22 September 2020

Welcome

I am a Brisbane-based professional historian with extensive experience in presenting History to the public. This work has included guided tours, exhibitions, books and articles, public talks, newspaper columns, and organising community heritage maintenance projects.

This site contains information about my services, and blog posts about all manner of historical curiosities such as hangings, bunyips, prisons, colonial Queensland, cemeteries, shark attacks, and ghosts.



'To Preserve and to Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane' - Book Review

Anastasia Dukova’s To Preserve and Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane is a very readable look at law and order in 19th-century Queensland. 

This is no straightforward ‘history of the police’ reference book because the story is told from several different perspectives, an approach which gives the reader a much broader view of colonial life. 

Outside the Indigenous presence, colonial Queensland was a migrant society, and Dukova’s background (she holds a PhD in crime and policing history from the University of Dublin, Trinity College) means she is tuned into the direct personal and cultural connections between the streets of Dublin, London, and early Brisbane.

This opening chapter is about Peter ‘Duff’ Murphy, an Irish ex-convict who in 1846 became the first district policeman for Kangaroo Point, and in the 1860s presided over the local police court in Ipswich. The story neatly covers convict life and the struggles of early policing, and the frequent overlap between the two. It is also a tidy example of one of those personal colonial journeys from criminality to social respectability. 

Then we get to see policing develop further in the township with Englishman Samuel Sneyd, who had a much more orthodox career in the ranks of the military, police, and prison service. The Sneyd family ended up having a long association with the prison service and I’m pretty familiar with that side of their lives, so I particularly appreciated seeing their earlier story fleshed out more here. 

There are chapters on the life of Queensland’s first detective (Samuel Lloyd), and the career of an ordinary beat policeman (Thomas Tyrell) during the 1860s-‘80s, highlighting the different paths to be taken within the police service itself.

19th-century female criminality (a subject I have researched and written about in the past) is viewed through the life of Susan McGowan, an all-too-typical tale of a life filled with petty crime and alcohol that was the lot of the vast majority of female prisoners of the late 19th century. The we jump to the birth of the Criminal Investigation Branch in the 1890s is with the story of detective and police prosecutor James Nethercote. 

Finally there is the story of Charles Durant, an habitual criminal who spent a big part of his life in places such as the St Helena Island penal establishment and the prisons at Petrie Terrace and Boggo Road. 

These perspectives work well together, allowing the author to humanise the people involved while also touching on the subjects of police and political corruption and mismanagement, and issues of gender, class, and - to a lesser extent - race. To Preserve and Protect was released during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, when the public mind was more attuned to such history, which left me thinking that a full chapter on colonial police interactions with Aboriginal people would perhaps have been welcome. But that’s hindsight. 

This mix of very different ‘characters’ paints a vivid panorama of law and order in 19th-century Queensland. The shifting perspectives keeps the book readable and interesting, and the thorough academic research and deep dives into primary documents gives the information an important sense of reliability. 

To Preserve and Protect: Policing Colonial Brisbane has been published by the University of Queensland Press. Thanks to UQP for providing the review copy.


19 September 2020

A Flood of Lies

A 'Ghost Tour' is not a 'History Tour'. No matter what the marketing spin and branding, they are not History. At least, the ones we have in Brisbane aren't.

I get that ghost tours have a historical 'feel' and can potentially be used to successfully convey an understanding of historical events to the customers, but what happens if the events described in the tour are embellished with fabricated details, or - even worse - they never happened at all? Then it's not History... it's fiction.

I will use one example of fake history to make my point. This is told on a ghost tour at the South Brisbane Cemetery. The rest of the tour is full of serious problems regarding accuracy (to put it politely), but this one is perhaps the most egregious and harmful. 

The tour story in question involves the Brisbane River floods of 1893. Paying customers are told that that those floods ripped through the cemetery and washed out graves, including coffins and bodies. Multiple body parts were later found scattered, but it was too hard to identify which grave (or body) each belonged to and so they were placed together in coffins and reburied.

Sketch of the flooding at South Brisbane Cemetery, 1893.

The real history is rather different. The primary records show that the steamer Midge passed the cemetery on 7 February 1893 and a passenger reported that ‘in the lower part of the South Brisbane cemetery many tombstones had fallen altogether or out of plumb.’ This was to be expected as debris in the swiftly-moving waters knocked into monuments. On another trip shortly afterwards it was claimed that, ‘On the South Brisbane side a landslip has occurred, and undoubtedly some graves have disappeared, and gravestones are strewn all about.’(1) The part about the graves 'disappearing' was just speculation, but it prompted cemetery trustee Joseph Baynes to visit the cemetery the very next day to assess the damage for himself. 

