22 October 2019

The Life and Times of Ron Tullipan

Not too many people these days have heard of Ron Tullipan, which is a shame because he was a very good Australian novelist during the 1960s. Somewhat like his reputation, his South Brisbane Cemetery grave has also been neglected, and it has become something of a recent mission of mine to revive the public's memory of Ron.

Ron Tullipan.

He died in 1975 at the age of 58, and while his life was relatively short, it was a full one. Ron was born in Murwillumbah, New South Wales, in 1917, the fourth son of travelling showman Edgar Tullipan, a travelling showman, and his wife Vera. The 'Tullipan Bros. Circus' travelled regional Australia, with such acts as buckjumping, acrobats, 'sword bouts', 'high-jumping greyhounds', and horse-riding monkeys. Ron's childhood was somewhat erratic, and his parents divorced when he was 12, and for some time he was a State ward in the St Vincent's Orphanage in Nudgee.

Advertisement for Tullipan Bros. Circus. (Western Champion, Barcaldine, 10 April 1909)

As a young man, Ron worked on farms in the Warwick district, and during the Depression of the 1930s he went on the road, travelling from town to town to find bits of work here and there. He was then employed as a labourer. These were all vivid, Steinbeckian life experiences that he was to draw upon later as a writer.

Ron got married in 1937 with a Catholic ceremony at St Ita's Church, Dutton Park. He was aged 20, and his bride was 14-year-old Katie Power. They had four daughters together but sadly two died in infancy - Patricia aged 2 years in 1940, and Helena aged 17 months in 1943. The family were living on Gladstone Road, Highgate Hill, at the time and the girls were interred in the South Brisbane Cemetery.

Along came World War II and Ron joined the army in July 1941. He wanted to serve overseas but was posted to the 5th Armoured Regiment, which never left Australia. He became discontented and played up a lot, and served numerous periods of detention for disobedience and being absent without leave. Ron was eventually posted to the 58th/59th Battalion and sent to Bougainville in December 1944, where he was wounded in action about six months later. The war ended soon afterwards and he was discharged.

It was during his time in the army that Ron developed what he called a 'fever to write’, and he taught himself by analysing the work of others. He divorced Katie in 1947 and moved to Sydney, where he hoped to establish himself as a writer. He lived there with Vi Murray, who along with her young son adopted his surname. Literary success eluded him, and in the early 1950s they moved north to Cairns where Ron worked on the wharfs and became a union man. He had strong sympathies for the struggles of the working class, which is also reflected in his writings.

Ron had some short stories published around this time, and also earned money as a commercial artist. He and Vi travelled overseas in the 1950s, and visited the Soviet Union. In 1958-60 they ran a lolly shop in London, and Ron took art lessons.

When they got back to Sydney in 1960, his first novel Follow the Sun was published, based on his time working on the waterfront. He wrote in the Social Realist style, focussing on the hardship and exploitation of workers.

His next two novels were also very autobiographical. These were Rear Vision in 1961 and March into Morning (1962), which both won Dame Mary Gilmore awards. During the 1960s he lived in the Blue Mountains and lectured for the Australasian Book Society and was the president of the Sydney Realist Writers' Group. He completed his last novel Daylight Robbery in 1970, drawing upon his knowledge of bushranger history.

Sadly, his writing and art were not selling well at this time, and in 1973 Ron and Vi moved to Brisbane where he became vice-president of the Queensland branch of the Artists' Guild of Australia. He died of a brain haemorrhage in November 1975.

Ron was laid to rest in the South Brisbane Cemetery, in the same grave as his infant daughters Patricia and Helena. This grave, like others around it, has fallen victim to a badly-placed tree that drops large amounts of debris and completely covers everything below with dead leaves and bark sheddings. Ron's grave sometimes requires comprehensive clearing just to make it and the memorial plaque visible (thank you, Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery, especially Lisa, Dan and Tracey). The state of the grave was perhaps analogous to the state of Ron's literary reputation, which is also in danger of becoming forgotten to history.

I do my bit to try and raise awareness of Ron, and stop at his grave to tell his story during our occasional 'Dying Arts' tour of the cemetery, and am making my way through the book March Into Morning. The thematic influence of Steinbeck is clear in that novel, as is the autobiographical nature of the work. A teenage orphan, sent to work on a Queensland farm, runs away during the Depression to experience the 'freedom' of the road, travelling from settlement to settlement and developing his class consciousness and socialist sensibilities through a series of incidents and encounters along the way. The political narrative can be quite unsubtle at times but I am enjoying the book. I've sat by his grave a couple of times to read some passages, which I like doing because of that weird and irrational sense you sometimes get that the person in the grave might somehow be aware of you being there. It feels like I'm showing him he hasn't been forgotten. Ron Tullipan couldn't be described as a major Australian author, but his life and times are well worth remembering.

Plaque on the Tullipan grave, South Brisbane Cemetery. (FOSBC)

02 October 2019

A Brisbane River Shark Attack, 1847

"SHARKS.- On Wednesday, several very large sharks were seen in the river, near the Steam Navigation Company's Stores; one of these monsters, upwards of fourteen feet in length, was observed in pursuit of two immense stinging rays, which, in their violent efforts to escape, threw themselves high and dry on the bank of the river, where they were captured. Persons bathing should be extremely cautious in venturing far from the side, particularly when others are not present to render assistance in case of accident." (Moreton Bay Courier, 27 November 1847)
This warning against bathing in the Brisbane River seemed clear enough. Every summer was breeding season for bull sharks and large females were abundant in the river. However, just one week after the warning appeared in the Courier, a schoolmaster named William Robertson and his friend James Stewart, who was a manager at the Binnie & Co. saddlery in Brisbane, decided to cool off one Tuesday morning by taking a dip in the river near what is now known as the North Quay. These were of course the days before air conditioning and suburban swimming pools. The river waters were one of the few options of staying cool in the colonial subtropical summers.

View of Moreton Bay Settlement, 1835.
Moreton Bay Settlement by Henry Boucher Bowerman, 1835. (State Library of Qld)

Stewart undressed and entered the water, but the wary Robertson had a ‘certain misgiving that an accident was about to happen’ (or so he later claimed) and remained on the riverbank. After a just a few minutes, Robertson heard a sudden scream and turned to see a large shark, belly upwards, rushing to attack Stewart about 20 metres away. Stewart immediately headed for the bank, but the shark gripped his thigh, badly tearing the flesh. Over the following minutes there was a violent struggle as Stewart inched towards safety, and sometimes he seemed to be underneath the shark, and sometimes on the back. He was bitten a second time, this time on the calf, causing another serious wound.

He finally reached the bank and Robertson pulled his exhausted friend from the water, while the shark swam slowly away. Seeing that Stewart was in a bad way, Robertson immediately ran to get help from Dr Keith Ballow (Resident Surgeon of the Moreton Bay General Hospital), while the victim tied a handkerchief around his wounded thigh in an attempt to stop the haemorrhaging. Ballow arrived and bandaged the wounds before rushing Stewart to the hospital.

