27 April 2018

The Royal Mail Hotel and a 'Daily Mail' Fail

The Daily Mail website continued its tradition of bringing you pseudo-news clickbait last week with a 'ghost story' constructed around nothing more than an unconvincing photograph. We've seen this before with their ridiculous 'Is Toowoomba the Most Haunted City in Australia?' story in 2015. This time the action moves to the historic Royal Mail Hotel in Ipswich, Queensland.

A photograph was taken inside that pub in March this year. It looked like this:

Daily Mail, 18 April 2018.

Basically, there appears to be some kind of a smudge or smoke in the upper right part of the photo. This kind of thing is often presented by paranormalists as evidence of ghosts (for example, this photo I had a fight over some time back). Seeing ghosts in such photos is usually the result of pareidolia (the brain perceiving patterns in otherwise random imagery), but it seems that some people have a greater capacity for pareidolia than others, which I think might be proportionate to their desire to see something.

This photo is a great example of this phenomenon. I've shown it to several people (believers and skeptics) and none of them could perceive anything resembling a human form in the 'smudge'. I really tried to make something out of it myself - and I usually can if I try - but couldn't see anything vaguely recognisable there. And judging by the comments under the article, I was not alone in this.

And yet, the article presents the photo as containing 'an apparition of a figure wearing a hat'. The reporter contacted Kellie Wright (who runs weekly psychic nights at the pub), who said 'In the photo, you can actually see an apparition of a woman', and that 'the figure in the picture... was more likely that of a woman who was the hotel's licensee during the early 20th century, called Mary O'Reilly'.

Disclosure - I know Kellie, I like her, and she might unfriend me on social media for this (please don't Kel!), but I really have to disagree with this assessment. The general consensus seems to be that the smudge in the photo is not identifiable as a human form, and certainly not to the extent that it can be assigned a gender. I accept that photos can sometimes contain 'ghostly' imagery that can be interpreted as having some kind of human features, but not this one.
I'm also skeptical about attempts to try and attach a historical identity to alleged ghosts. Even if we were to accept that anomalous phenomena can be attributed to the spirits of deceased people, is it possible to then identify exactly who the deceased person is? Without any evidence, I'd say not. In fact, this only distracts from the actual science of trying to explain any anomalies. Yet it is very common for these cases to feature 'guessing games' of who the ghost might be, with lists of people who died in the vicinity being presented as possible suspects. This happened with this story as well:
'The death toll includes heroin overdoses in an upstairs room during the 1980s and an employee who died in a fight outside the front of the pub in 1986, after hitting his head on a kerb. An 11-year-old boy was also shot on a horse during the 19th century.'
Identifying the alleged ghost as being Mary O'Reilly seems rather unnecessary, especially with such weak evidence. In these cases I think it's more productive to focus on investigating what is happening rather than engaging in baseless speculation over names.

The article does mention other incidents said to have occurred inside the pub, including the old 'feeling like I'm not alone' (easy enough if you've convinced yourself the place is haunted), as well as creaking floorboards (not unusual in a 150+-years-old timber building), and posters falling off walls (gravity/draughts?) None of this seems to be particularly strong evidence in its own right, but snippets in a news article like this don't really provide detailed information to work with.

What I did find interesting was the contrasting attitudes of the two people running the pub, a father and daughter named Andrew and Addie Cafe. She seems to be more affected by the atmosphere, finding the 11 pm closing time 'particularly creepy' and claiming that 'At night time it seems to change. You do get their weird vibe.' On the other hand, Andrew - who has run the pub for 32 years - was more skeptical and said that he 'might have felt a presence years ago, I don't feel that anymore. I'm not in fear of anything.'

Based on those statements, I'd suggest that this case probably provides genuine researchers a good opportunity to look into the psychology of hauntings more than anything else. It would certainly be time better spent than trying to visualise a face in a photograph.

Royal Mail Hotel, Goodna, 1940s. (Queensland Times)
05 April 2018

The Brisbane River of the 1820s

This vivid description of the Brisbane River as it was circa 1830 is taken from the Brisbane Courier, 22 March 1930.



