Wartime Brisbane, Through the Eyes of a Lad (by John Thornton)

The definitive histories of Brisbane during World War II have all been long written, sometimes accurately, so these are just the recollections, often inaccurate, of what Brisbane looked like to a schoolboy and youth of that era.

We lived in New Farm from the early 1930’s. New Farm was a very river-oriented suburb; the wharves and warehouses were a big part of life. Big liners like the Strathnaver and Strathaird seemed to tower over the whole suburb. Each year the Navy sent the Canberra and Sydney at Ekka time, and we would visit them at New Farm wharf. It was a personal thing when each in turn was lost during the war.

Things were looking up in the late 30’s, the Depression was over, buildings were going up, and I could watch progress on the Storey Bridge from my classroom at St James in Boundary St. But war was obviously coming, there was no euphoria about it, just dread, an attitude of “oh no, not again”. And so, it started, slowly at first. Evans, Deakin finished their Storey bridge, and were persuaded that ships were not much different from other tanks and silos, so Kangaroo Point got its shipyard.

            At Nudgee in 1941, we farewelled two members of the previous senior class, and within 6 months had memorial services for them. Things then got really bad. Sydney was lost with all hands, then Parramatta with heavy loss, then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the fall of Singapore, and their repeated attacks on Darwin – all within a few months. Current history writers talk of cover-ups, that’s nonsense, information was plentiful, it’s just that disasters were unremarkable, there were so many.

It was a bit of a worry as all our trained forces were half way around the world. Us school kids were sent bush, heaven knows why. But sanity prevailed and by Easter we were back home. The digging of slit trenches was begun around the schoolyard, but boys turned practice drills into a re-run of WW1 trench warfare, so they were stopped.

One day I was watching two fighters stunting over Sandgate, when one nosedived, followed by a thump. He was gone.

            There was a big anti-aircraft unit, searchlights and guns, near Nudgee Station, and for most of 1942 they practiced on aircraft, we thought this more fun than homework. I left school and started work as an apprentice Toolmaker at the Rocklea ammunition factory in early 1943. They were making 3.5 million .303 shells per week plus .38 and .455, and 25 pounder shells. And this was the smallest of 7 factories in Australia! Where did they all go? At the end of 1943 they had enough, and switched to rebuilding aircraft engines, with test bays in the bush at the end of Compo Rd, now Evans Rd. The factory hadn’t really get going properly when the war moved too far north to make it worthwhile, so it closed and I shifted to Evans-Deakin shipyard.

Brisbane was a real mess by this time. It was the first decent port this side of the troubles, so things tended to concentrate here. Macarthur turned up, Canungra was set up for jungle training, all wharves were occupied and other temporary piers were put in wherever possible, USS Benson (or was it Benton) arrived at New Farm with its submarines, Eagle Farm grew new hangars and became the major bomber base, Archerfield housed fighters, and light bombers. I think the river could dock over 1000 ships, and the Bay was thick with others waiting.

I recall watching the arrival of a spectacular mass ferry flight into Eagle Farm of light bombers, mainly Mitchells and Bostons that took most of one day to get in and down. Crashed aircraft were stripped and piled four high in dumps at Eagle Farm, Bulimba, Enoggera, and Meeandah, each of 20 or 30 acres – a lot of grief there.

All this stressed Brisbane quite heavily. The civilian population was only about 250 thousand, and I was told once that about 1 million troops were quartered within 50 miles, a 4 to 1 ratio. All these fit and trained men were very toey, so the brawls were legendary. It was almost an entertainment to go into the Valley to watch the fights. The best riot, because it was harmless, was by the entire 7th Division. They had been overseas since 1940, did Kokoda, and were not allowed beer in camp. They all marched out of Enoggera, down Queen St, acquired a large keg from a pub near the Post Office, broached it there, and went back to camp. They got their wet canteens.