Word of the attack quickly spread through the small town, and a number of residents arrived at the riverbank intent on capturing the shark. Among them was Jones, the barrack sergeant, who baited a large hook with a bullock’s heart and succeeded in dragging the shark to land. It was a Bull Shark, just over three metres long. As was usual after a capture, the shark was cut open so that the stomach contents could be examined, out of curiosity, but the disappointed spectators found that it was quite empty. The jaws were removed for display.

Stewart's leg eventually had to be amputated. He later moved to Sydney, where a correspondent to the Brisbane Courier saw him in 1866 and noted that, "Stewart, who had the fight with the shark, is walking about Sydney still - or rather limping, poor fellow, for his leg has been cut off long since."

16 September 2019

The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub

Boggo Road prison should be a thriving heritage/arts hub.
(This article was originally posted on another site of mine a few years ago, and is revived here because it remains very relevant.)

It it would be a more-than-worthwhile achievement to take Boggo Road - an old prison ingrained with decades of negativity and pain - and transform it into a place of positive creativity and community life. In effect, to ‘rehabilitate’ the buildings themselves.

Boggo Road is a place in need of healing, a scar in the psyche of the landscape. Some people recoil from it. There are some former officers and inmates who suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and have psychological and physical reactions to even being near the prison. I know of one old officer who had to quit his job after he couldn’t walk through the main gates anymore, and in later years he would urinate in his pants if he was accidentally driven past the place.

This is not a happy place, and it cannot be healed by simply filling it with diners and artists and tourists and schoolchildren. We must never forget or whitewash or diminish what happened there. That would be unfair on all those who experienced it when it was a prison, and unfair on those who can still learn the important lessons of that history.

The history of the place should be used as inspiration for telling stories and talking about the old prison through live performance, visual arts, oral history, exhibitions and the written word. Boggo Road should become a centre for encouraging debate and research about Boggo Road itself. A place where we invite the community in to talk about what happened there, through ‘many stories, through many voices, in many ways’.

Not every artistic event there would need to directly address that history, but it is one of those places that inevitably adds deeper layers of meaning to any performance or installation. I would like to see a binding managerial commitment to encourage an ongoing creative discourse about Boggo Road through the arts.

In this way, Boggo Road will become a truly living cultural hub, a place whose own meaning and significance is being positively transformed and challenged through an ongoing process of creative engagement with its own history.

We now have an opportunity to create something great and unique at Boggo Road. Not just another by-the-book prison museum or yuppie/hipster dining Quarter, but an award-winning, living centre of culture that draws inspiration from and engages with the profound history that is soaked into the buildings themselves. And offers some pretty fantastic dining options along the way…

Putting the philosophical aspects of a Boggo Road creative hub aside, there is also a solid commercial argument that a dynamic and varied programme of artistic and History-related events is the best way to bring in repeat customers. It is clear that the full potential of Boggo Road has not yet been realised. The prison has been badly underused in recent years, and although the buildings are the main drawcard and promote themselves[i]), it is currently dead space for most of the time. Most people do one tour and don’t come back.

A varied menu of quality arts and heritage events will get people coming back regularly to see something new. And take in a meal while they’re there. The Boggo Arts and Heritage Alliance has the ideas, talent and connections to make this concept work.

It makes financial sense, but the idea of a thriving, living cultural hub at Boggo Road also seems like a natural fit for the old prison. Let's hope the decision-makers have the vision and energy to make this happen.

[i] This was quite obvious one Sunday in 2011 when the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society volunteers started monthly clean-ups of the prison. The place had been closed for six years, was completely unadvertised, and yet we had about 20 curious visitors walk in that day, even though it was strictly members-only. We tried to keep people OUT and they kept coming in!

12 September 2019

Cleaning Up With the Guardian Angels

I am one of the organisers of the 'Guardian Angel' cleaning programme at South Brisbane Cemetery. About once a month (during April-November) we call for members of the public to come to the cemetery, arm themselves with spray bottles, buckets, brushes and gloves, and get to work cleaning some dirty old headstones. It is, without fail, a much more rewarding experience than you might imagine.

Lunchtime with the Angels, September 2019. (C. Dawson)

We are always surprised by the dedication of the attendees, and how far some of them come (30-80 km is quite normal). We usually get about 20-30 people there (sometimes more), and as you might imagine, the type of people who give up a Sunday morning to volunteer manual labour looking after a heritage place like this are always very pleasant to meet. Some have relatives interred in the cemetery, and so have a personal connection, but many others just do it of the goodness of their hearts. And they come back because they enjoy it.

Headstone cleaning itself is - as one attendee put it so well - a cathartic experience. After you have wet a dirty stone, carefully scrubbed it with a hand brush, and then sprayed it with more water, it is a great feeling seeing the gunk wash away to (hopefully) reveal the clean stone beneath. Some of the monuments have decades worth of grime and pollution on them, and not every headstone comes up as sparkling white as you might hope, but they're always a lot cleaner than they used to be!

We have regulars who all have their own styles. Some like to meticulously clean every square inch of a grave, others like to clear pathways, some just focus on the stone itself. Their combined efforts always get excellent results.

Of course Rule #1 is 'do no harm'. Not to yourself, and not to the monument. We have a team of supervisors (Marleen, Alicha, Rachael, Tracey and myself) ready to work with small groups and make sure everything is okay. What type of stone to clean, how to do it safely for yourself and the stone, where not to stand, etc. It is a system developed over time and it seems to work.

We are strict about which monuments can and can't be cleaned. We avoid sandstone, which can be easily damaged by brushing, and focus mainly on marble or granite. We use mostly just water and elbow grease, although a water/white vinegar solution can be used to try and clear some of the more stubborn staining. We don't go for perfect white results, just getting the surface grime off is good enough.

South Brisbane is a pretty big cemetery, and we have only covered a certain percentage of it over the last couple of years. There are some sections we haven't touched yet but need a serious tidying up. We will get to these in time, hopefully. Of course many hands would make light work. Details of upcoming events can be seen here.

A few random results from the Guardian Angels can be seen below, and a full list of galleries can be viewed here.

05 September 2019

My Girl Bill: A Transgender Celebrity in 1906 Brisbane

People in mid-1906 Brisbane were somewhat startled to discover that Bill Edwards, a popular young man who had been living and working among them for the previous year, was not all he seemed. Bill, as it turned out, was actually a woman named Marion... and wanted by the Victorian Police.

The Herald (Melbourne), 10 October 1906

Marion Edwards was born in 1874 at Murchison, Victoria, to a Welsh-born blacksmith and his Scottish wife. It has been suggested that her father was the role model for Marion's male 'persona'. Her own account of her early life - the memoir Life and Adventures of Marion-Bill-Edwards (Melbourne, 1907?) - is thought to be rather fanciful. According to that publication, she worked on her uncle's farm on the Goulburn River, and then as a waitress, and 'refused offers of marriage and 'made hot love' to women'. Also listed in her resumĂ© were the jobs of French polisher, store assistant, and wool sorter.

