The asylum’s function was not to help the weak and crippled but to hide them, the outcasts of society “whom nobody owned”. There were other asylums in Moreton Bay: the prison at St Helena, and the quarantine station and later the leprosarium at Peel Island.
The Dunwich Benevolent Asylum operated from 1865 until 1946 to provide support for those who could not look after themselves, particularly the aged but also epileptics, alcoholics, and those suffering from TB. By the 1920s there were 22 wards with 800 beds for male inmates and 7 wards with 150 beds for females. Another 150 men were in tents. A total of 21,000 inmates were housed there over the period of the institution.
The Queensland Government supply steamer ‘Otter’ visited Dunwich twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays with supplies and visitors for the institution. As well as Dunwich, the ‘Otter’ also serviced the prison at St Helena and the leprosarium at Peel while they were in operation.
Visitors to the Benevolent Asylum paid a shilling (10 cents) for the round trip, leaving at 7am from Brisbane at William Street, just near the Victoria Bridge, down the Brisbane River and calling in at St Helena and then Peel Island. Then the boat sailed on to Dunwich where it stayed for about two hours. This gave relatives time to visit residents or walk around the area. Then the Otter returned to Brisbane at North Quay, arriving at 6 pm.
As well as providing accommodation for the inmates, the asylum provided employment for many of the Aboriginal population of Stradbroke, and when the institution was closed and shifted to what was to become Eventide at Sandgate, many of the island’s former employees were left without work.
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.
The Otter was the supply ship for the old people’s home (Benevolent Asylum) at Dunwich on North Stradbroke Island. It had previously also been the supply ship for the prison at St Helena but this had closed a few years prior to the war. However, the ringbolts for the shackles for the prisoners’ chains were still in the forward cabin in the forecastle, which was part of our quarters. There were also two long forms on either side where the prisoners sat in their chains while being transported to St Helena.
Dunwich was our regular run, on Tuesday and Thursday. We would load up with stores on Monday, leave at 7 am on Tuesday. Passengers who were visiting relatives at the old people’s home at Dunwich had to be aboard by a quarter to seven, and it used to cost them 1/- (one shilling, or 10 cents in today’s money) for the round trip. The Otter left Brisbane just near Victoria Bridge. We’d unload the stores at Dunwich and return to Brisbane by 5pm. The trip itself took about 3-4 hours. On Wednesday, we’d load stores again and make another trip on Thursday, same conditions. On Fridays we would clean up. Everything had to be scrubbed and the brass polished.
At Dunwich there were rail tracks along the jetty and the stores would be transported along these from the shed at the end of the wharf where they were stowed as they were unloaded. We also supplied stores for the Lazaret (Leprosarium) at nearby Peel Island. However, the Otter was too big for its jetty so their launch, the Karboora, would have to come over when the Otter berthed and collect their stores from the end of the jetty at Dunwich. Bonty Dickson was the skipper of the Karboora at that time.
What was interesting was that we also used to bring back the bodies of the old people who had died at Dunwich. We would load the coffins onto the top deck onto big stools. It wasn’t a very pleasant job because if the person had died on Friday and had to wait until we bought them back on Tuesday, the body liquids would have started to seep out of the coffin. We used to have to hose the deck down afterwards. In spite of this, working on the Otter was a very good job – probably one of the best jobs I ever had and I liked it very much. It was lovely trip down the river and across Moreton Bay. I was working on the Otter when the war finished because I remember going up to town with another deckhand, Alan Nagel, for the celebrations on VJ Day. However, I left about a month after that.
During much of the war, Otter had been on examination service, where she used to meet vessels incoming to Brisbane. However, by the latter stages of the war, when I worked on her, all the war’s fighting had moved further north towards Japan and she was back on the service to the old people’s home at Dunwich. After the war, the Otter was getting old and her condition and the expense of servicing Dunwich were given as reasons for shifting the old people’s home to Sandgate. However, there was a lot of politics involved. I myself thought that Dunwich was a very pleasant place for the old people. Most people seemed to enjoy being there and their relatives could enjoy a beautiful trip down the bay to see them – for just one shilling!