He noted that, ‘On examination I find that no graves have disappeared, but many headstones and other fixings are very much damaged, and persons interested would do well to look after them.’(2)

It is important to remember that the cemetery had only been open for 23 years at this time. It was still new and most of the relatives of those interred in there were still alive. Not only would they have noticed if something was askew (such as grandma not being in her grave any more), it would have been a big story in the newspapers of the day. Baynes would have been immediately found out if what he said was not true.

The floods story also has a typical ghost tours addition, this one involving the body of executed murderer Francis Horrocks, was buried in section 6B (used exclusively for such criminals) in 1892. According to the ghost-tour guide, his body was secretly moved by his (respectable) family to their grave plot in section 11B. There is absolutely no evidence that this move occurred, and the records show Francis' remains are still in 6B. What actually took place was that the prison authorities handed his body over to his parents after his hanging, so they could oversee the funeral themselves, but he was nevertheless still interred inside section 6B. The tour guide then claims that his body was washed out of the ground in the flood of 1893, with allusions of divine retribution (again, never happened). 

But there's more distasteful nonsense here. Customers are informed that the fishing is good in the river because substance from the human remains in the ground leaks into the river (somehow) and the fish feed on it. Again, there is no historical or scientific evidence to back this up.

So the tour story is, in the absence of actual evidence, basically fictional, like one of those (very loosely) 'based on a true story' movies. Yet it has real-world ramifications because unsuspecting people believe it. My colleague Tracey Olivieri has met people who have found their ancestor's graves near the river and, because it was unmarked, thought this might have happened to them. They were in tears over it. Until they were told the truth. We also see - far too many times - people writing online that 'graves were washed away in the flood'. 

As the current political climate shows, facts matter. We might disagree on interpretations of meaning in history, but it is important that we have a shared reality. The flood of 1893 did happen, but there is zero evidence to suggest that it washed bodies out of the South Brisbane Cemetery. And evidence is a cornerstone of the practice of history. As we skeptics say, 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence'. As a professional historian, I could never make claims such as these without proof. 'Old timers say' just doesn't cut it.

This is not History, and if there is any place that should have its history treated with some respect, it is a cemetery. Its primary significance lies in its important spiritual and familial values, a keeping-place of love and memory. These stories make a mockery of that. 
   
Personally, I'd argue that the Brisbane City Council's 'duty of care' for a place that they still market as a place of interment should extend to ensuring that tour operators can't just make stuff up to sell as History there.

Of course, if the scriptwriter can provide any hard evidence to show I'm mistaken, I'd be happy to acknowledge that. And if the tour operator cannot do so, then in my opinion they should not be allowed anywhere near a cemetery.


__________________________

(1) Brisbane Courier, 8 February 1893; Brisbane Courier, 23 February 1893.
(2) Brisbane Courier, 24 February 1893.



04 August 2020

The Original 'Friend' of South Brisbane Cemetery

Tracey raking over graves, South Brisbane Cemetery, August 2020.

I snapped this impromptu photo at the South Brisbane Cemetery last weekend. Walking up the road I was struck by the scene and the woman in the yellow top quietly raking away debris from the tops of a lot of graves there. She didn’t know I was taking her picture. It was a natural thing, just the normal way she spends an afternoon. This is Tracey Olivieri, the original ‘Friend’ of the cemetery, who - also this weekend – received the inaugural Honorary Lifetime Membership of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery.

You really need to have known the South Brisbane Cemetery for at least 15 years to understand how much better it looks now. Back in 2004 it was quite neglected and in a sorry state. Sure, some parts of it still need a good tidying even now, but by and large it has improved and is starting to look like someone is looking after it.

Carefully using a toothbrush to clean away cobwebs and small debris from the Jane Hockings grave, August 2020.

For several years, from 2005, the people looking after it were local women Tracey, Roma Waldron and Marilyn Paul. They had occasional assistance from a few friends but the work of raking all the graves and pathways clean, photographing and recording every grave, and getting the Brisbane City Council to lift their game fell to them. And it took them years. There was a bit of blood, and lots of sweat and tears.

It was Tracey’s idea in 2005 to start the ‘Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery’, which was fitting as she had spent a lot of time playing - and hiding - in the cemetery as a young girl. Her knowledge of and affection for this place spans decades. I have told her that she is lucky to still be visiting and caring for a place that was so important to her in her childhood. My special childhood places are 10,000 miles away and much changed. Hers is right here and heritage listed, and if anything is looking better. Which is largely down to her efforts.

