People of Peel Island – 6 – Elbert (‘Bert’) Cobb

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.

Peter Ludlow

From material supplied by Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) and Bert’s great nephew, Dudley M.Cobb

Nurse Rosemary Fielding’s painting of Bert Cobb

People of Peel Island – 5 – The Sisters of Mercy

Sr Mercia Mary, Sr M Conrad, Sr M Agnese Mater Hospital Private Pharmacy c1962

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!  

Pro Deo et Humanitate!

Peter Ludlow

March 2006

(Extract from Mater Scripts by Peter Ludlow)

Peel Island 2021- an updated talk by Peter Ludlow

Presents a talk by local historian

                                  Peter Ludlow on the

‘The History and Maintenance of Moreton Bay’s Peel Island’.

A former hospital pharmacist, Peter is now a professional researcher, biographer, and author collecting local history in the Moreton Bay area. 

This presentation will highlight Peel Island’s history including pre-European occupation, its use by Europeans as a quarantine station, inebriate home, and lazaret (leprosarium), and, in 2007, the Island’s gazettal as a National Park and Conservation Park and the Lazaret Buildings as a Heritage Site. Peter will also look at Peel’s future when the island will be placed under the full control of the Quandamooka People, under whose guidance a new era of tourism and cultural exchange holds great promise.  

General Public Welcome, booking required for entry

When:     Friday 28th May 2021 at 7.00 pm

Where:   Redland Multi Sports Centre

             Cnr. Bailey & Randall Rd,

             Birkdale QLD 4159

Enjoy the club facilities, food available.

Please click here to register for event, limited to 50 attendees.

For more information phone Steve 423036676 Or email  bayside@wildlife.org.au

A panoramic view of the Peel Island Lazaret c.1955 (photo courtesy Dr Morgan Gabriel)

The Friends of Peel Island Association (FOPIA) Inc. closes down

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. 

The gathering of Peel’s families at the lazaret

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.’

Related to HD – A Post Script by Evelyn Hogan’s daughter, Noela Carver, in 2010

            I became involved with the Relatives and Friends of Peel Island because my mother, Evelyn Hogan, was on that committee. We used to have the meetings at our place, which was at Morris Street, Paddington. I was born in 1938 and I had to be 15 before I was allowed to visit Peel Island, or have any involvement with the committee, so it was from about 1953 that I became involved.

            I went down to Peel with mum with the concert parties, mostly at Christmas time. I played the piano, so I was their accompanist. Pam Hinton played the violin while I played the piano, but there were many others who played instruments in the band. I particularly remember the piano accordion. Pam was the daughter of Ernie Hinton who at that time was the president of the Relatives and Friends Committee. Ernie was a wardsman at Greenslopes Hospital, and that is where he saw the first HD patient and recognized the disease, and that’s when we first formed the committee. 

Rec. Hall piano, Peel Island Lazaret

            I also went down to Peel with my mum as a visitor, but it was not often because it was hard to get a pass in those days. I didn’t really know about the stigma of the disease then, so I was not at all apprehensive about visiting the island. In those days we used to disembark at the old stone jetty near the Platypus ‘wreck’. At one stage it was too blowy to land, so we were forced to anchor behind the ‘wreck’ and then they took us ashore in a little rowboat to the jetty because they couldn’t get the larger vessel across. We had to trans ship all the musical instruments in the small boat, much to everyone’s distress, for fear that they would end up in the water.

            We used to catch the boat from Cleveland then. It was owned by a Mr Fitzjohn, whom we used to nickname ‘Fitzy”. The boat was probably the Flirt, which would have been hired specially for the trip.

            After arriving at the jetty, we were taken up to the Lazaret on the other end of Peel Island by their truck (the patients called it their bus). It had two forms along each side of the tray, which was covered with a tarpaulin. It was a windy ride – ‘air conditioned’ the patients called it – a bit of an eye opened the first time I went there, but afterwards it never bothered me. At the Lazaret we gave the concert in the recreation hall.