Brisbane was dim and gloomy, and not pretty. The combination of aboveground water mains, ugly concrete blast shelters, blackout lighting, lack of upkeep, and shabby austerity made for a general run-down look, and it did not really brighten up for another 20 years. The Americans kept their black troops, who were mainly labour battalions, segregated on the south side, and they were quite severe on any transgressions. A workmate told me that he saw a Negro shot on Victoria Bridge over this. In fact, the treatment of their blacks probably did more harm to our opinion of them than any other single factor. Actually, the individual American was usually a very nice bloke, but in the mass, they were a lot more foreign than Hollywood had led us to expect. Just in odd little ways. Macarthur himself was too flamboyant for our taste and his army was not much respected, but the air force and navy, and especially the Marines were highly regarded.

I joined the Evans Deakin shipyard late in 1945, installing the main engines in HMAS Murchison, a sister ship to the frigate now permanently on display at Southbank. I was thus a little late to be personally involved in their wartime work, but I knew and heard much about it and it was magnificent. There were few trained tradesmen, so apprentices matured early and it was nothing to see a handful of 17 year-old’s under one or two tradesmen heading off to Colmslie Dock to do a major job on a crippled ship. The submarine flotilla could provide some nasty jobs, like flooded compartments with dead crew, and one had its whole forward compartment blown off, which Evans Deakin rebuilt.

Shipbuilding was very satisfying: to see a pile of rusty steel take shape, get launched, fitted out, and then come alive as the boilers fire up and the engines turn over, is one of life’s great experiences. Sea trials were always a great day, I was out with Murchison, then DalbyDubboBinburra and Bilkurra – all good ships that gave no trouble. It was a pity that the yard could not last, but too much of inefficient work practices, demarcations, and union restrictions had been inherited from the Clyde so it had to go.

            Even though the Mirimar had been impressed for wartime service, it continued to service Amity and even in the black days of 1943 a group of fellow apprentices introduced me to beautiful Pt Lookout. Not that it was any picnic getting across the island, I recall midnight in winter, pouring rain, on the back of an Army FWD truck, bashing through bush. On a later visit we were standing on the beach looking at the half of the Rufus King wreck, then quite close inshore, when some air force planes turned up for target practice. First came a Spitfire, very pretty and interesting to watch. Then a Mosquito. Lots of guns, its speed would check noticeably when firing. Then a Liberator bomber. Gun turrets all over, all firing. Now there were spurts of sand kicking up not far away, so time to drop the rods and run.

One day it was all over, they all left, and we wondered at the quiet. Brisbane slept for years.

USS Chicago in Brisbane River (photo courtesy Ralph Munro)

John Thornton


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

Signalling Ships (with Kevin Mohr) – Part 2

Bishop Island

We used to communicate with the ships using a four-inch Aldis Light using Morse code. The Light had two triggers – the bottom trigger was to put the power on and the top trigger was to flick the light on and off. It was the same principle that the Navy used to communicate between ships except that the Navy blokes were faster than us. The Aldis Light was battery operated and we had a bank of batteries that we charged with a little diesel generator. It was very noisy and used to rattle the signal box when it was operating, but that’s all we had to communicate with in those days. We were linked up with Brisbane Harbour by radio. I think it was an old Bendix valve radio. There was a repeater station for it at the quarantine station at Lytton. We had set radio times between the pilot boat, Bishop Island, and the Port Office. These were all the people we could talk to – we couldn’t talk to ships. For ships we had to use the Aldis Light and Morse code.

Kevin Mohr with Aldis Light (photo Peter Ludlow)

We had tide signals too at Bishop Island. They were done with two red cones and a black ball in various combinations. At night they had coloured lights for the tide lights. When the Pile Light was knocked over in 1949 the signal station was transferred to Bishop Island in about 1952 or 3. It was only a temporary turnout there, but they still called the station at Bishop Island the Pile Light. The signals we used at Bishop Island were the same as the ones they used at the Pile Light. A red flag, for example, meant that the tide was rising. The signal station was at the western end of Bishop Island, and nearby were the three signalmen’s houses – the Ford, Tottenham, and Devonshire families. Tottenham was the third generation to work with Harbours and Marine – just on one hundred years. That was fairly common in those days. 