It was around 1896 that she decided to dress and live as a male, claiming that doing so earned her more money (a move that has resonance even today). Her career after that time - if her memoir is to be believed - included entertaining troops in Africa during the Boer War as a female impersonator, and delivering horses to India.

Then she got 'married' on New Year's Day 1900 (as 'William Ernest Edwards') at St Francis's Catholic Church, Melbourne, to 30-year-old widow Lucy Minihan. Edwards later claimed this was only a marriage of convenience, and they separated soon afterwards. 

Marion fled to Brisbane in April 1905 after being arrested for burglary in Collingwood. She had been caught in the Studley Arms Hotel (dressed as a man) at 3 a.m., although she claimed she was trying to catch a prowler. She was arrested and charged as a male, but apparently was afraid that her gender would be revealed during a trial, so she left for Queensland. A woman 'claiming to be her wife' had put up bail of £50, and subsequently spent a month in prison for her alleged husband's default.

She worked at various jobs in Brisbane, including as a barman at the Ekka in August 1906. By this time, the local Criminal Investigation Branch knew that the Bill Edwards who had fled Melbourne was now working in Brisbane bars, and suspicion fell on the small man who - to the trained eye of Detective Donnelly - was wearing a disguise. He confronted 'Bill', who promptly confessed everything and was taken into custody in September.

Word soon got around, and her appearance in the courts at Elizabeth Street caused a sensation. As she arrived in a prison van, the road was lined with many curious men, women and children, while others had positioned themselves outside the courtroom. When the doors opened, there was;
"...the unusual sight... of respectably-dressed women jostling with men and boys, in their endeavour to get a glimpse of the notorious female. The corridors likewise were the scene of a surging mass of people, who maintained a constant pressure towards the courtroom doorways, through which only a fortunate few had an opportunity of witnessing the proceedings inside. On the side veranda men scrambled on to the window sills, and the railings, determined not to be baffled in their curiosity." (The Week, 12 October 1906)
Marion was called into court later:
'She came in smiling, and was dressed as on her previous appearance namely, in a neat fitting suit of navy blue serge. She carried a brown felt hat, and her short light brown hair was nicely parted. Her collar and shirt cuffs, as before, were spotlessly clean, and altogether she looked a rather attractive youth.' (The Week, 12 October 1906)

Truth (Brisbane), 30 September 1906

While she was awaiting transfer back to Melbourne, Marion spent a fortnight in Boggo Road prison where she would have been wearing the female inmate uniform and was reportedly popular with the staff there.

Even when she left Brisbane by steamer there were animated scenes at the Adelaide Steamship Company's wharf, with crowds still jostling to catch a glimpse of her;
"Amongst those who gave Marion a hearty farewell in the fore cabin of the Wollowra were several of her woman friends, These, perhaps, had a motive far greater than mere curiosity, but the same cannot be said of the majority of the men and small boys who lounged about in the expectation of being able to see her before the vessel left the wharf. Many of them forced their way into the cabin, in fact, so great was the number who streamed down the companion-way that Water-Police Constable Tuesley was stationed at the foot of the stairway in order to prevent the people blocking the entrance." (Brisbane Telegraph, 10 October 1906)
The celebrity treatment continued after her return to Melbourne, and after she was found not guilty of burglary in her November 1906 trial she took full advantage of the publicity, releasing her memoir (complete with photos of her posing in male and female clothing), and then performing appearing as a sharpshooter in an exhibition between film shows at the Fitzroy Cyclorama. A likeness of her was installed a local waxworks exhibition, billed as 'The Far-famed Male Impersonator'.

A depiction of Marion in the Truth (Brisbane)
newspaper, 4 March 1951.

The 1910s proved to be the peak of Marion's fame, and over the following decades she seemed to work in a variety of situations. A 1927 newspaper article referred to her as a pony trainer at Port Melbourne, while during the 1930s she was living in West Melbourne, still wearing male clothing, and at different times working in hotels, factories, iron foundries, and as a starting price bookmaker. She was listed on electoral rolls as a dyer.

In her old age she was placed in the Mount Royal Geriatric Home, where the staff forced her to dress in women's clothes. Marion died in March 1956 at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. It was incorrectly stated on her death certificate that she was Sarah Isobel, also known as Marion Edwards, an actress. It was perhaps a sad ending to a life she had determinedly lived on her own terms. Her experiences as an object of frenzied attention in Brisbane certainly say a lot about the social norms of the times, as she wouldn't have raised an eyebrow today. She was something of a pioneer, and her life was the subject of the play In Male Attire, performed in Melbourne in 1984.

02 September 2019

1966 and All That

Was 1966 one of the greatest years in music history? The website nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs makes the case.

It was the best of times, it was...

Like most Englishmen of a certain age I have a certain fond regard for the year 1966, with its iconic image of Bobby Moore sitting atop the shoulders of his England team-mates, lifting the Jules Rimet trophy to the sky on a sun-drenched London afternoon in July. Fifty+ years of footballing pain later, this remains the high point in the entirety of English sporting history.

The website nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs, however, is more concerned with the kind of cultural highpoint provided by another bunch of working-class heroes in London just six days later. The Beatles released 'Revolver', an album regarded by many critics as one of the greatest ever made, maybe the greatest.

The World Cup and Revolver. That was the week that was, but I was one week old at the time.

Opinions are just opinions, of course, but there is no doubt that this was a time when many of the best acts in music were at the top of their game. 1966 was in the centre of the most enduring, creative, and transformative three-year period in pop/rock history. There is no point in trying to make the case for a single 'best' year, as both 1965 and 1967 were as full of landmark musical moments as 1966 was, and taken together these years provided a disproportionate amount of enduring classics.

A simple roll-call of the artists active at that time should be enough to make the case for the greatness of 1966. Undisputed music legends such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elvis and Sinatra were together in the charts, and still had some of their best recordings ahead of them. Young unknowns David Bowie; Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley were also recording and learning their craft. Rarely was so much music royalty active at the same time.

R&B was on the ascendant, and Motown had the Supremes, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye churning out hits, while Otis Redding, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett were at their peak.

British Invasion acts such as the Who, the Kinks, Dusty Springfield, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, Yardbirds, Manfred Mann and the Hollies were still filling the charts alongside American artists including Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Walker Brothers and the Righteous Brothers.

Emerging acts included the Monkees, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Velvet Underground, the Mamas and the Papas, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Aretha Franklin, and Neil Diamond.

There were many moments of greatness, but even then the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. This was because there was a sense of a movement, and rising optimism that a radically better world was being shaped. Broadly speaking, the first half of the century had been dominated by world wars and crippling economic depression. The second half began with Cold War and the threat of atomic warfare, but by the 1960s there had been years of relative economic prosperity, the US Civil Rights movement had made historic gains, the peace movement was growing in strength, the voice of youth was being heard louder than ever before, the ‘Summer of Love’ was just around the corner and it seemed that a profound cultural revolution was possible.

