28 May 2016

You Reeker, Eureka! Getting Rid of Brisbane's Poo

Wooden outhouse, Rathdowney  ( John Oxley Library)
Wooden outhouse, Rathdowney. ( John Oxley Library)

The Boggo Road prison had many neighbours over the years, but none caused as much of a stink as the Eureka Sanitary Company. From 1889 onwards the Company had a contract with the South Brisbane council for the removal and disposal of 'night soil' collected from the outhouses of the local area. Their sanitary works, located between the prison, the railway line, and the animal pound near what is now the junction of Annerley and Gladstone roads, was the final destination for all the poop in South Brisbane. In modern times when flushing a toilet is about as much thought as most of us have to give to waste disposal, it is easy to forget that once upon a time it was somebody's job to actually come and cart that stuff away from your house.

The waste from outhouses was removed in airtight pans, stacked on carts, taken to the sanitary works, and then incinerated. This process was a vast improvement on the conditions experienced in 1840s Melbourne, as described by the historian Michael Cannon:
"Deep bogs and stinking cesspools festered everywhere. There was no piped water supply, no sewerage, no heating or lighting except that provided by firewood, candles and whale oil lamps. The perfume of nearby abattoirs drifted on the wind. Typhoid and worse diseases ran rampant, especially in narrow streets where jerry built slum tenements jostled for light and air."
The earth closet and sanitary pan system was introduced shortly after this time, with the waste falling into pans under the seat and often covered with soil or ashes. These pans were emptied, supposedly washed, replaced, and the waste taken away on horse-drawn carts by 'night soil men'. The more-expensive 'double pan system' saw the dirty pans swapped for disinfectantly-clean pans each time. During the 1890s the Eureka sanitation workers poured a strong solution of carbolic acid into the pans before they were emptied, and also rinsed the new pans with the same acid.
There were many variations on the outhouse. The type above was used in Manchester circa 1884.
Sanitary cart, circa 1884
Sanitary cart, circa 1884.

Of course a problem with this system is 'what happens next?' In some places during the 1860s the waste was sold off as fertiliser, but the incineration method used by companies like Eureka was more common by the 1880s.

The entrance to the Eureka sanitary works was across the road from the South Brisbane Cemetery. The works consisted of stables and a large two-storey building of timber and iron with a 23-metre-high smokestack. The night soil was received on the upper floor and pumped down a pipe into the incineration cylinder, and burned using complex gas-powered machinery. Our more mechanically-minded readers might appreciate this description of how the cylinder worked:
"...it is revolved by a 6-horse power engine, is 27ft. in length and 5ft. in diameter, and built of boiler plates lined with specially made fire bricks. The revolution occurs once in each minute, the contents being continually turned over. The bricks have webs in them, which lift the material as the cylinder revolves, and throw it through the flames. As the cylinder has to revolve many times before the material reaches the exit end the fire has every opportunity to take noxious material from it. Any gas from the refuse which may pass from the cylinder is then led into a furnace, which consists of a coke fire 6ft. in length, and fed from underneath with fresh air. On the other side of the fire are two "Hit and Miss" firebrick walls, against which any gas which could possibly have passed the fire is to heat bricks it is contended that all noxious gases must be consumed. The system seems a thoroughly good one, and at the time of the visit of our representative the work was in progress, and the whole process was easily followed from the time the nightsoil was fed into the furnace until the residue came out into the manure store in the lower part of the building." (Brisbane Courier, 19 November 1882)
An outhouse, or 'dunny', can be seen in the bottom right corner of this 1889 Highgate Hill photo. (John Oxley Library)
An outhouse, or 'dunny', can be seen in the bottom right corner of this 1889 Highgate Hill photo. (John Oxley Library)

The resulting smoke could hang over the immediate area and led to many complaints from locals and even prisoners. Some prominent residents of Brisbane lived nearby in the grand houses on the high ridge of Gladstone Road, and they were none too impressed with their neighbour. In 1892 a deputation of local people, including future (1896-98) South Brisbane mayor Abraham Luya, petitioned the colonial secretary about the problem, claiming that the 'horrible stench' and pollution from the works was ‘a nuisance and injurious to the health of all the inhabitants of the district’.