            As well as taking all our musical instruments down to the island, we also had all our ‘Christmas cheer’ for the party and wrapped presents for everybody – so many were prepared for the males and so many for the females. Then we’d go over to the hospital and see the patients there.

In the Family

            I had two family members who had HD1. One was my grandfather, who I shall refer to as ‘John’ 2 and the other was my mother’s brother – my uncle – who you referred to in your book “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison” as ‘Jim’ 2

(Editor: Doctor Eric Reye’s notes have the following details of John: 

            Admitted 13.3.1924 aged 40. 

            He escaped from the island on 28.12.1929

            Readmitted 8.1.1930

            Paroled when his disease went into remission on 11.10.1930

            Readmitted to Peel on 7.9.1931

            Died there on 25.7.1935)

            His readmission to Peel in 1931 is interesting because he was ‘cured’ in 1930, but his wife had found another partner since his first admission (being admitted to Peel was usually a life sentence then). John did live for a time in their home at Wynnum in a room under the house, but things didn’t work out and he asked to be readmitted to Peel because this was the only other home that he knew. My mum used to go down to see John (her father) quite regularly with the pass, but that was before I was born.

            He stayed there until his death in1935. He is buried on the island. He used to play the button accordion, but when he died, we weren’t allowed any of his possessions because they were thought to be contaminated with HD. This upset mum a bit at the time. So, when I hear about the musical instruments on Peel, I often wonder what became of John’s accordion.

            My uncle ‘Jim’ was 17 when he was admitted to the Lazaret. There was an older patient there, ‘Ned’ in your book, who took Jim under his wing, and there is a photo of the two of them standing beside the patients’ truck. We had a lot of other photos of Jim but when he passed away at his home in Bald Hills mum got rid of them because she didn’t want everybody to know about him. A lot did not know what had really happened to him. Jim had greyhounds down on the island, which he trained, and on a couple of occasions we brought them up to race at Woolloongabba. In a way, Jim was lucky because they had discovered the cure for HD by then and he was discharged from the island before it was closed down in 1959, and the remaining patients transferred to the PA Hospital.

Emmett Kelly and ‘Jim’ with patients’ truck, Peel Island

            After Jim left Peel he lived up at Bardon with his mother, who looked after him and some friends until he bought the little farm at Bald Hills, where he remained until the end. While he was there, he bought into a horse called Skidge, which we used to race. Although his hands remained disfigured by the HD it was marvellous what he could do with them. As far as the neighbours were concerned, he had it put out that his disfigurement was due to old war injuries. I don’t know whether they ever really knew. Actually even a few of our cousins never suspected, and even to this day they still don’t know. Of course, in those days, none of them knew about HD and none of them would have been any the wiser if they had.

Other Patients

            I got to know quite a lot of the other patients. We used to bring them off and take them ‘unofficially’ to our home at Paddington. We had a piano there and many a time we had a sing-along around it. There was a patient, Bill K. who had only one arm, but could he play the piano! He’d play the bass and I’d play the treble, and then we’d swap around. We had great fun.

            We also used to take them to the RNA Show (‘Exhibition’ or ‘Ekka’), and to the dogs. The patients used to come across from Peel in one of their boats to Cleveland, where we’d pick them up in our car. Sometimes we’d take them to the Grand View Hotel there for a drink on the way. It didn’t happen often but it did enable them to keep in touch.

            In later days, Frank Bennett, an ex-patient, boarded with my sister and I. We had the house next door to my mum’s and we had extra rooms so he and another ex-patient stayed with us until they died. They were the good old days, but sad. I think we helped make life a lot better for them.

            There were a few blind patients there, and we became very friendly with one called Donohue who lived in the second row about three doors along from ‘Jim’. His wife was on our Friends and Relatives Committee, and she was a fighter who fought a lot on the patients’ behalf.