This week, as part of a group from the Redlands National Trust, I paid a visit to Goompi (Dunwich) on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). The ferry schedule was the only timetable I needed there, for at Minjerribah, everything goes by island time. Well perhaps I shouldn’t even call it time – it’s more a feeling of relaxation. For time stops at the jetty.
Right across the road from the jetty is Goompi’s famous Cemetery which contains the graves of the ill-fated passengers and crew of the Emigrant who died of typhus in 1850; the graves of 8,000 of the former inmates of the Benevolent Asylum (Old Peoples Home); as well as Aborigines (First Nation People). People of all types in the cemetery made equal in death.
Nearby were the graves of John and Mary Cassim whom I wrote about in my recent post of 10.04.2021 (Where’s Toondah? – Part 2). And right next door, my personal connection to the cemetery, the grave of Dr Frank Carroll, who came to our rescue in 1978 when our daughter had a severe asthma attack in the middle of the night – twice.
Our main quest however was a visit to the North Stradbroke Island Historical Museum.
In 1992, I interviewed Ellie Durbidge for my proposed book ‘Moreton Bay People’. The following extract concerns her involvement with the setting up of the museum at Dunwich:
‘When the North Stradbroke Historical Museum Association was formed and incorporated, Ellie presented the museum with an aboriginal axe as its first catalogued exhibit. Since then, they have started a day book which one day will be computerized.
‘When the old Queensland museum was moving to its new premises at South Brisbane, the Association wrote to them asking for old shelving and metal cabinets for storage. After being palmed off by various departments, it went to the old building itself, selected its furniture, had it fumigated and took it away. By similar direct negotiations, the Association obtained cataloguing drawers from the Redland Shire Council, and exhibits such as a Convict‑built bed from the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, and an old telephone from the Post Office. Then the museum asked the Earl of Stradbroke for permission to use his crest. Not only did he consent, but he came for the opening and offered the use of videos about his family as a means of raising funds.
‘With promises from the Redland Shire Council to restore a building given by Consolidated Rutile, and with the donation of a large private collection of aboriginal artifacts, the future success of the museum seems assured.’
At the museum, there are a range of permanent displays about the Quandamooka people, convict history, shipwrecks and maritime history, the story of sandmining on the island, as well as lots of photos of the old fishing shacks, boats and buses that helped kick off the tourism industry on Minjerribah. There is also a room dedicated to sharing the story of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, and they have a range of photographs and documents to assist family historians.
After morning tea, Howard Gill gave a lecture about the island’s history. Here are the main points:
Aboriginal population prior to occupation estimated at 600-800 on Mulgumpin (Moreton Island) and 800 on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). BY the end of the 19th century total for both islands reduced to under 200
The convicts Pamphlett, Parsons, and Finnegan were cared for the Aborigines in 1823
A pilot station was established at Pulan Pulan (Amity) in 1825 and a garrison and trans shipping station at Goompi (Dunwich) in 1827
Armed conflict most prominent 1831-1932 led to the withdrawal of the garrison
Mulgumpin ‘cleared’ of Aborigines in 1847 with around 40 killings
Moongalba Mission established at Myora 1893 (came under Protection Act in 1897) closed 1943
Its residents moved to One Mile which in 2018 still lacks reticulated services
We then walked to the one remaining ward from the Benevolent Asylum (Ward 13) which was built in the 1890s. It is currently in the process of nomination to the Queensland Heritage Register. It will join Dunwich Hall, St Marks Church, and cemetery as State Heritage.
On our return walk to the ferry we glimpsed the convict built rock causeway and the privy pit – the only two remaining remnants of early convict occupation.
Conveniently situated beside the jetty is the Little Ships Club where we had lunch and a beer while waiting for the ferry’s timetable to kick in and take us back to the mayhem of mainland life.
Incidentally, Minjerribah translates as place of mosquitoes, but I didn’t see any that day.
My grandfather, George Brown, was a descendant of Fernandez Gonzales, a ‘Manila man’ who Tom Welsby once described as ‘the Patriarch of Moreton Bay’. George married Granny Mubue, an Aborigine from the mainland, and their children included my father, Markwell “Mark” George Brown, and my five aunts Daisy Campbell, Tilly Martin, Ethel Close, Vera Perry, and Mabel Brown (she remained unmarried). Our family lived at the Two Mile, which as the name implies was a community situated two miles north of Dunwich. Mark Brown, my father, worked at the old people’s institution at Dunwich as an engineer. He looked after the gas and steam engines there.