The complaints resulted in the council prosecuting Eureka for ‘causing a nuisance’ and the company was forced to upgrade their works.

A 19th-century stoneware storage bottle found during the Dutton Park dig.  (UQ Archaeological Services Unit)
A 19th-century stoneware storage bottle found during the Dutton Park dig. (UQ Archaeological Services Unit)

The Eureka company also disposed of other household rubbish by burying it in the big recreation reserve across the road, in trenches dug by inmates of the prison. This practice, which was described as creating ‘eyesores in what would otherwise be spots of sylvan beauty’, was stopped in 1892 following complaints that ‘soakage’ from the trenches was percolating into the South Brisbane Cemetery. Many glass and ceramic objects including, crockery, clay pipes, storage jars and various glass bottles, were found here during an archaeological dig in preparation for the construction of the Schonell Bridge in 2005. The archaeologists found material from two time periods, the lower layer containing items from the later decades of the 1800s, and an upper layer containing 1940s artefacts.

In 1902 Eureka was bought out by the General Contracting Company, based in Milton, and a sanitary contractor named Henry Carr used the Boggo Road premises until they were demolished around 1907. The city sewerage system was developed over the following decades, although sanitary companies continued to offer their services until the late 1960s. This rather poignant Christmas card from one company to their customers in 1938 acknowledged that;
"Now my days are nearly over,
Room for sewers I must make,
So your secrets to the shadows -
Where good sewers go - I'll take."
(John Oxley Library)
Outhouses can be seen behind these rows of houses in Norman Park, 1950.  Places like this were still unsewered at the time (John Oxley Library)
Outhouses can be seen behind these rows of houses in Norman Park, 1950.
Places like this were still unsewered at the time (John Oxley Library)

For the residents (and prisoners) in Dutton Park, the demise of the sanitary works was more than welcome. There again, the inmates of Boggo Road's No.2 Division had to endure the indignity and discomfort of using tin buckets as toilets in their cells until the place closed in 1989.

12 May 2016

The Historical Suffering of the Mentally-Ill is Not a Freakshow

The other day I noticed a free local newspaper from the footpath with the headline ‘Haunted House Security Risk’.* The article was about the heritage-listed Wolston Park Hospital Complex buildings at Wacol, southern Brisbane. This place first opened as a mental health facility in the 1860s and has been known by other names, including Woogaroo. Part of the complex is now home to The Park - Centre for Mental Health which currently accommodates up to 148 patients.

The story was that police are concerned with the high level of ‘illegal and dangerous’ trespassing there. More than 20 people were charged after being caught attempting to enter the place during the past month, despite it being clearly marked as out of bounds and ringed with barbed wire. Sergeant Paul Hauff said that trespassing was a long-running issue at the site, especially as the older parts are in a state of disrepair and people sneaking around at night could get injured. He laid the blame with social media labeling the place as a ‘haunted house’, so we can infer that ghost hunters are the problem here.

I believe that the ghost industry promoting places such as municipal cemeteries as 'paranormal hotspots' indirectly encourages trespassing from people interested in that stuff, and this seems to be another case. The simple maths is that increased numbers of trespassers in heritage sites equals a higher possibility of damage, intentional or not.

