Sunday, 6 May 2012

How a Scottish Magistrate's premonition foretold an horrific tragedy half way around the world...

The destroyed Indooroopilly Railway Bridge, still in flood in 1893 (State Library of Qld)
In our article about the Pearl Disaster three weeks ago, we detailed the destruction of the Indooroopilly Railway Bridge in the opening paragraphs, resulting from the devastating 1893 floods that swept through Brisbane.  Whilst many unfortunate souls lost their lives due to the flood waters that year across Brisbane, two innocent & silent victims of the natural disaster deserve our recognition...
The First Edition of The Grand Magazine in February 1905.

Our story begins in England in February 1905, with the publication of the first edition of The Grand Magazine - renowned as the first British "Pulp" Magazine.  Published monthly, the periodical boasted a long list of amazing authors, including Agatha Christie (British Crime Writer), George Bernard Shaw (Irish Playwright), Edgar Wallace (British Crime Writer),  William Hope Hodgson (English Science Fiction/Horror Author), H. G. Wells (Science Fiction Writer) & Arthur Conan Doye (Crime Fiction Writer).  The magazine set out to publish a range of fiction & non-fiction articles, including ongoing features - one of which was entitled, "Real Experiences of the Supernatural."  In the infant stage of this magazine in 1905, one particular segment of this feature found its way into the pages of Australia's newspapers - recollecting a premonition experienced by a Magistrate living in country Scotland.  In order to best convey the story, it's best that we publish the segment in its entirety:

What explanation is to be given of the foregoing incident, or of that which follows, related by a well known Scotch county magistrate, who has filled several most important public positions in which a level head is an absolute necessity?

"The only preliminary observations I wish to make are these:- first, I have never been a believer in the supernatural; secondly, what I am going to say can be verified, so far as verification is possible in the circumstances, to the fullest extent. I could add incidents not less remarkable, but I confine myself to these two, because they were well known to my friends at the time. The first goes back to the night of February 9, or the morning of February 10, 1893. At that period I was living - where I am still - in a well-known town in the West of Scotland. I had then, as I have still, two brothers-in-law in Australia, the elder of the two being then a public official in Queensland. He was married, and the father of three little boys, aged seven and a half, five and a half, and three and a half respectively. There had been unprecedentedly high floods on the Brisbane River. The swollen torrent brought down with it enormous quantities of wreckage; among it a wooden house, that caught on one of the piers of the great Indooroopilly-bridge, against which vast piles of floating objects hurled themselves, until between the stranded shanty and the shore they made a bank strong enough to carry the weight of a person. My brother-in-law lived at Indooroopily, and the flood was a source of keen interest to his children.

During the night mentioned, I think towards the morning, I was lying, between the waking and the sleeping, in my bed. Suddenly I saw something happen; something go down suddenly, and one of my brothers-in-law go down along with it. Immediately afterwards there was a second fall of the same description, and with it my second brother-in-law went down. The catastrophe was as plain to me as if I had been standing looking at it. I at once awoke my wife, and said to her, 'Something serious has happened in Queensland.' She asked me what I meant, and I described to her exactly what I had seen, and added, 'I am afraid we shall have sad news shortly.' In the forenoon of the same day I mentioned the matter to my father, then the senior clergyman of the town, and was surprised to learn that my sister had, in a vision the same night, been closely accompanied on a walk to the churchyard by the elder of my two brothers-in-law, and by a ghostly female figure that she took to be his wife. We noted the date and waited. On the morning of March 21, my next-door neighbor, at that time home from Queensland on an extended visit called at the door and asked for me. 'Have you heard the news,' he asked. 'No,' I said. He put in my hand copies of the Brisbane Evening Observer of February 9 and the Brisbane Courier of February 10, and pointed to the heading in the former - 'A sad fatality. Death of two boys. Buried in the sand. An awful death.' The story, however, was more fully told in the Courier of the following day, and I subjoin an extract containing the sad details:-

'A most painful accident occurred yesterday, by which two fine lads, the sons of Mr. -, have lost their lives. It appears that some time yesterday morning three little sons of Mr. -, together with another young boy, left their houses to seek amusement. They all live at the Riverton Estate, opposite Indooroopilly, and they went to play at the point close the damaged Indooroopilly-bridge. During the morning some heavy showers came on, and the boys sought shelter beneath the bridge. Before long, however, the showers passed away, and they left their shelter. As they were playing near the edge of the river a portion of the drift sand, which had been washed against the bank during the flood, gave way. The two younger boys were buried beneath the slip, but the eldest fell into the river, and was rescued by a boat that was crossing the river at the time. Their young friend also managed to escape. The alarm was soon raised, but nothing could be done to rescue the little fellows, who were buried beneath many tons of sand and earth. The news of the disaster soon spread, and one of the first to hear of it was Mrs. -, who was quickly on the scene in a most distressed condition.'

What I saw in my vision corresponded exactly with what evidently occurred. I erred in thinking that the disaster had happened to my brothers-in-law instead of to the sons of the older of the two, but this no doubt, was due to the fact that my two unfortunate little nephews were personally entirely unknown to me."

