During a recent visit to Greenslopes Private Hospital, I paid a called in to ‘The Bunker’ – the hospital’s museum residing in one of the two original air-raid shelters established during WWII. The entry of Japan into WWII at the end of 1941 saw the hospital, then known as 112 Australian General Hospital (112 AGH), become virtually a front-line hospital. There was a real possibility of Japanese bombing raids on Brisbane and this air raid shelter was one of two added to accommodate patients and hospital staff.
It all started in 1940 with the plan for a hospital that could accommodate 600 patients, an administrative block, pavilion style blocks for the wards and two brick buildings. One of the brick buildings was to house Australian Army Medical Corps Officers and the other for Sisters and Officers of the women’s services. In November 1940 Theiss Brothers started the first excavations of the site and worked 24 hours a day until the excavation of the Administration Building was complete. The earth removed was used to build up the terraces on the hillside on which the three ward blocks were to be built. During 1942, fearful of a Japanese invasion, work stopped on the Administration Building and the centre terrace (wards 7 to 13). When Ward 7 was completed the first patients to occupy it were wounded Japanese prisoners of war. By 1944 the Administration Building and wards 14 to 19 were completed.
The vessel ‘Marion’ was owned by Hector Tripcony and like many other small craft during World War II it was requisitioned by the Navy in July 1942.
Hector was not impressed when he heard rumours that the Navy was going to compulsory acquire his boat so he hid her in mangroves at the mouth of the Brisbane River (somewhere in the Boat Passage) but this was to no avail. The navy also took his tender which was equipped with a Johnson outboard motor, a prized possession at the time.
After the War ‘Marion’ was taken over by Qld Department of Harbours and Marine
in 1946 and used as a Survey Vessel with the surveyors and crew living on board for up to 3 weeks at a time. She was renamed ‘Ferret’ and was used in surveying almost all Queensland ports and made regular trips north into the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Eventually she was declared beyond reasonable repair, with the stem and keel eaten out and around 1973 she was donated to the Maritime Museum at South Brisbane. It is understood that the Maritime Museum removed the echo sounder and subsequently burnt the vessel.
Marion was equipped with mainsail and headsail and on one occasion Hector and a fishing party were outside deep-sea fishing and they had engine trouble so the vessel was navigated across the South Passage Bar and back to Breakfast Creek entirely under sail. Such were the lessons in seamanship and self-reliance, learned from his father Con Tripcony and Grandfather Thomas Martin Tripcony that this was considered an unremarkable event.
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.
From material supplied by Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) and Bert’s great nephew, Dudley M.Cobb
My first contact with Sister Mercia Mary was in 1986 while I was writing “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” – my history of the Lazaret (Leprosarium) that had been in operation in Moreton Bay between 1907 and 1959. In a pleasant and informative afternoon with her and fellow Sisters of Mercy, Sister Mary Conrad and Sister Mary St. Rita I was to learn of the Nun’s great compassion for their fellow humans.
Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) patients had been treated at the Mater Hospital and their blood smears had been processed in the Mater’s Pathology Department. It was through these contacts that the link to the patients at Peel Island was established. Not being content to treat these people as mere numbers in a waiting room or initials on a list of blood samples, the Sisters of Mercy led by Sister Mercia Mary made it their business to visit them on their island. This was a bold step because of the public neuroses that the stigma of Leprosy engendered.
The extent of such public neurosis can be gauged from Sister Mary St Rita’s account of a Hansen’s suspect in a crowded waiting room at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital in the late 1940s. The nodules had already become obvious on the man’s face when he entered the room, and one of the other patients thought he recognised the disease. Word quickly got around the waiting room, and the Sister was surprised to find when she called for the next patient that the crowded waiting room was suddenly empty – except for the Hansen’s patient who was then diagnosed and sent on to Peel Island.
