Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Commissariat Store: Could it house Brisbane's oldest haunting??

The Commissariat Store around its 100th Birthday, ca. 1928 (State Library of Qld)
With the Queensland Heritage Festival now underway, a number of fantastic events have been planned by the National Trust of Queensland across Brisbane.  Today, the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, whose headquarters & museum are located within the Commissariat Store building opposite the Treasury Heritage Hotel, held an Open Day - the fantastic museum located inside boasts, amongst other irreplaceable relics of Brisbane's early history, the gallows beam salvaged from Boggo Road Gaol's now long demolished Number 1 Division, the maker's plate & ship's bell salvaged from the Lucinda (featured in last week's tragic article on the Pearl Disaster), & a bottle removed from St Helena Island Penal Establishment containing a convict's finger!  With so many gruesome artefacts housed within the one building, one has to wonder what other relics of Brisbane's past still call the building home...

For years, tales of ghosts within the Commissariat Store have persisted - those who have worked in the building over the years relate experiences of hearing strange noises when no other workers are about, of phantom footsteps in vacant sections of the building, unexplainable figures seen waving from windows after dark when the building is supposedly empty, of leaving objects in specific places only to find those items moved the next morning, and of invisible presences felt about the place by employees & visitors alike.  It's also a commonly held story that a side door accessed via a walkway from an adjoining park displays paranormal phenomena - it's said that if a visitor knocks on the door after closing time, footsteps can be heard approaching on the inside as though someone is coming to open the door, only to come to a dead stop immediately on the opposite side.  In an article published in The Courier Mail on the 9th of October 2009, the Royal Historical Society of Queensland's then recently retired President, Allan Bell, was pressed on whether he suspected the Commissariat Store was haunted - according to the article, "He [Allan] refuses to believe that the building housing the Society - the 1829 convict-built Commissariat Store, the second oldest building in Brisbane - is haunted, even though the ghost of a slain convict is said to roam outside. The story goes that two convicts were building something in the rear yard when a fight broke out.  One convict drove an axe into the head of the other.  Soldiers threw him in a wheelbarrow and charged up the road to the hospital, but he died."

This story of the murdered convict seems to crop up all over the internet when a search is conducted on ghosts/hauntings of the Commissariat Store, & no doubt the same story is bandied about on the fantastical commercial ghost tours conducted through Brisbane's CBD.   Whilst the basis of the story is sound, the bulk of the finer details are heavily, heavily flawed - I roughly documented this story in 2005, in the Australian Chapter of Jeff Belanger's Encyclopedia of Haunted PlacesFor the record, two convicts weren't building something in the rear yard of the Commissariat Store, one convict did not drive an axe into the head of the other, & the victim wasn't strictly wheelbarrowed up the road to the hospital where he died.  So...what do we know about this historic event, & how can it be fleshed out fully in order to provide clarity once & for all??

The sorry tale we're about the explore, focuses on the transportation, incarceration & eventual downfall of one John Brungar.   A native of Kent in England, Brungar was convicted at the Kent Assizes on the 2nd of August 1819, & was issued with a life sentence which would ensure his transportation to the colony of Australia.  On the 17th of September 1819, Brungar was loaded aboard the convict transport Prince Regent, amongst 159 other unfortunate souls, all bound for Australia - of the ship's complement of "passengers", 43 others had been convicted & sentenced to a life of servitude in Australia, with the other 116 on lesser sentences.  After 4 long months of transportation, the Prince Regent sailed into Sydney Cove on the 27th of January 1820, despatching her complement of 160 souls into the capable hands of the colony's convict authorities.  Unfortunately, the bulk of Australia's archived convict material was destroyed after the cessation of convict transportation, however enough still exists that we can trace John Brungar's movements after reaching our shores - for a start, we know that after spending over a year in the vicinity of Sydney, Brungar was brought up on charges at Parramatta on the 19th of March event which saw another two pointless years added to his previous life sentence.  Ten days later, Brungar was loaded onto the transport Elizabeth Henrietta, on the 29th of March 1821, for relocation to Newcastle.

 The Prince Regent, on which John Brungar was transported in 1819.

