Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Plunkett Street Poltergiest: A Paddington Haunting...

The view from Paddington to the city, c. 1902 (State Library of Qld)
Brisbane's inner-city suburb of Paddington - Queensland Holidays website describes the area as, "Speckled with quaint cottages turned enticing shop-fronts, restaurants that spill out onto the pavement and a mixture of traditional tin and timber houses and renovated Queenslanders.  Visitors will love browsing for quirky keepsakes, vintage and designer fashion, antique and second-hand treasures, retro goodies, home wares and artwork. The bars are a combination of boutique cocktail lounges and casual pubs and the restaurants are well known to the breakfast crowd, who can be found either enjoying a quick catch-up before work or a lazy weekend coffee."  Back around the turn of last century, however, the emerging suburb had a very different feel to it...

In the first few years of the new century, Paddington was in a state of rapid expansion.  In the lowland areas beneath the stately heights of Musgrave Terrace, blocks of land were being snapped up for very reasonable prices upon which workers cottages & stereotypical  "Queenslanders" were hastily constructed...within a stone's throw of the dilapidated former North Brisbane Burial Grounds.  At this point in history, the condition of what had been Brisbane's first "free settlement" cemetery was deplorable - the surrounding fences had fallen & the bulk of the palings had all but been spirited off for use as firewood in the surrounding houses, allowing wandering livestock such as cattle, horses & goats to readily graze amongst the crumbling headstones.  However, a more morbid activity regarding the cemetery occurred in early 1900's Paddington - as the number of workers cottages & "Queenslanders" grew surrounding the cemetery, the number of headstones & grave surrounds in the cemetery seemed to decrease.  Whilst the price of land in the area was reasonable, the costs of upmarket building materials such as sandstone flagging & cast-iron balustrading were not.

Some of the "Queenslanders" throughout Milton & Paddington began to sport fancy balustrading on their verandas, supposedly sections of pilfered ironwork that had originally skirted the borders of the wealthier graves in the Paddington Cemetery.   Similarly, some workers cottages began to boast fancy sandstone pathways from their front gates to their front doors...the result of stolen headstones from Paddington Cemetery turned face down.  About 12 years ago, I was invited to a couple's renovated Queenslander in Paddington just off Musgrave Terrace, to talk to them about a suspected haunting.  They'd not long owned the property, but were concerned that whilst the previous living owner had left, a more immaterial soul had not.  After making some small talk in their kitchen whilst coffees were made, I was ushered out onto their back balcony to "get down to business" & discuss their haunting...& was shocked to discover a very large & weathered headstone propped against the railing of their entertaining area next to their patio table!  When I questioned them about the headstone's origins, the only information they could provide was that they'd found the stone hidden under the house not long after they'd purchased it...possibly a remnant of the nearby Paddington Cemetery.

Whilst supposed thefts of monumental masonry & ironwork from the Paddington Cemetery is open to debate, we do know one thing for sure - on the 30th November 1911, after enduring decades of neglect & a rapidly expanding city centre on its doorstep, the Paddington Cemeteries Act was passed to allow for the area's resumption for public use.  The public were duly notified of the decision by the  Lands Department - relatives of those buried within the confines of the cemetery were given until the 1st December 1912 to make application to have remains & monuments exhumed & re-interred at the expense of Government.  However, by that December, few applications had been lodged with the Public Estate Improvement Fund (Lands Department) - ultimately, the Brisbane Courier reported on the 7th June 1913, "removal of remains of persons buried in the old Paddington Cemetery has been completed.  Under the contract about 45 tombstones and the remains of 100 persons were lifted & removed to other cemeteries" - cleaning & levelling work on the site began 5 days later on the 12th June.

