William Edward Burns (Senior) was born in Stockport, England in 1858, and at the age of 16 he migrated to Australia. He later married Elizabeth Caroline Shire and they settled on a farm at Burns Flat, Mount Cotton. (This is just down the opposite side of the road from where the Sirromet winery is presently situated).
Much later, they moved to live at Cleveland (opposite the present Star of the Sea Church). They had nine children, two girls, Elizabeth and Florence, and seven sons, three of whom – Fred, Bob, and Sam – were described as having a ‘larrikin’ streak in them, while their other brothers were very ‘straight laced’. 2
Of the Burns brothers, George William, a carpenter then aged 29, and Robert Wallace, a farmer aged 21, enlisted for service in the AIF on 24 January 1916 and they were given the service numbers of 5303 and 5304 respectively. Their rate of pay was then 5/- (50 cents) per day. Both enrolled as Privates in the 25th Battalion and embarked for active service from Brisbane aboard HMAT ‘Itonus’ A50 on 8 August 1916.
The last time his father saw George was when he was driven on his brother’s bicycle down to the Cleveland Central train station to join the AIF, for George died on 11 March 1917 of wounds received in action while fighting on the Western Front in France and is buried in the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension, Dernancourt, Picardie, France. He posthumously received the British War Medal, and Victory Medal.
Robert’s fate was more fortunate. After serving in France and Belgium, he returned to Australia 1 July 1919 and settled back to life as a farmer. Bob’s farm was situated in Cleveland between Queen, Middle, and Island Streets).
Sources of information:
(1) National Archives of Australia
(2) Keith Burns (son of Sam Burns)
(3) Betty Burns (wife of Doug Burns, one of William Burns Senior’s grandchildren)
He came to the Peel Island Lazaret when it first opened in 1907. In fact, it was because of him that it opened there at all. Noel Agnew had been a gregarious child. He liked people. He liked to entertain them. His father was the postmaster at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island. Besides its population of aborigines and sundry fishing families, Dunwich had also long been home to Brisbane’s social outcasts: the Benevolent Asylum for the aged and infirm, epileptics, alcoholics, and since 1892, a lazaret for leprosy patients.
At concerts which were arranged for the amusement of these people, the young Noel Agnew was wont to perform. They nicknamed him “Laddie”. When the leprosy symptoms appeared on his skin – the familiar purple spot – there was general consternation amongst the Dunwich folk. Noel Agnew had shattered the belief that the Lazaret, which adjoined the Benevolent Asylum, was sufficiently isolated to render its patients harmless. Consequently, the Lazaret with its 17 patients was transferred to Peel – that tiny tree clad island 2.5 kilometers from Dunwich.
Noel Agnew was one of the patients. . .
Peel was a beautiful island, a tree clad crown ringed by coral reefs swarming with an abundance of life. A brilliant arc of sand stretched along its entire south coast, while thick mangrove swamps ringed the rest of the island with acres of secret places for birds to nest, crabs to hide, and fish to spawn. Peel was a paradise, but to the leprosy patients incarcerated there, Peel was a prison, a life sentence for incurables.
Perhaps there was some communal reassurance to be had from fellow patients, be they aborigines, white Australians, Chinese, Kanakas, or Europeans: after all they did share the same disease. But life at the settlement was in the main dull and restrictive. So many people from so many cultural backgrounds confined in such a small area for so long.
There had to be some relief.
Noel Agnew found his in the bird life which frequented the island. Peel was strangely devoid of animal life, save for snakes and wallabies, but birds were everywhere to be found. Their calls woke him each morning, beckoned him from his human condition, and sang as he entered their kingdom. Even his gnarled hands seemed to blend with the mangrove roots he grasped while watching the Egret wade the swamps. He was part of nature where right and wrong did not matter. He communed with Nature instead of men.
Because of his continuous residency of the island, Noel Agnew was able to compile a comprehensive list of his bird sightings. . .
Curlew (Numenius cyanopus) – common. Seen on sand-banks at low tide.
Black duck (Anas superciliosa) – common at times. Shooting parties have frightened most of these birds away. Nests have been found. . .
