To Peel and Back

“Matt” 1

(A former patient at Peel Island Lazaret from 1954 until its closure in 1959)

My diagnosis

Soon after I came down to Redlands from Gympie in 1951, my local doctor must have suspected that I had HD 2so he sent me to Brisbane to Dr Landy at the PA.3 who sent me to the Health Department to have blood smears taken. The doctors there thought I had arsenic poisoning because I had been spraying bananas with arsenic pentoxide, so they didn’t bother with the HD then. They treated my arsenic poisoning for nearly two years with BAL (British Anti Lewisite), and, oh brother, I think the cure was worse than the cause, because those injections with BAL were really terrible. 

But if the Health Department had taken the tests for HD when they took the tests for arsenic, they would have cured both of them at the same time, and I would never have had to go to Peel Island. However, when they cured the arsenic in 1954, I tried to go back to work, but I couldn’t. When I burnt myself, the sores wouldn’t heal, so I went back to hospital and saw Dr Landy at the PA again, and he said, “Well, I don’t know, Matt, I’ll have to have my own way now.” So he got the Health and Home Affairs chaps up and they took the smears and they found the HD. When the results of the smears came back I immediately had two guards on the bed and there were nurses all around me and I was sent to Wattlebrae. 4

Brisbane’s General Hospital, Nurses quarters and Wattlebrae
(Wattlebrae is the building top right)

When the ambulance came up to take me to Wattlebrae, the ambulance driver came in with his wheelchair and he said, “Right-o mate, hop in.” So I hopped into the chair and he wheeled me down to the ambulance. 

He said, “Get in the front.” 

I looked at him and questioned, “In the front?”

“Yeah, in the front.”

I said, “You know what I’ve got, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I don’t give a damn what you’ve got. Get in the front.”

There were three or four other patients in the back of the ambulance, and they didn’t seem to mind, so I got in the front and away we went. When I got to Wattlebrae, the staff there dropped everything I had like a hot coal, and wouldn’t touch it with a forty-foot pole. And when I got my tea, the meat was all cut up, and all I got was a fork. The situation didn’t warrant a smile, but I had to smile because I had an open cutthroat razor with my belongings in a pillowslip, and if I had wanted to cut my throat, I could have cut it with that! As the doctor at Peel Island stated later on, if I had wanted to cut my throat, I wouldn’t have cut it with one of their knives anyway. He was most jubilant about that!

They kept me there at Wattlebrae nearly all the afternoon. Then eventually the ambulance driver from Cleveland came up. “Hello, Matt,” he said. “So you’re going to Peel Island.”

“Yes, Gordon’”

“Alright, we’ll get your papers and we’ll go. They’ve cut it pretty fine. We’ve just got time to get to the boat.”

The authorities were aware I knew Gordon very well, and that if he got half a chance he’d call into my home at Cleveland. But they cut it fine. All I had to wear were the hospital pyjamas of the PA. No gown, nothing. I am nearly sure to this day that I still had my clothes at the PA Hospital. Anyway I didn’t have them then, and I still haven’t got them. Probably they all went up in smoke long before I left the hospital – or soon after, because the old sister they had there was a crabby old thing. Thank God they have got rid of all them now, because they are all God’s people up there now.

Anyway Gordon Stewart said, “So that’s all you’ve got? Just your pyjamas?”

“That’s all, Gordon.”

“Well, we’ll soon have to fix that up.”

Anyway we were coming down in the ambulance and we were talking, and I took a dim view of all this, because I had heard a lot about this leprosy. I’d been over there with the Buffalo Lodge and didn’t like the look of the place. I’d heard that if you went over there as a patient, it was curtains. Anyhow, Gordon Stewart enlightened me quite a bit. 

He said, “I’d like to call into your house to see your wife, but I don’t think they’ve given us much time.” 

As he passed our road, he had his foot on the clutch. He was in two minds whether to call in or not, and they knew this. So he said “No we’d better not. The boat’s waiting with its engines running. But I’ve got to call into the ambulance station and get you an overcoat. I can’t send you over to the island in them cursed pyjamas. I’ve got a spare one there.”

