(Noel Agnew, Peel Island Lazaret)

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. . .

occasionally visits us in twos and threes….

Extract from Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection’.

The Agnew Family Outdoors at Dunwich c1920 (Noel is sitting at the table)

2 thoughts on “THE MOST SOLITARY MAN

  1. Did you right this Ian? What a sad piece, beautifully written. As an island resident myself, with many of the same wildlife visiting my own yard every day. I somehow felt a connection to Noel. To think he was to endure such a tragic and very cruel end for any human being as many with this affliction do. Enjoyed this read very much

    Liked by 1 person

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