shopping there in sari's, and Buddhists monks often drop in too.

There of course plenty of Anglo people around, and Inala also has a notably strong Aboriginal community. Go back far enough and there's plenty of conflict on that front too.

What makes it such a sight is the balanced mix and variety of national styles. That mix seems to become more diverse with each passing year. It is obvious that many of these people are refugees from the some of the worst trouble spots of recent decades. Vietnam, Sudan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Syria, north Africa and Iraq to name a few. They have formed their own community groups and religious centres,and the Civic Centre seems to be another place for them to catch up with each other. The community hall is as likely to be filled with the beautiful sound of Sudanese or Samoan congregations as it with pensioners playing hoy or having 'Waltzing Matilda' singalongs (as I heard last week).

Inala Civic Centre
(Photo: Julia's Pantry)

There is a genuine sense of 'community' (always a vague notion) in the square. People know each other, and stand chatting to the neighbours and friends they chance across there. You might get a sense of community in other public places, but all too often you don't. What I like about the Civic Centre is that sense of community is natural and not self-conscious, it just happens and people don't make a big deal about it (except maybe me).

The Inala Civic Centre in 2013 is a place that has been shaped largely by people returning from or escaping from war zones. They have created a harmoniously multicultural oasis, but as history unfolds around us it will doubtlessly change and who knows what this place will be like in 20 years time? It could well have disappeared beneath some godawful Anglocentric and soulless Westfield shopping complex and Brisbane would be much the poorer for it. As it is now, however, this is just how the world should be.      

I'd suggest paying it a visit while it is still here. Any day of the week is good, but Saturday mornings is 'Crazy Time' when it is always jam-packed and you will struggle to find a car park. There is a bus stop right outside, where the 100 Buz is very regular.



04 July 2015

The Seven Devils of George Street

'Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils.' (Mark 16:9)

Anyone familiar with Brisbane's George Street will probably have noticed the bizarre carved relief of a devil's head over the main entrance of the old Government Printing Office. If you are not familiar with it, stop and take a look the next time you are around there.

Then, if you step back a bit, look up to the top of the building and you will see two hooven gargoyles with the same face, perched on the parapet looking out over the street. The trees make viewing a bit tricky, but you might also be able to see four other carved devil faces on the pilasters on the wall below the gargoyles (see photo below).

This means that back in 1911-12, the Queensland Government erected a government building with seven sandstone devils on the front. Why would they have done this? The answer is not as sinister as some might think. Simply enough, the devil is a historical symbol of the printing industry.

As far as I know, these are the only 'printer's devils' in Australia, although I would be happy to be corrected on this matter.

Printer's Devil over main entrance, old Printing Office,
George Street, Brisbane. (Public Works)

The gargoyles on the parapet watch over George Street.
Four small devil faces can also be seen near the bottom
of this photo. (Brismania)

The gargoyles hold shields inscribed with 'GP'
(Government Printery). (Brismania)

Why the 'Printers Devil'?

There are several different theories, some more plausible than others, as to where this concept came from.

A 'printer's devil' was a nickname given to printer's apprentices, who performed such tasks as mixing ink and fetching type. These apprentices invariably stained themselves with black ink and - as black was associated with the 'black arts' - the nickname 'devil' took hold.

There was also said to be a 'fanciful' belief among printers that print shops were haunted by a special devil who got up to such mischief as inverting type, removing entire lines of completed type, or misspelling words. Historically this figure was Titivillus, a mythical demon that worked on behalf of Satan to introduce errors into the works of scribes. References to Titivillus date back 800 years. It has been suggested that the apprentice became a substitute scapegoat for printery mishaps, leading to the 'devil' nickname.

Another rather implausible account of the origins of the name has John Fust - a business partner of Johannes Gutenberg - selling several of Gutenberg's bibles to King Louis XI of France, claiming that the bibles were hand-copied manuscripts. As the individual letters were identical in appearance, Fust was soon accused of witchcraft and imprisoned. Although he was later freed, many still believed Fust was in league with Satan.

