Saturday, 29 October 2011

Halloween: an all-American tradition we've pointlessly adopted, right?? begging to go door-knocking around the neighbourhood dressed in scary costumes in the hopes of bagging lollies...pumpkins carved into jack-o'-lanterns adorning the front of houses...the ever-present threat of trick before treat, & the stark reality of an egged house.  According to many mainstream Australian media sources (& likely your parents as you were growing up), Halloween is nothing more than a pointless American tradition infringing on the minds of Brisbane kids...isn't it??

If you subscribe to the word of your parents, then you'd be slightly correct...although only ever so slightly.

The history of Halloween rests on two contentious origins, however both seem to intertwine around the 8th Century.  One school of thought links the genesis to the Gaelic Harvest Festival known as Samhain, a practice born out of Ireland & parts of Scotland.  This festival, or feast, celebrated the end of the seasonal harvest & marked the onset of winter.  Over time, the festival evolved to additionally become a dedication to the dead -  ancestors were remembered & revered on the night & it became custom to set aside a place at the feast table for family members who had passed.  The second school of thought links Halloween's origin with the Christian celebration of All Saints' Day (also known as All Hallows Day), which occurs on the 1st of November each year.  In essence, the celebration involved a feast to pay spiritual homage to Saints both past & present whose souls are either being cleansed in Purgatory or who have already ascended to Heaven.

At Samhain, it was believed that the veil between this world & the next was at its weakest or most permeable - this allowed the spirits of deceased relatives to cross over the breach temporarily to visit living loved ones.  However, this rift also provided a doorway into the land of the living through which evil spirits could travel.  In order to ward off these unwanted souls and confuse their travels, it became custom for the living to wear costumes & masks.  Additionally, large turnips were gathered for the occasion & carved into lanterns to remember the souls held in Purgatory (over time, these lanterns evolved into the jack-o'-lantern).  In a similar vein, a custom practiced on All Saints' Day involved the production of small cakes known as soul cakes - each cake eaten would represent a soul being freed from Purgatory.  During the celebration, children & the poor would travel from door to door offering songs & prayers for the dead - in return, soul cakes would be offered as thanks (notice the similarity with modern-day trick-or-treating?).

So, let's jump forward a number of centuries.  After having reviewed the probable origins of Halloween, it comes as no surprise that the celebration was adopted in America given the large number of Irish & Scottish immigrants that helped to build that country in the early years.  However, we must also keep in mind that Australia's early population was predominantly Irish & Scottish.

On the 1st of November 1878, the Brisbane Courier reported, "Yesterday evening, October 31, would be known in Ireland and Scotland as "Halloween."  "The spirits" are then supposed to be abroad in any required number.  In the old land spirits of various kinds have managed to get up quite a reputation for "Halloween" performances.  But they do not seem to have made headway in Queensland.  With the exception of occasional parties of politicians in mumbling conclave as they moved along the streets, nothing very mysterious appeared in Brisbane last evening.  A few noisy spirits, however, took possession of certain new arrivals, but there were no "Halloween" peculiarities about them; they were simply acquiring their first, and, as we trust, their worst insight into colonial life.  In all other respects "Halloween" passed off unnoticed, as its many predecessors have done in Brisbane."

By the 1880's the Brisbane Caledonian Society (Scottish Association) was beginning to host annual Halloween celebrations, which gained particular momentum into the early years of the 1900's.  However, through the 1920's & 1930's Halloween saw a marked increase in popularity in Brisbane.  Many of the Irish & Scottish Halloween traditions were embraced for the yearly celebration, & there is no doubt that further nuances were likely adopted from America (in which country Halloween was also experiencing a new found resurgence).  The upper-class across the city rubbed shoulders at fancy Halloween balls - annual events were regularly held at Lennon's Hotel, the Lyceum Club & the Trocadero Dansant. Presbyterian Church groups throughout Brisbane held annual Halloween parties to raise money for building funds & charitable organisations.  The Church of England also held annual events, the 1932 party being documented in the Brisbane Courier - "Across the main entrance of the hall was erected a ladder, and on passing under it the guests entered a world of Hallowe'en superstition, with pumpkin faces, black cats, and a life-sized skeleton, occupying prominent positions."