RECENT issues of "The Brisbane Courier" have referred with a certain amount of pride to the fact that the P. and O. Coy. have decided to extend the service of their fine steamers to Brisbane. When one considers that less than a century ago men frequently waded across the Brisbane River at various spots between the present site of the Victoria Bridge and Queensport it can be realised that the work of improving the river has been one of great magnitude. Many years ago I was told by a gentleman then engaged in the pilot service at Brisbane that on one occasion at low tide he waded across the river from Queensport to Pinkenba. I had it from an ex-convict that during the years of the convict settlement in Brisbane, that is, after the year 1825, the soldiers when off duty were in the habit - at low tide - of wading about in the shallow pools of water where the Victoria Bridge now stands, and catching large quantities of fish. They caught the fish with their hands, and put them into bags or baskets slung over their backs.

Moreton Bay Settlement, 1835. (John Oxley Library)

It was my experience, more than half a century ago, to make the acquaintance of an old man - a time-expired convict - who was one of the first contingent of prisoners in 1825 to quit Redcliffe and ascend the Brisbane River in a cutter. This man was well educated, as was evidenced by the fragments of old manuscripts which he had written and placed at my disposal for perusal. He exacted from me a promise that I would not divulge the contents of his notes so far as they related to the convict system, but their perusal conveyed particulars of some dreadful incidents in the administration of the penal affairs of the settlement.

The writer of those notes was an ardent lover of Nature, and the beauties of the scenery along the banks of the river probably appealed to him in a manner that was lost upon his fellow prisoners. He drew vivid pictures of the scenes of enchanting beauty which unfolded themselves as each successive reach of the river came into view. To use his own words: "It looked as though some race of men had been here before us, and planted this veritable garden of Eden." The convicts were being conveyed to a prison from which possibly the majority would be re-leased only by death, and yet the gate-way to that prison lay between river banks lined with foliage whose beauty it were almost impossible to describe. Skirting the water's edge for miles on each side of the river was dense vine-clad jungle, festooned with the blue and the purple convolvulus, while on the tidal brink grew the beautiful salt-water lily - its flower white as alabaster, its glorious perfume filling the air with fragrance. Kingfishers - some scarlet breasted, others white, all with backs of azure blue - darted hither and thither, while anon the solitude was disturbed by the raucous laughter of the kookaburra.

But the conditions of an earthly paradise were not to continue indefinitely, for in the course of time - particularly after the abolition of the convict system, and with the advent of free colonists in the Brisbane area - there came the inevitable day when

"The sound of the axe
Was heard in the land"-

when the war of devastation - man versus Nature - called by most people the march of progress - began, and the beautiful jungles were swept away. A few giant Moreton Bay fig trees were spared for some years longer. One of these stood in William-street, where now is the residence of Mr. Tom Mulcahy, of the Home Secretary's Department. Another grew on the present site of the Treasury Buildings. Prior to the erection of these buildings that grand old tree stood sentinel over the Chief Secretary's office - a small one-storied building, where some of the most important laws in force in Queensland first saw the hand of the Parliamentary draftsman. It was under the shadow of that old tree that Sir Thomas McIlwraith - then Premier - signed the historical telegram to Mr. H. M. Chester, police magistrate of Cooktown, instructing him to proceed post haste to New Guinea to hoist the Union Jack on the shores of Port Moresby, and to proclaim the annexation of New Guinea in the name of Great Britain. Incidentally it may be stated that McIlwraith's action was repudiated by the Imperial Government, of which Gladstone was the head.

One of the most enchanting spots within the Brisbane area was an immense jungle in the western portion of South Brisbane. It began at about the spot where the Victoria Bridge now stands, and it followed the course of the river right away to Hill End, along the whole length of what is now the Montague-road. This jungle was a tangled mass of trees, vines, flowering creepers, staghorns, elkhorns, towering scrub palms, giant ferns, and hundreds of other varieties of the fern family, beautiful and rare orchids, and the wild passion flower. While along the river bank were the waterlily in thousands, and the convolvulus of gorgeous hue. What posterity lost by the destruction of this magnificent jungle in all its pristine glory only those who were privileged to see it can form any conception. Here at our very door we had a wealth, a profusion, of botanical beauty which can never be replaced by the hand of man. Too late have we recognised the desirableness of conserving these glorious works of Nature. The Lamington plateau and Mount Tamborine certainly are beauty spots, and rich from a botanic point of view, but it is not every city dweller who can get to them. A few weeks ago there appeared In the "Courier" a letter from the pen of Mr. Fred. W. Taylor, dated North Tamborine, February 18, in which these words occur:
"On ascending the mountain (Tamborine) from the Tamborine station one travels through avenues of wonderful scrub, with palm trees waving their proud plumes to the whispering breeze, and there are vast reserves of virgin scrub prolific in orchids, staghorns, &c., on stately forest trees." 
These words would have applied with equal truth to the magnificent stretch of primeval foliage at West End had the early residents of Brisbane exercised sufficient foresight to preserve to posterity that magnificent botanical heritage.