For several years at Christmas, the Sisters of Mercy from the Mater Hospital visited the Lazaret on Peel Island and distributed presents. These included Sister Mercia Mary, and Sister Mary St Rita. Their main fear was not of contracting Hansen’s Disease but of getting their cloaks wet as they stepped off the boat.
I am told by one of the patients that they would often forsake lunch with the other staff on the verandah and spend the time talking with a patient, Bert Cobb, in his hut. Bert was a well educated man, an atheist, but always ready for a discussion. The Sisters of Mercy were always ready to oblige.
Most recently just before Christmas 2005, at a book-signing in the city for my re-release of “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison?” a former Mater Pathology Scientist told me more about Sister Mercia Mary’s devotion to the Hansen’s Disease patients. For the matter didn’t end in 1959 when the Peel Island Lazaret was closed down and the remaining dozen patients were transferred to Ward S12 at the South Brisbane Hospital (now the Princess Alexandra Hospital). It would have been easy to forget the patients now that they were no longer isolated, but each Christmas Sister Mercia Mary would still make up a Christmas Hamper for each of the Hansen’s patients and would personally deliver them to Ward S12.
Another story about Sister Mercia Mary that I really like, and which illustrates her practical devotion to humanity through the philosophy of the Sisters of Mercy, is supplied by Ron Pope. In Mercia’s time before a Blood Bank had been set up, doctors were not nearly as readily available around any hospital as they are today. In order to fill a small part of that vacuum, Mercia trained in venipuncture and then could always be called upon to take blood from a donor. One of her early nursing associates recalls, with some humour, accompanying Mercia to Boggo Road jail with her trusty sterile flask, stirring rod and other paraphernalia, relieving a jail warder of the required amount of blood and bringing it back for a Mater patient!
(Editor: Moreton Bay has always been a popular boaties’ escape from the confines of life in up-river Brisbane. It was a chance to ‘get lost’ for a holiday without the cares of its business world. To be uncontactable. It was also not without its risks, as the moods of Moreton Bay were unpredictable. Such was the experience of William Gillespie Moffat who with his brother, James Campbell Moffat, owned a Drug Store (Moffat Brothers) on Edward Street, Brisbane at the time.)
THE LATE BOAT ACCIDENT (12 May 1882)
A MAGISTERIAL inquiry relating to the late boat accident at the mouth of the Brisbane River was commenced before Colonel Ross on Monday, and resumed yesterday. In all, four witnesses have been examined, and their testimony is to the following effect:-A party, consisting of William Gillespie Moffat and son, James Phelan, Wilfred Bartley, Robert Waine, E. S. Diggles, and Alfred Edwards, started in the Native, a boat belonging to Mr. James Edwards, of Kangaroo Point, from Mr. Edwards’s shed at 4 o clock on Saturday afternoon on a fishing excursion to Mud Island.
They reached their destination at half-past 9 o’clock on the same evening, and anchored for the night. The weather was rough, with a heavy sea during the night, and in the morning a stiff breeze was blowing from the south-east. The party fished the next morning until about half past 9 o’clock, when a start was made for home.
When they got to the mouth of the river, near Luggage Point, Phelan, who was in charge of the boat, reefed the sails, putting two reefs in the mainsail and one in the jib, and made one tack to Fisherman’s Island, and then stood in towards Luggage Point. When within about twenty yards to the leeward of the black buoy a heavy puff struck the beat, and laid her down to the combings. Both sheets were at once slacked, and the boat partly righted, when another stronger squall struck her more abeam, and a heavy sea struck her on the weather bow at the same time.
Although the crew were all sitting up to windward, the ballast shifted to leeward; and the craft commenced to sink immediately. Moffat’s little boy was under the deck, and Bartley pulled him out and gave him to his father, who took him. Phelan got into the dingy at once, and tried to cut the painter which secured it, to the boat, but was unable to do so, as the boat sank stern first. He went down with the dingy while endeavouring to free her, and when he came to the surface, he was exhausted and could see nobody. He struck out for the shore, but after going some little distance came up to young Edwards, who sang out for help.
