Stories from Peel Island – 8 – Arson at the Lazaret

Buildings at the Peel Island Lazaret (white men’s compound) as they appeared in 1907)

Peel Island Lazaret

The Secretary,                                                                                     2nd January, 1941.

Dept. of Public Health



I have to report that the Recreation Room with all the contents were destroyed by fire early yesterday morning, 1st January, 1941.

I awoke at 1.50 a.m. at the sound of the crackle of fire and on looking out saw fire coming through the wall from the left hand corner of the recreation room, where the Pianola was standing.

N.S., a hospital patient, awakened about the same time as I and he called to the attendant C.Byrnes, who immediately ran over and called the other members of the staff.

The fire had enveloped the whole of the Recreation Room by 2 a.m. and was spreading rapidly towards the Billiard Room at one end and the Dining Room at the other, and it looked as if the whole of the block would have gone.

The whole staff worked magnificently also some of the patients and by 3.15 a.m. had the fire under control having only lost the Recreation Room and one Bathroom.

The patients headed by T.W. and R. M. removed the table and furniture from the Billiard Room and carried water for the staff who had to use buckets as the water pressure as too low for the hoses.

The reason for this we discovered when the fire was a little under, was that two large water taps in the building had been turned on.

            One of these taps could not be turned off without the aid of pliers as the top had been removed.

            This was so obviously a case of arson that I got in communication with the Dunwich Police as soon as I could, and Mr. Sands (in charge) came over and investigated, he (the constable) is returning this morning to take statements from patients and staff.

Inventory of Property destroyed in the Recreation Room.

1 Pianola                                             4 Large forms (with backs)                1 Table Tennis Set

1 Piano stool                                       6 Cane Lounge Chairs                        1 Croquet Set

250 Pianola Rolls                                1 Punching Ball                                  2 Tennis Rackets

2 Large tables.                                    1 Petrel (sic) Lamp.                            Books (about 200).

It was absolutely impossible to save any of this property.     

Yours respectfully,

(Sgd) A.O’Brien,


2nd Jan., 1941.

Flames soon consumed the Recreation Room at the Lazaret

Further to the Matron’s letter, when I interviewed patient ‘Alex’ for my book, ‘Peel Island – Paradise or Prison’ he added this comment:

‘Each Christmas, it was the custom for the men to decorate their recreation hall for the season’s festivities. As well as the usual paper streamers etc, this involved the cutting of various eucalypts from the surrounding bush to be used as Christmas trees. This hall contained the new piano and during the festive season there was even more carousing and singing than normal. One year in the early 1940s, Christmas came and went but the decorations were left up for some weeks afterwards, and all the cut eucalypts in the hall became tinder dry. One night, without warning, the hall caught fire, and although the alarm was raised, without water there was nothing anyone could do to extinguish the blaze. 

‘The cause of the fire was never known, but many suspected the blaze to be deliberately lit by a reclusive couple of patients whose huts were adjacent to the hall and who were known to be annoyed by the noise of the singing and piano playing of the Christmas revellers. It would have been an easy matter to set a match to the dried eucalyptus leaves in the hall and escape before the fire took hold.’

Peel Island Lazaret’s New Recreation Hall c.1955 (photo courtesy Dr Morgan Gabriel)

The Recreation Room was not replaced until 1945 when a new Recreation Hall was opened by Dr Eric Reye on Nov 3rd.

Post War Brisbane

To the left Eagle Street to the right trams running up and down Queen Street 1962 (Qld State Archives)

When I grew up in post WWII Brisbane, it had the reputation of being ‘Australia’s biggest country town’. I don’t know what contributed to this idea: perhaps it was its laid-back lifestyle, a lack of restaurants, no nightlife (apart from ‘going to the pictures’), its overall lack of sewerage, streets almost deserted of road traffic jams, with many roads of bitumen down the middle and dirt to the gutters. Brisbane was largely a city of branch offices with Sydney and Melbourne vying for their headquarters. 