Wolston Park Hospital. (Wikimedia Commons)

Police and security patrols have been increased at Wolston Park as a result of these intrusions, and this is paid for via government coffers. The current situation is that paranormalist-inspired trespassing is increasing the workload for police and the bill for taxpayers. So it is quite unbelievable that Quest newspapers ran another article directly alongside the trespassing one which could only serve to actively encourage the very actions that the police were warning against. In this other article - which used a photo of concerned policemen completely out of context - Cameron ‘Jack’ Sim of Brisbane 'Ghost Tours' was demanding that 68 Wolston Park be opened for his own tours… because he claims it is haunted. I’m sure the guys at Mount Ommaney police station who hoped that the article would deter ghost hunters from 'illegal and dangerous' trespassing really appreciated that one.

I can think of four basic issues with the government caving in to these demands:

1. Who pays for this?
Sim is proposing that the state government spend hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of taxpayer dollars for the benefit of his own small business. There may be legitimate concerns about protecting heritage here, but there are other community-based ways of fighting for that instead of demanding he be given (no doubt commercially exclusive) access to the place.

2. Disrespect Guaranteed
'Ghost Tours' have a demonstrated problem treating these places with respect. Their track record includes conducting mock occult rituals in Brisbane cemeteries and running farcical ‘ghost hunts’ in a prison where people with mental health issues killed themselves. Sim has even ignored the heartfelt pleas of distraught people to stop telling gruesome ghost stories about their loved ones. With this background, it is difficult to see how he would treat the sensitive issue of mental health with any respect. And it would only be a matter of time before the ghost-o-meters are pulled out.

3. Anti-History
This brand of alleged history can be summed up as what Sim himself admits is a ‘mix of urban legends and ghost stories’. These require no proof to back them up and are relayed without contextual analysis. In other words, not history. It has been shown that Ghost Tours are prone to using made-up stories and unverified tales, and this extract from the newspaper article shows that Wolston Park would probably get the same treatment:
“It was said the people of Goodna could hear the screams of women being unloaded into cages as they were brought by boat to the asylum. Wardsmen swore ghosts of patients paced the corridors in their gowns then disappeared into thin air”.
This shows why the history of Wolston Park is best left to real historians who can analyse the real issues and not reduce real people to ghost characters. Historical significance is a crucial component in the heritage values of old places. Each heritage place has a given set of values in the public mind. This cemetery shows how we respected our dead. This prison shows how we treated our lawbreakers. This hospital shows how we treated the mentally-ill. Together they help tell the story of who we are as a society. Deliberate attempts to distort that significance for commercial benefit by falsely promoting these sites as ‘haunted houses’ undermines the true significance of these places and is emerging as real threat to the heritage sector in Queensland.

4. The Patients Have Enough Problems Already
We really don't need to be making people with mental health issues think that they are staying in or near a haunted house.


There is a place for ghost tours, but not where they undermine a more important view of history or callously upset relatives of the dead. The solution to the trespassing problem at Wolston Park is not to provide ‘legitimate access’ for ghost hunters. It requires that we stop pandering to ghost hunters and allowing them to turn these places into 'Kentucky Fried Haunted Houses'. Wolston Park does not ‘need’ ghost tours to tell history when a museum of mental health would do the job much better. If Wolston House was to be restored, how about creating a legitimate history and education centre there with decent tours that showed a bit of respect and didn’t commodify the suffering of those who died there in a Sideshow Alley freakshow?

I’d also suggest that the state government would be better off redirecting funding back into mental health care programmes instead of pandering to the ridiculous demands of ‘ghost hunters’.

This article was originally published in November 2014.

09 May 2016

Arrividerci Roma, a Guardian Spirit of South Brisbane Cemetery

(This article was transcribed from my hand-written notes and first published in December 2013)

It is, as I put this to paper, 11a.m. on 4 December 2013. I am sitting in the South Brisbane Cemetery. The sky is blue, peppered with small white clouds, and it is cool in the shade of a fig tree. Away to the west a city council worker slowly climbs a hill in a ride-on mower. The recent rain has left the freshly-cut grass lush, and the fir and eucalyptus trees give the cemetery a park-like feel. Off to the east another worker in safety gear whipper-snips between rows of old headstones. The hum of their activity is accompanied by birdsong, cicadas, and the bustle of Annerley Road at the top of the slopes.