It was during the destruction of this jungle that evidence of the brutal convict system was brought to light, for, amid this primeval grandeur, there were found the skeletons of several human beings, rusted leg-irons still encircling the bones. Obviously the convicts had escaped from the settlement - either by crossing the river on logs or by wading across at low tide. They preferred to die in this veritable garden of Nature rather than continue to live amid all the horrors of the convict system. But while all lovers of Nature must deplore the destruction of these enchanted spots, there is consolation in realising that after all such destruction was the first step in the direction of a free settlement, which displaced the brutal and degrading convict system.'

03 April 2018

Stories of Women in the Cemetery: Getting the Balance Right

I recently (March 2018) co-hosted an 'International Women's Day' night tour at South Brisbane Cemetery, along with cemetery historian Tracey Olivieri. We basically split the tour, doing alternating spots, and did our own research for the graves we were stopping at. It was about halfway through the tour when it hit me just how downright grim my stories were. Probably around the time that one of the people on the tour asked me if there were going to be any 'upbeat' stories.

'The Women of South Brisbane Cemetery' tour, 9 March 2018. (C. Dawson)

To be fair, I had managed to make something of a running joke about the tone of my material, from the point that my first stop opened with 'this is going to be a bit depressing', followed by the stories of three women who had committed suicide by throwing themselves in the Brisbane River (at different times).

Then came the story of Ellen Thomson - hanged for murder - and then a woman who died after having an illegal abortion. By this point I was reconsidering some of my remaining material, including the woman who had four of her kids die before she went blind, and the alcoholic woman who was a prisoner when she gave birth to a stillborn child and then died herself three days later. Last of all was the woman who drowned herself in the river a few months after she saw her toddler burned to death.

As I said, downright grim stuff. I did drop a couple of stories, mainly to save some time, but it does raise important questions about how we tell the stories of women in history. It might be a cemetery, but should I be taking it easy on the 'women as victims' angle?

To begin with, I do have a natural preference for the 'dramatic' in these tours. I'm not comfortable telling mundane stories; 'This guy was an accountant from Yeronga, and then he died of old age'. I need my stories to have a bit of a kick to them. 100% accurate, but memorable. Other cemetery tours I have created include 'Hangman's Walk' - exclusively about capital punishment - and 'Gruesome Graveyards' which features stories of hangings, grave robbing, murder, and general bad luck. So the tour content was partly related to my usual approach.

There is, however, a problem that we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have been aware of for some time. When researching a place like 'our' cemetery - which was largely shunned as a burial ground by the rich and famous of colonial Queensland - it can be difficult to find the stories of many of the women in there. Partly because of the regressive social conditions of the time, most of them were in the background, working in the home, while many are defined on their headstones simply as 'wives' or 'mothers'.

This was an era when women didn't have many basic rights, such as voting, or took prominent roles when a man could do the job. For example, the first female MP in Queensland was elected in 1929. She lost in 1932 and there wasn't another one until 1966. Before then, there would have been hundreds of male politicians, who are now clogging up the best spots in cemeteries all around Brisbane.

The women you notice the most in the colonial records tend to have died particularly tragic deaths or were the spouse or parent of a successful man. There are, however, quite a few who were independently successful or performed inspiring acts. And there are others whose life experiences can tell us a lot about everyday life in old Queensland. We did mention some of those in the tour, but perhaps there should more be of these stories.

At the same time, we don't want to hide the fact that life was often hard for women, sometimes too hard, simply because they were women. This can still be the case today. And telling the sad stories of wasted lives gives more context to the more inspiring stories. The task is to find the right balance.

Coming out of the International Women's Day tour, one of the jobs of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery will be to research and document the stories of more of the women interred in the cemetery. We will be hosting a couple more 'women's tours' in the coming months, and hopefully we'll have a few more success stories that don't end - fingers crossed - with the subjects jumping into the Brisbane River.