In all, he identified 76 species of birds. These were published in the R.A.O.U. journal “The Emu” in 1913, his seventh year on Peel. A further list was published in 1921, his fifteenth year..
Boobook Owl (Ninox boobook) – common. Their “more pork” like cry is heard nearly every night. When out in mangroves I surprised a pair. Nests here…
However, as time progressed, so did the condition of his leprosy.
Some of his fellow patients showed no symptoms at all, others showed symptoms in various forms: skin nodules, loss of eyebrows and ear lobes, areas of numbness, nerve pain, intractable foot ulcers, the softening of the bones in fingers and toes, thus necessitating their removal. It was only in the very few that leprosy ran its full course. Noel Agnew was one of the very few.
With the passing of the years, the leprosy attacked his optic nerves and his sight gradually failed to complete blindness. The nerves in his 1imbs, too, were attacked, with their resulting terrible contractions and deformities. Even from his fellow leprosy patients, Noel Agnew became an object to be pitied. The most solitary of the solitary.
With his birdwatching days now only distant memories, Noel Agnew’s world became his tiny one roomed wooden hut. He couldn’t even help himself to the toilet. When he required help, he would belt on the wall and roar like an animal until someone came. At night, other patients would sleep on the floor beside him in case he needed help. They were paid for their labours. Sometimes, someone read to him.
Leprosy rarely kills its host; it respects life’s longevity, but not its quality. On Noel Agnew, leprosy bestowed its worst curse. At the end, his only world was inside his head. He died in 1937, his thirtieth year on the island. To him goes the dubious honour of being Peel’s longest resident. He was buried in the island’s small cemetery in an unmarked grave, recorded in a Register which was later lost.
All that remains today are his bird lists, but to wade through the mangroves on a quiet day, it’s easy to imagine him still crouching amongst the roots, whispering as he scribbles in his journal. . .
Australian Egret (Herodias syrmatophorus) rare. This bird. . .
In 1999, the death occurred of “Alex”, a former patient of Peel whose remembrances are featured in many pages of “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” In the 1990s I was fortunate enough to accompany him on two return visits to his former place of internment. His last visit was 60 years after his first admission there! Here are some of the comments made on his visits to the Island in the 1990s:
* When I first arrived at Peel in 1936, the present Ranger’s house was occupied by Superintendent Goldsworthy, Deputy Superintendent Jack Carling, and the housekeeper, Mrs Snow. It was out of bounds to myself and the other patients. This visit was the first time I had been allowed to enter the house. Nurse Dwyer then occupied the (later) Superintendent’s house.
* The hospital extensions at the rear came from Dunwich when the Benevolent Asylum was moved to Sandgate. I think the Recreation hall, too, came from Dunwich. So too did the horses (“Dolly” and “Podge”), the mower, and the grader.
* Superintendent Goldsworthy was nicknamed “Old Goldie” by the patients. When Goldie drove the dray to the jetty, he used to let “Dolly” plod along at a painfully slow pace.
* The billiard table was donated by the masons, and when Peel closed, it was moved to S12 at the Princess Alexandra Hospital.
* There was never any hut on Lovers’ Island (Cucumber Point). However, when the men took the ladies out fishing to the Rainbow channel, they would call in there to boil the billy for lunch, and to have some time together in private.
*Another patient, George, often fished with me, and was adept at spearing fish.
*During my time on the island, there were no married couples there, however, two patients did marry in the lazaret church.
*After wind blows, the patients used to search the mangroves for boats which had broken loose from their moorings in other parts of the bay. I had four dinghies, only one of which I had to buy.
*A patient, Moore, owned a motorbike that he used to ride around the island.
*I won the contract from another patient to fill in the holes along the track from the settlement to the stone jetty.
*Jack Howard was a patient who had a hut near the cement circle next to the rec hall. His initials are still in the cement.
*The patients called the quarry near the wooden jetty “The Red Hill”.
*The trolley and tramlines at the patients’ jetty came from the stone jetty.
*Some of the patients (myself included) kept beehives which they stocked by raiding natural hives in the bush for their queen bees.