Phelan, seeing the dingy’s paddles floating some distance off, swam to them and brought them to him. He kept in company with Edwards for some time, encouraging him to keep on. After a while he lost sight of Edwards and could not turn to help him as he was quite exhausted himself, the sea being very rough. Phelan reckoned he swam about a quarter of a mile before getting ashore; he passed Bartley and Waine as he swam ashore. When near the shore he sank from exhaustion, but recovered himself sufficiently to gain the bank. Diggles reached the shore first, Phelan next, then Bartley, who was followed by Waine.
They remained on the beach where they first landed about half-an-hour, and then walked along the beach looking out for Moffat and the others, but could see nothing of them. They picked up one of the paddles Phelan had given young Edwards to assist him in swimming, and also the rudder of the boat, and continued to walk along the beach until they came to a fire, where they remained another half-hour. After warming themselves they felt stronger, and walked to the house of a German settler, who gave them some tea. Diggles was in advance of the party. They met a fisherman, who took them to his house and gave them some refreshments. Phelan related the occurrence to the fisherman, and he went with another man to look for the bodies.
Phelan stated he had been down the Bay in the Native several times, and considered her perfectly safe. He attributed the accident entirely to the weather. The sheets were not fast at the time of the accident. He also stated he had sailed in the Bay for several years, and was competent to sail a boat. The party were driven to town in two spring carts- Diggles arriving first and reported the occurrence to the police. The last that was seen of Moffat alive was just after the boat went down. He then struck out for the shore, with his son in his arms. George Payne, a Customs boatman, went over to Luggage Point on Sunday afternoon, and found the dead body of W. G. Moffat on the beach, in charge of a fisherman. He had the body brought to Brisbane.
(Extract from The Brisbane Courier, Wednesday 24 May 1882.)
The Peel Island Lazaret was the only purpose-built Lazaret in Australia: the others were modifications or add-ons to existing institutions e.g. at Dunwich, it was an add-on to the Benevolent Asylum; at Little Bay in Sydney as part of an infectious disease unit; at Fantome Island it was a former Lock Hspital.
This site plan shows the relative areas of Peel’s Lazaret.
Notes to the plan’s labels:
The Female Compound was for white females (one patient per cabin).
The Male Compound was for white males (one patient per cabin)
The Coloured Compound consisted of galvanised iron huts for the coloured male patients (four patients per cabin) and wooden huts similar to the white female huts (but accommodating six patients per cabin).
Initially the male patients huts were constructed as a square wooden box like structure, but later on, a verandah was added to the design. The white femals huts were similar but with the addition of a kitchenette with a combustion stove.
The following aerial photo shows the Peel Island Lazaret institution as it appeared in the 1930s:
By 1908 there were 40 coloured patients and 17 white patients at the Peel Island Lazaret.
In the book Moreton Bay Matters Chapter 9 The Leper Shall Dwell Alone, historian Thom Blake mentions ‘the huts for the coloured patients were erected by Aboriginal workers from Myora on Stradbroke Island and from Barambah (now Cherbourg).’ He describes the huts for the coloured patients as ‘being framed with bush timber, clad with cypress pine slab, roofed with tea-tree bark, and simply provided with an earth floor. The cost of each coloured hut was 3/-/- (three pounds) verses 55/-/- (fifty-five pounds) for each white patient’s hut’.
The image below shows a group of coloured patients (all South Sea Islanders) posing in front of a typical coloured dwelling. Also with them is the Lazaret’s Assistant Caretaker, Paulus Friedrich Schwarz:
Paulus Friedrich Schwarz from Vienna, born of Jewish parents, and came to Australia as a Christian Evangelist, he only spent a few months on Peel but was so appalled by the conditions of the coloured patients that he sent an urgent letter to the Home Secretary in July 1908.