Bishop Island in May 1979

To get our tucker, we had wheelbarrows, which we used to take up to the jetty at the other end of the island. The track was all sand but when the tide was out, we’d go via the mud flats because the mud was a bit harder at low tide. Every Tuesday we’d go up for our provisions. Also at the other end of the island was a kiosk and we had quite a bit to do with the people who ran that for the tourists. Harry Sullivan and his family had it when we were there.

We used to get our meat off Redbank Meatworks in those days and they classed Bishop Island as overseas trade so we got the best quality meat. Water was always a problem and when our tanks would run dry, they’d send a ship tank full from Cairncross Dock for us. The women had it tough. Wood coppers and all. My wife hated every minute of it but she never complained. To pass the time she enrolled in a Correspondence school. It wasn’t a bad sort of life on Bishop Island – except for the mosquitoes. They were pretty savage. It was fairly primitive – all the lights were kerosene, there were wood combustion stoves, and wood coppers for washing. But it was a privilege to work for the old Harbours and Marine. They were good to work for, and there was a lot of loyalty there.

Ships used to go aground fairly regularly in fogs so they’d anchor when they got stuck in the mud. One day I was going back to Bishop Island in a thick fog and there was a coastal freighter stuck straight across the river at the Pelican Banks Cutting. When a ship went aground, they put ten black balls in a vertical line to show that they were not under command. At night they used two red lights. Such occurrences were a major problem for the port because they blocked the main channel. Depending on what the pilot wanted, they would contact us using Morse code by light, and we would then arrange tugs to come and pull them off or they would wait for the ship to float off with the tide.

The signalmen’s houses on Bishop Island came from Bulwer Island just across the river. Our house ended up being burnt down when a cat knocked over a kerosene lantern. The kitchen and bathroom were out the back but they couldn’t get enough water out of the tank.  So, someone got a shotgun and blew a hole in it. They got all the water they wanted but it went too quick! The houses were all flyscreened. They had a lot of louvers in those newer keepers’ houses but the noise from them at night with the wind would drive you mad. Also, when the China Navigation ships used to go past the island, the windows in our house used to rattle because the whole island was only built on mud dredged from the river. 

The signal station on Bishop Island closed in 1968. They couldn’t sell the Harbours and Marine houses there so they had to bulldoze them. They sent two signalmen to Caloundra and two to Lytton. There was little remaining of the signal station itself after the louts had got to it. 

After Bishop Island

I was on Bishop Island for three years, then they sent me to Townsville in charge of the explosives at Brook Hill. I was there for three years and by the time I got back, the Bishop Island Signal Station had closed and they had opened up at Lytton Hill. It was a modern facility for those days, it had radar and VHF radio – there was no Morse code. They opened the same type of set-up at Caloundra.  We talked to the ships by radio then. It’s all closed down now.

I had twelve years at Lytton Hill, and I went to Caloundra and had twelve years up there. This was at the lighthouse there. They still called us signalmen but we didn’t do any Morse code or signal with flags. It was all radio. Then in January 1992 they brought us all down to Whyte Island. I retired in 1997. 

At Whyte Island we still did pretty much the same thing. We used to report ships in. We had state of the art radar – we could identify a ship and give it a mark and that identification stayed with the ship to show us the course and speed of the ship right across the Bay. Basically, we just tracked ships and spoke to them. And we contacted the agent, tugs and line ships as before. Now Whyte Island has finished and they’re at the Harbours and Marine Depot Pinkenba. It’s just across the river. In the old Bishop Island and Cowan days you had to be within sight of a ship to signal it. I don’t know whether they can even see a ship now. That’s progress.