So the three women worked away but things change, as they always do. By the mid-2010s, Roma had passed away, Marilyn had moved on, Tracey was busy with other things, and the FOSBC had a few fallow years. This didn’t seem right to me and I gave it a push and we came back, forming an incorporated association with Tracey as president, and got down to attracting new members. The last few years have been remarkable for us, with big research projects, tours, commemorative events, and best of all a membership of around 50, with over a hundred more wonderful people having attended our ‘Guardian Angels’ community activities. Many improvements have been made to the cemetery itself, and we have enjoyed a good working relationship the BCC.

So Tracey is busier than ever at the cemetery, but the big difference is that she now has dozens of people backing her up. She planted a seed years ago and a big tree has grown and blossomed. It could have easily gone the other way, and she might have moved on from the cemetery, but she is lucky to have seen her work take root and have so many other great people now working for the cause.

On Saturday 1 August 2020 the FOSBC hosted an invitation picnic at the cemetery to mark 150 years to the day since Jane Hockings became the first person to be interred there. We added meaning to the occasion by awarding the first ever ‘Honorary Lifetime Membership’ of the FOSBC to Tracey in recognition of her devotion to the cemetery, and to remind her that she isn’t alone there.

As for myself, as a historian, I can definitely say we have built up a great working relationship. We bounce ideas off each other all the time, can throw the framework of a brand new tour together in less than half an hour, and have a natural rapport on the tours. That includes ribbing each other in way that sometimes leaves the tour attendees asking if we are married. She drives me bonkers sometimes and we disagree on things but we move on and that's probably a sign of a solid friendship.

So anyway, well done Tracey. There are some great years ahead for you and the cemetery. You fell in love with the cemetery as a child, and now you are passing on your dreams and your mission to children today.

‘From little things, big things grow’.

Tracey addressing the picnic people, August 2020.

Me, FOSBC treasurer Rachael, and Tracey with her certificate and her two very favourite flowers - sunflowers and purple tulips. August 2020.


01 February 2020

Queensland Cemetery History: A Varied Body of Work

Despite the name, we in the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery have a long history of engaging with other cemeteries around Queensland. After all, once you know how to 'read' old cemeteries and understand the shared framework of their histories, they are all interesting. We can't even drive past an old cemetery without having to pull over and investigate it, working out the local population demographics, excitedly noting new symbols or original monument designs we haven't seen before, identifying local stonemasons, etc. Once you've got the bug...

Apart from our very extensive work within South Brisbane, our not-for-profit activities in other Queensland cemeteries over the years include:

  • Writing books and conducting day and night tours at Ipswich General Cemetery (our In Heavenly Garb book about that cemetery was a winner of the 'Viva Cribb Bursary Award');
  • having been employed by the Ipswich City Council as researchers on the Ipswich Historical Cemeteries Project;
  • working with the the Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society to run the monthly Liam Baker 'Haunts of Brisbane' tours and occasional 'Hangman's Walk' tour at the Toowong (aka Brisbane General) Cemetery;
  • being engaged by the Brisbane City Council to run twilight tours at the Mount Gravatt Cemetery;
  • being consulted by BCC for their 'Brisbane Open House' tours at Toowong Cemetery;
  • being consulted by other groups on establishing 'cemetery Friends' groups at Moggill and the Gold Coast;
  • undertaking numerous study trips to cemeteries at places such as Stradbroke Island, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe, Gold Coast, Nundah, Nudgee, Scenic Rim, etc;
  • supporting other history groups' tours and activities at places such as Lutwyche, Balmoral and Toowong cemeteries;
  • writing articles such as the 'The Dead Outside the Fence' (Paddington Cemetery) for the scholarly Queensland History Journal
  • Liam's original research and publishing on graves at St Helena Island;
  • researching and published books on Toowong Cemetery (The Prisoners of Toowong Cemetery; Hong Kong to Toowong

With Tracey Olivieri receiving the 'Viva Cribb Bursary Award' for In Heavenly Garb: The headstones of Ipswich General Cemetery, 2011. (FOSBC)

As you can see, our cross-cemetery credentials are very broad and well established. We have also been a leading advocate of the 2015 Brisbane City Council decision to encourage the public to better 'engage' with municipal cemeteries (which are classed as ‘parks’ under council laws), and a lot of the above work has supported that aim. Most cemeteries in Brisbane have no Real History tours (i.e., featuring nothing but factual historical information), and we have filled the void where we can and introduced thousands of people to the quiet joys of their local burial grounds. Being not-for-profit, the tours have also raised valuable funds for a number of upcoming cemetery history projects which will emerge over the next 12 months or so.

I guess the point of all this is to say that - as a professional historian myself - I would encourage other historians and volunteer history groups wherever they may be to utilise these resources to share their research and stories of our city, increase public appreciation of these special places, and generate funds for their own history projects. After all, Brisbane's municipal cemeteries have a shared history and are funded by and belong to the people all around Brisbane.