Apart from fishing and oystering, the old people’s Institution was the only source of employment for the people of Stradbroke Island. So, when it closed down in about 1947, my father worked at the Lazaret (leprosarium) on Peel Island just across the water from Dunwich. He remained working there until the sand mining started up on Stradbroke Island. At this stage our family moved from the Two Mile to Dunwich. My father worked for the mining in the carpenters’ shop until he retired and went to live at Southport.
I went to school in Dunwich and when I left, I worked with Bonty Dickson, one of the personalities of Stradbroke and who later became its first Councillor. I worked with him on his oyster leases, then started boat building with him. One of the things I remember about Bonty was that he rode a three-wheeled bike.
When the sand mines started up, I worked on the dredge on Main Beach. The dredge was used to pump the sand mix into the separating towers where the heavy mineral sands were separated from ordinary sand by centrifugal force. Then I helped put through the ropeway from Main Beach to Dunwich, via the Blue Lake and the 18 Mile Swamp. This ropeway (wire) was to transport the mineral sand in buckets across Stradbroke Island to Dunwich from where it was taken by barge to Brisbane and thence overseas.
The company mining the mineral sands then was called Tazi, which was located at Tazitown on the 18-mile swamp. This is now called Con Rutile. Now (1996) there are two sand companies, one at Dunwich (Con [Consolidated] Rutile) and the other at Amity Point.
(Editor: Consolidated Rutile was a fixed mining operation on North Stradbroke Island with a workforce of up to 150 men housed in accommodation centered at Dunwich. The mineral concentrates were barged to Meeandah near Brisbane airport for separation into heavy mineral components.)
Noel Brown, Southport, 1996
(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)
(Editor: Sand mining ceased on Stradbroke Island in 2019).
The kegs were being loaded at Cleveland on a wet and windy Friday night onto the Flirt to be consigned to the Buffaloes’ Stradbroke Lodge. One keg had been carried down the stairs of the Paxton Street Jetty and placed on the landing prior to being loaded. The other keg was being carried down the steps when the carrier slipped in the wet conditions and the keg he was carrying knocked the first keg, so that both kegs finished in the Bay. The Lodge advertised to let it be known that finders could have the contents as long as the Lodge got the kegs back, because there was a £7 deposit on each keg. One was returned very promptly but the other remained missing for some time until a party returning from Cleveland to Dunwich found the keg embedded on Cassim Island and which had been exposed by a very low tide. The contents were said to be in good condition.
The association of the Agnew family with Moreton Bay began with the appointment of Philip Palmer Agnew as a Government Clerk and Telegraph Officer at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum (Old People’s Home) in 1894, a position he held until his retirement in 1917. Philip became involved in the presentation of musical productions at the newly opened Victoria Hall for the Residents of the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum and the Lazaret (Leprosarium), which was to the south of Dunwich. The cast consisted of the members of his family, inmates, and community. He named the troop ‘The Koompie Minstrels’. The Agnew’s home was called ‘Bohemia’ a name well suited to the family’s artistic talents.
The Agnew’s world was rocked when their youngest son Noel, or ‘Laddie’ as he was affectionately known, contracted leprosy (Hansen’s Disease). This proved a catalyst for the sufferers on Stradbroke Island to be relocated to nearby Peel Island in 1907 for fear the disease would spread to the greater island population. Noel was to become one of the first and longest serving patients in the lazaret’s 52 year history. He used his time in forced isolation to record a highly detailed record of the bird life of Peel Island (76 species in total), which was published in the RAQU Journal The Emu in 1913. A further list was published in The Emu in 1921.
Between 1921 and 1923, a brief remission from the disease enabled Noel to return to his family in Dunwich. Unfortunately, the symptoms returned, and eventually the disease claimed his eyesight and the use of his hands and he was bedridden. Laddie died in 1937 and was buried in the Peel Island cemetery. Philip Palmer Agnew also died in 1937, three months after the death of his son, Noel.
The exhibition, which honours several generations of the pioneering, artistic and benevolent Agnew family, continues at the Redland Museum through until the end of February 2018.