*”Old John” was a blind patient who had once been a bullocky from Cooktown. The other patients had rigged up a wire from his hut to the toilet, and as he felt his way along it, he used to swear all the way.
*There was a ship’s square steel tank in the bush on the way to Lover’s Island. The patients used to cut pieces out for use as centreboards for their boats.
*After the men’s rec hut was burnt, dances were held in that patient’s hut which was later converted into the Roman Catholic church.
*Dubs (toilets) were emptied once a week using the horse and dray.
*During the war (WWII), a yank ship was wrecked off Amity, and its supply of coffee was washed ashore.
*Oregon timber was readily available on the beach (as driftwood).
*Keith Spencer’s grandfather planted the trees on Bird Island. When I was on Peel, Bird was tree-less. Also, there was no roof or partition in the jail. These must have been put in later as a holiday house for a patient. The door was there, however. There were no trees around the jail, only grass, yellow flowers, and daisies. The shape of the previous quarantine gardens could still be seen from the position of the flowers. The heather growing in the area was thought to have been brought originally from overseas by the quarantined migrants. The Public Works Department built a shed at the stone jetty for the patients to entertain their relatives.
*Sylvia was a HD patient who died of Bright’s Disease.
*Coloured and white patients were buried in their own areas in the cemetery (whites closest to the road; coloureds to the back).
*Two young Aboriginal girls were locked up at night by Matron O’Brien, but the young male Aborigines got to them by dislodging the floorboards of their hut.
*Me and my friend George used to go for morning tea to Myra’s hut (the one with traces of lattice still remaining). George and Myra were lovers.
*I obtained sheets from the store and made sails for my dinghy from them. (I put eyelets in them).
*Twice a year, patients were able to obtain catalogue orders from T.C.Beirne’s. Jimmy Kangaroo would wear his new shirt until it dropped off.
*A white patient named Keogh was very musical and a comedian. He taught the “darkies” (as we used to call the Aboriginal patients in those days) how to play musical instruments, and they formed a brass band.
*I went out on the mudflats below the embankment to obtain oysters, and small crabs and worms to use as bait.
*Milk was obtained from the dairy at Dunwich as well as bread. Sides of beef were boned at the settlement. The kitchen was called “Cockroach Castle”. The ovens still in the bush were from the kitchen.
*Huts were fumigated for bed bugs by Matron O’Brien by putting Condy’s crystals in a saucer and adding ?? She also tried dosing the patients with creosote as a possible cure for HD.
*The patients built a hut for their visitors at the quarantine station.
*Going up the back stairs at the surgery, the two rooms on the left were the original ones. The others were added on at later stages.
*Sukiman and Gumbung were two Indonesian patients who were transferred to Peel during the war from Channel Island near Darwin.
Instead of the expected mere motor launch to take us across Moreton Bay on that long-ago morning, getting readied for leaving the wharf on the Brisbane River was a real “ship”, the SS Ormiston of the A.U.S.N. Line. We stepped aboard. She had her ship-of-the-line markings on the funnel, maybe three deck levels and an air of consequence, of having sailed across diverse seas – not just up and down the old, slow Brisbane River! That trip, calculated to have been on Thursday, 22nd April, 1943, when I was seven and accompanied by my grandmother and sister, was not a trip soon forgotten and neither was the opportunity it made of, seemingly, taking to the high seas aboard the SS Ormiston.
The Ormiston had been purchased, in 1936, by an Australian shipping company to sail the pre-war coastal routes from Cairns to Melbourne as a freighter and a cruise ship. Built in 1922 in the United Kingdom, and first named the Famaka, the ship was previously owned by an Egyptian steamship company and had sailed from Alexandria and ports around the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Maybe some aura of exotic places, of imagined mysteries of the East and illicit trysts by the ghosts of double agents still clung around its gangways; though, in the ‘thirties, the Ormiston was transporting tripping Australian honeymooners and bags of raw sugar.
That was until the onset of the Second World War. Australian merchant vessels were requisitioned by the government to give priority to war purposes. Passenger cabin accommodation on this steamer was closed down; records show the Ormiston received the “stiffening” of paravanes and degaussing gear for anti-submarine and for mines protection. Japanese submarines were operating and lurked off the waters of the Queensland coast.