In the letter, Paulus reported serious deficiencies in the provision for the coloured lepers: open drains, huts structurally incapable of being fumigated or properly cleaned, having earthen floors and thatched roofs which let in the rain. Patients having to get up and sit round the fire when it rains at night. Many of the huts were in a bad state of repair. There was no dining room, no hospital, and a day surgery without either hot or cold-water supply. The blankets the coloured lepers received at the beginning or winter, were only half of one double blanket each. No sheets or pillow slips, which he was told were always supplied to them on Friday Island.
In reply to his letter, Paulus was told that his proper channel of communication was through the Medical Superintendent (Dr Rowe in the Benevolent Asylum).
Happily, soon after leaving Peel, he met and married Phiebie. They were married for 62 years and had 11 children.
Peel’s Galvanized Huts
Later, at an undetermined time, the Queensland Government DID replace the coloured patients’ huts with those made of corrugated galvanised iron on wooden frames. Initially they still had dirt floors, but the patients themselves were able to line them with cement laced with shells from the many middens remaining on the island – the refuse heaps from countless Aboriginal feasts remaining from unknown eons.
Recently, while I was guiding a tour group around the Lazaret buildings, I was told by one of the group that the galvanized iron huts used by the ‘coloured’ patients were common among Queensland’s poorer outback pioneers. He told me that railway gangers used them because they were easily dismantled and transported. It would be interesting to follow up with the Ipswich Railway Museum if they have any photos.
In Queensland, the first case recording symptoms resembling those of Leprosy was in 1855, a Chinaman, Oun Tsar, at the Brisbane Hospital. He was to die in 1859 ‑ undiagnosed. At this time, too, the hospital was recording many cases of Islander “Toe Disease”. Leprosy once again diagnosed incorrectly.
For the next 35 years there was a steady increase in the number of reported Leprosy cases, all confined to Chinese and Islander immigrants, and the aborigines who “caught anything”. By 1889, although the public at large still thought Leprosy to be a “foreigner’s disease”, the Government deemed it prudent to segregate some Chinese cases at Cooktown. The following year, an official Leper Station was established there.
The notion of Leprosy as purely a foreigner’s disease was dispelled in 1892 when a Queensland born white by the name of Quigley contracted the disease. After being kept in forced isolation in a tent for six months at the Brisbane Hospital, the Government sought to legalize such segregation by passing the Queensland Leprosy Act of 1892. This Act formalized the detention and segregation of all those suffering from Leprosy in special areas known as lazarets or Leprosariums. Coloured patients were sent to Friday Island in the Thursday Island Group. White patients went to Dunwich on Stradbroke Island.
The following article from The Week newspaper of 4 November 1904 reflects the terms and thinking of that era:
Lepers Going to Friday Island
General Clearing Up
Recently the Home Department felt that owing to the slight increase in leprosy among the kanakas of the State, it was desirable to collect the patients and send them to Friday Island, where the lazarette for coloured races has long been established. There were two coloured lepers at Dunwich, two came from Bundaberg on Monday, three from remote parts of the State, and there are three yet to be brought down from the northern coast. So far all those who have arrived in Brisbane have been placed on board the auxiliary schooner Rio Loge, where they will be kept until the remaining patients arrive before being taken to the lazarette on Friday Island. The official number of black lepers are set down as males, 9; females, 1.
The idea is to rid the State of this collection of leprosy in one shipload instead of segregating the patients at different towns. If is likely that the Rio Loge will be ready to sail for Friday Island at an early date.
Doctor Horace Tozer, Superintendent of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, was placed in charge of both Leprosariums.
By 1906 there were 21 inmates at the Dunwich lazaret which was housed in buildings adjacent to the Asylum’s Men’s Quarters to the south. As had been the practice for some years, the dull lives of the Asylum’s inmates had been brightened by the theatrical performances of the Postmaster, a certain Mr Agnew and his son Noel (“Laddie”). The lazaret patients were also allowed to attend. Little heed was paid to the close contact between the Leprosy patients and the old folk until Noel Agnew contracted the disease. It was then that the Government decided on total segregation of the Hansen’s patients and they were moved to a new lazaret in the north western corner of nearby Peel Island.
