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.
Morgan Gabriel’s school education had been completed at Brisbane Grammar, which he left after completing his Junior Certificate. For a time, he had worked in the Taxation Department which he disliked, and then as a Cadet in the Laboratory of the State Health Department. He remained there for some eleven years as a Government Analyst, and it was during this time that he also resumed his schooling and, by studying at night, finally obtained his Senior School Certificate. This was followed by study for a Science Degree, which he obtained as an external student studying over six years. In 1944 he was one of a group of students to be awarded the first State Government Bonded Fellowships to the University of Queensland. Thus, he was finally able to afford a long-held ambition to study for his Degree in Medicine which he finally obtained in 1950. His aim was to specialize in Gynaecology but part of his Fellowship Bond was that he had to repay the years spent in study with an equal time in an area of the Government’s choosing. To Dr Fryberg’s mind, he was the answer to Peel’s problems, and Dr Gabriel was duly appointed the island’s first Resident Medical Superintendent, having full control over the island’s affairs.
Peel Island could not have been further from Dr Gabriel’s plans, especially when he was also planning to marry, and he hated the whole idea, but because of his contract with the Government, he could do little but accept. His first months there were stormy, and he clashed with both staff and patients to enforce both more responsible policies for the running of the settlement. Firstly, he reduced alcohol consumption on the island by limiting its consumption to one bottle of beer per week. Any staff members found drunk on duty would be immediately sent to the Health Department for dismissal. As can be expected his popularity was not high amongst the inhabitants of Peel.
It says much for Dr Gabriel that he weathered the storm, for his character was of such strength that he would not compromise a principle he believed in. As well as his strength, he was also fortunate in being a caring and kind-hearted man who could sympathize with the patients’ condition. These two qualities were to prove ideal and necessary for the newly created position.
One of the first improvements he made at Peel was that of the meals, and it was one to which the patients responded readily. Many more were to follow, and when it became obvious that the new doctor had their welfare at heart, the patients quickly warmed to him and it wasn’t long before they were to look on him as a true friend and confidant to whom they could turn and discuss their problems. Indeed, for Dr Gabriel’s wedding, the patients all chipped in and bought a present for him and his new wife, soon to be affectionately known by all as “Johnny”. With Peel’s past reputation, it must have been difficult for her to set up house there, but she settled into her new surroundings and quickly made friends with the patients. When their two children, Bill and Ruth, were born, they, too, lived with their parents in the doctor’s residence to the east of the men’s compound. This fact alone would have done much to dispel the stigma associated with the dangers of Hansen’s Disease and young children.
When Morgan Gabriel first arrived at Peel, he knew little about Hansen’s Disease. But because he was not the sort of man to engage in any activity without a thorough knowledge of his subject, he set about learning as much as possible about the latest developments in Hansen’s Disease and its treatment. This knowledge he also passed on to the many of his patients who were interested in new treatments for their disease, and over the next decade, he would introduce many new drugs at Peel in a constant search for more effective results.
As well as educating himself and the patients about Hansen’s Disease, Dr Gabriel also missed no opportunity in encouraging medical students to visit Peel and familiarise themselves with the disease and its early symptoms.
Dr Gabriel was also of the belief that it was necessary to keep his patients’ hands and muscles working and minds occupied. Towards this end he encouraged them to engage in as many activities as possible. Occupational therapy was available in the form of leather, plastic, and cane work, and many patients were put on the payroll in positions that included truck driver, barber, painter, handyman, groundsman, and seamstress. In 1952 a new patients’ dining room was constructed, mainly by the work of the patients themselves. One patient undertook the school Junior Certificate course, and one of the blind patients who retained full sensitivity in the fingertips learnt braille. In September 1956 a naturalisation ceremony was conducted at the hospital when one of the patients became an Australian citizen.
Dr Morgan Gabriel was Peel’s last resident doctor from 1951 until the Lazaret’s closure in 1959.
Eric Reye passed away peacefully on Monday night 29.1.2007 in the Beenleigh Nursing Home. Though physically incapacitated for his last years, Eric’s mind remained keen to the end. For one so used to the outdoor life, his immobility in a nursing home must have been a great frustration, but, in typical style, he accepted his lot philosophically and without complaint.
I like to remember Eric from my times with him on his boat “Coolooloa” on the mangrove flats at Redland Bay, eating peanuts, sipping his home-made mead, surrounded by his laboratory materials and discussing Moreton Bay’s history of which, for me at least, Eric played such an important part.