Kevin Mohr


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

Signalling Ships (with Kevin Mohr) – Part 1

I started work in Brisbane as day labour in a gang building the river training walls at Gibson and Bishop Islands. One of the people I met on Bishop Island said ‘Why don’t you learn Morse code and put in for a job at the signal station here.’ So, I did. But it was too big a jump job-wise to go straight from day labour to the signal station, so, to get a leg in, I went out to the Sandy Cape lighthouse and the Lady Elliott Lighthouse as a lighthouse keeper. I didn’t need any specialised training to be a lighthouse keeper. As long as I knew Morse code – that was the main requirement. So, I stayed out there for a year then re-applied for a job with the Department of Harbours and Marine. They welcomed me with open arms because then I wasn’t too far down the promotions ladder. I was employed as a signalman at Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River. Then I applied for relief work at the Cowan Signal Station. When its sole signalman, Harry Wadsworth, was going on leave they’d send one of us permanent signalmen from Bishop Island to Cowan and put a temporary signalman at Bishop Island. I relieved at Cowan in 1959,60,61,62.

Signalmans house and wartime searchlight pillbox Cowan Cowan (Photo courtesy Kevin Mohr)

My duties involved signalling the ships entering port. What happened in those days – and this was 1954 – was that the pilot steamers, the ‘new’ Matthew Flinders and the much older John Oxley (I think she was built about 1926) – were stationed at Point Cartwright near Mooloolaba. They’d be cruising off Point Cartwright and they’d put a pilot on the ship that was bound for the Port of Brisbane. Then Cape Moreton lighthouse would identify the ship as it passed the Fairway Buoy at Caloundra, then Cape Moreton would ring us at Cowan. An hour and a half later we’d get the ship passing Cowan and we’d report its progress across the Bay. It would carry on from there to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River. There were four signalmen at Bishop Island.

Modern day map of Moreton Bay

I went up to Cape Moreton lighthouse a couple of times. After the American Liberty ship Rufus King mistook Point Lookout for Cape Moreton during the war and went aground, it was decided to paint two red bands on the Cape Moreton lighthouse to prevent any further mistaken repetition. Cape Moreton is the worst lighthouse I’ve ever been on because it has a spiral staircase and when you get to the top, there is no flooring and you have to step out onto a vertical ladder with nothing between you and the ground floor far below. I never liked that – especially in the middle of the night when you’re half asleep.

Cowan Cowan

Although Cowan still had an old ex-army signal station from the war, we never used that. We had to signal from the front veranda of Harry and Jesse Wadsworth’s house next door. The house has been modernised now and is still there today. Harry and Jesse’s ashes are buried at the back of the house. The Wadsworth’s were a remarkable couple: Jesse Wadsworth went to Moreton in 1904. She was a good workhorse, which Harry used to play on. She used to get up at night for the ships while Harry kept sleeping. She even used to roll his cigarettes.

We had no visitors while we were stationed at Cowan, but Jesse and Harry always did. Harry used to take them fishing. These included officials such as Sir Henry Abel Smith, the Governor, and the Treasurer, Tom Hiley. Sometimes when I had finished my relief duties at Cowan, I had to wait for the pilot boat to take me back to Bishop Island so I’d go fishing with Harry. He had a 12-foot wooden dinghy and some of those sharks we caught were longer than the dinghy. Some of the snapper we caught were so large that we could only fit two of them to a corn sack.  There were fishing places Harry took me that he wouldn’t take the Governor. ‘They poke and they pry,’ he said, ‘but I don’t tell them.’ Harry had secret fishing spots that were small sandstone reefs. I don’t know how he ever found them himself but he had plenty of time to look, and he must have got some inside information from his father-in-law who was there before him. Vandals burnt down the lighthouse at Cowan. It had been automatic since 1926. I think they only kept the signal station going for Harry and when he retired, they closed it.

The ships entering port had to come within a couple of miles of Cowan and when they came within range of the Aldis Light we’d signal them ‘What name?’ and then we’d ring the launch and the tugs. The tugs then were up in Mary Street at AUSN and Howard Smith’s. They were all coal burners – the ForcefulFearlessCarlock and Coringa.  After the ship crossed the Bay, the next signal station it encountered would be Bishop Island who would also signal them in Morse to identify themselves. When the ships passed Bishop Island, we’d ring the tugs at Mary Street, the ship’s agent, the wharf, the Wright’s launches, and the Water Police with the ship’s ETA (estimated time of arrival). I think Howard Smith’s operate the Wright’s launches now. These vessels are the line launches that run the lines from the ship to the shore.