We called into the ambulance station at Cleveland and he got me a nice warm overcoat. 

“They can get it back to me later on,” he said.

So he backed onto the Cleveland jetty, and I got aboard the Vega. The skipper was Harold Walker, who I also knew.  He was surprised to see me going over to Peel Island. There was only he and I on the boat. I was a special trip – vice regal!

On the way over to Peel, Harold enlightened me quite a bit more than Gordon Stewart had.

Vega coming in to Peel Island’s western jetty 1958 (Photo courtesy June Berthelsen)

At Peel Island

When we got over to Peel, there was the doctor and four men waiting for me in the truck, and when we docked, Harold went over and had a talk to the doctor. I knew they were talking about me, because they kept glancing over towards me. The doctor kept shaking his head, and of the four men he had with him, three of them I knew very well. We often used to have a beer together and the Grand View Hotel or the Sands at a weekend. Anyway they laughed and we shook hands. I couldn’t understand it, but it appears that someone from the Health Department had rung him and told him not to come down to the boat alone, but to bring a bodyguard with him. So we had a great laugh over it. They had thought I was going to be a bit resistant to staying on Peel.

So I shook hands with Harold Walker. And he went away home on the Vega and we went in the truck to the Lazaret. So we got across the island, and I walked into the hospital. The old matron came down, and the very words I said when I saw her were, “Thank Christ!”

“What have you got to thank Him about?”

I said, “I’m with God’s people at last.” I was relieved to get there.

“I suppose you want a good shower, eh?”

“Yes, and a good feed”

“What about those pyjamas?”

“I’ll keep them as a memento.”

“Like hell you will!”

So I had a good shower, and a good feed, and a nice clean pair of pyjamas. Matron was a hard case because she had my old pyjamas all tied up in a bow and she said, “What are we going to do with these?”

“Wrap ‘em up and we’ll send them back to the sister at the PA.”

“I think we might too.”

Well from that day at Peel Island I never looked back. My feelings were more or less remorse for a few weeks, but when my wife and my own people came over to see me on the island, I began to see that it was not as bad as I had thought it could have been. Later on, I was rather amused at the changes in the attitude the doctor and nursing staff at Wattlebrae from those days to those of today.

Dr Morgan Gabriel and Matron Marie Ahlberg at Peel Island

To amuse ourselves at Peel, there was quite a bit of fishing – we got to know where to go and when to go. Whenwas the main thing. I took up woodworking when I was over there. The only thing I could drive straight was a car, a grader, and a bulldozer, but with the assistance of the doctor, he taught me quite a bit about driving nails straight etc. Between us we did very well. The Red Cross helped me with any timber I wanted. One good job I did over there – a sideboard – I had estapolled one afternoon and left to dry in one of the huts. When I walked in the next morning, there were a lot of stains on it. Its beautiful top was ruined I thought. I was really worried, so when the doctor went past I called him in and said, “Doctor, what do you reckon about this?”

He had a bit of a grin, and he got a rag and wiped them off. “They’re just spider droppings.”

I might add that this time I had five huts at my disposal – there were that many spare huts over there at the time – one to keep my timber in, one to keep my paints and varnishes in, one as a workshop etc. I sold quite a bit of furniture that I made there. 

At night we used to play Canasta. There were two old ladies in the hospital who were great Canasta players, and the matron used to join them too. I used to wander over and play cards with them at night until the tide was coming in. When the tide was nearly three quarters of the way in, I used to knock off the card playing, get in the truck and go down to Horseshoe Bay where I’d throw in about four or five lines, then come back. When I pulled the line in, if the sharks didn’t get them first, I’d get nice big summer whiting. If the sharks got them, I’d only have heads. If you could beat the sharks, you’d be alright for a meal in an hour or so. The sharks were pretty bad there, especially in the Horseshoe. However, the sharks that came in for the fish would only be three or four footers (about a metre).