Mowing in South Brisbane Cemetery, 4 December 2013. (C Dawson)

Meanwhile, a few kilometres away at Mount Gravatt, the funeral of Roma Waldron, aged 72 years and the founding president of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, has just started. I couldn't get there today for a number of reasons, but being in the neighbourhood of the cemetery I thought it might mean something to spend an hour here and write a few words about Roma because this place meant so much to her. The cemetery is not perfect, it never is, but I think she'd take some pleasure to see it as it is right now, with the workers tending to it while somebody remembers what she did for this place.

Roma had devoted a large chunk of her life to to researching cemeteries, both in New South Wales and Queensland. Her long list of publications included:

(Not to mention her 'Willy Cockroach' children's book series and numerous poems).

She also, when capable, put a lot of physical energy into looking after cemeteries. However, when it came to South Brisbane Cemetery it was the emotional energy she expended that I most remember. Roma was one of three women (with Marilyn Paul and Tracey Olivieri) who created the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery back in 2005. They acted out of sheer frustration at the apparent neglect of this historic cemetery, and over the next few years these few women not only recorded every single headstone in the place, they also cleaned the debris from every single grave and pathway too.

Their legacy is a cemetery that not only looked better, but has been recorded like never before. The FOSBC records for the cemetery are second to none, and they contributed every word and image on South Brisbane Cemetery to the Australian Cemeteries Index website.

In recent years, Roma's declining health saw her take a back seat as far as cemetery work went, but she never stopped caring. Her passion was evident at meetings of the Greater Brisbane Cemetery Alliance, where she would oscillate between threatening to 'rip the nuts off' bureaucrats to shedding tears as she read cemetery poetry.

Roma Waldron, 2011.

She fought the somewhat careless construction of the Busway next to the cemetery with quite some determination, and led the charge to have excavated headstones preserved and returned to their original locations. She fought against the disrespectful carry-ons of 'Ghost Tours', which she despised, and proudly earned herself her own legal threat from serial threat-maker 'Jack' Sim. Also, one night after misunderstanding a discussion about a potential 'Cemetery Watch' scheme, she arrived at the cemetery gates demanding to see the tour license of a ghost tour guide. This led to the hilarious scene of 'Jack' Sim complaining to the police about this little sexagenarian woman. She never did, as she often proclaimed she would, 'rip his nuts off, if he has any'.

But that was Roma, temperamental, caring, testicle-removing, fearless, loving and angry. That was the kind of passion she brought to the FOSBC. Her heritage ideas could be misplaced sometimes (we had to persuade her that her plan to erect a white timber cross on each of the thousands of unmarked graves in South Brisbane Cemetery was both impractical and illegal) but she embodied the kind of love for a place that should be at the beating heart of every local history group.

So while Roma's passing brings sadness for those close to her, there is solace to be found in the fact that she had more or less completed her labours of love and left the cemetery a far better place than when she found it. Sometimes people live and die and their work can be for nought, but not so Roma, and among those who lost something with her death you can count the South Brisbane Cemetery itself.

She was and is, as the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery motto has it, a genius loci - 'guardian spirit of the place'.

Above: The first headstone in the cemetery, dated 1870. An appropriate place to leave some flowers for Roma. (C. Dawson)

06 May 2016

Scenes by the 1840s Brisbane River

The following vivid description of life by the Brisbane River in the 1840s was written by William Clark in 1917. Clark arrived at Moreton Bay in 1849 with his parents when he was 12 years old.