By the 20th June, the Brisbane Courier reported, "Under the Act passed to deal with the Paddington Cemetery, provision was made for reserving a strip a chain wide near the church.  It is intended to utilise this for the storage of the tombstones standing over the remains of persons whose friends did not ask for their removal to other cemeteries.  The removal of these tombstones will be commenced shortly."  Records of the time reported that 505 unclaimed memorials & headstones were removed from the greater cemetery grounds, and were stored in the allocated area alongside the current Christ Church in Milton.  Not long after, the vast bulk of this masonry vanished from alongside the church, never again to see the light of day - one completely unfounded work of fiction put forward recently by a self-professed "historian," claims that the headstones were crushed & used during the Great Depression (1929-1932) as road base on Hale Street - this quite simply is not true, although I'm sure it helps to sell his books.  Ultimately, the monuments & tombstones were spirited away to a known location, a topic we'll visit in a future article, & the possibility does exist that some of these stones found their way into the possession of property owners around Paddington.

Jump forward to 1952, to a 50 year old house in Paddington's Plunkett Street...constructed when the Paddington Cemetery was seeing out its final days.  Occupied for only a short period of time by young married couple Edmund & Mavis Norris, & their eight month old daughter Julie, it became apparent on the 5th of June 1952 that something was amiss in their residence.  Throughout the month of June, the couple were disturbed by mysterious noises within their house.  The disembodied noises continued on a regular basis into early July when the story of the Paddington Ghost finally hit the media, & the story was broadcast across Australia on the 7th of July.  The West Australian, out of Perth, reported that the Norris's were considering leaving their home due to the ongoing haunting...The Canberra Times ran a very similar article confirming that Mrs Norris had first heard the ghost about a month previously, & it was regularly heard traversing the house at midnight.  However, The Courier Mail came through with the goods & reported heavily on the Plunkett Street haunting....

According to the article, "Scores of people travelled to see a "haunted" house at Paddington yesterday [Sunday]."  It was reported that for the past month, mysterious sounds had been heard throughout the house, "like those made by a slightly built woman moving about."  It had been noted in The Canberra Times article that on one occasion when Mr Norris had heard the sounds, he had run out into the hall to confront the culprit only to hear the footsteps walk right past him!  According to the Norris's, scores of children had been hanging around their house all weekend in the hope of spotting the spook, & countless telephone calls had been received from surrounding residents curious to know whether the ghost was up to its old tricks.  The Courier Mail had also received their fair share of calls from Brisbane residents hoping to wade into the debate...all with their ideas as to the origins of the haunting.   A woman spiritualist had even offered to spend a night in the house in the hopes of identifying the ghost.  On the 29th of July, as the ghostly happenings at Plunkett Street were still occurring, the Morning Bulletin in Rockhampton also made mention of the story as a segue to a similar haunting in a Rockhampton house.

Alas, on the 6th of August the story took a 180° turn, again in The Courier Mail.  According to the quite brief article, given that previous interest in the story had been fairly sensational, the Paddington Ghost had now been "laid."  After scores of people had visited the house in the hopes of witnessing the ghostly goings-on, the haunting had apparently reached its conclusion - it was reported that Mr Norris had heard sounds in the ceiling of the house early on Saturday the 2nd of August, & had gone to investigate...only to disturb a large female possum in his roof building a nest.  So, our article comes to an end with a number of poignant questions - in the July 1952 newspaper articles, it was suggested that the sounds could possibly be the result of possums...yet Mr Norris seemingly didn't check his roof for the proceeding month??  The Norris's, who were not newcomers to Brisbane & the possum population, claimed to be hearing footsteps throughout their house, which on one occasion walked right by Mr Norris...were the couple prone to flights of fancy, & let their imaginations run wild on ideas of spooks & spectres??  Or...had the Norris's grown so tired of the constant visits by surrounding residents, that claiming the culprit was a possum finally bought them peace & quiet from a curious public...even though their resident ghost still walked the house at night??

Whatever the answer, the story of the Plunkett Street ghost still exists in the annals of Brisbane history...whether you choose to believe it was simply a possum all along, or entertain the idea that a possum was a scapegoat to cover up an actual haunting that was drawing unwanted attention.  Regardless, the Plunkett Street residence is not the only Paddington house that has been rumoured to contain a ghost resulting from the destruction of the North Brisbane Burial Grounds...

The "ghost" - published in The Courier Mail on the 6th of August 1952

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