All his life, Eric was a lover of boats and the Bay. From those of you who have read my books, you will recall his canoe trips from Brisbane to Southport and his search for the ‘Spanish Galleon’ which in itself has inspired many others to continue. After studying medicine at the University of Queensland, he was able to combine his yachting skills with his medicine when he became the Medical Officer for the Hansen’s Disease (Leprosy) patients at Peel Island. While there he worked constantly to improve the conditions of the patients.
It was also on Peel that he was bitten by the bug – the biting midge actually – when trying to find its breeding habits. Entomology was soon to take over his whole life and he abandoned medicine in its favour, eventually becoming acknowledged as a world expert in the study of biting midges.
He was a source of much of our knowledge of Peel Island’s Lazaret history and one of our last living links with it.
He was always willing to impart his great knowledge to others, and I for one am especially grateful for his generosity in supporting my Moreton Bay writings.
I have to report that the Recreation Room with all the contents were destroyed by fire early yesterday morning, 1st January, 1941.
I awoke at 1.50 a.m. at the sound of the crackle of fire and on looking out saw fire coming through the wall from the left hand corner of the recreation room, where the Pianola was standing.
N.S., a hospital patient, awakened about the same time as I and he called to the attendant C.Byrnes, who immediately ran over and called the other members of the staff.
The fire had enveloped the whole of the Recreation Room by 2 a.m. and was spreading rapidly towards the Billiard Room at one end and the Dining Room at the other, and it looked as if the whole of the block would have gone.
The whole staff worked magnificently also some of the patients and by 3.15 a.m. had the fire under control having only lost the Recreation Room and one Bathroom.
The patients headed by T.W. and R. M. removed the table and furniture from the Billiard Room and carried water for the staff who had to use buckets as the water pressure as too low for the hoses.
The reason for this we discovered when the fire was a little under, was that two large water taps in the building had been turned on.
One of these taps could not be turned off without the aid of pliers as the top had been removed.
This was so obviously a case of arson that I got in communication with the Dunwich Police as soon as I could, and Mr. Sands (in charge) came over and investigated, he (the constable) is returning this morning to take statements from patients and staff.
Inventory of Property destroyed in the Recreation Room.
1 Pianola 4 Large forms (with backs) 1 Table Tennis Set
2 Large tables. 1 Petrel (sic) Lamp. Books (about 200).
It was absolutely impossible to save any of this property.
2nd Jan., 1941.
Further to the Matron’s letter, when I interviewed patient ‘Alex’ for my book, ‘Peel Island – Paradise or Prison’ he added this comment:
‘Each Christmas, it was the custom for the men to decorate their recreation hall for the season’s festivities. As well as the usual paper streamers etc, this involved the cutting of various eucalypts from the surrounding bush to be used as Christmas trees. This hall contained the new piano and during the festive season there was even more carousing and singing than normal. One year in the early 1940s, Christmas came and went but the decorations were left up for some weeks afterwards, and all the cut eucalypts in the hall became tinder dry. One night, without warning, the hall caught fire, and although the alarm was raised, without water there was nothing anyone could do to extinguish the blaze.
‘The cause of the fire was never known, but many suspected the blaze to be deliberately lit by a reclusive couple of patients whose huts were adjacent to the hall and who were known to be annoyed by the noise of the singing and piano playing of the Christmas revellers. It would have been an easy matter to set a match to the dried eucalyptus leaves in the hall and escape before the fire took hold.’
The Recreation Room was not replaced until 1945 when a new Recreation Hall was opened by Dr Eric Reye on Nov 3rd.
On June 30th this year, FOPIA will close down for good. FOPIA was formed in 1998 to assist in maintenance and restoration work of the former lazaret, and to promote public awareness of Peel’s cultural and historic values. As one of the original founding members, I was a bit sad to see this group, once so full of hope for the future of Peel’s restored lazaret, finally call it a day. It had been a long time coming, but its death knell was surely last year’s decision not to rebuild a jetty to access the island. This effectively put a stop to any future development – for better or worse.
However, many fond memories of FOPIA remain: our work parties often visited the lazaret and stayed overnight; many public lectures on the island’s history; fund raising boat trips; and curating a Peel Island exhibition at the Redland Museum which also visited the Redcliffe museum and was then on permanent display at Fort Lytton.
But to my mind, FOPIA’s most memorable achievement was to host a Peel Island Lazaret families’ day. What a day! After two unsuccessful attempts due to inclement weather, we were third time lucky, with the weather beautiful and the sea calm for a unique gathering on Peel Island at the lazaret. Family of patients and staff of the lazaret, along with FOPI members, QPWS staff and others travelled to Peel Island on Sunday 26 September 2008 to commemorate the Centenary of the lazaret, and of National Parks in Queensland. For some it was their first time to the island, for others it was the first time in many years, but for everyone it turned out to be a very special day. Connections were made or renewed, and with stories of the place and the impact of its history shared.
