Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sundays at the Normanby: Another beer, perhaps, or should we just move on to spirits?

Architectural sketch of the new Normanby Hotel, c1890.
(State Library of Qld)

For many who live in Brisbane, meeting friends for a lazy Sunday session at the Normanby Hotel is an absolute institution.  I've spent many Sunday afternoons sitting beneath the amazing Moreton Bay Fig in the beer garden, enjoying a beer whilst listening to a local band play below.  However, whilst the present Normanby Hotel is considered the "place to be" over the weekend, its current sharp & stylish internal appearance only dates back just over a decade ago - prior to the major renovations carried out around 1999-2000, the venue had a very different layout.   Throughout the later years of the 1990's, when I was first introduced to the Normanby, the main bar & rooms accessed off Musgrave Road were dark & heavily dated, & the area downstairs where the Bovine Restaurant now exists was nothing but a dingy, musty exposed-brick room, that conjured images in one's mind of being trapped inside the catacombs of Europe.

It was during this time, around 1997, that I was first introduced to the ghosts that allegedly call the Normanby Hotel home - over a decade before the advent of "Jack" Sim's now-defunct pub-crawl tours through the venue.  Stories were told of a male figure that inhabited a room just off to the side of the main bar on Musgrave Road, now a brightly lit arena complete with pool table & TV screens...accounts were passed back & forward between the Hotel's staff & the handful of regulars that frequented the quiet venue, sharing experiences of the time they'd spied the silhouette of a gent moving about the Hotel's main level.  However, according to Normanby folklore, the real paranormal activity took place downstairs, in the brick-lined catacombs beneath the building.  Multiple stories existed of people seeing bizarre balls of light weaving between the brick pillars throughout the room, of strange mists that would appear & disappear & of massive drops in temperature for no apparent reason.  So rampant were the rumours, that I participated in a documentary about the paranormal that was shot, in part, in the downstairs room at the Normanby Hotel in 1998 - needless to say, it was an interesting experience!  Unfortunately, however, the Hotel was closed shortly after due to safety concerns about its structural integrity - after part of the beer garden was resumed to widen Kelvin Grove Road, & the Hotel underwent a massive renovation project, it was reopened with the downstairs area transformed into a dining room which has now become Bovine Restaurant.

So...what do we know about the Normanby Hotel's history that could have possibly given rise to such an active ghostly environment??  Well...the Normanby has had a couple of guises dating all the way back to 1872, when the area on which it stands was nothing more than scrub overlooking the growing town of Brisbane.  Constructed by Matthew & Elizabeth (Sophia) Burton, on land they had owned since 1865, the original Normanby Hotel was nothing more than a two-storey, shingle-roofed wooden dwelling fronting Kelvin Grove Road.  In its early years, given its isolation from the main hub of Brisbane, the main customers were timber-carters...there is no doubt, however, that the Burtons hoped that Brisbane's expansion towards current-day Paddington would expand the Hotel's trade.  Unfortunately for the Burton's plans, however, fate intervened - on the 29th of August 1873, within the original Normanby Hotel, Matthew Burton passed away at the age of 46, leaving his wife to take care of the Hotel's affairs.  Elizabeth would do so on & off for a number of years, in between holding the licence for the venue.  Unfortunately, during this time, Elizabeth would lose another member of her family within the Hotel's confines - her sixteen year old daughter Sarah, on the 30th of January 1879. 

The first death at the Normanby Hotel was the owner, Matthew Burton.
(The Brisbane Courier, 2nd of September 1873)

Just over a year later, & shortly before the licence of the Hotel was transferred to Elizabeth's soon-to-be son-in-law William Valentine, a third soul would be lost within the Hotel - a 26 year old omnibus driver (the term "omnibus" was used for a horse-drawn carriage, which acted in similar fashion to a taxi or council bus in current-day Brisbane).  On the 24th of April 1880, George Pearson passed away unexpectedly in his room at the Normanby Hotel, due to consumption, with which he had been struggling for some time - at the time, the term "consumption" was used when a patient was suffering from tuberculosis, an infectious disease that attacks the lungs & in many cases causes death.  One can only imagine that during the night, given the advanced stage of George's disease, he coughed & coughed, bringing up wads of blood from his lungs, before finally succumbing to his ailment...an horrific & likely horrifying way to spend your last minutes on the mortal coil.  Fortunately for the original Normanby Hotel, George's tragic death appears to be the last.  By 1889, the licensee William Valentine was working on a new plan, which would see the destruction of the wooden structure he'd inherited, & the construction of a masonry Hotel that would far exceed its predecessor in size & prestige.

In 1889, tenders were taken for the design & construction of the new Normanby Hotel...Architect John Nicholson was chosen to design the new building (as per the sketch at the top of our article), & the new Hotel was constructed throughout 1890.  According to The Brisbane Courier on the 2nd of December 1890, "The new Normanby Hotel, erected by Mr. Valentine, was formally opened last night.  In one of the large dining-rooms, some fifty gentlemen sat down to an excellent supper."  The opening of this new building was a sight to behold, inspiring every visitor that passed beneath its new Queen Anne styled facade at the end of Petrie Terrace...William Valentine, having instigated the reconstruction, would have been proud of his new venue...you'd think?  However, just over three months later, William Valentine transferred the licence of the new Hotel to his mother-in-law Elizabeth Burton, & the Burton's control of the site once again continued.  Two years later, virtually to the day on the 8th of April 1893, the Normanby Hotel would again play host to another death.

