People of Peel Island – 6 – Elbert (‘Bert’) Cobb

Bert Cobb was an American by birth but when he was aged nine came to Australia with his parents and two sisters. During World War I he became a flying officer with in the Royal Air Force in England during which he acquired a cultured accent. Bert returned to Australia after the war and 1922 records show that he held two pastoral leases in the Northern Territory. 

Before his admission to the Channel Island Leprosarium (off Darwin) in about 1940 he had worked as a manager for a gold mine for many years in the Northern Territory.  When Darwin was bombed, the Leprosarium patients were transferred to either Peel Island or Sydney’s Little Bay Leprosarium.  Bert came to Peel Island. He kept a loaded revolver in his hut to defend himself in case the Japanese arrived on the island.

For many years Bert Cobb had been troubled with painful eyes (iritis) and failing eyesight, finally going completely blind in 1946.  His leprosy also left him with disfigured hands, which were also devoid of feeling.  His nurse Rosemary Fielding observed that when he wanted to feel something he would do so with his lips.

At Peel, after his blindness, he was cared for by an orderly, Bill Fleetwood, a quiet man (unlike some of his alcoholic comrades), who also used to write letters for him.  Bert once told Rosemary that Bill was the perfect ‘gentleman’s gentleman’.  Another letter writer for Bert was Miss Howard, a social worker who used to visit the island every two weeks.  Bert trusted her and always kept the day free for her. 

He could be a charming man, especially with the ladies, but was also very intolerant.  He was a dreadful snob, supercilious, and scathing.  He had a growl of disgust, which could be very disconcerting. He was fussy about who came into his hut.  A well-educated and intelligent man, he loved people to read to him (after he went blind). 

The other patients respected him because he had been one of the founding members of the Patients’ Committee – formed by the patients to obtain better conditions.  He was a ‘stirrer’, and his education and legal knowledge were useful when it came to partitioning the government and newspapers and anyone else (they sent hundreds of letters all bashed out on an old typewriter).

Bert guarded his past very closely and did not want to be buried with any ceremony.  However, when he did die of toxaemia on May 30, 1959 (just a month before the Leprosarium on Peel Island closed down) someone did put an Australian flag over his coffin because he had served in WWI.

Peter Ludlow

From material supplied by Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) and Bert’s great nephew, Dudley M.Cobb

Nurse Rosemary Fielding’s painting of Bert Cobb

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