So...what of this amazing premonition experienced half way around the world, & the validity of the event it foresaw here in Brisbane??

We know that early in the morning on the 5th of February 1893, the integrity of the Indooroopilly Bridge finally failed under the onslaught of water & debris flooding down the Brisbane River.  Residents on both sides of the bridge had watched on in silence on opposite banks throughout the preceding night, waiting for the inevitable...after the initial collapse of the Bridge's central section just before 6am the next morning, & further collapse that afternoon, further scores of people flocked to the river to stare on in shock at the destruction before them.  Many speculated as to the final resting place of the missing bridge sections - had they sunk to the riverbed directly below the Bridge in a crumpled mess, or would the wreckage be pushed downstream due to the tremendous flow to finally be located somewhere near Tennyson once the waters had subsided?  Regardless, one immediate & pressing concern ran through the minds of all local residents - with the destruction of the Indooroopilly Bridge (& subsequent destruction of the Victoria Bridge in Brisbane early the next morning), passage of goods, mail & people between the two major population centres of Ipswich & Brisbane had now been effectively severed.  As the next few days passed by, so did the onlookers, all pondering how their lives would be affected by the collapse.

Just as the adults of the surrounding districts were fascinated by the collapse of the Indooroopilly Bridge, so were their children.  On the 9th of February, only 4 days after the bridge had been torn in two, four boys from Corinda decided to visit the bridge site in order to survey the damage for themselves, likely after hearing about the destruction from their parents.  The Robertson brothers William (9), Lancelot (5) & Selby (3), in league with a mutual friend George Larard (9), made their way to Oxley Point where they encountered a heavy rain - the still remaining bridge buttress & partial deck presented itself as a perfect shelter, & the troop of four ran underneath in order to escape the downpour.  After waiting the shower out, the boys emerged onto a large sandbank that had built up under the bridge remains - nothing more than an embankment of sediment trapped against heavy debris that had been washed down the river & had become jammed between the bridge's pylons & the riverbank.  All of a sudden, the unthinkable happened...as the four young boys stood on the riverbank looking out over the swollen river, the earth beneath them gave way & the adventurous party were plunged into a combination of water, sediment & wreckage...

The Gods were looking over George Larard that day...in his fall, George miraculously managed to lunge out & grab solid ground, pulling himself clear of the quagmire back onto dry land as he watched the three Robertson brothers, his dear friends, disappear into the torrid maelstrom.  After what would have seemed like an eternity, William finally surfaced above the turbid waters of the Brisbane River fighting for breath & life - amazingly, he was washed into the path of a boat crossing the river at the time, crewed by Mr Cannan, Brown & Foxton, & Mrs Montefiore...the crew having spied the young boy seconds before the waters claimed him, managed to drag him aboard as he washed past their exact position in the river.  Unfortunately, little Lancelot (5) & Selby (3), were nowhere to be seen.  Over the days that followed, the Brisbane River downstream from the Indooroopilly Bridge was searched for any evidence of the two missing boys...with each passing day, no news came that their little bodies had been located.  William Robertson, their father, was an employee of the Civil Service Board - amidst the loss of his two sons, he was required to attend the site where his two little boys had vanished on the Corinda side of the Bridge in order to help distribute foodstuffs & mail to the Corinda residents, being sent across the river by boat...one can only imagine his heartache in doing so, hoping al the while that his sons would materialise out of the crowd....

On the 19th of February, however, further bad news was received - Captain Pennefather, of St Helena Island Penal Establishment, telegraphed the Commissioner of Police in Brisbane that a male child had been washed ashore on St Helena - early reports in the Brisbane Newspapers had placed the location of the body at Lytton, however the location was quickly corrected.  The body was badly decomposed, however the clothing in which the child was dressed was still intact.  It was clear to the Penal Establishment staff that the body required immediate interment given its condition, however the clothes were removed, washed & sent to Brisbane for identification.  The child was estimated at about 5 years old, specific details that would have immediately raised the attention of William Robertson - his two missing sons were aged 5 & 3.  William rushed to Brisbane where he was presented with the clothes...heartbreakingly identifying them as those of his youngest three year old son Selby.  Whilst other bodies were located & pulled from the Brisbane River over the proceeding weeks, his other son Lancelot was never located.

 Little Seby's recovery on St Helena Island, published in
The Brisbane Courier on the 20th of February 1893, p. 5. 

So, here we have an amazing, yet tragic, tale of Brisbane's history - a premonition in Scotland foretelling a tragedy in Indooroopilly, & natural disaster in Indooroopilly that severed ties between communities, an horrific & accidental loss of young lives as foretold by said premonition, & a link with one of Queensland's most important historic sites on St Helena Island.  To those of you who read this article, I only hope that you take two things away with you - every time you travel across the Albert Bridge between Chelmer & Indooroopilly via train, or visit St Helena Island, pay a thought for little 3 year old Selby - & his 5 year old brother Lancelot who was never found - both of these "lost" boys deserve our ongoing reverence & respect, in the hope they may find peace amongst the chaos that took their lives that rainy day nearly 120 years ago...

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