Of course, it wasn't all paisley shirts, moptops and flowers. ‘Swinging London’ and the West-coast scene were confined sub-cultures, and most people still lived in the conservative reality of a black-and-white world. Racism, sexism and homophobia were endemic, social mobility was limited, and young working-class people still faced rigid cultural expectations of work, marriage and family. And their parents still bought records, which meant that the charts included such acts as Val Doonican, Ken Dodd, and even 1940s crooner Donald Peers. Indeed, two of the biggest-selling singles of the year were Sgt Barry Sadler's 'Ballad of the Green Berets' and Jim Reeve's 'Distant Drums'.

nineteen sixty six: a classic year in 365 songs covers the whole range of music from that year (including some obscure gems) to bring a fuller picture of what people were actually listening to back then. Musically, it was a great year, and we shall not look upon its like again.

31 August 2019

Cryptid Cats and Dogs of the Far North

There have been some recent reports of possible sightings of a thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) in the far north of Queensland. The witnesses were reasonable sources - a Park Services employee and a frequent camper - although these encounters did happen at night and there is no footage. The sightings were interesting enough to warrant further investigation from scientists at the James Cook University, who are now looking at setting up numerous 'camera traps' in the areas (although that project is also focussed on other wildlife).

Thylacines. (John Gould)

The last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity in Hobart in 1936, which was also the year that other reports of cryptid sightings emerged from north Queensland. On that occasion, the Victorian naturalist Charles Barrett led an expedition to Mount Bellenden Ker, between Innisfail and Cairns, which at a height of 1,593 metres is the second highest peak in Queensland, behind its neighbour Mt. Bartle Frere. The ranges there had been the site of cryptid speculation back in 1899, when former politician and journalist Archibald Meston was part of an expedition that heard local Aboriginal people talk about a deep pool with a 'long-necked monster who used to swish about in the water, especially at night time'. Meston dismissed claims that this could have been a bunyip, and instead suggested that such a disturbance could have been a large fish eating a water bird.

Barrett later reported his belief that the 'dense jungle on the mountain was one of the haunts of the mysterious 'marsupial tiger'.' He had not witnessed the creature himself, but his guide Arnold Leumann (a 'noted North Queensland guide and bushman') claimed to have seen one. Leumann described the animal as being 'about the size of a dingo, but with a short, blunt head, rather like that of a tiger. It's body and tail were striped like a tiger's. It was perched on the branch of a tree, and snarled and spat at him.'

The Bellenden Ker ranges.

Leumann was aged around 40 years at the time, and was well respected as a knowledgeable guide. Barrett was not skeptical about the existence of the animal, which he presumed to be marsupial and 'might be an unusually large species of tiger-cat'. After reading Barrett's report, the Brisbane Museum director Heber Longman said that he had been interested in the possibility of such an animal for many years, but there was nothing more than hearsay evidence to support claims of its existence.

Alfred White of Burleigh Heads, who was an old friend of Leumann, responded to the reports by saying he 'could vouch for the accuracy of the description of any animal seen by him', but believed that the animal described was a 'marsupial tiger, a large specimen of the native cat'. He was familiar with Bellenden Ker and suggested that a search on the western side of the range - where there was plentiful food for a large cat - would be the best bet for finding a specimen. 

There was reasonable speculation that what had been seen was a 'tiger cat', which could refer to the tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus gracilis), an endangered species found in a small region of northern Queensland, including the Bellenden Ker area. The average length of these animals is 80cm (male) and 75cm (female).

Talk of the 'tiger cat' could also refer to the 'Queensland tiger', which is considered to be a cryptid, although one with a feasible chance of actually being real. Known within Aboriginal culture as the yarri, it is said to be a 'dog-sized feline with stripes and a long tail, prominent front teeth and a savage temperament'. Such an animal could be a descendant of the extinct predatory marsupial Thylacoleo (T. carnifex) or even a variety of large feral cat. The story of large cats being descended from mascot pumas brought to Queensland by American soldiers during World War II is apparently an urban myth.

Restoration of T. carnifex.
Restoration of T. carnifex. (Nobu Tamura [http://spinops.blogspot.com])

Another theory, posited by tree kangaroo expert Roger Martin, is that the sightings could be of either Lumholtz's or Bennett's tree kangaroos, animals which walk on four legs when on the ground and are found in small areas of far north Queensland.

Indigenous accounts of the yarri date back through time, and the earliest non-Indigenous reports emerged in 1871. Sightings were quite consistent, although reports have declined in number since the 1950s. The Australian zoologist Albert Sherbourne Le Souef described the animal in his 1926 book The Wild Animals of Australasia as being a 'Striped marsupial cat', a description also provided by Australian Museum curator Ellis Troughton in his Furred Mammals of Australia (1965) although he also proposed that it could be a mainland variant of the thylacine. This idea was also shared by Cape York artist Percy Trezise.

The notion that the 'Queensland tiger' might actually be a mainland thylacine has been promoted by cryptozoologists for some time, although there are clear differences between the descriptions of the cats and the thylacines, such as in their head shape, position and colouring of the stripes, and arboreal habits. Nevertheless, the idea that a remnant population might exist cannot be dismissed out of hand, and researcher Sandra Abell, from James Cook University’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science, commented about the field survey in the region where the recent thylacine sightings were reported:

'It is a low possibility that we’ll find thylacines, but we’ll certainly get lots of data on the predators in the area and that will help our studies in general.' 
It was “not impossible” there were thylacines to be found, she said. “It’s not a mythical creature. A lot of the descriptions people give, it’s not a glimpse in the car headlights. People who say they’ve actually seen them can describe them in great detail, so it’s hard to say they’ve seen anything else. 
“I’m not ruling it out at all, but to actually get them on camera will be incredibly lucky.'

I'm not aware of the precise location of these sightings - it would appear that researchers are keen to keep them quiet, and for good reason - but there is a real history of reports of cryptids in the forests of far north Queensland. And unlike the cases of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, there is a genuine chance that small populations of 'Queensland tigers' or thylacines could exist. As much as we all want these animals to have survived in some form, there is a damning lack of physical evidence (bones, scats, hair, prints, decent footage) to support the idea, and the prospect of 'mistaken identity' with eyewitness accounts cannot be dismissed. Still, we can all dream...

12 July 2019

Sharks vs Dogs in the Brisbane River

Bull shark
Above: A dog lover.

I have written before about the cruel practice of men forcing tigers to fight bulls in public arenas. Here I will show how another 19th-century cross-species battle had rather more predictable and tragic results. This time the venue was the Brisbane River, and the animals were Bull Sharks and the unfortunate canine pets of unsuspecting Brisbanites.

Bridges across the Brisbane River were in short supply during much of the 19th century, roads were uncovered and shoddy, and so ferries were a popular way of getting across the river. Dogs usually weren’t allowed on the boats, and anybody wanting to take their faithful pets across the waters sometimes had to let them swim behind the ferry. Unfortunately for these dogs the waters are home to the the Bull Shark (Carcharhinus leucas), the apex predator in the river system and one of the most dangerous species of shark in the world.