In the words of Welcome to Country from Aboriginal elder, Auntie Margaret, ‘it was ..a day of getting together with beloved families and friends of patients. Friends and families of the staff, and most all the Aboriginal families of our Aboriginal workers who worked here all those many years ago… Today is for all to come together, indigenous and non-indigenous alike. To reflect with kindness, unity, and most of all trust because deep down, trust is a gift of learning, everything that life brings.’
In October, after the all-too-familiar uncertainty about the weather, I accompanied the Sailing Cruising Group from the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron to Peel Island to assist as a tour guide of the former Lazaret buildings. It was only my second visit to the island this year (the first was to conduct Paul Smith’s small family group in May as they researched their ancestor, Paulus Fredrick Schwarz, the Lazaret’s Assistant Caretaker there in 1908.) It was good to be back on the island, and I was even given a ride from the beach, thus bypassing the 40-minute trek that the rest of the 36 members of the group had to make.
So, I was dropped off at the former Nurses’ Quarters and while waiting for the walking group to arrive, was left to contemplate my 30+ year’s association with the island: the exciting times in the early 1990’s when the Cowie’s were caretakers and who enthusiastically cleared the bush that had covered most of the buildings for 30 years. They were happy to greet all and sundry who cared to visit. My wife and I had many a memorable sing-song with them…
Later in 1998 I helped establish the Friends of Peel Island Association (FOPIA), a group formed to assist with the maintenance and restoration work and to promote public awareness of Peel’s cultural and historic values. Our regular work parties were well supported and have continued, albeit in a now diminished form, to this day. A beach party at the end of the day’s work was always a highlight for me…
Now the first of the sailing group have arrived and I show them around the Lazaret buildings. Unfortunately, their stay must be very short due to the dependence on the tides. It would have been nice for them to rest on the verandah and soak up the atmosphere of the place, but time and tide wait for no one.
For an hour we tramped around the buildings and then it was straight off down the track to their boats at Horseshoe Bay: for me a visit of unsatisfying brevity. I’d love to have had more time with this enthusiastic group of boaties. Time, too, is catching up with my body, and my aches and pains protest at my big day out. But there is something else missing: my hopes for the future of the island as a tourist destination. Gradually due to the lack of official manpower/money/interest, the island seems destined to be reclaimed by Nature. With the channeling of funds into the development of tourism at nearby Stradbroke, but not Peel, an opportunity has been missed.
During my studies into the former lazaret (leprosarium or leper colony) on Moreton Bay’s Peel Island, people often asked me where the term lazaretoriginated. The obvious connection is with the biblical parables about Lazarus: ‘The rich man and Lazarus’ (who was a leper) and ‘Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead’ (another Lazarus who was not a leper). Perhaps it was the conflation (often erroneous merging) of these two parables that led to the declaration of Lazarus as a saint.
Saint Lazarus Island
In the 12th century, leprosy appeared in Venice as a result of trade with the Levant (Middle East). Thus, a leper colony—hospital for people with leprosy—was established at the island, which was chosen for that purpose due to its relative distance from the principal islands forming the city of Venice. It received its name from St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. The church of Saint Lazarus (San Lazzaro) was founded there in 1348. Leprosy declined by the mid-1500s and the island was abandoned by 1601. Over the following years, the island was leased to various religious groups but by the early 18th century only a few crumbling ruins remained.In 1717 the island was ceded by the Republic of Venice to an Armenian Catholic monk, who established a monastery with his followers. It has since been the headquarters of the Mekhitarists and, as such, one of the world’s prominent centers of Armenian culture and Armenian studies.
During the nineteenth century, many prominent people visited the island: the English Romantic poet Lord Byron from November 1816 to February 1817; composers such as Offenbach, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner; writers included George Sand and Marcel Proust; monarchs from Spain, Austria, Britain, and France.
Today Saint Lazarus Island continues as an important centre for Armenian studies, and is a popular tourist destination.
Recently a special Peel committee has been focusing on possible future access to the island. Its report is due out by the end of the year. It may be an appropriate time, now, to look at the history of former points of access.
During the 1870s the foundations of the stone jetty were formed on the south-east corner of the island on the beach below the Bluff at the most convenient landing place by members of the ships quarantined there. The jetty was completed by prison and Aboriginal labour in 1893 and became the main access point for the island. Later, from 1907 the jetty was used as the main access point for the island’s Lazaret.