The Peel Island lazaret opened in 1907 with the segregation of 17 white patients. Not only were they segregated from society but also from each other according to sex, race, and form of the disease. Later in the year, their number was swelled by the transfer of the 40 coloured patients from the Friday Island lazaret after its closure.
Also at a recent meeting of our Probus Club of Toondah, our guest speaker, John Florence, took us on a stroll through the Pilbara, an area we have all heard of but know little about.
The Pilbara occupies an area twice the size as the State of Victoria, but with a permanent population of just 66,000 which is considerably boosted by ‘fly in fly out’ mine workers. Most of the permanent population lives in the towns on the coast with the mining towns inland.
The Pilbara is noted for its Aboriginal people who have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years and for their ancient rock carvings.
The Pilbara has some of the largest and richest deposits of iron ore in the world, which are the lifeblood of the region. 50% of the world’s sea borne iron ore exports come from the Pilbara and in 2019/20 $101.7 billion was returned from the export of iron ore from the Pilbara – a very significant contributor to the economy of Australia.
There are four companies involved:
Rio Tinto rail line connects its 16 iron ore mines to the seaports at Dampier and Cape Lampert (green line)
BHP connects its 6 mines at Mount Newman to Port Hedland (red line)
Twiggy Forrest’s Fortescue Metal Group connects his 3 mines to Port Hedland (blue Line)
Gina Rinehart’s Hancock’s Prospecting connects the Roy Hill Mine to Port Hedland. The Roy hill mine is the largest in the Pilbara (pink line)
TWO types of ore are mined in the Pilbara: Hematite has an iron ore content of 69-70% and magnetite 72-73% which means that in a small volume you have a very heavy weight so that the haul trucks have to be huge. The standard iron ore trains are about 2.4 km long with 240 ore cars pulled by 2 or 3 diesel electric locomotives. But the longest train there was BHP’s 7.29 km long with 682 ore cars and it carried 82,000 tonnes of iron ore and was powered by 8 GE diesel locomotives.
John also mentioned salt mining, the National Parks, migratory birds, the Wittenoom asbestos mine, the heat of Marble Bar, Red Dog, the Burrup Peninsula, and Aboriginal rock paintings.
At a recent meeting of our Probus Club of Toondah, member Margaret Hayes described how she and other Rotarians from Armidale travelled to Tanzania to build the first classroom block for the School of St Judes:
‘My first venture into overseas projects for Rotary was to help build the first classrooms for the School of St Jude in Tanzania. Its instigator, Gemma Rice, had come to Australia and after her tertiary education went to the Congo. She ended up holidaying in Arusha in Tanzania where she met her future husband, Richard Sisia. His father gave them a small block of land there and they began to build the School of St Judes with the help of friends, family and Rotary groups.
‘We set up seven tents in Richard’s back yard. Most of the team came from Armidale and Tenterfield, but three women including me from Kingscliff also went.
‘The locals wanted the buildings to be built their way but our leader insisted that some of the buildings had to be built the Australian way. Ditches were dug to outline the building with the help of 15 locals. These were filled with two layers of rocks, carefully placed not just dumped in, and they were each covered with layers of dirt and water. In two days, the foundations were completed. We moved 56 tons of rock in three days. Then we had to move piles of mud bricks from outside otherwise they would never dry. This was my job. The string lines were put down and the damp course completed. Finally, the floors were completed and the bricklaying began in earnest. The mortar needed to dry properly and the bricks topped with wood, front and back, and then strapped down with steel tapes, before the trusses were put on.
‘The locals continued putting on the trusses while we Australians set off on safari for a week. On our return, all was completed and we had a BBQ for the workers and their families. For me it was a memorable experience and one for which I am grateful.
‘There were only three students in the first building but now the number has grown exponentially and today there are well over a thousand.