The Bull Shark (Image: Brian Watson)
The Bull Shark (Image: Brian Watson)

Bull Sharks are common in the Brisbane River, the adults ranging in size from 1.5–4 metres and having an omnivorous diet which includes fishes, dolphins, turtles, birds, crustaceans, molluscs and, when the opportunity presents itself, land mammals. When dogs swam behind ferry boats, the opportunity presented itself very frequently. In murky waters the splashing of a swimming land animal could be mistaken for a struggling fish. The danger is increased by the fact that Bull Sharks are fast (up to 18kph in short bursts) and very aggressive. Unlike most sharks they will attack animals larger than themselves. They hunt using what is known as the ‘bump and bite’, head-butting their prey before biting it. The Bull Shark has very poor eyesight, and uses the bump to help identify the prey. They also use their keen sense of smell to help make up for their poor vision.

The first recorded report of a shark attacking a dog in Brisbane came back in 1848, when a dog belonging to David Peattie was bitten on its side and chest while swimming across from Kangaroo Point to North Brisbane. The wounds were so severe that it died shortly after reaching shore.

Kangaroo Point, 1850s. (State Library of Qld)

Just how frequent such attacks were over the following years is not known, but by the 1860s newspapers carried regular warnings of the dangers of people and dogs swimming in the river, often with a stark demonstration of what could happen. In December 1867 two dogs were killed in the same week. The first was near the Russell Street ferry, when the dog was so badly bitten on its hind legs that the owner 'was obliged to drown him'. A few days later a valuable Newfoundland dog (a breed that can grow up to 70kg) was reportedly 'destroyed by a shark' near the Kangaroo Point ferry stop. Both incidents were used as a warning to the many young boys who bathed in the river every day (there was no running water in homes in those days).

South Brisbane riverfront, haunt of Bull Sharks, circa 1868 (JOL)
South Brisbane riverfront, c. 1868. (State Library of Qld)

Another dog was 'fearfully wounded' in the same area the following summer, and then in 1869 Captain Knight of the City of Brisbane lost his favoured retriever near the Alice Street ferry when, as it was swimming after the boat, it disappeared under the waters and never rose again.

A rather more gory encounter occurred in December 1877 when a large black dog swimming across the river from South Brisbane was attacked by a shark. The dog apparently fought back bravely, but inevitably lost and was soon 'torn up'. Just as it was about to disappear below the water an osprey swooped down and flew away with some of the dog's entrails. Later that same month another dog near a South Brisbane ferry stop was trying to swim across but never made it:
'The current was running strong at the time, and he appeared to become exhausted when about half way across, and lay quite still on the water; but not for long. Giving a yell, he disappeared below, and when the carcass came to the surface again, some fifty or more yards higher up, the water around it was lashed into foam by sharks that were snatching at it. The fins of four or more sharks could be seen at a time, as they darted at their prey. Several times it was dragged under water, and each time came to the surface smaller than before. Finally, and with what was evidently a tough struggle between the monsters, the last of the poor dog disappeared, but left the impression on eye witnesses that the river is rather unsafe at this time.' (Brisbane Courier, 20 December 1877)
The next reported fatality came in 1878, this time at the Moggill Ferry when a dog following a boat had one hind leg bitten off and its forelegs severely mutilated. It somehow managed to reach the other bank, but had to be killed on the spot to end its suffering.

In 1881 a rather light-hearted (but racist) article in the Brisbane Courier listed dogs as the favoured food of the river sharks, 'and next in order comes kanaka as most juicy, but he is not averse even to a highly-flavoured billy goat'. As a demonstration of this taste, a black retriever dog had barely entered the water at the Kangaroo Point ferry stop in 1883 when it was grabbed by a shark and dragged under, the only trace left of it being the blood that stained the water for metres around. Another dog swimming near Customs House in 1892 had its hindquarters ripped off by a shark and had to be euthanised on the shore. A large dog that jumped from the ship Maida at the Railway Wharf in 1893 met a quicker end, being bitten clean in half by a 3-metre shark just after it hit the water.

This catalogue of carnage continued right through the 20th century and up to the present day. For example, a retriever was 'taken away bodily by one of these monsters' (as the Brisbane Courier put it) near a North Quay pontoon in 1901. Over the years several dogs were lost in the stretch of river at Indooroopilly, although improved transport, more bridges, and increasing water pollution meant that less dogs were crossing the river. Reports of the attacks certainly declined, although it was still happening, as seen when a dog was bitten in half by a huge shark a few metres away from the Balmoral riverside baths in 1927.

In 2008 a Pomerian chasing ducks in the Bremer near Tivoli was taken by a shark, and in 2010 a Brisbane ferry driver told of seeing a Chihuahua snapped up in shallow water at the edge of the river. Bull Shark expert Professor Craig Franklin said small dogs were in the range of prey items attractive to sharks, and warned against letting dogs swim in the river, especially around dawn and dusk when the sharks are most likely to be feeding. I would have to add that history shows much larger dogs are also at risk. In fact, a 2-metre shark latched onto a 500 kg racehorse in the river near Kholo in 2005, dragging it under before the horse scrambled to safety.

So there it is, a rather gruesome listing to be sure, but if you let your dog take a dip in the river during the hot summer months you could both be facing your worst nightmare.

14 May 2019

Whaling Days at Tangalooma

Every southern winter, thousands of Humpback Whales migrate from the Antarctic and up the east coast of Australia to their breeding and birthing grounds in warmer tropical waters. Thousands of people head to the coast to witness these magnificent creatures, and whale-watching generates millions for the local tourism industry, and around $70 million per annum Australia-wide.

When the Queensland whaling industry killed thousands of whales off Moreton Island.
Tangalooma, 1957. (State Library of Qld)

However, there was a time, well within living memory, when the Humpback migration generated big profits for a completely different industry. Instead of being admired and protected, the whales were slaughtered in their thousands and then stripped, hacked and boiled down for the marketplace. During 1952-62 a whaling station on Moreton Island was so successful in this task that it helped to bring the eastern Australian Humpback population to the threshold of extinction. In doing so, it sowed the seeds of its own demise, and so like any industry that depletes the very resource it relies on, the Queensland whaling business died.

Australian whaling had originally been based in the southern states, with Sperm Whales, Blue Whales and then Southern Right Whales killed for their oil, baleen and meat. The Australian Whaling commission was established in 1949 to develop the whaling industry's capacity to meet the rising demand for whale oil after the Second World War. The introduction of more efficient methods of killing whales saw an increase in the harvest rate, and there was a new focus on the east-coast Humpback migration routes.

Oswald Brierly, 'Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales', 1867.
Oswald Brierly, 'Whalers off Twofold Bay, New South Wales', 1867.
(Art Gallery of New South Wales).