            I joined the committee once when there were not enough members to make up a quorum and that was it, I was on it for the rest of its life. Mum had a lot of paperwork under her house at Nudgee, but when Peel closed, we disposed of it.

NOTES:

1. Because of its stigma, the name Leprosy has now been replaced with the term Hansen’s Disease, or just HD.

2. Because of the stigma that surrounded Leprosy and to which some family members are still sensitive, I have used the pseudonym ‘Jim’ to denote this patient – the same one that I had used previously to record some of his reminiscences in my 1987 book “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison”.  

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Related to HD – recalled by Evelyn Hogan

(Evelyn was a relative of Jim2, a former patient at Peel Island Lazaret)

Segregation

What the HD1 patients hated most about their Lazaret at Peel Island, and what was the worst thing was their segregation away from their families, which were broken up – not just for months but for years – and in many cases the other spouse went their own way. Probably under the circumstances you couldn’t blame them. To be sent to Peel Island was virtually a lifetime sentence in the early days.  

I could never understand why segregation was imposed because there were people living and working there amongst the patients, without any ill effect – and the conditions weren’t hygienic by any means.  They used to boil the instruments on a primus (kerosene) stove in a dish.  Can you call that hygiene? 

A Kerosene Primus stove similar to one used in Peel’s surgery

A Relative’s Visit

            One of my first visits to Peel Island as a patient’s relative was on board the Otter – the Government steamer that used to service the island. It cost us a shilling (10 cents), which probably was quite cheap, really. To catch the boat, we used to leave home at about 6.30 in the morning. It used to depart from William Street in the city and then travel down the Brisbane River.  Then, when we got to Moreton Bay, we’d call into St Helena to deliver the stores to the prison that was still operating there. Then we’d sail across to a point just off Peel Island, and they’d bring out the launch Karboora.  We’d be transferred onto that, and many a time then have to be transferred again onto a dinghy because the tide was too low.  Sometimes it was very rough, so that we really and truly knew that we were in a boat.

The ‘Otter’ steaming down the Brisbane River

We took our own lunch down with us, so when we met our patient relative at the jetty, we could sit down under a tree and have lunch with them. We’d stay there until the boat came to pick us up in about an hour. We weren’t allowed to go up to the hospital section on the island. 

Then, of course, we’d have the same procedure coming home.  If it were really rough, we’d have to have the dinghy to get to the Karboora, but if it was good they could get the Karboora right into the jetty. Of course, this was the old stone jetty on the eastern end of the island. Later they did build a new jetty on the western side of the island, which was a lot better. 

The ‘Karboora’ nearing Peel’s stone jetty. (‘Platypus’ hulk as a breakwater in background).

The Otter returned to Brisbane about 6 pm, and by the time we got home it was 6.30. It was a lot of travel just to spend one hour with our relative on Peel Island. It was worse for people who had to travel all the way from the country, just for an hour. It was especially tiring for elderly people.

This was in the 1930s, and we were allowed two visits per month. In later years they gave us extra visitation rights, and we then were allowed two passes a week. No kiddies under 14 were allowed to go down, so therefore a lot of the patients never saw their children. 

            To get a pass we had to apply to the Health Office in William Street.  We couldn’t go without one; nor could we land on the island.  The Superintendent there would collect the passes when we went ashore. It was thought that the passes were one way of controlling the patients’ behaviour – if the patient misbehaved, his relative wouldn’t be given a pass. On top of their segregation, that there were a lot of rules and regulations that the patients didn’t like either, and of course they used to renege against it, and because they did that, the authorities would say, “Well, you’re not getting visitors,” you know.

            So they were kept on Peel under these circumstances like little children to a lot of extent until the latter years.  

The Patients’ Committee

            Then a Patients’ Committee got together, and they stirred things up quite well.  They formed a big committee down there amongst themselves and laid the law down implacably to the Government. They hadn’t been allowed to have anything of their own on the island, but then the Health Department under Dr Fryberg, did give them quite a few things that they wanted. They were allowed to have chooks or ducks or whatever. This was a really good help for them, because it gave them something to do.

            Originally the patients weren’t allowed boats, but they eventually did allow them a boat amongst themselves. They were only supposed to be small boats or rowing boats – but the Health Department relaxed the conditions a bit towards the end. The boats were difficult to police all the time, because there was no one there to do it. The patients weren’t allowed to leave the island.  They could go out fishing on the reefs, but they weren’t supposed to go onto the mainland.  Some did, though.  They had quite a few parties away from the island. You’d meet them all at the Exhibition (Brisbane’s Royal National Association show held annually in August), where they had quite a good time, and then they’d go back to the island.  I don’t think the authorities ever knew, or if they did, they didn’t say anything.

Patients’ jetty with some of the patients own boats. Lazaret Channel and Moreton Island in background. (Photo courtesy DrMorgan Gabriel).

The Patients Committee used to write letters to various people.  They even got in touch with the Carville Clinic in Louisiana, America, who gave them all the particulars about the discovery of the new sulphone drugs, and that’s where they all started on the new treatment.  It was through Carville, and through the patients getting in touch with the patients there, that they got the idea of this new treatment. In fact, I don’t know that it was even known to the authorities today, but at that time there were patients at Peel who were having the treatment from Carville.  They bought it themselves – it was by injection, and they were doing their own injections, unbeknownst to the Health Department here at that stage. 

Carville’s ‘Star’ Newspaper

Up until that time they didn’t have any variety of treatment.  They just gave them the same old chaulmoogra oil and all those sort of things, but I know for a fact that three of the patients on Peel were on the new treatment, and they leapt ahead in health. The authorities here couldn’t understand that all of a sudden they were doing so well. It was the start of the cure, because after that the Government got onto the new drugs and they brought them into the place. That’s when the patients started to get their ‘clean’ monthly blood smears.  It was a wonderful feeling to realise that there was finally a cure for our relative.

Alcohol

There was a big problem with drinking down there on Peel Island. It wasn’t only the patients who were drinking.  The staff were every bit as bad. I have been on the boats with them, coming back from leave so drunk that you would wonder how they could get off the boat. However, when the Patients’ Committee was formed, they demanded that the problem be attended to. They brought down staff from the Head Office at the Health Department, and from the newspapers, and something was done.

 It did seem to be the turning point, and I suppose the new treatments did come about this time, or just after.  It gave them a new hope.  

Supplies and Pilferage

Maybe they say it was shortage of supplies. That could have been right, but a lot of the supplies that probably should have been down there and were probably billed for being down there, let’s face it, three parts of them probably never got there – or they might have got there, but they went away again. 

Pilferage was always a problem – and don’t say it was the patients, because they couldn’t even get them – although I’ll admit some of the patients used to abuse the privileges, too. They were allowed so much toothpaste and so much soap, so much this and that.  They’d maybe go over to the store today and get a tube of toothpaste, and the next day go again and get another tube of toothpaste because they’d thrown the one away or dropped it or something.  But sometimes the goods didn’t even get to the store. Of course, after the patients formed their committee at Peel they got a lot of things then, and as I said, things didn’t go so bad after that.  They were more accountable.

Relatives’ Ostracism

I have heard of some of the patients’ relatives experiencing ostracism from their neighbours – not myself personally, I never felt anything at all about that, but others had reported that they wouldn’t let their children play with a relative’s children, if they knew the patient was on Peel Island, or they would call out to them, “Leprosy! Leprosy!”  That has been said, I believe, but as far as I’m concerned they never said anything to me, and I never worried.

I think probably when you look around it’s like TB.  If a patient knew he had TB, he didn’t like it to be known everywhere because the simple reason was that they wouldn’t let their children play with fathers and mothers that had TB.

But that’s few and far between, thank God.  There was always that fear, though. Well, I don’t think any patient on Peel Island was ever sent a letter in their right name.  They would have been all under a nom de plume of some description, and more so in the country where a lot of them came from, or up the North, where the postman knew everybody.

The Relatives and Friends of Peel Island

One day quite a few of us had been visiting patients, who at this time were very aggressive about something, and we were just about sick of having to get onto boats and get onto dinghies.  A couple of times when the weather was rough we had to stay there at Peel.  So we decided we’d all get together and we met down at the Botanical Gardens, where we formed our committee, which we called the Relatives and Friends of Peel Island.

We were quite an active committee.  I was secretary in the latter part, but in the first stage the secretary used to write to every Leprosarium practising in the world, and got all the different data from the different places to find out how they were, and how they were on the treatment and everything else like this.

At one stage just after World War II we even got a chap from down in Sydney, and he just about blew the place wide open. He had the newspapers, the editors down there, Lord knows what – but we had to get it across to the public, and get it across to the Health Department that the patients needed attention.

We also organised parties for the patients on Peel, and we used to run a Christmas Appeal.  That Christmas Appeal was well organised, and it was very well received. We got a terrific amount of money from different people who used to send in for the Christmas Appeal.  We used to take down our Christmas parties to the island, and we used to give the patients a Christmas party that they never forgot. 

Of course, we all put in a certain amount of money ourselves.  We had a lot of people in our organisation who were not relatives of patients.  They used to come in, just as friends, and they’d help out in lots of ways.  It was really good.

I think we did get a lot of privileges for the patients: importantly, they were finally allowed their own access to a phone. Before that they used to write to the Health Department, and probably when the Department did get the letters, they tore them up. 

Then the patients were allowed to have their own things – well, one chap had ducks.  Another bloke had goats.  They used to do fishing. Then we were allowed to take the concert parties down to Peel, which the patients used to look forward to.  We took them down a couple of times a year besides the Christmas. 

After the Lazaret was closed and they shifted the remaining patients from Peel to the PA Hospital, the organisation broke up because we had done our part by this time.

A typewriter similar to the one used by Peel’s Patients’ Committee.

NOTES:

1. Because of its stigma, the name Leprosy has now been replaced with the term Hansen’s Disease, or just HD.

2. Because of the stigma that surrounded Leprosy and to which some family members are still sensitive, I have used the pseudonym ‘Jim’ to denote this patient – the same one that I had used previously to record some of his reminiscences in my 1987 book “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison”.  

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

To Peel and Back – A Post Script by Matt’s son, Alf in 2010

            My father had been in a car accident in his youth, which involved a horse and cart. The horse had reared up and put its hoof through the windscreen and into dad’s chest. This left a scar and prevented him joining the Navy for active service during WWII. However he was allowed to join the Navy band where he played the drums and tuba.

            After he came to Cleveland, he bought a one-acre banana farm, where he continued to grow bananas until he was diagnosed with Hansen’s Disease (HD). His first suspicion that he had HD had been aroused while working on heavy machinery such as tractors and graders for Cleveland and Annerley Councils, for if he burnt his arms on hot manifolds etc he would not feel any pain. When the HD was confirmed, dad was immediately sent to Peel Island for treatment.

            I required a permit to visit him on Peel. Once this had been issued, I would catch the vessel Vega at Cleveland jetty for the short trip across to the island, where visitors, other stores and I would be dropped off at the long wooden western jetty. From there we would be taken up to the Lazaret, while the Vega continued on to Dunwich and then the RKLM Group of islands. On its return journey, it would call again at Peel and collect us visitors returning to Cleveland.

            I continued to look after dad’s bananas in Cleveland until one day an officer from the nearby Experimental Farm said that they had become diseased, so I chopped them all out and someone with a rotary hoe chopped them up so that they could be buried. I was then faced with the decision of what to replace them with. I asked the Royal National Association people if locally grown cotton would be suitable, but they laughed at me, and instead gave me a bag of Mexican Cotton seeds. These grew well, but the cotton attracted insects, which made the neighbours angry. So I sold off the cotton, which was of a good quality. All this took place while dad was a patient on Peel Island. At this stage I worked as a driver for Redland Bay Buses, but later, when the company closed, my wife and I moved out to St George.

            Dad had been a patient at Peel Island’s Lazaret from 1954 until its closure in 1959, when he was taken with the other dozen remaining patients to Ward S12 at the South Brisbane (now Princess Alexandra) Hospital. He had been glad to leave Peel Island, but did not like the dreary Ward S12 very much. However he was not allowed home until Dr Gabriel had trained me to use a surgical knife to pear away (debride) the dead flesh from dad’s trophic ulcers on his legs and arms. This I did conscientiously at 7 pm each day for two years. If my debriding got too close to a joint or bone, then I had to contact Dr Gabriel, who would come to the house and perform the operation himself. Sometimes he would have to remove a piece of bone from a finger or toe, but dad didn’t need an anaesthetic because his HD had killed the nerves there, and he had no feeling in the affected limbs.

            Dad couldn’t return to work after his return home, but amused himself with his woodwork, which he had taken up on Peel Island, where he had made furniture and dolls houses. He liked talking with visitors and feeding the birds. Dad was able to get around by wearing surgical boots, but he found the front steps of his home at Cleveland to difficult to manage so he sold up and he and his wife moved into a retirement village. Dad even went on a trip to New Zealand by himself to visit a distant relative.

            After his discharge from Ward S12, dad continued to have regular blood tests to make sure his HD was still in remission, but he, like all the other ex-Peel Island patients, eventually gave up taking his precautionary medication. All the members of dad’s family had been tested for HD, but no one else contracted the disease. Like many families of HD patients, some family members even denied that dad had been sent to Peel Island at all.

            Dad died on September 9th 1992.

Male Patient’s Cottage Peel Island Lazaret 1951 Note the outdoor dunny in background and the shared water tank (photo courtesy Doug Hinton)

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

To Peel and Back

“Matt” 1

(A former patient at Peel Island Lazaret from 1954 until its closure in 1959)

My diagnosis

Soon after I came down to Redlands from Gympie in 1951, my local doctor must have suspected that I had HD 2so he sent me to Brisbane to Dr Landy at the PA.3 who sent me to the Health Department to have blood smears taken. The doctors there thought I had arsenic poisoning because I had been spraying bananas with arsenic pentoxide, so they didn’t bother with the HD then. They treated my arsenic poisoning for nearly two years with BAL (British Anti Lewisite), and, oh brother, I think the cure was worse than the cause, because those injections with BAL were really terrible. 

But if the Health Department had taken the tests for HD when they took the tests for arsenic, they would have cured both of them at the same time, and I would never have had to go to Peel Island. However, when they cured the arsenic in 1954, I tried to go back to work, but I couldn’t. When I burnt myself, the sores wouldn’t heal, so I went back to hospital and saw Dr Landy at the PA again, and he said, “Well, I don’t know, Matt, I’ll have to have my own way now.” So he got the Health and Home Affairs chaps up and they took the smears and they found the HD. When the results of the smears came back I immediately had two guards on the bed and there were nurses all around me and I was sent to Wattlebrae. 4

Brisbane’s General Hospital, Nurses quarters and Wattlebrae
(Wattlebrae is the building top right)

When the ambulance came up to take me to Wattlebrae, the ambulance driver came in with his wheelchair and he said, “Right-o mate, hop in.” So I hopped into the chair and he wheeled me down to the ambulance. 

He said, “Get in the front.” 

I looked at him and questioned, “In the front?”

“Yeah, in the front.”

I said, “You know what I’ve got, don’t you?”

“Yeah. I don’t give a damn what you’ve got. Get in the front.”

There were three or four other patients in the back of the ambulance, and they didn’t seem to mind, so I got in the front and away we went. When I got to Wattlebrae, the staff there dropped everything I had like a hot coal, and wouldn’t touch it with a forty-foot pole. And when I got my tea, the meat was all cut up, and all I got was a fork. The situation didn’t warrant a smile, but I had to smile because I had an open cutthroat razor with my belongings in a pillowslip, and if I had wanted to cut my throat, I could have cut it with that! As the doctor at Peel Island stated later on, if I had wanted to cut my throat, I wouldn’t have cut it with one of their knives anyway. He was most jubilant about that!

They kept me there at Wattlebrae nearly all the afternoon. Then eventually the ambulance driver from Cleveland came up. “Hello, Matt,” he said. “So you’re going to Peel Island.”

“Yes, Gordon’”

“Alright, we’ll get your papers and we’ll go. They’ve cut it pretty fine. We’ve just got time to get to the boat.”

The authorities were aware I knew Gordon very well, and that if he got half a chance he’d call into my home at Cleveland. But they cut it fine. All I had to wear were the hospital pyjamas of the PA. No gown, nothing. I am nearly sure to this day that I still had my clothes at the PA Hospital. Anyway I didn’t have them then, and I still haven’t got them. Probably they all went up in smoke long before I left the hospital – or soon after, because the old sister they had there was a crabby old thing. Thank God they have got rid of all them now, because they are all God’s people up there now.

Anyway Gordon Stewart said, “So that’s all you’ve got? Just your pyjamas?”

“That’s all, Gordon.”

“Well, we’ll soon have to fix that up.”

Anyway we were coming down in the ambulance and we were talking, and I took a dim view of all this, because I had heard a lot about this leprosy. I’d been over there with the Buffalo Lodge and didn’t like the look of the place. I’d heard that if you went over there as a patient, it was curtains. Anyhow, Gordon Stewart enlightened me quite a bit. 

He said, “I’d like to call into your house to see your wife, but I don’t think they’ve given us much time.” 

As he passed our road, he had his foot on the clutch. He was in two minds whether to call in or not, and they knew this. So he said “No we’d better not. The boat’s waiting with its engines running. But I’ve got to call into the ambulance station and get you an overcoat. I can’t send you over to the island in them cursed pyjamas. I’ve got a spare one there.”

We called into the ambulance station at Cleveland and he got me a nice warm overcoat. 

“They can get it back to me later on,” he said.

So he backed onto the Cleveland jetty, and I got aboard the Vega. The skipper was Harold Walker, who I also knew.  He was surprised to see me going over to Peel Island. There was only he and I on the boat. I was a special trip – vice regal!

On the way over to Peel, Harold enlightened me quite a bit more than Gordon Stewart had.

Vega coming in to Peel Island’s western jetty 1958 (Photo courtesy June Berthelsen)

At Peel Island

When we got over to Peel, there was the doctor and four men waiting for me in the truck, and when we docked, Harold went over and had a talk to the doctor. I knew they were talking about me, because they kept glancing over towards me. The doctor kept shaking his head, and of the four men he had with him, three of them I knew very well. We often used to have a beer together and the Grand View Hotel or the Sands at a weekend. Anyway they laughed and we shook hands. I couldn’t understand it, but it appears that someone from the Health Department had rung him and told him not to come down to the boat alone, but to bring a bodyguard with him. So we had a great laugh over it. They had thought I was going to be a bit resistant to staying on Peel.

So I shook hands with Harold Walker. And he went away home on the Vega and we went in the truck to the Lazaret. So we got across the island, and I walked into the hospital. The old matron came down, and the very words I said when I saw her were, “Thank Christ!”

“What have you got to thank Him about?”

I said, “I’m with God’s people at last.” I was relieved to get there.

“I suppose you want a good shower, eh?”

“Yes, and a good feed”

“What about those pyjamas?”

“I’ll keep them as a memento.”

“Like hell you will!”

So I had a good shower, and a good feed, and a nice clean pair of pyjamas. Matron was a hard case because she had my old pyjamas all tied up in a bow and she said, “What are we going to do with these?”

“Wrap ‘em up and we’ll send them back to the sister at the PA.”

“I think we might too.”

Well from that day at Peel Island I never looked back. My feelings were more or less remorse for a few weeks, but when my wife and my own people came over to see me on the island, I began to see that it was not as bad as I had thought it could have been. Later on, I was rather amused at the changes in the attitude the doctor and nursing staff at Wattlebrae from those days to those of today.

Dr Morgan Gabriel and Matron Marie Ahlberg at Peel Island

To amuse ourselves at Peel, there was quite a bit of fishing – we got to know where to go and when to go. Whenwas the main thing. I took up woodworking when I was over there. The only thing I could drive straight was a car, a grader, and a bulldozer, but with the assistance of the doctor, he taught me quite a bit about driving nails straight etc. Between us we did very well. The Red Cross helped me with any timber I wanted. One good job I did over there – a sideboard – I had estapolled one afternoon and left to dry in one of the huts. When I walked in the next morning, there were a lot of stains on it. Its beautiful top was ruined I thought. I was really worried, so when the doctor went past I called him in and said, “Doctor, what do you reckon about this?”

He had a bit of a grin, and he got a rag and wiped them off. “They’re just spider droppings.”

I might add that this time I had five huts at my disposal – there were that many spare huts over there at the time – one to keep my timber in, one to keep my paints and varnishes in, one as a workshop etc. I sold quite a bit of furniture that I made there. 

At night we used to play Canasta. There were two old ladies in the hospital who were great Canasta players, and the matron used to join them too. I used to wander over and play cards with them at night until the tide was coming in. When the tide was nearly three quarters of the way in, I used to knock off the card playing, get in the truck and go down to Horseshoe Bay where I’d throw in about four or five lines, then come back. When I pulled the line in, if the sharks didn’t get them first, I’d get nice big summer whiting. If the sharks got them, I’d only have heads. If you could beat the sharks, you’d be alright for a meal in an hour or so. The sharks were pretty bad there, especially in the Horseshoe. However, the sharks that came in for the fish would only be three or four footers (about a metre).

When the Lazaret’s official truck driver went home, cured, I got that job. It paid me good money. Also I had my boat, so when some of the staff wanted to go across to their homes at Cleveland for the night, I’d take the boat around to the western jetty in the afternoon, then at afternoon tea, I’d take the truck down to the jetty, and reverse it around, and leave the tail light on. Then I’d take the staff over to Cleveland and after a couple of beers at the Grand View Hotel – on the house – I’d get a taxi and go home for a few hours. Then on closing time, I’d go back to the hotel, round ‘em all up, and off we’d go to the boat. The main trouble was getting some of them along Cleveland jetty!

When I started work in the Redland Shire in 1951, we had a Buffalo Lodge on the mainland called Redlands 98, which had 80 members when it first opened. We organised a late stay visit to Peel with the Superintendent, Frank Mahoney in about 1952 – 53. The big recreation hall at the Lazaret was just packed with members and visitors. I think we finished up about 1 or 2 am, and as we left the jetty, the patients and staff were waving goodbye to us in the rain. It was raining like hell. We were the only ones to visit the islands after dark. Later in 1954 when I went over there as a patient, there were only twenty patients there, and I was the only Lodge member in the patients’ category. The rest of Peel’s members were staff.

NOTES:

1. Because of the stigma that surrounded Leprosy and to which some family members are still sensitive, I have used the pseudonym ‘Matt’ to denote this patient – the same one that I had used previously to record some of his reminiscences in my 1987 book “Peel Island – Paradise or Prison”.  

2. Because of its stigma, the name Leprosy has now been replaced with Hansen’s Disease, or just HD.

3. PA = Princess Alexandra Hospital, formerly the South Brisbane Hospital

4. Wattlebrae is the infectious diseases ward at the Royal Brisbane Hospital, formerly known as the General Hospital.

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

BOHEMIA – An Agnew Family Odyssey now showing at the Redland Museum.

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.

Noel Agnew entertaining one of his sisters.

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.