Saturday, 18 February 2012

Unity, Imperial, Cecil, Jets - however you cut it, the place seems haunted...

The Hotel Cecil c. 1984 (Picture Ipswich, Ipswich City Council)
In researching material for last week's article on the supposed ghosts of the Rosewood Hotel, I came across information on another haunted Ipswich pub that, amazingly, existed independent of any reference to "Jack" Sim or Ghost Tours.  The article, published in the Queensland Times on the 14th of November 2009, gave insight into the resident ghost of the Ipswich Jets Club, located on the corner of Downs & Lowry Street in North Ipswich.  According to the piece, the ghost is known to the staff of the Club as "Harold," & it's believed the haunting harps back to an 1890's bar fight in which a patron lost his life.   The building seems to exhibit all the usual haunted traits - disembodied footsteps heard throughout the Club, doors heard slamming even though they're locked, other random phantom sounds...& a phantasm that only inhabits a corner office on the upper floor, spied huddling in the room's corner by but a few unlucky employees.  According to the article, those staff that have unwittingly stumbled across this crouching spirit now refuse to go anywhere near the room...& in fairness, can you really blame them??

The history of the site is quite varied & interesting, & as fans of the Haunts of Brisbane page on Facebook would know, has provided for some interesting conversation over the past week!  A very common misunderstanding about the site's origin continues to this day - specifically, that the building started it's life as the Imperial Hotel, built & opened in 1887, under the control of James Cooper.  In reality, the site pre-dates the commonly known history by 7 years...back to 1880 when the Unity Hotel was built & operated by William Frederick Larter, a carpenter & joiner who'd immigrated to Australia from London, arriving in Moreton Bay aboard the Conrad on the 26th of November 1855 with his young family.  In 1883, the license for the hotel changed hands to James Cooper, a shrewd businessman who by 1886 would become an Ipswich Alderman & eventual Mayor to the town in 1909.  However life as a publican proved tough for Cooper, & in 1886 at the Ipswich Licensing Meeting held at the Courthouse, when reviewing license renewals, he was taken to task on the state of his establishment. It was put to the Board that the Unity Hotel was old & dilapidated, & needed cleaning up...less than a year later, it had been, under the new name of the Imperial Hotel - renovated, refurbished & refurnished.

Published in The Brisbane Courier, page 5, on the 8th of April 1886.

The Hotel continued under the name of the Imperial until 1891, having passed out of, & back in to, James Cooper's hands.  In April of the same year, after public pressure was placed on the authorities regarding the excessive number of public houses in Ipswich in disregard of legislation, the license was stripped from the establishment, as were two other licenses at offending Hotels in the growing town.  3 months later, however, the National Workmen's Club applied for a club license on the premises - whilst concerns existed that the establishment would not be run according to regulations, the license was still approved...& hence, the Hotel continued to trade.  A further change in 1904 saw the venue renamed the Hotel Cecil, a trading name the building carried for almost 100 years before it was again renovated & transformed into the Ipswich Jets Club in 1998...& it appears that the site's ghost has been making himself known ever since!

So, what of this ghost??  Before I delved further into the history of the site & any potential identities for the Jets Club ghost, I chose to contact the establishment with one simple question to aid in the search - I was very curious to know whether the name "Harold" was a nickname created by staff at the Hotel, or whether someone at some stage had a rough idea of the person's/ghost's identity?  The venue was very kind & open in getting back to me, with the answer that "Harold" was a given nickname - the rumour persisted that "Harold" was the ghost of a Traveller who was killed in a pub brawl years & years ago.  Again, long-term staff told of lights turning back on late at night, chilling winds blowing through the building when doors & windows were shut & doors continually opening after being, again, something otherworldly is clearly persisting in this 130 year old establishment...but why, exactly?  Let's delve back through history, to see if we can locate an event that could possibly give rise to a haunting on the site...