Then came along Clem Jones as our Lord Mayor and he transformed Brisbane into a modern city with the introduction of fully sewered housing, fully bituminised roads, the abolition of trams and trolley buses to name just a few of his many accomplishments. 

Then Brisbane hosted the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the 1988 World Expo. Both these events helped to catapult our city onto the world stage. 

Brisbane has never looked back since then. Unfortunately, our very liveable city has become too popular and traffic chokes our streets. The pace of life has picked up and competition is keen. But I guess that is the price we pay for success.

Pregnant Pause

Our Queensland Symphony Orchestra

Back in my very early days, when Brisbane had the reputation of being Australia’s biggest country town, I enjoyed attending the Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s Youth Concert Series. These were especially designed to introduce us into the music and etiquette of classical music. Now I stress the word etiquette because there were certain standards of behaviour to which a live audience was expected to adhere: no talking during the performance, no coughing, no shuffling of restless feet, no leaving before the end. But the biggest demand of etiquette was: do not applaud until the music has actually finished.

For example, many symphonies are divided up into four movements with a pause of several seconds between each section. With rare exceptions, the four movements of a symphony conform to a standardized pattern. The first movement is brisk and lively; the second is slower and more lyrical; the third is an energetic minuet (dance) or a boisterous scherzo (“joke”); and the fourth is a rollicking finale. The conductor may even explain this pattern to his youthful audience, just prior to the performance. But what he does not explain is the pause between each section, during which break the audience may cough, shuffle, or look at their programmes, but, under no circumstances, clap.

Of course, being youthful and inexperienced, the audience would sometimes forget to be restrained and break out into spontaneous applause, myself included. The conductor would ignore us with his back turned and simply wait until the clapping had ceased before commencing the next section of the music. 

To me though, the end of a section would often be the most dramatic, especially for the conductor – would we, or wouldn’t we? Of course, it wouldn’t have worried Beethoven in later life when he was conducting his own works: he was stone deaf and would have gone on conducting whether the audience was listening or not.

Will they or won’t they?

Where’s Toondah? – Part 2 

Toondah Harbour in 2021

Whence Cassim?

John Cassim was a Mauritian Indian, whom it appears was transported to Moreton Bay in 1840. He had received a seven-year sentence, and was amongst a group of Mauritian convicts who were transported to Sydney via the Layton early in 1840 (Mauritius had been occupied by the British since 1810). In April 1840 fifteen of these men, including Cassim, were sent on to Moreton Bay, which was soon to be opened for free settlement, apparently to conduct experiments in sugar growing. Sugar was the principal Mauritian cash crop at this period, and was exported regularly to New South Wales. Presumably, the Mauritian convicts were considered to have had some experience in the sugar industry.

Cassim received a ticket-of-leave (conditional pardon) at Moreton Bay in February 1844. By 1851, John and his wife, Mary, were operating a boarding house at Kangaroo Point, which they maintained until late 1855. Then From late 1855 to mid-1860 the Cassims leased Cleveland House (now the Grandview Hotel), and an adjacent dwelling, from pastoralist Francis Edward Bigge. These buildings had been erected at Cleveland in the early 1850s as part of Bigge’s unsuccessful push to establish Cleveland as the principal port of the Moreton Bay region.

About 1860, Cassim erected his Cleveland Hotel on an allotment adjacent to Cleveland House (now the Grand View).

Cassim’s Cleveland Hotel ca.1871

The Cassims were well-known and respected Cleveland identities and devout Catholics, whose hotel not only was synonymous with Cleveland as a seaside resort, but also served as a mass centre from the early 1860s until the construction of the first Catholic church at Cleveland in 1877. John was a trustee of the local church in the 1870s and 1880s, and would not accept payment from any priest staying at the hotel. Cassim’s Island, in Moreton Bay, is named after him.

Grand View from Cassims today (2021)

(Condensed from the Queensland Heritage Register)