The Australian Company Whale Products Pty Ltd was formed in Sydney in 1950 for the purpose of carrying out east coast whaling, and during the following year they began construction of the largest land-based whaling station in the southern hemisphere at a 12-hectare site just north of Tangalooma Point on Moreton Island. This location had several advantages, being close to the whales’ migratory route; not far from the city and ports of Brisbane; the island was undeveloped; it was relatively protected from the south-easterly winds, and a cheap lease was available from the Queensland State Government.

Queensland whaling industry at Moreton Island.
Looking towards the new whaling station at Tangalooma from the water, 1952.
(State Library of Qld)
The company employed an experienced Norwegian whaler, Captain Alf Melsom, to manage the construction of Tangalooma Whaling Station. They also brought three whale chaser ships from Norway, and employed several Norwegians as senior crew and gunners. With payments of £250 per kill, gunning was a lucrative job.

The company's original five-year licence allowed the killing (their preferred term was 'harvesting') of 500 whales each year, with whaling seasons running for six months from May to October, depending on the migratory movements of the whales. The first season commenced at Tangalooma on 6 June 1952, with the first two Humpbacks being harpooned near Cape Moreton during that month. The annual quota had been killed and processed by October after a season of just 124 days. The harvests were so abundant that two years later the quota was increased to 700 whales.

All this meant big money, as just about every part of the whale could be turned into a saleable product. In 1954 the average whale cost about £625 to kill and process, and sold for £900. Each whale could yield more than 8 tons of oil, a valuable resource that was used to make - among other things - margarine, glycerine, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The meat was used for pet food or human consumption overseas. The offal and low-grade meat were sent to the mainland and mixed with other proteins to produce A-grade meal for livestock or fertiliser, which sold at about £80 per ton. The bones were processed to make a lower grade of stock meal. An average whale would produce about 2.75 tons of meal.

Baleen (bristle-like strands in the whale's mouth used to strain food, was shipped to France and made into corsetry, street brooms, combs and buttons.

At the station

There were a few restrictions placed on the whalers. They were not allowed to kill a whale under 11.5 metres, or one that had a calf. If they did, the gunner and captain would lose their 'kill bonus'. They also had to radio the whaling station before any kill to make sure the machinery there was all in working order, to avoid any harmful delays in processing.

The whales were harpooned from one of the three chaser ships, using harpoons with a 75kg exploding head. An 11kg grenade inside the harpoon would explode four seconds after impact. The intent was to kill the whale quickly, which was usually the case if the harpoon was lodged near the backbone, but sometimes multiple spears were required to finish the job.

The whale carcass was inflated with compressed air to keep it afloat until it was ready to tow. It was then fastened to the side of the chaser by its flukes and towed back for flensing and processing.

A Tangalooma gunner hits the target. (sylviaadam.wordpress.com)
Tangalooma Whaling Station, 1950s. (State Library of Qld)
The carcasses would be slowly winched onto the flensing deck with steel cables placed around the tail.
'The winch started up again and the whale toppled over on to its side, exposing its black, white and pale pink corrugated belly. The humpback's characteristic bumps and ridges were visible along its spine and head. Its enormous tongue of perished black rubber had sprawled out of its mouth from behind the screen of fibrous baleen plates, or whale "bones, which act as a sieve to catch food. The only signs of life on the whale's body were the tentatively waving feelers of the many barnacles which had grown along the belly and jaws.'  
There is no smell of decay on the flensing deck unless, as rarely happens, a mechanical failure causes delay in cooking. All that remains after treatment is water, or graks. Yet the smell of the whales is far from pleasant. It is a memorable odour, rather like that of a wet. very dirty dog's fur. 
Despite the great quantities of blood and offal left on the deck before ' being consigned to the cookers, there are no flies on the flensing deck. Hygiene squads have all but eliminated flies from Tangalooma.' (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1954)
A CSIRO officer would inspect each whale upon arrival and record its sex, length, and any other required details. The location of each kill was also pinpointed on a map for future reference.

The men on the wooden flensing deck then set to work, wearing 1-inch spikes in the heels of their boots to prevent them from slipping in the resulting mess. Firstly the whale was cut up with large, extremely sharp flensing knives - long-handled cutters shaped like hockey sticks. The cutters were assisted by chain men, who winched away the cut strips of blubber. Stripping the blubber usually took about one hour, beginning with ventral blubber, then the back, lower, the jaw and baleen. The carcass would then be turned over and the remaining blubber removed, the ribs separated, and the backbone removed.

The blubber was then dropped through holes in the deck and into huge (Norwegian) Kvaerner cookers beneath the deck, where it was cooked for four hours. The oil was extracted and cleaned of impurities before being placed into a separator. The end product had a honey-like colour. This whale oil was shipped in bulk to the mainland, pumped into tanks at Hemmant, and eventually pumped into ships bound for Europe.

Anything left over after the extraction of oil was fed into a Huse plant and processed into high-protein stock meal. The backbone of the whale was broken up with a large steam-driven saw, and put into huge pressure cookers through a hole in the deck along with other parts to make more stock meal.

Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Whale carcass after being pulled ashore, Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Workers at Queensland's Tangalooma whaling station. (Dave Schmidt, The Australian)

Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Two whale carcasses being dragged ashore at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
Queensland whaling industry in the 1950s
Workers at the whaling station, Tangalooma, ca. 1957. (State Library of Qld)
whale carcass at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957
Workers with part of a whale carcass at Tangalooma Whaling Station, ca. 1957.  (State Library of Qld)
At the height of production, the station provided employment for about 120 men, with a maintenance staff of about 20 employed during the off-season.

After such a successful start, the industry was heading for trouble by the late 1950s, when the introduction of vegetable oils triggered a big fall in global whale oil prices. Much more serious than that was the decline in whale numbers. In 1961 the quota was not met for the first time, with 'only' 591 being killed that year. In 1961 light planes were being used to spot the increasingly-scarce whales from the air, and on 5 August 1962 the whaling station closed after only 68 whales had been caught that season. In the end, it was a simple matter of economics. The industry had exploited a natural resource at unsustainable levels until the resource and the profits dried up.

Over the course of one decade, the whalers had killed 6,277 Humpbacks (and one blue whale). What had earlier been an estimated local migration population of 25,000 Humpbacks had been reduced to about 500. In 1963 the whaling of Humpbacks in Australian waters was banned, and two years later they were placed on the Protected Species list. It is also thought that illegal Russian whaling in the seas south of Australia and New Zealand during 1961 and 1962 probably took nearly 24,000 Humpbacks.

The Tangalooma Whaling Station was quickly sold to Gold Coast businessmen in June 1963, and the site was converted into a leisure resort, with the the factory and flensing decks being converted into a bar and lounge area. This wasn't the first time that Tangalooma had visitors, because groups of children from schools or Scout groups used to go there during the whaling years to watch and learn about the process of whale butchering, in the company of a guide from the whaling company.

Today, the only educational whale experience that children might have near Moreton Bay is whale watching, which is booming along with the resurgent population of Humpbacks. In 2015, researchers counted about 25,000 of the whales migrating up the coast, which means they have now returned to pre-hunting population levels.