Diego de la Cruz: Virgin of Mercy (c. 1485), Burgos,
Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas.
Titivillus appears to the right of the image.

A further association with the devil in printing is the name of the hellbox, which was a box that worn and broken lead type was thrown into, and which the printer's devil (apprentice) then took to the furnace for melting and recasting.

Yet another link was 'Deville', the assistant of the the first English printer and book publisher, William Caxton. This was said to have evolved to 'devil' over time and used to describe other printers' apprentices.

All in all there are a number of possible explanations for the concept of the printer's devil, but the link between the ancient Titvullus stories and the ink-stained apprentices seems the most plausible.

There is, however, one other story I came across during research for this article. It comes from an uncomplimentary review of a Brisbane 'Ghost Tour' that stops outside the Printing Office, where the customers are told this story of the devils:

'They are thought to ward off evil spirits, however these ones invite them… Printing presses, much to the displeasure of the church, used to print copies of the Bible. This made the book more accessible to commoners and limited the church’s ability to manipulate its contents. The church therefore condemned printers, citing them in league with the devil. However instead of backing down, the printers took on Lucifer as their patron saint.'

Those are the words of the reviewer, of course. If the content of this review is correct, then the tour guide has got it wrong and a correction is required. The advent of the printing press did present challenges (and opportunities) for organised religion, but Satan is not the patron saint of printers (see instead John Bosco, and Augustine of Hippo). I'd assume that Satan is not the patron saint of anything. Satan isn't even a saint. (The review also relates another tour story about the Printing Office that also seems to be untrue, and that is covered here).

The Printing Office: A very brief history

The new Colonial Government (created by the separation of Queensland from New South Wales in 1859) needed a printing office to print official materials such as Hansard, postage stamps, Government Gazettes, Acts of Parliament, departmental reports, survey maps, electoral rolls, and banknotes.

Government Printing Office, Brisbane, 1912.
(John Oxley Library)

A three-storey brick building facing William Street was constructed during 1872-74 (and is still there today as the Public Service Club), and extended with a three-storey brick building erected along Stephens Lane (1884-87). The complex was further extended in 1910-12 with the erection of the three-storey brick building on George Street. The importance of the printing office to a functioning democracy was reflected by its proximity to Parliament, and the high quality of the buildings themselves. It is inconceivable that modern state governments would build such quality structures, never mind adorning them with finely-sculpted statues and reliefs.

The gargoyles were lifted into position in October 1911:
‘The Printers' Devils.’
Two huge stone figures with sardonic grins on their hard faces were swung into position on the top of the third story of the additions to the Government Printing Office yesterday. From their giddy height they look down on to the traffic below. On the shields which they clasp in their hands is inscribed: ‘G.P.’ - Government Printer. These symbolise that mythical individual supposed to form part of a printing establishment - the printer's devil. The Government Printer is to have a double supply - hence two figures have been carved out and placed in position. Yesterday they were the subject of much curiosity, and speculation. The only thing wanting to complete the symbol is a plentiful supply of printers' ink to the faces, and a couple of aprons of the colour of coal! (Brisbane Courier, 25 October 1911)
Printing Office under construction, 1910. (John Oxley Library)

The Printing Office staff started holding annual balls in 1940, and the decorations for the first event had a 'printer's devil' theme.

The George Street Printing Office closed in 1983 and after some demolitions and modifications to parts of the wider site it was heritage listed in 1992.

The Eighth Devil

In addition to the seven outside the printery, there was at least one more devil inside the building, as shown in this photo of one of the offices in 1921:

'A large desk, overflowing with papers, stands in the middle of  the room. A safe is positioned against a wall to the side of the desk. On top of the safe is a stonework devil, identical in style to the two gargoyle statues that are perched over the entrance to the building.' (John Oxley Library)


A close-up of the devil on the safe reveals it to be wearing some kind of hat (a crown?) with a Maltese Cross (Queensland government symbol) on the top. Perhaps this was a bit of public service office humour.

I wonder where this rather splendid ornament is now?