Kevin Mohr


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

Bulimba (with Bob Spencer)

Early Settlers

            The native name of Bulimba was “Tugulawah” (heart shaped). The first European settler was David Cannon McConnell who built Bulimba House in 1850 at the end of Bulimba Point. The house was built of grey freestone, obtained from the Black Ball Quarry – a site later occupied by Baynes Brothers, as a meat works known as Queensport. McConnell grew maize and oats as fodder for his cattle, which he imported for his pastoral holding he had taken up at Cressbrook.

Bulimba House as it appeared in 2004

In 1887 Edward Griffith, the manager of the Royal Bank of Queensland, acquired Bulimba House. Bulimba House is the oldest stone house still standing in Brisbane. (State Library of Queensland)

            McConnell had planned to make Bulimba his home, but found the climate unsuitable for his wife, who was in poor health. Donald Coutts then bought the Bulimba property, and after cultivating it for some years, cut some of it up into small blocks and auctioned them in 1864. When Coutts died the remaining property was sold to Thorpe Riding who cut it up into 4 ha and 5 ha farms that were sold and worked for many years.

            The only practical way to Brisbane was by boat, and the Bulimba Ferry dates from 1864 and was operated by John Watson, a boat-builder by trade, who also built Fort Lytton near the mouth of the Brisbane River. He also built the Mercantile Wharf on the bank opposite his home at Bulimba.

Map of Bulimba in 1875

            The earliest settlers at Bulimba grew mainly vegetables and maize, but in 1856 bananas were planted, and by 1862 they became the principal crop. At about this time, sugar cane growing was introduced with the first sugar being crushed by the floating sugar mill named Walrus, which steamed along Bulimba Creek and later the Brisbane River. Later, with the introduction of steam powered crushing mills, the Walrus went out of existence as a sugar mill, but later became established as a distillery. Walrus Rum was well known in the late 1860s.

            Later as the sugar industry expanded, more land was required for growing the cane, and the industry gradually transferred from the Bulimba area up along the Queensland coast.

Boat Builders

            As a young man, Norman Reginald Wright had spent some time with his parents on a mixed farm on Coochiemudlo Island in Moreton Bay. The venture proved to be unsuccessful and the family returned to Brisbane where Norman worked for the firm of Laycock-Littledykes. However, due to an accident, he suffered a hand wound and was unable to work for several weeks, and during this period he spent most of his time at the boat shed of John Hawkins Whereat at McConnell Street. It was here that he decided to enter the boat building business and applied successfully for a job with Whereat’ s. During his employment at Whereat’s, Wright designed and built ‘out of cedar picked up in the mangroves on Peel Island and scraps’ the ten-footer Commonwealth with which he won many sailing championships.

            In the off season, fishing trips in George Crouch’s fishing boats to the sand hills on Moreton Island never failed to secure ample supplied of fish. (The Crouch Brothers, fishermen, arrived from Botany Bay early in 1865 and later bought land on the river bank at Bulimba).

            In 1909 Norman Wright commenced business on his own account initially at Newstead. However, a Brisbane City Council decision to resume the water frontage caused the removal to Bulimba.

            With the outbreak of World War II, the Bulimba boatbuilding industry shifted to wartime construction and contributed all types of craft from small motorboats to coastal patrol boats, with the Fairmiles being the best known.

            Just as Norman Wright owed a debt to John Whereat for his start in boatbuilding, so too did he pass on his skills to many other boatbuilders, initially to the likes of Jack McCleer, Roy Bliss, Charlie Crowley, the Tripcony’s, and Lance Watts, who in turn continued the tradition as the Bulimba boatbuilding industry continued to evolve to the present today.

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