In 1935, Mrs Forgan-Smith, wife of the then Queensland Premier William Forgan-Smith, took advantage of Halloween to hold a dance at the legendary (& sadly long since destroyed) Bellevue Hotel in order to raise funds for the Creche & Kindergarten Association.  The night was such a major success, £61 was raised for the organisation.   In 1936, after celebrations held by the Kedron & District Scottish Association, the Indooroopilly Scouts & Wild Cubs, the Methodist Ladies Church Guild, the State High School Past Pupils' Association and the Annerley Bowlers' Association, the Brisbane Courier reported, "A light orange moon, glowing in a misty sky, might have been designed especially for the occasion last evening, when numerous associations celebrated Hallowe'en with high revel.  Wild witches and gruesome ghosts, cauldrons bubbling with black magic, black cats, mournful bats, and the owls that hoot at midnight played their part in the eerie entertainment offered."

The popularity of Halloween in Brisbane continued through the late 1930's & early 1940's, no doubt bolstered by the large number of American servicemen moving through the city during the war years.  However, by the early 1950's interest in Halloween began to wane & continued to do so over the next 2 decades, with the result that Brisbane's affinity with the annual celebration earlier in the century was forgotten.  Over the past 30 years, the general consensus concerning Halloween pegs the festivity as being an fairly recent American tradition that has no real place in Australia...however you know now that this perception couldn't be further from the truth.  So, on Monday, use your best artistic flair to carve a pumpkin lantern for the front window & keep a supply of treats handy for trick-or-treaters - in doing so, you'll be paying reverence to the souls of the departed in a tradition that dates back over a 1000 years, & will be reviving a celebration that was being actively enjoyed by your grandparents in Brisbane almost a century ago!

Sunday, 23 October 2011

What lies beneath: The forgotten souls of Moreton Bay.

A substantial cemetery...located alongside the expanding population centre of Brisbane Town, that is in time to become the capital city of Queensland...terribly neglected by both the authorities & residents for over 2 decades, until the area became virtually unrecognisable as consecrated ground for the interment of the departed...finally divided into allotments & sold at public auction to be built upon...until not a trace remained.

For those who are somewhat familiar with the history of Brisbane, you are likely expecting this week's feature to detail the destruction of a cluster of denominational cemeteries that were collectively termed the North Brisbane Burial Grounds (also referred to as the Milton or Paddington Cemeteries) from the above introduction.  If you were, you'd be mistaken - Brisbane Town's earliest history goes far deeper than the vast majority of Brisbane residents are aware of.

The Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds, or Paddington/Milton/Lang Park cemetery, was not the first resting place of Brisbane's departed...nor was it the first Brisbane cemetery to have been demolished & erased from public memory.  Prior to the opening of the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds in 1843, & Brisbane Town being declared open for free settlement in 1842, the area on which the CBD now resides was better known as the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  Relocated to the northern bank of the Brisbane River in early 1825 (after an initial penal station established at Redcliffe on the 14th September 1824 had failed), the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement quickly earnt a reputation for it's mortality rate - excessive floggings for minor breaches of conduct oft times proved fatal, whilst malnutrition & tropical disease delivered many more to an early grave.  Early records verify that during the penal settlement's period of operation & Brisbane Town's first 2 years as a free settlement (1825-1843), a total of 265 people perished within its borders - of which 220 were convicts.

Clearly, once prisoners incarcerated within the confines of the colony began to die, the necessity for a suitable burial ground arose.  An area was chosen suitably distant to the centre of the settlement - far enough away that the accumulating graves would not become a focal point of the overall compound, but still close enough to be easily accessible from the soon-to-be-constructed convict hospital.  Little more is known about the evolution of this graveyard throughout the life of the settlement, apart from the approximate number of souls who were interred there through the penal period to 1839 & the first years of free settlement to 1843.  However, by 1843, the population of the newly opened Brisbane Town had expanded by such an extent, that the need for a larger burial ground was imperative - hence, the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds were opened, & the previous penal graveyard became known as the Old Burial Ground.

