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“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.

NOTES:

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)