South Brisbane Cemetery from the Brisbane River, ca. 1896During the past week, South Brisbane Cemetery has experienced some very good...& some very bad. The very good came on Wednesday night, with the exposure of an old ghost story of the cemetery which has become horribly jumbled, published on The Boggo Road Blog entitled, "The Woman in Black: Solving the mystery of a vanishing ghost." The very bad came the next night, on Thursday, when the female toilet block within the cemetery was set on fire by an arsonist just prior to 10pm - whilst the fire was extinguished soon after, the building was significantly damaged.
So, with jumbled ghost stories & cemetery buildings at the forefront of South Brisbane Cemetery news this week, one particular puzzling tale immediately comes to mind. For some years now, a ghost story has been told on the commercial tours of the cemetery regarding a building that once stood alongside Section 6B - over the space of this article, we'll collate all the necessary historic information required & investigate why this tale is so intriguing. The story, as relayed to me by those who have taken this tour, goes:
A wooden building used to exist on the site up until a couple of decades ago, when it was demolished to make way for the current cemetery buildings alongside Section 6B. For the vast bulk of the 1900's, up until its removal, the building was utilised as the Sexton's office, & earned a solid reputation for bizarre incidents & ghostly occurrences. Items within the building were regularly upset or moved, tools vanished & weird sounds were frequently heard. Now, it seems that the building's mere situation within the cemetery grounds was not the cause for these supposedly haunted happenings - prior to its conversion into the Sexton's office around 1900, this wooden building had acted as the State Government morgue - the very room in which the cemetery staff would consume their lunches had been the room in which the autopsies had been performed. Bodies were brought from all over Queensland for the purpose of post-mortem examinations - most notably to the history of Brisbane, those who had lost their lives during the terrible 1893 floods were conveyed to this morgue for autopsy & identification.
Keeping this in mind, we need to delve into the annals of history for some perspective. Throughout February 1893, multiple drowning deaths occurred as a result of the devastating 1893 Brisbane floods. The details of each drowning, & subsequent Magisterial Inquiries, were documented in the Brisbane Courier - George Brown, who drowned about the 4th of February & was located a week later at Gardens Point, was taken to the hospital morgue; Alexander Freese, who drowned in Grey Street on the 6th of February, was taken to the hospital morgue; Katie Maher, who drowned near Queen Street on the 11th of February, was taken to the hospital morgue; Michael Joyce, who drowned near the Brisbane Wharves on the 11th of February, was taken to the hospital morgue; Patrick Casey, who drowned near Breakfast Creek on the 17th of February, was taken to the hospital morgue; Sydney Hollyman, who drowned in Edward Street on the 19th of February, was taken to the hospital morgue. Whilst further drowning deaths occurred as a result of the 1893 floods, 6 examples are adequate to aid in our investigation.
Two further records must be mentioned before we get to the crux of our investigation, as they are of major importance - on the 9th of September 1896, residents alerted the police to the body of a young girl floating in the river at the foot of the South Brisbane Cemetery. The police responded immediately, recovering the body from the water, & conveyed the remains to the hospital morgue. After a post-mortem examination was conducted, the body was identified as that of Lottie McCrea, a servant girl who had resided on Boggo Road (now Annerley Road). 4 years later, on the 25th of April 1900, the body of a man was recovered from the river below the South Brisbane Cemetery in an advanced state of decomposition. The remains were conveyed to the hospital morgue for an autopsy, however all attempts at identification were unsuccessful - the unfortunate soul was buried, possibly back in South Brisbane Cemetery, the next day on the 26th of April. In both of these cases, & especially the second, the bodies required transport over fair distance to the hospital morgue by either watercraft or by road via horse-drawn hearse - why not transfer these bodies onto land at the foot of the cemetery & traverse the couple of hundred metres to the State Government morgue within the cemetery grounds??
I possess countless records or murder, suicide & accident victims whose remains were conveyed to one of Brisbane's hospital morgues for post-mortem & identification between the years of 1870 when South Brisbane Cemetery was declared open & 1901, when we are expected to believe that the cemetery morgue was converted to a Sexton's office - not one record mentions the South Brisbane Cemetery Morgue. So...why did the State Government Morgue, the prior site of which is visited every weekend by Ghost Tours' South Brisbane Cemetery Tour, see little if any action as the State Government Morgue?? The answer is very simple - no morgue, State Government or otherwise, ever existed within the grounds of South Brisbane Cemetery!
Photo taken from the Friends of South Brisbane Cemetery website,
showing the flood height in cemetery during 2011 Brisbane floods.
Almost all of this tale is a fallacy - almost all. To get to the 2% truth in the story, we need to once again head back into the annals of history to uncover the scant details from which this story was concocted. From the above, we know that many of the 1893 flood victims were conveyed to hospital morgues & not a morgue in South Brisbane Cemetery - given that the lower sections, & buildings alongside Section 6B, of South Brisbane Cemetery were inundated during the floods earlier this year (picture above) at a flood height of 4.46 metres, in comparison to the 1893 floods which peaked at 8.3 metres (almost 4 metres higher) we can only imagine what would have happened to a wooden morgue building in the cemetery grounds on this same piece of ground...it's clear that even if the wooden building had miraculously survived, it would have been in no condition to have officially held bodies from the floods, unless they had fortuitously washed in whilst the building was completely submerged. Similarly, I have attended ghost tours in Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales & Queensland that visit actual morgues - never once have I ever come across a morgue that was built in anything but stone or concrete - a timber morgue exposed to the summer heat of Brisbane is a truly novel concept, in an age prior to refrigeration!
So to the 2% truth - the story of the South Brisbane Cemetery Morgue seems to be an amalgamation of two unrelated stories of the cemetery...& an amalgamation of very scant details at best. The tale consists of a little concerning the Sexton's office, a little concerning the cemetery tool shed, & a lot concerning a non-existent morgue. From the Heritage Listing on the Department of Environment & Resource Management's website, "Work on the cemetery was halted by wartime shortages of labour and materials, but recommenced in 1945 when a survey of the cemetery noted lavatory blocks for men and women, two shelter sheds, a timber sexton's cottage, a timber tool room, motor shed and men's room. A brick staff amenities block was constructed in 1954." Here, we find no mention of a timber Secton's office, however the Sexton's cottage mentioned was a different structure that existed until 15 years ago in a different section of the cemetery, until it burnt down. The old wooden tool shed existed near the front gate, but was pulled down in the 1980's - finally giving us the "demolished a few decades ago" part of the story. All in all, we have yet another story of South Brisbane Cemetery that has lost its way.
As a postscript, I came across a quote, on Ghost Tours' website of all places, that I think links in with this story precisely - "Many other ghost tours fail to record or preserve this historical information (because in most cases it does not exist), instead relying on either the sensational improvable impressions of questionable psychics or merely tell scant stories from clients on tours. This does not justify a site as haunted and is misleading. It brings disrepute to a unique type of cultural heritage tourism which is growing in popularity worldwide. Clients on such tours expect and need to demand to know whether claims made have been substantiated." Never a truer word has been spoken - as the paying public, people on Ghost Tours' tours need to demand that claims made have been substantiated, & whilst these demands are yet to be met by Ghost Tours who provided this very advice on their website, the Haunts of Brisbane will always be there to pick up the slack.