When the Lazaret’s official truck driver went home, cured, I got that job. It paid me good money. Also I had my boat, so when some of the staff wanted to go across to their homes at Cleveland for the night, I’d take the boat around to the western jetty in the afternoon, then at afternoon tea, I’d take the truck down to the jetty, and reverse it around, and leave the tail light on. Then I’d take the staff over to Cleveland and after a couple of beers at the Grand View Hotel – on the house – I’d get a taxi and go home for a few hours. Then on closing time, I’d go back to the hotel, round ‘em all up, and off we’d go to the boat. The main trouble was getting some of them along Cleveland jetty!

When I started work in the Redland Shire in 1951, we had a Buffalo Lodge on the mainland called Redlands 98, which had 80 members when it first opened. We organised a late stay visit to Peel with the Superintendent, Frank Mahoney in about 1952 – 53. The big recreation hall at the Lazaret was just packed with members and visitors. I think we finished up about 1 or 2 am, and as we left the jetty, the patients and staff were waving goodbye to us in the rain. It was raining like hell. We were the only ones to visit the islands after dark. Later in 1954 when I went over there as a patient, there were only twenty patients there, and I was the only Lodge member in the patients’ category. The rest of Peel’s members were staff.


1. Because of the stigma that surrounded Leprosy and to which some family members are still sensitive, I have used the pseudonym ‘Matt’ to denote this patient – the same one that I had used previously to record some of his reminiscences in my 1987 book “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison”.  

2. Because of its stigma, the name Leprosy has now been replaced with Hansen’s Disease, or just HD.

3. PA = Princess Alexandra Hospital, formerly the South Brisbane Hospital

4. Wattlebrae is the infectious diseases ward at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, formerly known as the General Hospital.

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Frank Boyce – A Moreton Bay Character

After the Peel Island lazaret was closed down in 1959 and the remaining patients transferred to the South Brisbane (now PA) Hospital, the Queensland Government announced plans to have Peel Island developed. The possibilities mooted were for a tourist resort, a National Fitness site, a boating centre – or all three. So early in 1962, the Government called tenders for its lease. The only bidder was an American, Doctor Cecil Saunders, who had plans to turn Peel into a “Disneyland-by-the-sea”. Perhaps fortunately, these plans collapsed. Another proposal was to subdivide Peel for residential purposes, much as Tom Welsby had suggested way back in 1923, but this too lapsed. In all, the Government called twice for applications for the island’s development for tourist purposes but all failed to come to fruition. 

So, in 1968, the lazaret buildings were put up for sale on the condition that the purchased buildings were to be removed from the island within two years from the date of sale – otherwise the timbers would revert to the Government. 

Anglican church at Peel Island 1955 (photo courtesy Dr Morgan Gabriel)

Among the buyers was Frank Boyce who purchased Peel’s former Anglican Church, which he duly dismantled and then ferried across to Kooringal, a small township on the southern tip of Moreton Island. Keith Gurtner had it rebuilt as a private residence, which he painted blue. Keith Gurtner, was a motor cycle ace, and known to his legion of fans as ‘Little Boy Blue’ – a misleading nickname considering his fearless feats at bike racing: Gurtner having the dubious claim to be the only rider to have been catapulted over the fence at the Exhibition Speedway.

Frank Boyce was born in 1910 and at 15 was caught unawares by Bay legend, Frank Day, while having a feed on Frank’s oyster lease on Moreton Island. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Frank Day. When ‘Boycey’ (as he liked to be called) visited Moreton, he would always bring fruit down for the Day’s kids, there being none available on the island. It was also the beginning of a lifelong fascination with Moreton Island. Later during the Great Depression, he was to purchase land at Kooringal when it came up for sale.  A woodcarver by trade and a wheeler and dealer in second hand wares, Frank Boyce learned that the Government was scrapping thousands of old school desks and forms, so he purchased 5,000 of them cheaply and took them, 500 at a time, to Kooringal stacked on the deck of his vessel Hurry-Up, a former World War II submarine chaser he had purchased – with its armour plating – at the end of the war.

‘Boycey’s Moreton house was always a work in progress over the next fifty years, and a notable addition was its penthouse – a small bedroom perched on top of the main house that was accessed by a steep set of stairs and offered views across Moreton Bay.