So...where was this Old Burial Ground?  The site is closer to the CBD than most would image - as exact a location as can be given, the Old Burial Ground is bordered by current Upper Roma Street, Eagle Terrace, Skew Street (parallel to Coronation Drive) & Saul Street - beneath the 2 large grassed areas alongside the back of the B105 & Triple M building at North Quay.

So...what became of the Old Burial Ground?  With the advent of the opening of the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds in 1843 and the rapid expansion of Brisbane Town, the Old Burial Ground began to fall into disrepair.  The earliest public record of the cemetery's physical condition was published in the first edition of the Moreton Bay Courier (Brisbane Town's first media outlet) on the 20th June 1846, where it was stated "we trust our readers will give us credit for sincerity of motive in offering to their consideration a few remarks on the present disgraceful state of the old burial ground in North Brisbane.  [T]here is not even a fence to restrain pigs and other animals from rooting and roving over the dwellings of the dead.  If something be not done shortly, we may chance to witness the remains of those interred exposed to public view.  Such an occurrence, it is true, is not likely to happen; but its bare possibility should be an inducement to the inhabitants to take instant steps to secure the ground from intrusion of quadrupeds."

By 1852, the Moreton Bay Courier again reported on the 16th October, "Six years ago, nearly a hundred tablets, headstones, etc., stood in the old burial ground; now, a bare dozen can only be counted, and many of these are dilapidated and overturned.  The fence is torn down, carried away or burnt.  The records of gratitude or of affection erected to the memories of many a gallant soldier, sincere friend, or loving wife; the burial grounds which are held sacred even among the [aborigines], seem to have been strangely violated in this instance.  What hands have taken so many monumental stones away none can tell, but where many could be found might be said or written as easily as "hearths of Brisbane.""  The article, continuing, discloses a massive historical treasure - the Old Burial Ground contained the grave of Granville William Chetwynd Stapylton, a renowned Australian explorer & surveyor who was murdered whilst on an exploratory mission south of Brisbane on 31st May 1840.  Two men were captured, tried & hanged at the Tower Mill (on current Wickham Terrace) a year later for the murder - ironically, their bodies were conveyed down the hill shortly after to be buried in the same ground as Stapylton.

By the mid 1860's, the Old Burial Ground had fallen into such disrepair that authorities began to plan for the site's redevelopment.  In the years leading up to 1875, some few burials & monuments that could be identified were exhumed & reinterred at the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds where it was hoped they would be safe - unfortunately, these few relocated relics would be lost forever 50 years later during the redevelopment of the Lang Park site.  Skew Street was constructed across the site, dividing the block into 2 sections, which were in turn split into 7 allotments each and sold off at public auction on the 12th October 1875.  From this point in history on, the memory of Brisbane Town's Old Burial Ground quickly faded.  However, in July 2010 the Queensland Heritage Council added the site to the Queensland Heritage Register based on its archaeological potential - "The site has been identified as being exceedingly rare as we now have very little physical evidence of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.  There is good potential for there to be burial remains including personal items at the burial ground as past development on the site has been low impact."

However, not all evidence of Brisbane's penal period was lost in the subsequent destruction of the Old Burial Ground & Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds.  Just beyond the boundaries of the Old Burial Ground, 4 children were interred in their own allotment overlooking the river in the first 3 years of the 1830's.  Having been located away from the burial ground itself, these graves remained after the sale of the cemetery proper in 1875.  However, in 1881 during survey work being conducted for the construction of tram lines along the river bank, the decision was made to exhume & relocate this final remnant of the Old Burial Ground.  Very fortunately, the Northern Brisbane Burial Grounds had been declared closed 6 years earlier in 1875, however a new municipal cemetery had been opened at Toowong in the same year.  So, on the 5th October 1881, 3 pioneer children who had died during the earliest period of Brisbane Town's history, were again laid to rest within Toowong Cemetery's confines (1 child's remains had been irretrievable from North Quay).  These three monuments survive to this day as the oldest headstones in Queensland (as pictured at the top of this blog).