For me, that Thursday, the week before Easter, I was excited to go aboard: to watch the sight of the sea between us and the wharf becoming wider and wider, to listen to the ship’s horn hoot, informing of leaving its moorings. Next to hear thick, thick mooring ropes drop, screws start turning faster as our vessel eased out from her berth to head down river.
This, though, was a war-time voyage. An indication that unseen submarines might try to infiltrate and cause havoc on the Brisbane River was the nets that I remember had to be first lowered so that our ship could sail through and out into Moreton Bay.
What, though, made this trip memorable for me?
I have this near-faded recollection of being led along the Ormiston’s companionway. Grandma was taking us to morning tea. I recall a sign painted in gold letters on the bulkhead. Was it really in gold lettering? The word was certainly “saloon” – with its “oo”. It was a word I had not read before. I picture it in my mind’s eye still. We step over into the entrance and into the compartment labelled as the Ormiston’s “saloon”. There are deep, blue-coloured curtains over the portholes with their polished brass rims; the tables have white tablecloths. It is so different from any space I have entered before. There is a stern-looking steward in a white jacket. He need not be concerned. My behaviour will be exemplary. I believe we may have been served scones.
That was my memory of the SS Ormiston of the A.U.S.N. shipping line. It had stayed with me. Really, only this memory lingered.
About twenty years ago, I was at the La Trobe Library in Melbourne and I asked if they had any texts, documents on the SS Ormiston. They held a copy of the history of the A.U.S.N., From Derby Round to Burketown by N.L. McKellar and various company documents were available. That shipping line had been the owner of the SS Ormiston. Among the material on the company was a Voyage Book where there was listed the trips and cargo of the Ormiston. I searched through and found what I felt was the date of our trip to Bribie Island. I checked the date against the cargo. That cargo was ordnance! It made sense as on the ocean side of the island, two big fortification gun batteries had been built. They were part of the major defense against any Japanese invasion of Brisbane. Nana, Rossie and I had sat happily above a goodly quantity of high explosives – all unaware.
The threat of submarine attack with ships, crews and passengers suffering direct assaults was very real. Our trip to Bribie Island was on the 22nd April, 1943, and on the 24th April (two days later) about 150 kilometers north and out from Fraser Island a ship, the Kowarra, was torpedoed and sank with the loss of 21 lives. The Ormiston, too, was later torpedoed on the 12th May, out from Coffs Harbour, NSW. One torpedo pierced near the port bow; water gushing in to hold No. 1 while the bulkhead to hold No.2 buckled, but held. A second torpedo collided with the ship master’s stout iron bathtub in his cabin. An anti-submarine Naval Auxiliary Patrol boat with armaments came to assist the Ormiston which limped to Sydney for repairs. The crew had moved its cargo of sugar and tallow and that had been rammed against the buckling bulkhead. There it held. Evidently it was a perfect strategy. The Ormiston was saved.
However, the worst war-time tragedy occurred on the 24th May, some days later, out from Caloundra (80 kms from Brisbane) when the hospital ship, all brightly lit, painted white and with very visible red crosses, the AHS Centaur, was torpedoed with 332 passengers and crew killed and only 64 rescued. The captain of the naval patrol boat mentioned above wrote in a naval history site that he believed those last two attacks were linked. And there has always been absolutely unsubstantiated hearsay that the Centaur was carrying ordnance.
The waters around Moreton Bay in those months of 1943 were dangerous.
Why was the mundane running of a week-day ferry trip replaced by a freighter handed over to the navy for war purposes if not to send in armaments for the gun emplacements at Ocean Beach, Bribie Island? Anyway, morning tea in the Saloon of the SS Ormiston was a remembered occasion for a little girl who that day had a glimpse that the world held variety and could be an interesting place.
*be hoist by one’s own petard (also be hoist with one’s own petard) have one’s plans to cause trouble for others backfire on one. [from Shakespeare’s Hamlet; hoist is in the sense ‘lifted and removed’,