In his early years he assisted his father in felling pine timber and splitting shingles in the dense scrubland of the Boggo district, from the present Fairfield to Oxley Creek. From the 1860s he was occupied in various industries around Queensland, including sheep, cattle and mining. In his later years he wrote regular articles for the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander reminiscing about his early life and adventures:


‘Further upstream from the creek, after which Creek-street is named, near the bamboos in the Botanic Gardens, stood a cottage, painted green, with a fine orchard attached. This was the residence of an old-time military officer. Opposite on the south bank stood primitive Kangaroo Point, with a few scattered houses. At the end of the Point was John Rankin's pineapple garden, with John - or, as he was called, Tinker - Campbell's boiling down works, the first in Moreton Bay. In 1848 the Point was the scene of a tragic murder, for which a cook at Sutton's Hotel named Fife was executed. The affair was the outcome of a drunken melee, in which the boiling down butchers were said to have been implicated, as the testimony of a friend of the writer's, who was actually an eye witness of the disposal of part of the body fully corroborates. The upset price of the Kangaroo Point land at the local sale in 1843 was £1 per acre. Just above the present Dry Dock, on the bank of the river, was John Slack's paddock. John Slack afterwards formed a cattle station on Slack's Creek, Logan River. Walmsley Point, on the opposite bank, in the old Domain, was named after John Walmsley, who had a sawpit there.

Early panoramic view of Brisbane, 1862. (John Oxley Library)

Following the river bank upwards, the Commissary buildings (now Colonial Stores) was reached, built in 1829, as the date stone of the building indicates, although Mr. Neimiah Bartley, in his book ‘Agates and Opals,’ gives the date as 1822, in a chapter headed ‘Brisbane in 1822,’ when, in fact, Brisbane was ‘non-et-iventus.’ The old place, with the rubble stone wall nearby, is one of the few remaining relics of penal times. Visitors to the old building may now see in the floors the old-fashioned wrought iron nails of the period. On the opposite bank was primitive South Brisbane. Tom Archer tells us that when he arrived there in 1841 with his wool teams from Durundur, by way of Kilcoy and Cressbrook stations, via Ipswich, not a single house or habitation then existed in the place. The Stanley-street frontage 70 years ago was occupied by Messrs. Orr Bros., butchers - James and William. It is now Baynes Bros., also butchers. Daniel Peterson's wharf and store was next. In the store big Dick Allcock, his father, and George, his brother, printed and published the first issue of the Moreton Bay ‘Free Press,’ that afterwards merged into the ‘Guardian’ newspaper. Adjoining was John M'Cabe's Freemasons' Hotel and wharf, afterwards Christie's. Peter Gablen's residence and wharf followed. Then came the old Hunter River Steam Co.'s premises, with two large receiving stores. One of the old gate posts is still standing in Stanley-street. The managers of the company in succession were William Connoley, George Salt Tucker, and Henry Buckley, our first Auditor-General.

Adjoining the old Russell-street ferry was Sandy MacIntyre's property, on which the company's steamers made fast their head lines to a tree. The company wished to purchase the property, and made an offer, which was not accepted. One morning the head lines were cut. The steamer's head lay down stream. The company then said good-bye to South Brisbane. So we lost the steamers. The earliest of those steamers was known as The William, the fourth colonial built boat. Afterwards came the Eagle, Captain Allen, Sovereign, Captain Cape, and the Tamar, Captain Murphy. The ferry approaches of old Russell-Street were by a cutting through a high grassy bank. For some distance above the ferry, the riverbank was occupied by sawpits. Adjoining the sawpits were two cottage residences, one the early home of the M'Naught family, the other the residence of Mr William Wilkes, editor of the ‘Moreton Bay Courier.’ The land on which they stood now forms the approaches to Victoria Bridge.

