30 September 2021

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.



Fixing Brisbane Cemeteries

The Courier-Mail ran an article back in July about the condition of graves in Toowong Cemetery. The story outlined damage in this heritage-listed site, including intrusive tree roots, weeds, collapsing grave surrounds and fallen headstones. It also promoted demands that the Brisbane City Council should pay to fix up broken graves (there are over 120,000 graves in the cemetery). There aspects of the article I agree with, and others which are problematic.

I help organise Queensland Cemetery History Tours over at Toowong once a month, as well as conducting research over there, so I am aware of the state of the place. These problems are also familiar to me as a member of the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery (FOSBC) - check out this gallery of headstone damage at South Brisbane - and they are no doubt recognisable in varying degrees to the volunteers over at Balmoral and other historical cemeteries around Brisbane. These issues are not unique to Toowong.

This tree fell after a big storm in early 2013 and smashed several South Brisbane headstones, most of which will never be repaired. (FOSBC)

A sapling left to grow between two graves will eventually push aside the stonework - South Brisbane Cemetery. (FOSBC)

Darcy Maddock, the president of the Friends of Toowong Cemetery, is quoted in the article as saying that the BCC does a generally good job with cemeteries but that tree damage needs to assessed. This is absolutely correct. There are issues, however, when the owner of the ‘Ghost Tours’ small business (Cameron 'Jack' Sim) demands that ‘the council needs an emergency fund to rapidly repair broken sites.’

The article acknowledges that the extent of damage at Toowong is estimated to be ‘multi-millions of dollars’. Where would this money come from? BCC already allocates $12,000,000 of ratepayers’ money to maintaining the 12 cemeteries under its control. Toowong has received the lion’s share of funding for historical cemeteries over recent decades, with vastly superior facilities and landscaping compared to other old cemeteries such as Balmoral and South Brisbane. If more money were to be spent on Toowong, where would it come from? Increasing rates or cutting council services elsewhere? Less money for other cemeteries?

It is worth noting here that someone (hiding behind the cloak of anonymity) attempted to get our monthly Thursday night history tour at Toowong stopped earlier this year, with one part of the argument being that revenue from tours there should not go outside the electorate. My counterargument was that Toowong Cemetery is funded by ALL Brisbane ratepayers, not just the local electorate. This new demand for extra spending at Toowong only proves my point. The cemetery belongs to the whole of the city.

It is also important to remember that the graves legally belong to individual families, and it is their responsibility to fix them if the grave is in disrepair. At the same time, the BCC needs to do more to monitor new and existing tree growth in order to limit damage.

The members of the FOSBC understand that the cemetery decay can be managed but not stopped. We can, however, extend the life of the heritage fabric, and raise awareness of what needs to be done into the future, and we do get a lot of work done through proactive, award-winning community programmes such as the Guardian Angels cleaning bees. The volunteers remove tree debris and weeds from graves and pathways, wash headstones, clear drains, move loose stone slabs, remove weed-tree saplings, record existing monument damage and notify families where possible, remove broken branches, notify BCC of dead or diseased trees, and are recording the cemetery flora. This is funded by our hard work presenting guided tours there.

One of the two skips we filled up with tree debris at South Brisbane last week (FOSBC).

I understand that the Friends of Toowong Cemetery might not be in a position to do this kind of work right now (the article describes them as ‘a volunteer group of four elderly people’, which no doubt underestimates their size) but there is an opportunity for more community activism in building up group numbers.

A second issue with the article, aside from funding demands, is that Mr Sim claims that Toowong Cemetery should be ‘one of the great tourist destinations of our city’. Cemetery tourism is fine within limits, and if done respectfully, but the primary function of Toowong is still as a functioning cemetery - a place of love, rest and remembrance. I’m not sure that the kind of ‘tourism’ Mr Sim has in mind is compatible with that function.

Mr Sim also claims that ‘people have to know about this history or we will lose it’. Frankly, it is absolutely hypocritical of him to say this. He has done his level best to stop OTHER people presenting history tours if he feels they will ‘compete’ with his small business. The FOSBC is just one group that have been on the receiving end of this behaviour from him over many years. Mr Sim has taken advantage of the BCC tour license system to lock in most Friday and Saturday nights for himself at Toowong and South Brisbane - even though he doesn’t use them all - and thereby blocking other people from presenting any cemetery events on those nights. The chart below shows the current roadblock to 'letting people know about this history'.


So when he says he wants more tourists in cemeteries, he means just for his own business - at $45 per person - while asking that ratepayers cough up more to look after them. I won’t go into my opinion of the standard of ‘history’ that Mr Sim presents, although I have been told that he recently claimed on television to have seen a statue move in the cemetery.