 In July 1821, four months after being relocated to Newcastle on the back of further sentencing in Parramatta, John Brungar's fortunes turned again - after being issued as a Convict Servant to a Master (generally a landowner of note), Brungar had chosen to abscond & took to the bush...a poorly concocted decision, as he was located soon after.  For his dissidence, he was sentenced to suffer 50 lashes - a physical punishment that would have tested the strongest of men.  The punishment seemed to slow John's self-destructive nature for a time, as his record remains clear for a few years.  On the 8th of May 1823, a letter was written by Lieutenant Close to the Colonial Secretary's Office, under which John Brungar, amongst others, would be given free pass for 14 days to transport 110 cattle, 2 horses & 360 sheep from Windsor through to Wallis's Plains.  Lieutenant Close was so sure of Brungar's loyalty, that he again sent a letter requesting his aid on the 16th of June 1823...only to sit idle as Brungar again absconded.  After being located again shortly after, Brungar was sentenced to a further 75 lashes for his indiscretions.  On the 14th of April 1824, Brungar had been moved to the employ of James McGillivray...employment that again lasted two months until Brungar was brought up on charges & sentenced to yet another seven pointless years - it was clear now that John was a perfect subject for transportation north, to the experimental Moreton Bay Penal Settlement.

Unfortunately, the first we hear of John Brungar at the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement comes on the 27th of September 1828.  In that month, the foundation trenchwork for the Commissariat Store was being carried out, by a gaol gang of which John Brungar was a part.  On the 27th, at 8am in the morning, Brungar approached another convict named William Perfoot - Brungar was aware that Perfoot possessed a lighter mattock, & had been manoeuvring unsuccessfully to sequester it for his own use.  When Perfoot again refused to hand his mattock over & a slight physical tussle began, the convict overseer demanded that Brungar move to the other side of the order he obeyed until midday, when his frustration took the better of him.  Turning to face Perfoot, who was stooping down at the time, Brungar ran across the pit with his mattock and struck his adversary in the head...the blade of the mattock penetrated Perfoot's skull to a depth of about two inches & felled him where his stood, apparently dead.  Brungar immediately dropped his mattock, picked up a shovel, & continued on as if nothing had happened...although his crime had been witnessed by everyone present.  Perfoot was loaded into a wheelbarrow & conveyed to the convict hospital, where he languised for 6 long days before passing away from his injuries.  Unfortunately for Perfoot, 10 months beforehand another convict had unsuccessfully attempted to kill him by striking his head with a was quite literally a case of second time (un)lucky...

As a result of the crime, Brungar was conveyed to Sydney, where he was tried for Perfoot's murder before the Supreme Court along with 3 other murderous convicts from Moreton Bay - the court cases for all would take a bizarre turn, however.  On being brought into the court, all four protested their innocence & swore that they had been denied the ability to call forth valuable witnesses from Moreton Bay.  The Court was adjourned until the following day to allow all to complete affidavits to the effect...however, when the Court resumed the next day, their statements were found to have no basis & the cases proceeded, to which all defendants protested repeatedly throughout.  Again, the Solicitor General allowed the cases to stand over to the next day, such that the defendants could amend their statements...a delay that still had no basis, as all went to trial the next day & were sentenced to execution for their crimes.  However, John Brungar's demise would see one further twist - on the morning of his execution on the 16th of April 1829, his procession to the gallows was was presumed that this respite was due to his Warrant of Execution having not arrived at the Prison on time.  However, Brungar was to walk the same path two days later on the 18th, alongside his fellow Moreton Bay murderers - all were put to death at the end of the hangman's rope, paying the ultimate price for their crimes.

In his book Haunted Brisbane: Ghosts of the River City, "Jack" Sim claims that a supposed ghost sighting of Patrick Logan (on the southern riverbank opposite Brisbane on the 18th of October 1830), is the oldest ghost story in Queensland & second oldest ghost story in Australia - an event that is documented nowhere & has no historic basis.  That said, what of the Commissariat Store Ghost??  If it's postulated that the ghost wandering the halls of the Commissariat Store is that of the murdered convict William Perfoot, an event that is actually documented in September 1828, in the very foundations of the building & clearly two years prior to Logan's murder, might this be Brisbane's oldest ghost story??  That choice I'll leave up to you, the reader, to discern...

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