Moreton Bay Settlement from South Brisbane, c. 1835,
attributed to H Boucher Bowerman. (John Oxley Library)

At North Quay, on the present ice works, stood M'Cormack the builder's cottage. In a right angle line near the present alignment of George-street was ‘God's acre’ - the convict burial ground; where many of the victims of the relentlessly cruel penal administration slept their last sleep. The spot was not reserved in early surveys. The graves had fallen in below the surface when the writer last visited it. There were no head marks to the graves. Recently, when a building foundation was put in, some human remains were dug up, when I informed the Lands Department of the exact locale of the old cemetery. On the river bank above M'Cormack's was the military burial ground, where an officer was buried in a bricked-in vault, with a solid stone block, oblong in shape on top of the ground, with an inscription. A few steps led down to the entrance door, painted blue. On the south bank the next point of interest was the site of the present municipal baths, known as the Sandy Beach, where boats were beached for repairs. It was a favourite place with the blacks for swimming the river.

Round the point was the residence of Corporal M'Cann, an officer of penal times. Adjoining was the market garden of James Kirkwood, who wheeled his vegetables round South Brisbane in a barrow. Then came, at present site of South Brisbane Cricket Ground, Pendergrast's farm. The place was fenced in, a slab hut and small milking yard erected, and in 1848 abandoned by the owner, who never returned. Both banks of the river were without habitation until Oven's Head was reached, where a convict gang, who was cutting long saplings murdered their ganger, throwing his head into Clark's Creek, close by, and his body into the river. The spot is now enclosed in the South Brisbane Cemetery. The surrounding scrubs were full of pine trees. There the writer, when a lad of thirteen years, began work with his father splitting laths and shingles for old Andrew Petrie.

At Fairfield was the farm of Samuel Scarlet Bailey. The place had previously been fixed on for a sugar plantation by the Brisbane Sugar Company, a proposition that never eventuated, owing to the dictum of a St. Domingo planter, who considered the degree of frost against the growth of sugar in Moreton Bay. This was the first move in sugar growing. Further up towards Canoe or Oxley Creek, was the Government freestone quarry, with a ‘floor’ put in at the river level, whence stone was punted to the settlement. The north bank was still without settlement until Moggil Creek was reached, where the bulk of the Lima's immigrants settled to farm in 1849; and where John - or, as he was commonly called, ‘Butte’ - Williams opened, about 1846, the Moggil coal pits. On the head of the creek was an ancient sheep station, owned by Jack and Darby M'Grath. No more settlement on that bank for a long distance past the confluence of the Bremer.

On the south bank, at Wolston, now Goodna, was the home of Dr. Stephen Simpson, a Crown Lands Commissioner. It was here that the escapee Bracefield, brought in by Petrie in 1842, met his death while felling scrub. Redbank was the site of the Government dairy, where a large stockyard stood on the edge of Redbank Swamp. The river then was without settlement until John Uhr's Wivenhoe station was reached, the Cressbrook frontage, Colinton station following. Then the river bed became a precipitous mountain stream, boulder strewn to its source in the Bunya Mountains at Simon Scott's Toromeo station. With the establishment of steam traffic by the Hunter River Steam Co., the necessity for utilising the waterway of the river for conveyance of wool and stores between Brisbane and Ipswich became urgent. The steamers to Sydney plied monthly. Wool teams often got to town a day or so after the steamer had left. They then camped until she returned. The camping place was at the old Wheat Sheaf Inn, which stood at the edge of a large swamp near the site of Brigg's drapery store, in Melbourne street, South Brisbane. Messrs. James Reid and Thomas Boyland met the difficulty by contracting to build the necessary receiving stores for the steam company. They then built a large punt, and took delivery of wool from Darling Downs and the Upper Brisbane at Ipswich from the teams. The huge Noah's ark was moved down slowly on the tide way by long sweeps to South Brisbane.