On that fateful night, a man named Patrick Foley approached an acquaintance by the name of Patrick Ryan, over a debt of 15 schillings.  On demanding the debt to be paid, Ryan called Foley a liar & denied any debt, & the fight was on - Foley punched Ryan in the face & dropped him to the floor, however Ryan was fast to his feet.  Grasping a tumbler from the bar, Ryan launched the glass at Foley in retaliation, an action that would see him punched to the floor again on the end of Foley's fist.  After being helped up by Elizabeth Burton's son William, Patrick Ryan was dragged to the door in an insensible state, bleeding from the head, nose & mouth.  After being escorted to his home nearby on Petrie Terrace, by the wife of his attacker, Ryan was put straight to bed under the supervision of his wife.  The next morning, however, Patrick seemed even worse for wear, & his wife gave him a snifter of brandy in the hope it would bring him around...it failed to do the trick.  Languishing through a second night, Patrick died in his bed within view of the Normanby Hotel, where he'd been attacked only two nights beforehand - the cause of death was attributed to a fractured skull & blood clot on the brain.  As a result, Patrick Foley was brought before the Court & was charged with manslaughter...an indictment for which he would serve prison time.

The new Normanby Hotel would stand for a further 8 years before it would claim its next soul - that of its matriarch.  On the 3rd of February 1901, Elizabeth Sophia Burton passed away, within the new Normanby Hotel on the same site where she had lost both her husband Matthew & teenage daughter Sarah.  After Elizabeth's death, the Hotel passed into the hands of her three sons, John, Francis & Richard Burton.  The trio would manage the hotel for a further five years without loss of life until the 23rd of December 1906.  On that morning, Francis (Frank) Burton approached Constable John Donohue on Musgrave Road near the Hotel at 5:30am, to report that a man was lying at the base of the steps in front the building.  As it would play out at the subsequent Inquest, it was discovered that John Hall, the hapless victim, had been drinking at the Hotel on the night of the 22nd of December, & had taken a nasty fall down the Hotel's back stairs whilst worse-the-wear for liquor.  Frank Burton found the hapless Hall, bathed his bleeding head & put him to bed in the Hotel to sleep off the alcohol in anticipation of the next morning, at which time he could be sent on his way.  Unfortunately, it seemed that John Hall had other plans, & had attempted to leave the Hotel via the front door a few hours later, tumbling down the steps out alongside Musgrave Road.  An ambulance was called for, strangely after the Police's attention had been raised to Hall's predicament (& not before), & John was transported to his house in Hale Street...another bizarre decision.  On being attended to by a doctor, Hall's condition was considered serious, & he was then transported to the General Hospital where he died soon after from fracture of the skull & cerebral haemorrhage.

The next death at the Hotel would come shortly after on the 25th of March 1909.  On that specific Thursday morning, an elderly man named Charles George Skinner, who lived in nearby Red Hill, was tending to his duties at the Hotel.  Whilst carrying out his daily tasks, Charles walked behind a horse in the Hotel's yard...only Charles knows exactly what happened next, however the historic record tells us that for reasons unknown the horse lashed out & kicked Charles to the ground with severe consequences.  The poor gent was immediately rushed to the General Hospital (now the Royal Brisbane Hospital) just down the road, where doctors attempted to treat his serious injuries...unfortunately for Charles, there was little that the Hospital staff could do & he slipped away at 4am the next morning.


Seven more years would pass until the 1st of April 1916 - April Fool's Day of all days.  On opening the Hotel for the day's trade early in the morning, an horrific discovery was made on the ground alongside the Hotel.  At some stage during the night, Alfred William Comyn, who had been staying at the Hotel whilst visiting his brother, fell through the window of his room & plummeted nearly ten metres to the ground below.  When he was discovered, poor Alfred had been dead for some hours, & it was reported that he had suffered horrendous injuries to his head & had badly fractured both legs - it was supposed that death would have come fairly swiftly, & the man in his seventies would not have suffered long.   Alfred's death is interesting from an historic viewpoint, with regard to the brother he was visiting - Dr George Comyn.  Dr Comyn was a highly regarded surgeon who had worked in a number of hospitals stretching as far west as the Darling Downs & as far north as Ravenswood.  He lived with his wife in a house at Red Hill, aptly named Woodstock after the town in County Galway in Ireland from which their father originally hailed.

Fortunately, three more decades would pass before the Hotel would again see another death within its walls.  At about midday on the 13th of February 1947, 55 year old Thomas Cranney was enjoying a drink at the Normanby.  Out of the blue, & to the complete shock of the Hotel staff, Thomas keeled over in the bar & collapsed to the floor.  The ambulance was called for immediately, & Thomas was taken from the building & loaded into the vehicle for transportation to the General Hospital just up the road...unfortunately, Thomas would not survive the short journey, passing away before the hospital was reached.  And thus, prior to our self-imposed cut-off of 1950, Thomas's death will be the last we'll examine in conjunction with the Normanby Hotel.  So...of the nine deaths we've located at the Normanby up until 1950, could any one, or a combination of many, have given rise to the unexplained phenomena that take place at the venue??  Interestingly, there's one more story...

Over the weekend, I was contacted by a fan of the Haunts of Brisbane, who wanted to share an experience she'd had at the Normanby Hotel a few years ago.  Whilst attending a birthday party at the Hotel, in the crowded beer garden at the back of the venue, she happened to look up towards the building itself & spied a lady dressed in 1800's-style attire peering out over the crowd...apparently, the mystery woman didn't appear too pleased, & our witness not only had the impression that maybe the woman's unimpressed countenance was due to the number of people milling about in the Hotel's lower area, but was also highly surprised to witness something of the sort whilst so many people were present.  With that said, could this possibly have been the Normanby's matriarch Elizabeth Sophia Burton, looking out over what her precious Hotel has become in modern days??  Obviously, we can only ever speculate...however, it's a pleasant thought, isn't it?

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