However, vessels could not berth there at low tide, and the distance from the lazaret was also a disadvantage. So it was decided to build a jetty less remote from the lazaret and also one that could be used in all weathers and tides.
In 1948 the short version (causeway only) of the proposed western jetty was completed which enabled a much quicker access to the lazaret, but which was still not accessible at low tide. The longer (wooden) section, which straddled the sandbanks, was not completed until August 1956. From then on, this became the main access for the island. Although the lazaret was to close in 1959, the jetty was again useful when the then Church of England Grammar School (“Churchie”) took out its first lease on part of the former lazaret buildings in December 1968 for the purpose of sending their students to the island for three-day camps.
It is doubtful whether the old stone jetty on the South-East of the island would have been used, or repaired, after the opening of the western jetty in 1956.
Sadly the Western Jetty had become unsafe after 40 years of inattention to its maintenance. It was demolished in late 1990s. This left Peel Island without proper access; a situation that has persisted until this day.
A third access point to Peel Island was via the patients’ jetty, which straddled the mud flats from the Lazaret Gutter right up to the embankment below the Lazaret itself. It was constructed by the patients with materials supplied by the Health Department, and was for the exclusive use of the patients and their boats.
As you can see from Dr Gabriel’s photo, the patients’ jetty could only be used at or near high tide. If such a jetty were contemplated today for public use, it would have to be a much more substantial affair and it would have to extend right out to the Lazaret Gutter if it were to be useable at all tides. Northerly winds would make it difficult for boats to berth, and the size of the vessel would be very limited.
The advantage in siting a jetty here would be that the visitors arriving from such a jetty would land directly at the Lazaret itself, and thus save a 40 minute walk (each way) from Horseshoe Bay, as they have to do today. Even with a much shorter jetty, the visitor’s ‘two hours before and after high tide’ time limit would be considerably extended. Maybe a landing barge, such as previously used to land tourists at Horseshoe Bay, could be employed to land at the Lazaret beach with no jetty at all being required.
This week when I presented my Peel Island talk to the Redlands-Bayside Probus Club, my casual mention of Doctor Darling sparked great interest from the audience. By a sheer coincidence their August guest-speakers had been Chris Adams and Helen Goltz, authors of the books “Grave Tales” and whose topic was “Is Jack the Ripper Buried in Toowong Cemetery?”
Peel Island was not just a refuge for the Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) patients. It was also used, on one occasion at least, as a refuge from the law.
About 1950, an ageing attendant (wardsman) was employed for a year at the Lazaret. He was well educated, well spoken, and of a most agreeable disposition. He even seemed to have a grasp of medical matters and would often intersperse his conversation with complicated medical terms.
Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) was a nurse at the lazaret at the time and remembers him as a very pleasant and cooperative employee. “It came as quite a shock to find out after he had left the island, that he was a con man!” remembers Rosemary.
He had started out in life in England as Andrew Gibson, but as a teenager he quickly learned that people were very gullible, especially unattached young women, and from cashing dud cheques, he quickly progressed to marrying wealthy women, then running off with their inheritance.
Australia proved a happy hunting ground for Andrew, but of course his strategy involved keeping one step ahead of the law and changing his name to suit the circumstances. Some of his aliases included Archibald Brown, Harry Cecil Darling, Lord Lockley, and Walter Porriott, or Gibson.
It was as Doctor Darling, Gynaecologist, that he plunged into his guise as a medico, but when one of his patients died on the operating table, his scheme was uncovered and he was sent to prison for ten years.
Andrew was 80 when he laid low at Peel Island but he was still a strikingly good looking man.
Mrs O’Leary, of Cleveland, has these comments to add: “My husband, Jack, was the nephew of Bess O’Leary, the last wife of Walt’s seven bigamous marriages. At one stage we suspected that Walt was trying to poison Bess, but fortunately he died before he was able to succeed! Now they are both buried in the Toowong Cemetery in the Catholic section near Birdwood Terrace. The grave is marked ‘Bess O’Leary and husband’. Walt remains anonymous in death as he was in life!”
The story of Walter/Andrew/Harry/etc/etc is a journalist’s delight and two articles have appeared about his strange life: George Blaikie’s “Our Strange Past” (Sunday Mail of May 25, 1986) and an article in “The Bulletin” in which the writer even suggested that Walter might have been Jack-The-Ripper because the murders stopped at the same time Walt left England. But that might be stretching things too far….
Or is it?
If this has piqued your interest I can offer this further reading: