There’s blood-soaked heritage aplenty in Brisbane’s gruesome past, writes Denise Cullen
FROM the top of Brisbane’s landmark Story Bridge, climbers can peer down on the site of a savage murder that shaped the fortunes of the city. One morning in 1848, the body parts of a former convict turned timber-getter — ‘‘ expertly butchered’’, according to local author Rosamond Siemon — were found scattered around the gentle curve of Kangaroo Point.
The legs were discovered below the highwater mark of the Brisbane River, the arms and upper torso up the road, and the intestines spilling out of a nearby well.
The ‘‘ still bleeding’’ head, meanwhile, was propped up in an unfinished building, Siemon writes in TheMayneInheritance (University of Queensland Press, 1997).
A man was hanged for the crime within months, but it was another 17 years before the real killer — butcher, school patron and prominent alderman Patrick Mayne — made a deathbed confession. It turns out Mayne had used the money stolen from his victim to set himself up and, with time and cunning, parlayed these ill-gotten gains into a business and political empire that stretched across budding Brisbane.
Mayne’s descendants subsequently donated the land on which the University of Queensland’s jacaranda-studded St Lucia campus is situated and, through other acts of generosity, were widely recognised as the state’s greatest benefactors.
Yet these and other bloody legacies would be news to many Sunshine State residents. Each week, an estimated 1500 interstate migrants, mostly from NSW and Victoria, pour over the border in search of a less complicated, more carefree lifestyle.
Most would be shocked to learn of their adopted capital city’s gruesome past, says local historian and tour guide Jack Sim: ‘‘ There has been a distinctly southern focus when it comes to our country’s history.’’
The Rocks district in Sydney and Tasmania’s notorious Port Arthur prison, Sim adds, weren’t the only places built on the backs of prisoners transported to Australia. Along with Norfolk Island, the Moreton Bay penal settlement (as Brisbane was known from 1824 to 1842) was reserved for ‘‘ the worst of the worst’’ and garnered a reputation as one of the harshest convict outposts.
Yet there is little remaining physical evidence of the darkest days of Brisbane’s birth. When the area was opened to free settlers, Sim claims the population’s ‘‘ pathological’’ need to escape the past resulted in the destruction of many reminders.
Buildings from the penal era were torn down, giant stately Moreton Bay fig trees (to which prisoners were tied for floggings) were uprooted and foundation stones were ‘‘ cut out of the face of the earth’’.
Today, only two convict-built structures stand alongside the city’s skyscrapers. Constructed in 1828, originally to grind wheat and corn for the early penal settlement, the Old Windmill finds itself incongruously perched amid the medical specialist offices of Wickham Terrace, Spring Hill. (While not open to the public, this landmark is included in most whistlestop tours of Brisbane.)
The first two floors of the Commissariat Store on the banks of the Brisbane River in William Street were also built by convicts at warder dived in headfirst, broke his neck and drowned in the shallows.
This is one of dozens of bleak tales that emerge during our sunny day in the old slammer. With offences such as ‘‘ singing in the ward’’ punishable by solitary confinement and ‘‘ insolence and disrespect’’ by 14 days’ shot drill (a march with a cannon ball after a day’s hard labour), many prisoners saw suicide as their only ticket off the island.
Others tried to escape by swimming to the mainland. However, many more were discouraged by the warders’ nightly practice of throwing animal offal and other berley from the prison farm’s slaughterhouse to attract sharks. And if that didn’t put off prisoners, the prospect of 25 lashes likely did.
Back on the mainland, Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol, dating back to 1883, shares an interlinked history, as it was originally intended to serve as a holding place for prisoners heading to St Helena Island. More
‘ about the same time, under the direction of commandant Patrick Logan. The building now houses a museum.
More elusive ghosts can be glimpsed elsewhere. Leaving behind hundreds of gleaming white boats at the Brisbane bayside suburb of Manly to cut through a calm green sea, it’s a half-hour voyage aboard the catamaran Cat-O’-Nine-Tails to hauntingly beautiful St Helena Island.
Disembarking passengers utter shouts of delight at dolphins leaping in the distance. Dubbed Australia’s Alcatraz, St Helena Island functioned as Queensland’s foremost colonial maximum-security prison from 1867. Most of the island, including the stone prison ruins, is accessible today only by guided tour.
Near the jetty, a bizarre rectangular enclosure comprising rusted iron bars is revealed to have been a swimming enclosure for the prison warders. But as much as it kept out sharks, it kept in sand: one morning, a than 42 people were executed there over the years. In the 1980s the jail was the scene of riots, which eventually led to its closure.
Converted to a museum in 1992, it attracted thousands of visitors, but is again closed to the public pending redevelopment into an urban village with the historic section of the jail retained as part of the project, says historian Peter Lawler. (The prison is scheduled to reopen to the public in 2009.)
In the meantime, tours of Toowong cemetery, Queensland’s oldest and largest, take place every Saturday night. Hugged by freeways, flyovers and high-priced real estate, the cemetery is the burial place of some of early Brisbane’s most prominent identities, including colonel Samuel Blackall, Queensland’s second governor.
There is also an imposing memorial to the notorious Mayne, along with the bodies of his descendants, though his physical remains lie elsewhere. With her wide eyes glinting in the dim light, our tour guide claims that grates at the base of the family crypt, designed to allow gases from the decomposition process to escape, have been seen to gush with a ‘‘ thick crimson liquid representing the blood on the hands of the murderous Mayne’’. She urges further reflective pause at the tomb near the main gates belonging to railway worker and hotelier Edward McGregor. Rumour has it that the life-size marble likeness that sits atop McGregor’s final resting place has been reported rising from its pedestal to wander the cemetery grounds and pinch flowers from the nearby botanic gardens.
Back towards the CBD and across the snaking Brisbane River, the glitzy recreational precinct of South Bank — with its shops, hotels, restaurants and artificial beach — is another site of significant legend.
The ghost of Logan is a ‘‘ particularly wellknown piece of local folklore’’, says Brian Randall, manager of heritage information services with the State Library of Queensland. In addition to serving as one of the penal colony’s earliest commandants, Logan was a keen explorer and adventurer who went missing, reportedly killed during a skirmish with Aborigines in 1830.
During the time between Logan’s disappearance and the discovery of his body by a search party two days’ ride from Brisbane, convicts standing where the Victoria Bridge now arches from the CBD over the river to South Bank reported seeing his forlorn form. ‘‘ They thought they saw him waving from the other side of the river, indicating he wanted them to come and get him,’’ Randall explains.
Randall, who is compiling a book on haunted Australian hotels, used the famous 118-year-old Breakfast Creek Hotel as his starting point.
Over the years, bartenders, cellarmen and other employees have reported encounters with the original proprietor, William McNaughton Galloway, in the older part of the hotel. Rumour has it that staff locked their drunken boss, affectionately known as Bill, in an upstairs room to sleep it off.
Reluctant to miss the party below, however, the publican shimmied down a drainpipe outside the window and slipped to his death.
Ghost musters: Brisbane’s Story Bridge at sunset, above; the convict-built Old Windmill Observatory, Wickham Park, top right; hauntingly beautiful’ St Helena Island, bottom right