After scouring the historic record, the occasional Court Hearing for assaults at the Hotel crop up, however no Criminal Hearings or Inquests can be located to indicate that any fatal fight occurred on the, we can pretty much scratch the "pub brawl" theory.  However, one interesting event & two accidental deaths can be attributed to the Hotel in the first 70 years of its life.  Our one interesting event involves on of the Hotel's publicans - Alexander Gilbert Burnett.  A native of Calstone Wellington, a small village in Wiltshire, England, Burnett emigrated to Australia & finally settled in Brisbane finding work as a Storeman.  In 1908, he accepted the license for the Crown Hotel at Rocklea, moving to Ipswich a few years later to take up the license of the then Hotel Cecil.  Unfortunately, it would be on Burnett's watch that both deaths would occur...a month apart & within Burnett's first year as licensee, but we'll examine both of those shortly.  Ultimately, Burnett held the license for the Hotel for four years, until ailing health cut his life short at the Oakdale Private Hospital in Ipswich on the 13th of December 1915.  Burnett's body was returned to the Hotel Cecil, where it lay in state until 3:45pm the next day when it was conveyed to the Ipswich General Cemetery.

Published in The Brisbane Courier, page 6, on the 14th of December 1915.

So what of the deaths at the Hotel?  Well, just after 9pm on the 22nd of July 1911, two friends named Edward McMahon & Jack McDonald finished their last drinks at the bar in order to make their way home.  Exiting through the door to the footpath, Edward stumbled awkwardly on the step, likely being intoxicated after his drinking session with McDonald, and lost his balance in the process.  In an instant, McMahon pitched & fell to the footpath, the back of his head striking heavily on the ground likely rendering the poor man unconscious.  Immediately, the Ambulance Brigade were called for, & McMahon was rushed to St. Mary's Private Hospital, an establishment run by Dr Flynn out of what is now the Carrington Guest House on Roderick Street near the top of town.  Unfortunately, McMahon's head injuries were too severe, & he passed away at the hospital shortly after.  Two weeks later, at the Inquest into McMahon's death, the evidence put forward would show the fatality was no more than a very unfortunate accident.

The death of McMahon would have come as quite a shock to the licensee William Burnett, as only a month earlier he'd had to deal with discovering the body of a man in the back yard of the hotel.  At about 6am in the morning on the 10th of June 1911, Burnett had ventured out into the yard & stumbled across the body laying on the ground.  The police were immediately called for, & on investigation they were able to positively identify the man as Hubert Lenehan, a 27 year old brass finisher who had worked at the nearby North Ipswich Railway Works.  It was found that on the day prior, Lenehan had complained of feeling unwell at work, but had soldiered through his shift before finishing up & heading into town with friends for a few drinks.  When the time came for the men to go their separate ways, Hubert's mates left him alone in the yard of the Hotel apparently happy & in good health...unfortunately, Hubert would never make it back to his home in Tivoli.  A subsequent autopsy would show that Hubert had succumbed to natural causes, a result of an enlargement of both the heart & liver.

So, whilst it's always folly to try & attribute a positive identity to a ghost, short of an apparition tapping you on the shoulder & introducing himself personally, we've uncovered 3 historic events that may possibly have generated the haunting of the building.  Could the ghost possibly be that of William Gilbert Burnett, one of the Hotel's licensees, still turning lights on & off and opening the doors as he once had in life??  Did the spirit of Edward McMahon return to the Hotel, the last place he'd been conscious & happy, prior to suffering severe head injuries & passing away at a Private Hospital across the Bremer River??  Or, as the only soul who actually perished on the site, has Hubert moved indoors from the back yard, now wandering the corridors of the building??  If the ghost of the Ipswich Jets Club is Hubert, then the staff of the Hotel weren't too far off when they nicknamed him "Harold!"


  1. Hubert Lenehan was my great uncle and I was very interested to at last find out the details of his death.

    1. I'm glad that you were able to gain some knowledge about your great uncle Hubert's death from this article, Carmel - from what I understand via reports at the time, Hubert's untimely death came as a shock to the friends that left him in the yard of the Hotel Cecil...for all accounts, he was very well liked amongst his co-workers.