The FOSBC believes that increasing public engagement with historical cemeteries should be built around community-led, not-for-profit history and arts activities that are respectful, and not turning these special places into novelty haunted houses in the name of private profit.

So yes, there is a problem with heritage decay in old cemeteries, but this exists right across Brisbane (and any other historical cemetery in the world). Rather than spending ‘multi-millions’ at one cemetery, an approach is needed that treats all our cemeteries equally, with proportionally fair funding for all. It also requires building increased community engagement. The kind of community-led approach we have taken at South Brisbane has its limitations, but we are trying our best to do what we can to resolve some of these issues.

21 September 2021

Personal Awards and the Power of Community

Quite a lot of the Public History work I do goes unpaid, so the occasional pat on the back can be welcome. This year has been particularly good for that type of thing, with the cemetery work done by my colleague Tracey Olivieri and myself being recognised with two awards.

The first came in January when we received a Griffith Australia Day Award in recognition for the huge amount of work we have both done over the years with the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery. This was presented by Terri Butler, the Federal MP for Griffith, in a lovely ceremony at the Gabba in the company of other volunteers being acknowledged for a lot of valuable work.

Tracey and I receiving the Griffith Australia Day Awards. (Hannah Photography)

Then in June we received the John Oxley Library Award, one of the annual 'Queensland Memory Awards' described by the State Library of Queensland as their 'most prestigious' honours. This was an especially valued accolade, but one that wasn't without hurdles in the nomination process.

Me with Gavin Bannerman, Director of Queensland Memory. (State Library of Queensland)

Tracey Olivieri and Gavin. (State Library of Queensland)

The award winners with Library Board members. (State Library of Queensland)

In the awards audience. (State Library of Queensland)

Acceptance speech. (State Library of Queensland)

Both these awards recognised years of cleaning, research, tours, lobbying, writing, online development, resuscitating the FOSBC from near-death in 2017, and building an active community group at the cemetery. It is probably this last aspect that I value the most. 

There is something I say a lot, and I said it again during my acceptance speech, but the underlying philosophy of all this cemetery work has been the power of community: 'The more people know about the cemetery, the more they will care about it, and the more likely they will then be to actively protect it'.
 
Heritage is always a long-term challenge. Organisations such as the FOSBC need to prepare for the century ahead, to ensure that when those people who started the group back in 2005 cannot work any more, there will be others ready to take the baton and carry on that work. 

So far, we've done quite well in this regard. We have built up what I suspect to be the largest and most active cemetery-linked community organisation in the country. Maybe this success has involved a measure of what is described as 'servant leadership', organising in a way that puts the needs of the team before the needs of the self. In real terms, this has looked like:

  • Doing a lot of behind-the scenes work to keep people in the group connected and having plenty of opportunities to participate in diverse activities.
  • Quietly identifying individual talents and encouraging them and giving them space to show what they can do.
  • Stepping back to share credit and let others take the limelight.
  • Nurturing the next generation of leaders - our successors.
  • Encouraging a friendly, informal workplace atmosphere that volunteers enjoy working in.

Of course it doesn't always work like this, and democracy can always be improved, but the intent should always there.

This is why I felt slightly awkward about the awards. Sure, Tracey and I put a lot of work in, but so much work was done by others. To tell the truth, I think the nomination should have actually been for the FOSBC as a whole. Hopefully, in time to come, others in the group will be recognised in similar ways. For now, we'll keep working on building the FOSBC. 

Maybe part of why I think belonging to a community is important is because I'm a migrant and have a need to feel like I belong somewhere (even after 33 years here). I was a third-generation council estate child with that sense of 'people being in the same boat', where everybody knows your name. I got that same vibe as a young adult living on a commune in Israel, and again during my university years in Brisbane. All great times in my life, and the FOSBC is becoming the fourth community of my life. But I also like the feeling that I'm making a positive difference in the world, and being in a group is the best way to achieve that. The inspirational Liverpool FC manager and man-of-the-people Bill Shankly was asked in the early 1970s for his views on socialism, and his answer evoked what I see as the power of community
"It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life."

And that is the way I see the South Brisbane Cemetery community, and the way I see life. But it still feels reassuring to have that work acknowledged and to be able to say it is 'award-winning'.

FOSBC get-together, 2020.