So, next time you drive over the Grey Street Bridge & onto Skew Street in the direction of Milton Road, make sure to spare a thought for the souls of convicts, soldiers, women & children of the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement over who's graves you are travelling.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Brisbane City Hall: The Liftman was innocent.

Brisbane City Hall - formally opened by his Excellency the Governor Sir John Goodwin on the 8th April 1930, the grandiose building at the heart of our city had already celebrated multiple milestones in a gradually increasing capacity since 1927 (at which time it had been partially occupied amid ongoing construction) by the time of its official inauguration.  The site on which the City Hall now stands had been purchased in 1877, however the site had been deemed unsuitable for a municipal hall in preference of a more elevated location.

Considered a low lying, flood prone, swampy tract of the emerging Brisbane business district, there is no doubt that regular flooding of the Brisbane River reinforced this concern - in the 40 years leading up to 1900 (in 1841, 1844, 1890, 1893 & 1897), Brisbane had been inundated by 5 major flooding events that rivaled & exceeded the recent 2011 flood levels earlier this year. Whilst other suitable sites had been recommended & another purchased for the specific purpose throughout the early 1900's, a shift in opinion coupled with nearly 2 decades of economic stagnation saw the original site again championed for the role.  Thus, the legendary architectural partnership of Hall & Prentice were approached to design the structure, with the foundation stone being laid in 1920 by Edward, Prince of Wales - Edward eventually ascended to the throne on the death of King George V in early 1936 as King Edward VIII, however abdicated later the same year after announcing his intention to marry an American socialite who was yet to divorce.  His brother Albert stepped into the role, assuming the title of King George VI (as outlined in the recent blockbuster, "The King's Speech").

So...where do the ghosts fit in??  Brisbane City Hall has earned a local reputation for housing at least 4 ghosts - one ghost is said to be female & frequents the foyer, foyer stairs and mezzanine balcony overlooking the foyer; one ghost is rumoured to haunt an entire wing of City Hall that was subsequently shut down for decades as a result, before being converted into a childcare centre; one ghost is alleged to be that of a WWII American sailor who was embroiled in a fight over a woman with another sailor, & was stabbed to death in the Red Cross Tea Rooms beneath City Hall.  All of these legends are based & perpetuated on an element of truth, however we can savour them for a later date - for now, we shall focus on the 4th reported haunting: the Lift Attendant's phantom that haunts the renowned tower of City Hall.

This legend has been retold extensively over the past 13 years, however the details differ slightly - a lift attendant or workman at City Hall, perished in his dereliction of duty (differing versions of the story claim he either fell, jumped, or was crushed by the lift during installation) early in the building's history around the 1930's - hence, his ghost rides the elevator of the tower & causes ongoing mechanical issues.  Let's survey the history: in June 1998, the Queensland Independent reporter Louise Rugendyke, reported that, "One [ghost] has been continually riding the lift since the 1930's (he was killed while installing it)."  In 2008, 10 years later during renovations of City Hall, an article written by Kelmeny Fraser published in the City News on the 21st November stated, "When the clock tower was renovated a construction worker claimed to have seen a ghost which presented as [a] silhouette of a man standing in an area off-limits to the public."  By 2009, Nicole Carrington reported in the City News that, "[The ghosts of City Hall include] a maintenance man who rides the lifts who is rumoured to have died in a freak accident."