Steamers soon began to ply on the up-river waters. The first, the Experiment, was brought from Sydney by James Canning Pearce. She soon came to grief by being short tied at a Brisbane wharf. In the night the tide rose over her. The steward, who was sleeping on board, awoke to find the water pouring down below, and rushed on deck. It was supposed his money was below; he made a fatal rush down the ladder, and was engulfed in the flood waters pouring down the stairway. Messrs. Reid and Boyland bought the old wreck, took her boilers and engines out, and put them into a steamer they built on a slip on Montague-road frontage named the Hawk. I remember when she was towed by a boat to South Brisbane. The men on her called to people on the river bank ‘The Hawk is coming; look out for your chickens.’ Meanwhile Mr. Thomas Coutts had arrived with the steamer Raven from Sydney. She was too large for the trade. The scrub trees overhung the narrow river. The old skipper would come on deck from below and shout to the man at the wheel, ‘Helm a lee! Keep her head out of the bush.’

Steamers on the Brisbane River, 1855. (Conrad Martens)

Sometime afterward a still larger steamer was placed on the river, named the Bredalbane, by Messrs. Robert Towns and Co., in connection with their South Brisbane business. Although a Sydney merchant, be was truly a pioneer of Queensland, being the first chairman of the Hunter River Steam Co. He subsequently embarked in cotton growing at Towns Vale, on the Logan. He was practically the founder of Townsville. He financed the development of the Redbank Collieries, and in conjunction with Mr. John Graham M'Donald, he explored and pioneered Burketown and the Gulf country. Meanwhile Mr. James Reid, the veteran river man, was a squatter at Camboon, on the Lower Dawson, with Towns and Co. as his station agents. Mr. Reid, when visiting Sydney, promised Mr. Towns that he would take the wheel of the Bredalbane on her trial trip. The steamer grounded for the night at the Seventeen-Mile Rocks. From the dense scrubs on the bank the mosquitoes came down on their prey. The party retreated below, when for the first and last time in his life, so it was said, Bobbie Towns sung a song, his subject being ‘That dark girl dressed in blue.’ A journalist on board sought the deck for fresh air, and sat down on a dry cask. The head fell in, and when discovered ‘Theo’ was quite comfortable, his legs hanging over the edge of the cask. The Bredalbane was subsequently returned to Sydney, being too large for the trade. Eventually the Swallow and other steamers were built, drawing less water.

The advent of the railway from Brisbane to Ipswich caused a considerable decrease in river traffic. The pioneers of the Brisbane River and its traffic, or settlement on the banks, were men of firm and steady step, men of indomitable energy, worthy to rank with Fenimore Cooper's ‘Pathfinders,’ whose memory their few remaining compeers still hold in kindly remembrance.’

The Bromelton Bunyip of Beaudesert

The idea of the ‘bunyip’ as a mysterious and possibly mythical water creature was well established in non-Indigenous Australian lore by the time the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement closed in 1842. For several decades there had been sporadic accounts of strange unidentified freshwater animals across the country, which were first named in print as ‘bunyips’ in the Geelong Advertiser in 1845. Not long afterwards, the new arrivals moving into the unfamiliar Aboriginal lands surrounding Brisbane provided the first local non-Indigenous reports of ‘bunyip’ sightings.

The first recorded sighting of a bunyip in Queensland took place in 1850, on the 'Bromelton' property of Thomas Murray-Prior, by the Logan River near Beaudesert. This was the first run to be taken up anywhere on the Logan River. The Aboriginal name for this place was Bungropin, reportedly meaning ‘the place of parrots’, after the great flocks of parrots that used to frequent the area.

One of the dominant features of this property was a large and deep lagoon, which according to Aboriginal legend was dug by a platypus escaping from a dingo. The lagoon is about 1.5 km in circumference and up 30 metres deep. Local Aboriginal people believed that a tunnel connected this waterhole to a smaller lagoon called Ilbogan.