25 April 2019

Tigers, Roller-Coasters and Special Effects: Brisbane's 19th-Century 'Dreamworld'

Did you know that Victorian-era Brisbane had a resort that was Dreamworld, Seaworld and Movie World all rolled into one quaint 19th-century package?

It was the 1890s, a decade before the advent of cinema, and the citizens of Brisbane loved to get out and about for their family entertainment, heading to parks, theatres, forests, museums, the coast, and anywhere the public transport of the day could get them. If they took the steam ferry from Petrie's Bight, near Customs House, they could visit the Queensport Aquarium and Zoological Garden.

Real Estate ad showing the neighbouring Aquarium Estate in 1889. (John Oxley Library)

The Queensport Aquarium, in the Brisbane riverside suburb of Hemmant, opened to much fanfare on 7 August 1889. Public aquariums had been hugely popular in England since the 1850s (following the abolition of a tax on glass!), allowing the British public to see fish other than kippers for the first time. Most seaside resorts had (and still have) an aquarium building, and the craze took off here in Australia too.

Queensport was more than just a simple aquarium, however, it was a whole resort in itself. Set in eleven acres of landscaped grounds, the centrepiece was a two-storey aquarium with six fish tanks, each one measuring 13 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet deep. Other attractions included a seal pond, a small zoo, fairground rides, a fernery, fountains, and a 1,400-seat concert hall and stage, complete with plush curtains and electric organ, that was the venue for concerts, theatre and opera. There was also a sports field that was mostly used for cricket and picnics, and the grounds were illuminated by new-fangled electric lights.

Where modern theme parks often have 3D movie screenings, the aquarium had its 19th-century equivalent in the ‘camera obscura’, a primitive optical device in a darkened space that projects a picture of the surrounds onto a screen (see how it works here). At the time, this was considered to be special effects entertainment.

Camera Obscura.

The fairground rides included ‘flying machines’ (flying foxes), swing boats, donkey rides, a merry-go-round, and an early form of roller coaster known as a ‘switchback railway’.

Switchback railway, Folkestone, England, circa 1900. Some brilliant 1904 footage of this contraption in operation can be seen here.

Apart from the fish and seals, other animal attractions were monkeys, apes, snakes, emus, panthers, cheetahs, and tigers named Jimmy, Sammy, Sir Roger and Dina. This menagerie had belonged to Charles Higgins, who had previously kept them at Toombul and also in a flimsy enclosure on the corner of George and Turbot Street in the city in 1888. Needless to say, this all ended badly when one of the tigers escaped and savagely mauled a man, exposing his brain. A newspaper account printed the understatement of the year when it described passers-by being "startled" by the sight of an enormous man-eating Bengal tiger actually trying to eat a man in George Street, and unsurprisingly everybody "hurriedly left the vicinity" (I would think replacing "startled" with "pant-shittingly terrified", and "hurriedly left the vicinity" with "running screaming for their lives", would probably be a more accurate description of what happened). The eventual move to safer cages at Queensport was no doubt heartily welcomed by everyone in Brisbane.*

The Queensport venture was initially a huge success, with the public flocking to the aquarium in their thousands. On the biggest days, such as Easter Monday and Boxing Day, steamers full of happy day-trippers would leave the company’s wharf at Petrie’s Bight every half-hour. The owners worked hard to get the public in, providing an array of other novelties in including the ‘Electric Orchestrion’ machine, rifle-shooting and archery exhibitions, Punch and Judy shows, minstrel shows, pedestal dancing, and moonlight trips on the steamers Woolwich and Natone.

One notable visitor was ‘Professor’ Christopher Fernandez, a travelling aeronaut whose specialty was ascending half a mile in a hot air balloon, setting off fireworks, and then parachuting back down to the ground. However, not all went according to plan during his appearance at the aquarium in May 1891, when his balloon failed to reach sufficient height and came down on nearby Gibson Island, where the good professor found himself bogged knee-deep in mud. A promised relaunch never happened due to bad weather, although Fernandez did successfully pull off the stunt at other venues around Australia.

Like most 19th-century riverside structures, the aquarium was subject to occasional damage by the Brisbane River. The big floods of 1890 and 1893 caused considerable damage, as did a gale in March 1892 that blew the switchback railway and several empty tiger cages into the river. Events like these would have added to what must have been considerable costs in maintaining the place, and although the owners soldiered on, the aquarium seems to have become much less popular by the mid-1890s. This demise is not well documented, but in late 1897 most of the content and structures were advertised for sale, including all the remaining animals and their housing. The pavilion and sports grounds stayed in place, however, and still attracted large picnic groups for a few more years. In 1900 the land was actually considered as the site for what later became the Princess Alexandra Hospital, and the pavilion was sold in 1901 prior to the land being subdivided.

The Queensport Aquarium wharf can be seen to the right in this picture of people surveying flood damage in 1887 (John Oxley Library).

The suburbs of Brisbane would never really see anything like the Queensport Aquarium and Zoological Garden again.

* The tiger's victim was an Austrian man named Peter Bertram, who survived the attack. A couple of years later he was charged with murder, and so would have spent time in Boggo Road prison on remand.

10 April 2019

The Longest Gallows Speech in Queensland History

In 1912 George David Silva - variously described as Cingalese, Indian, 'Eurasian’ and a Queenslander - was living in the central coast town of Mackay working as a farm labourer. He was a convert to the Salvation Army and this seemingly pious man, 28 years old, was described in one newspaper as being a peculiar ‘pet’ of the church. Silva's religious zeal was such that he led meetings at Mackay with robust volleys of ‘Glory Hallelujahs’ and testified in the style of a bible-bashing preacher. Despite all this, Silva committed one of the most brutal crimes in Queensland history.

George David Silva, executed at Boggo Road in 1912. (Qld State Archives)
George Silva, 1912 (Qld State Archives)

The act was discovered one day in November 1911 when his boss, Charlie Ching, returned home to find his house locked up and his family absent. Silva was standing outside the house and claimed they were all out visiting a neighbour. Ching waited around but after a while he climbed in through a window and found a truly horrible scene. The bodies of his wife and three of the children lay dead on the floor, in a neat row with a bed sheet spread over them and a Bible carefully placed on top. His wife and eldest child Maud had been shot with a gun, and the younger children’s heads had been smashed with a blunt object. The house was a gruesome mess.

The two other children, Eddie and Dollie, had been at school but did not return home that day. Their bodies were found in scrub the next day. One had been shot, and the other clubbed to death.

Silva was arrested, charged and tried in Mackay for the murder of Maud. During the trial it was claimed that he wanted to marry her, but she had constantly rejected his advances. It was alleged that it was this rejection that sparked Silva’s bloody carnage. The ritualistic use of the sheet and Bible at the murder scene had incriminated Silva and he was condemned to hang at Boggo Road, in Brisbane.