He bought other houses from Peel Island and they were used in the building of many other houses at Kooringal. 

Renowned for his story telling while enjoying a cold beer, Frank would often tell of landing a giant octopus in his boat, or being chased up a tree by a crocodile in Darwin. But perhaps the most interesting of his stories concerns the boat Hurry-Up that he purchased after the war. A former crew member once told him they had rammed a submarine just off Moreton Bay, and he was sure it was the one that had sunk the hospital ship Centaur.

When Frank Boyce died in 2004, Kooringal, and indeed Moreton Bay, lost one of its last great characters.

Peel’s former Anglican church relocated as a private house at Kooringal (photo courtesy Kathy Brinckman)

Peter Ludlow and Kathy Brinckman, May 2010

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Miss Red Lead, Marjorie (‘Mardi’) Spencer

Marjorie recalls: I had married Dr Eric Reye in August 1945, and by this time, Eric had been appointed a full-time Government Medical Officer, and was visiting the Peel Island Lazaret (Leprosarium) regularly. In January 1947 Promin therapy was introduced there, and its daily intravenous administration necessitated Eric remaining full time on the island. Thus, he became Peel’s first Resident Medical Officer, and I was appointed a temporary laboratory assistant, because no one was available at the time, and because the nurses were fully occupied. By the end of 1947, the services of a science graduate Miss (later Dr.) Herbert had been obtained, and I was no longer needed. 

There was no provision for accommodation of a Medical Officer on Peel so to accommodate me, Eric purchased a wartime surf landing dory that, because of its flat bottom, was easily beached amongst the mangroves at the base of the lazaret’s north embankment. The mosquitoes and biting midges could be very troublesome at times and we had double mosquito nets on our barge which we also sprayed with fly spray for more protection.

Mardi on Maroomba with Coolooloa in the mangroves (photo courtesy Eric Reye)

Eric and I were forced to continue living on the boat for about a year. Patient accommodation was also desperately short, and it was only on Eric’s threat of resignation that two ex-army huts were procured from Redbank and shipped to the Island. Finally, in September 1947, we were able to move ashore and occupy the new Doctor’s residence which was situated at the top of the embankment several hundred metres to the east of the men’s compound. Its small balcony commanded a fine, sweeping view northwards across the waters of Moreton Bay towards the rolling tree covered sand hills of Moreton Island. Closer to home in the water at the bottom of the embankment, Eric’s yacht Maroomba rested at her moorings. 

My laboratory duties involved taking blood samples, and I went to the Red Cross Blood Bank in Brisbane to learn the basics. There I learnt how to perform white and red blood cell counts. I also tested patient’s urine samples for diabetes. The blood samples were taken from the patients’ ear lobes because there was less chance of infection from that site. Before I took the sample, I would wipe the site with ether to cleanse it.

Another of my occupations on Peel was to read to the blind patients, especially Bert Cobb, who was a learned man with a fine collection of books in his hut. He was not able to learn Braille because his Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) had left him with no feeling in his fingers.

In those days, boat’s hulls were painted with a mixture of red lead powder and linseed oil for protection from seawater vermin. However, we didn’t have any linseed oil, so Eric substituted shark liver oil which had a most unpleasant pong. However, the smell didn’t worry me, so I went on using it. I used to get the red lead in my hair, which I washed out with kerosene from our Primus stove. This turned me from a blond into a redhead, and earned me the nickname of ‘Miss Red Lead’.

One of Eric’s duties as Medical Officer at Peel Island was to search out new cases of Hansen’s Disease occurring on the mainland. Once I accompanied him to Mona Mona on the Atherton Tableland to pick up two Aboriginal sisters who were found to have the disease. One however was sick and she had to be left off at Cairns before being sent on to Fantome Island (the Aboriginal Leprosarium in the Palm Island Group, which Eric was also in charge of).