Ultimately though, the most popular & widely disseminated version of the story fingers the Lift Attendant as the ghostly culprit.  Rumour has it that the unnamed Liftman either jumped to his death or slipped an fell from the tower in 1932, sparking an ongoing haunting and series of mechanical failures of the lift itself.  A recently published book penned by a self-professed local "historian" (who has consistently perpetuated the "true" story of the tragically killed Lift Attendant for many years now), even goes so far as to admit that whilst there is no evidence to verify the death of a Liftman at City Hall, said man's alleged death elsewhere (away from City Hall) is clearly the confused origin of the tale (and in turn the haunting?). That being said, however, no evidence is put forward in the book to either qualify the Lift Attendant's death away from City Hall, or to verify that the unnamed Lift Attendant even died at all.

From historic records, we can unarguably verify that the tower lift experienced mechanical failures entirely of it's own making from the moment of installation - in July 1929 a fire broke out in the lift well as a result of the lift being started suddenly at full power, causing dense smoke to pour from the well giving the impression of a major fire - the situation was quickly contained by workmen without the need for the fire brigade.  Again, in April 1930 only 2 days after the City Hall had been formally opened by the Governor, a fire again broke out in the lift well requiring Attendants to jump to the rescue.  Apart from these early teething issues, no further failures appear in the records outside what would be considered normal operational problems - & definitely nothing in the ballpark that would indicate that the lift itself had a mind of it's own as a result of a maligned spirit.

So, with the ghost legend & some background history aside, where's the truth behind the rumour, you ask??  The truth, which most likely led to the story of the haunted Tower, occurred on no more an ironic/iconic day as Halloween. On the 31st of October 1935, building contractor George Edward Betts (incorrectly listed as George Edward Botts on Qld BDM's website) left his home in Bardon at about 7am on his way to work.  At the time, he was working on a construction project erecting two workers' dwellings, & had appeared in high spirits when he'd bid farewell to his wife for the day.  On his departure, he had mentioned to his wife that he planned to visit the doctor on the way to work, & at some stage during the day would need to visit City Hall in order to pay Council for water connection work at a building site in Annerley.  George worked throughout the morning on-site, however at lunchtime he changed his clothes and advised the other builders that he needed to go into town on business.

At about 2:15pm at the City Hall, Liftman George Jones accepted two passengers for a trip to the observation landing of the tower - a man (George Betts) & a woman, who on appearance seemed to be strangers to one another.  About 5 minutes later, the woman entered the lift once more & was transported back down to the ground floor.  A couple of minutes transpired where George Betts was left alone on the observation landing - it can only be assumed as to what took place at the top of the tower during those short few minutes, however a loud crash was heard by those on the lower levels of the Hall soon after.  On investigation, a large hole could be seen in the roof of the Hall facing King George Square.  A room search was immediately conducted, resulting in the discovery of George's body - he had plummeted over 40 metres from the observation landing, through the galvanised iron roof of City Hall, coming to rest on the concrete floor of a chamber off the record room.  Subsequently, his brief bag was located alongside the telescope at the top of the tower.

An inquest was conducted shortly after the accident, at which a number of witnesses were called.  At this hearing, the safety of the observation landing was immediately called into question - were the installed safety railings adequate to prevent sightseers from accidentally falling from the tower?  Evidence was given that it would not be possible for a sightseer to fall over the rail whilst on the observation landing - "the only way one could fall from the rail would be to climb up to look out at something." Constable Fursman of the Brisbane Police provided testimony that he had thoroughly examined the safety rail, and that, "It would be impossible for anyone to fall over the grill support near the telescope under ordinary conditions unless he climbed upon it."  In his opinion, there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death.  To that end, the Inquest was closed.

We can only postulate the events that led up to the accident that fateful day, but the main question remains - what possessed George Betts to climb over the safety rail leading to his subsequent fatal fall?  Perhaps his visit to the doctor earlier that morning had resulted in bad news about his health, convincing him to take his own life later that afternoon?   Regardless, it's safe to say that previous tales guessing at the historic origins of the City Hall Tower ghost can now be put to rest - the mystery Lift Attendant, who at no stage came to an untimely end in the City Hall in the dereliction of duty, has been proven beyond reasonable doubt not guilty!