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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

BRISBANE.

Sir,

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,

Matron.

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.