Mona Mona Mission in the 1940s showing the marriage ceremony of 6 couples (photo Courtesy Eric Reye)

Eric resigned as Medical Officer at Peel Island when he was not allowed by the Health Department to do further patient surveys in the Aboriginal communities behind Cairns. I had been interested in Aboriginal anthropology to the extent of going down to Sydney to the university for six months, but when Eric resigned, I gave it away. We stayed on his boat on the river at Yeronga, where Eric commenced his study of biting midges. We then split up and I went home and worked as a librarian, first at Stones Corner and then at South Brisbane.

Marjorie Spencer


October 2011

Extract from ‘Moreton Bay People 2012 by Peter Ludlow (now out of print)

The Dorunda’s Bees

Peter Ludlow: While researching my book “Exiles of Peel Island – Quarantine” about 1990, I was given a series of photos taken at the Peel Island quarantine station in 1885 while the ship Dorunda with its crew and passengers were being detained there following an outbreak of cholera on its voyage out to Australia. The photographer of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland copied the photos for me. These two beehive photos were at the end of the roll of negatives and we weren’t sure whether they were part of the quarantine station or not. They seemed so out of place to be on Peel and the building and fence did not match either. The question vexed me until 2009 when I received the following information via email from Peter Barrett of Caloundra:

Peel Island’s quarantine station beehives?
Peel Island’s quarantine station beehives?

Peter Barrett: I’m interested in the fate of some hives of bees that were aboard the R.M.S. Dorunda when it arrived in Moreton Bay in Dec. 1885 with cases of cholera on board. The bees were consigned to a commercial beekeeper, one Mr. Spry. It seems that, along with passengers and crew, the hives were quarantined on Peel Island. (Brisbane Courier, 15 January 1886)

Due to the belief by some that the bees could collect dangerous germs on the island “… it is evidently advisable, in the interests of the public health, that the hives and combs should be destroyed.”

The following day a well-known apiarist of the time, Charles Fullwood, wrote strenuously in the bees defence. “I understand Mr. Spry has brought some of the most valuable strains of bees to be found in Europe or Asia, and believed to be the most suitable for this climate. I hope they will not be injured.”

I also found in the Brisbane Courier, 16 Dec. 1885 that one of the saloon passengers was a Mr. A. Spry. Rhetorically – was this coincidence or could it have been the consignee himself?

In the Brisbane Courier, 21 Jan. 1886 “There will be on view to-day, in the window of Mr. Hislop’s furniture shop, a series of over a dozen photographs taken at Peel Island by Mr. Woodford, F.R.G.S., and Mr. A. Spry with the apparatus sent down from Brisbane by Mr. Courtney Spry. [Yet another Spry!] These comprise views of the various houses and tents, which form the Quarantine Station, groups of the immigrants by the Dorunda, and general views of the surroundings. Some of them are very well executed, and Mr. Spry should have no difficulty in disposing of them, particularly as his solo object is to obtain by this means some addition to the Dorunda Relief Fund.”

So to sum up, the photos are not likely related to the Dorunda – there are just too many hives. As well, they each have two boxes, not what I would expect for long distance shipping of bees. And thirdly, imagine the logistics of unloading such a large number of hives from a steam ship anchored off the island.

What you have are photos of a commercial apiary. They could be on Peel Is – if the building in view could be identified as such. More likely they are of the Spry brothers’ Flowerdale Apiary at Rocklea, then known as Rocky-waterholes.

Peter Barrett, Caloundra, July 17, 2009

(Extract from Moreton Bay People 2012 by Peter Ludlow)

Welcome to the Moreton Bay Online Podcast.

Moreton Bay Online – The Podcast

With the corona virus still keeping us in lockdown, this is an ideal time to catch up on some Moreton Bay podcasts.

A year ago, I was interviewed by Katie Walters, who was then a PhD candidate at Griffith University. Katie has created a series of podcasts in which she interviews people who live around Moreton Bay to discover what they love about it, how they came to be here, and how they interact with it.

Katie says: ‘Moreton Bay is special to all of us, for a huge number of reasons, and sharing those reasons with each other is one way we can build community and coastal capacity – and promote custodianship so that our bay stays beautiful and productive for the generations to come.’

You can access Katie’s podcast at the following links (mine is Episode 8):