Bromelton House, 1872. (John Oxley Library)

There was a report in the Moreton Bay Courier in 1850 about a sighting of a strange creature on the Bromelton property. A woman staying at the house (possibly a sister of Murray-Prior's wife Matilda Harpur) claimed to have seen a ‘living animal of extraordinary shape and dimensions’ while she was walking near a large lagoon there. She provided this vivid description:
‘The head appeared to be elongated and flattened, like the bill of a platypus. The body, from the place where it joined the head, to about five feet backward, seemed like that of a gigantic eel, being of about the ordinary thickness of a man's body. Beyond this it was of much larger apparent size, having the appearance of being coiled into innumerable folds. Beyond those coils was what seemed to be the tail of the animal, which had somewhat the shape of the tail of a fish, but is described as having the semi-transparent appearance of a bladder. The head, which was small and narrow in proportion to the size of the body, was furnished with what seemed to be two horns, which were quite white. Under the circumstances it was, of course, difficult to judge accurately of the whole length of the animal, but, by comparison with other objects, it is supposed that the parts visible above the water must have been thirty feet in extent.’ (Moreton Bay Courier, 9 February 1850)

The lagoon at Bromelton.

She quickly left the scene before returning with two other women, but all that was visible of the creature (for a short time before it disappeared underwater) was a tail.

The Moreton Bay Courier article continued:
‘… it appears that this lagoon has long enjoyed the reputation of being the home of a monster answering the above imperfect description, and which is stated to have been seen more than once by men on the station. It is certain that the aboriginal natives will not bathe in the lagoon, and that they have evinced much fear of something that they believe to be an inhabitant of its waters… There is… ‘ample space and verge enough’ for more than one of these huge denizens of the still waters to live in retirement. Whatever may be the natural character and attributes of this extraordinary animal, we have some hopes of their being shortly made known, for we are informed that a regular crusade is being organized against it, and every preparation made to secure it, if possible, dead or alive. We shall not fail to lay before our readers any further particulars that may be gathered upon this interesting subject.’
This last paragraph demonstrates one of the key aspects of colonial attitudes to the bunyip. While the creature was attributed with supernatural qualities within Aboriginal cultures, many Europeans viewed it as yet-to-be-identified fauna. To the new arrivals, this was still a new landscape filled with exotic fauna and untold zoological possibilities. Several decades were to pass before white Australia relegated the bunyip to the status of mere folklore.

Rosa-Campbell Praed, c. 1878.
(State Library of Qld)

In fact, one of the authors responsible for popularising the bunyip within folklore was the novelist Rosa Campbell Praed. Thomas Murray-Prior was her father, Bromelton had been her childhood home, and it was her aunt who had reportedly witnessed the bunyip back in 1850. No doubt influenced by these connections, Rosa wrote a short story titled ‘The Bunyip’ in 1891 (it can be read here).

It would seem that despite the extraordinary description given of the creature in 1850, it was never seen again - certainly not by any westerner, anyway. It is difficult to know what to make of this report. Most bunyip sightings of the following century seemed to be the result of people misidentifying seals, eels, crocodiles and even ducks, and while the most likely suspect in the 1850 account would be a giant eel, the overall description is still quite fantastic. Could the witness have been influenced by the subtropical summer heat? Whatever it was, the Bromelton Bunyip entered into local legend and almost 80 years later an article about a nearby racecourse carried this reminder:
‘Many years ago this lagoon provided excellent sport for the enthusiastic fisher map, mullet and perch in plenty being readily obtainable. Although its submerged snags were well known, it was, nevertheless, an extremely popular bathing place. This fact recalls an incident when a huge serpent-like water monster was alleged to have been seen, by a party of bathers, whose statement was, at a later period, corroborated by a party of aboriginals who were in the habit of camping at the lagoon, and who claimed to have seen this monster sporting about in the water. The blacks described it as a "big fella bunyip," or "debil debil," and thereafter it was familiarly known as the Ilbogan bunyip. Firm in their belief that the lagoon was haunted, the aboriginals were loathe to approach its precincts for a considerable period there-after; in fact, the alleged presence of the monster had the effect of dampening the ardour of all who were in the habit of enjoying a customary week-end dip.’ (Brisbane Courier, 11 May 1927)
Another view of the lagoon at Bromelton.