His death scene upon the gallows (at 8am on Monday 10 June) was quite extraordinary. The chief warder asked him if he had anything to say, and Silva immediately launched into a full 27 minutes of preaching and proclaiming like a seasoned street corner disciple. He repeatedly thanked the prison officials for leading him up to the ‘throne of God’. He recited scriptures by chapter and verse and the Lord’s Prayer 12 times. He claimed that he would soon be in Heaven, ‘wearing a crown and playing harp among the angels.’

At first the witnesses thought that he was a religious maniac, but as his diatribe went on it seemed more like an exercise in buying time and attention. He reeled off more Psalms and more quotes from the Bible, then continued to lecture his audience with preaching of the ‘narrow path to salvation’, reciting the passage regarding ‘walking through the valley of the shadow of death’ more than 12 times. This aroused scorn, as witnesses shuffled and whispered about his brutal crime. He then raised a scream hoping the other prisoners would hear his voice. He told them to be warned and cease their evil ways.

As the time approached half-past eight the officials became uneasy. The under-sheriff climbed the stairs and indicated that the time was up. Silva started on the Lord’s Prayer yet again, this time accompanied by Major Wilson from the Salvation Army. As they finished, the hangman stepped up and pulled the white hood over Silva’s head before quickly adjusting the noose. The under-sheriff quickly gave the signal, the lever was pushed, and Silva was finally silenced. He had jusy delivered the longest gallows speech in Queensland (and perhaps Australian) history.

19 March 2019

Destroy All Your Books... Or Else: A Business Attacks a Historical Society

The shocking story behind 'Brisbane Ghost Tours' baseless threats against a respected community group.
Imagine the volunteers in a respected History group receiving a legal letter from a small business owner demanding that they either destroy all their stock of self-published history books, or hand them over to him... or else he would drag the volunteers before the Supreme Court. Their alleged crime?

Having a similar domain name to the business, even though they actually had that domain name first.

Seems incredible, but this is exactly what happened to the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society.

There have been references on this and other websites to legal threats made against the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society by Cameron 'Jack' Sim of Brisbane-based 'Ghost Tours Pty Ltd'. The historical society was recently asked by someone what the threat was about, as it had never been explained anywhere publicly. So here it is.

The overall situation, put as matter-of-factly as possible, is this:

The pensioner volunteers who ran Boggo Road circa 1999-2004 did so (for legal requirements) as a not-for-profit entity called the Boggo Road Gaol Museum Association. Around 1999/2000 they established a museum website with the domain name ‘boggoroadgaol.com.au’.

Following retirements and deaths, the BRGM Association was wound down circa 2004 and assets were transferred to the not-for-profit Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society, including the domain name (although there was a clerical delay in transferring registration of that domain).

A couple of years later the BRGHS finally updated the old boggoroadgaol.com.au website with new information about their group, including not-for-profit publications and proposed tours of Boggo Road (a place which at that time had been closed for a few years years).

This drew the attention of ‘Jack’ Sim who had recently begun using a website with the domain ‘boggoroadgaol.com’ (his previous website was boggoroadjail.com.au) and had registered a trademark logo which - among other things - happened to contain the words 'Boggo Road Gaol' and his new domain address.

What happened next should be a teachable moment for volunteers and community groups around Queensland. Sim sent out two lengthy and probably expensive legal threats, one to the historical society and one to retired volunteer and Boggo Road legend John Banks, claiming that the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society had infringed his trademark and had adopted the mark ‘BoggoRoadGoal’ [sic] with (and I quote);
‘the deliberate object of causing confusion and deception’.
A very serious accusation indeed. In his mind, the historical society - which predated his Boggo Road business - was deliberately 'passing itself off' as that business simply because the volunteers were engaged in all the usual historical society activities (research, publishing and tours) and had a domain name that had been used by Boggo Road volunteers since 1999/2000 - years before his business was even established.

Sim then made the following demands:

Ghost Tours' legal threat

In a nutshell, he had demanded that the volunteers of the historical society:
  • Pay for 'damages' (even though the prison was closed and so no tours were even happening). 
  • No longer be allowed to use the mark ‘BoggoRoadGaol’ when ‘passing off’ their books, research and proposed tours (remember, this is a community group called the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society). 
  • Either destroy all the historical society’s printed stock and other material or hand it all over to him. 
  • Pay all his costs. 
  • If none of this was done, he would take the volunteers to the Supreme Court.

    If the volunteers had agreed to these demands, their historical society would have closed down. The group had about 40 members at the time (nearly 200 now) and the old prison - the raison d'ĂȘtre for the historical society's existence - had been closed for three years. The group was surviving thanks to the sales of the books they wrote and printed, but printing books is an expensive exercise and costs are only recouped by selling them. The demand that the volunteers destroy their existing stock and pay what could have been thousands of dollars in costs would have left the historical society with no saleable product and no money for new stock or even paying their annual four-figure overheads (such as insurance). It would have been the end of their organisation.

    Fortunately the volunteers had access to some quality legal advice and the verdict was one of astonishment and amusement at the general absurdity of the threat, which they already guessed was baseless and misinformed anyway. The volunteers ignored the threat and so a follow-up threat arrived in the postbox on Christmas Eve. Not actually seen until a few weeks later, this second letter was also ignored.

    Historical society volunteers met with Sim a couple of months later, He let it be known that the threat could be forgotten about if they signed off on his plan for running Boggo Road. A plan he then placed on the table. Not only did the historical society reject the ‘offer’ outright, they made it clear that they would not even discuss working with him until the threat was withdrawn. He refused to do so.

    The logic behind the volunteers’ thinking is obvious. They are simply not willing to work for the financial benefit of any commercial entity that was threatening to sue and possibly close their group down. They would not not undertake unpaid volunteer work to help fund possible legal action against themselves.

    The subject came up at a more recent meeting between historical society volunteers, government officials and Sim himself. He initially denied having made the threat, but when the actual legal letters were immediately produced he verbally repeated the threat! He was challenged by the volunteers to follow through with his threat, but has refused to do so.

    And there it stands. The question as to whether or not this threat of legal action has been withdrawn or carried out pops up occasionally at historical society meetings. The answer either way remains ‘no’. It seems to be an inconvenient truth for some governmental officials, but for the volunteers of the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society it is a matter of principle. They will not reward threats from small businessmen and will not associate themselves with the type of person who can behave in such a way.

    Prior to all this happening the historical society had held out an olive branch to Ghost Tours - in writing - recognising that the best route towards a peaceful future for Boggo Road was for us to work together. We received no reply. Unfortunately the legal threats made by Sim proved to be an obstacle to peace at Boggo Road. It is not insurmountable, but remains an issue.

    What needs to be remembered is that when Boggo Road finally moves into a better future, there will be plenty of arts and history organisations lining up to bring the old prison back to life for the public. This is exactly what is needed, because a lot of different people had very different experiences of life inside that prison and so the many stories of Boggo Road should be told in many voices and many ways.

    And they should be allowed to do so in an atmosphere free of the kind of threats and bullying such as the one described above.

    This has been abridged from an article originally published in October 2014.