07 September 2021

A Visit to the Church of St John the Baptist, Bircle, Lancashire

During a rare visit to my old hometown of Heywood, Lancashire, a few years back I was lucky enough to arrive, quite by chance, during Heritage Week, when a number of local institutions opened their doors to the public with onsite tours and displays. One of these places was the Church of St John the Baptist, just over the border in Castle Hill Road, Bircle, Bury, and so I paid it a visit one drizzly September morning. 

This small countryside church was consecrated in 1854*, and like many churches of the time it had an attached graveyard. This was a couple of years before the general cemetery opened in Heywood, and 15 years before the current Bury Cemetery was established. While these large municipal cemeteries led to a decline in the use of small church graveyards, especially the urban ones, the rural setting of St John's meant it was still used on a regular basis and both the church and graveyard are still operational today.

Church of St John's, Bircle, 2010. (David Dixon, geograph.com)

This is a Church of England institution, built in stone in the Early English style, with slate roofs with coped gables. It is a beautiful little building set in pretty countryside, but my main attention (as always with these places) was with the graveyard that surrounded it. This was a crowded burial ground full of solid-looking gothic-style headstones and horizontal ledgers. I (roughly) estimate it holds maybe 300-400 graves, some old and some more recent. If you know something of the history of this place, a few prominent local surnames - such as Holt, Ashworth and Chadwick - stand out. Birtle (or Bircle) itself has a recorded history dating back to the 13th century, so the church is relatively modern in the scheme of things.

What really struck me was how green the place looked. The countryside was particularly verdant in the last wet days of summer/first days of autumn, and many of the stones here were covered in a thick moss. The 19th-century stones looked really solid (I'm guessing granite, and in some cases slate), with the inscriptions in them generally still really sharp and crisp. Many were horizontal slabs, the kind that end up serving as footpaths around churches, and these were usually filled top-to-bottom with names, dates and places. As always, a churchyard is an immediate guide to local history. 

Regrettably, at this time I hadn't yet learned to always take note of the names of the stonemasons responsible for these creations, which is a shame because similar carving styles were very evident in other nearby cemeteries. One of the things about seeing a historical cemetery for the first time is sheer volume of new information to take in, and anyway I was here as a tourist and not a methodical researcher. 

I enjoyed time inside the church itself, checking out multimedia presentations, old registers, artefact displays, and of course staring at the stained-glass windows (another favourite pastime of mine). Afterwards, I popped into the 18th-century 'Church Inn' right next door for a very splendid real ale and lunch.

This church is featured on my interactive map of old churches and graveyards around Heywood.
 
On the road to St John's. (C. Dawson, 2018)

St John's churchyard boundary. (C. Dawson, 2018)

A mix of the modern and the old in the northern side of the church. (C. Dawson, 2018)

A view from the east, with the gothic headstone style being prominent here. (C. Dawson, 2018)

Thick moss on the granite headstones. (C. Dawson, 2018)

September greenery on the beautifully-inscribed stones. (C. Dawson, 2018)

'In remembrance of Hannah, the daughter of William and Sarah Hall, of Wolstenholme Hall, who departed this life on Dec. 31st 1855, aged 13 months and 11 days.' (C. Dawson, 2018)

The weeping willow tree is a symbol found on quite a few English headstones. Here it shelters a mourning woman. (C. Dawson, 2018) 

A symbol I hadn't seen before. A mourning woman embraces a draped urn. (C. Dawson)

A Celtic Cross in a Church of England churchyard. This is decorated with what seems to be acanthus. (C. Dawson, 2018)

History displays inside St John's. (C. Dawson, 2018)

The old Church Inn is right next to the churchyard and proved to be a perfect spot for a pint and a spot of lunch. (C. Dawson, 2018) 

The door of the Church Inn, which is a few inches shorter than my six-foot height. The inscription over the door refers to Robert and Elizabeth Diggle, who opened the pub as 'Tap Laish' back in 1730. (C. Dawson, 2018)

My first sight of this church came early in the classic British summer of 1976, when 10-year-old me and three of my friends ran away from home in search of adventure and good times. That first night we ended up at our first night's destination, a WW2-era bomb shelter built near this church and which - to our surprise - appeared to have recently collapsed in on itself. Planning and recon was not our forte. With darkness approaching and our food supplies (one tin of spam) depleted, we decided against spending a comfy night sleeping on a pile of rubble and returned home, defeated, to a police welcome. Not quite Stand By Me, but something I can't help thinking about whenever I'm in this neck of the woods.

* A publication I picked up inside the church itself states that the church was 'first dedicated in 1846'.

My apologies for the poor definition on some of these photos - I was using a phone camera so crappy that I went out and bought a whole new camera a couple of days after this.