Thursday, 15 November 2012

An 1880s Observatory on The Strand

Yesterday’s solar eclipse and all the excitement that went with it, got me thinking about how a telescope used by the British to track the Transit of Venus from southern Queensland in 1882 ended up in a private observatory on the Strand, in Townsville.

Edwin Norris, town solicitor and amateur astronomer, purchased the astronomical telescope and then had an observatory built to house it, at his residence on the corner of King Street and The Strand (opposite the Criterion Hotel).  Norris went to great lengths to ensure that the telescope was housed correctly, studying the design of other observatories before commissioning his own.  He visited the government observatories in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, as well as a number of private ones.

This image shows damage to buildings on The Strand after Cyclone Sigma in 1896.  It shows the Criterion Hotel at the corner of The Strand and King Street, (roughly centre right). 
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
At the time, the telescope was more than twice the size of the telescope in the government observatory at Brisbane and was described as being ‘a very fine achromatic equatorial telescope’.  In 1884 the Brisbane Courier printed this information about the observatory:
“The observatory consists of a room 13ft. by 13ft., with walls 8ft. 6in. high from the floor. The wall plates of hardwood are continued 7ft. beyond the building north and south, and form a railway from end to end supported from below and well braced. There are eight small railway wheels 4in. in diameter, which were specially made at the Townsville foundry for the purpose, fitted into iron frames morticed into the     plates to which the roof is fixed. The roof is made of American pine boards 3 1/2 in. by 1in. tongued and grooved, upon a strong light frame of Oregon pine and covered with galvanised iron, and forms the segment of a circle from the east wall over to the west wall, and is divided in the middle east and west, one half running north, the other south, on the railway, so that the observer can separate the two parts of the roof a little and adjust a canvas, or other light shutter or screen, over the parts not in actual use, and thus well see the sun, planets, and many of the principal constellations, including Orion, which, in our latitude, always attain a good meridian altitude, or he can run the parts of the roof out to the full extent, north and south, leaving the whole of the room uncovered, and conduct his observations in the open air, and without otherwise interfering with the integrity of the room.”[1]

Norris died in April 1892 and his telescope and other astronomical instruments were listed for sale in January 1897, along with an extensive portfolio of real estate.  Norris owned valuable freehold land on the Strand, Palmer Street, Flinders Street and also in Bowen, and held shares in the Townsville Land and Investment Company.  Norris was also a keen yachtsman, and owned the yacht Maud. 

Another observatory existed in early north Queensland at Irvinebank, a tin mining town near Herberton.  Around 1910, Dr William Evan McFarlane built an observatory with a rotating dome behind his home, to house his 7 inch telescope. The John Oxley Library has an image of this observatory at

[1] Brisbane Courier, 16 October 1884.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The Range Hotel Graves

At the foot of Hervey Range, just outside Townsville, is a lonely little cemetery that lies hidden under wild scrub and lantana, and contains what may be the oldest headstone in the region.

The grave of Francis John Earl, who died in March 1866.  Photo: T. Fielding
The cemetery was associated with the Range Hotel, which was located at the bottom of Thornton's Gap on the old Hervey Range Road. Built by James Mead in 1866, the Range Hotel provided a rest stop for travellers before they made the dangerous journey up Hervey Range. At that time, the only road from Townsville to the goldfields and hinterland involved an arduous trip, first by crossing the Bohle and Alice Rivers, and then by ascending Hervey Range at Thornton's Gap. Travellers and carriers would stop overnight at the Range Hotel before attempting to travel up the range the next day. A trip with loaded wagons would have taken an entire day. Once at the top of the range, the Eureka Hotel awaited the weary travellers.

Hervey Range Road, c.1900. 
Photo: CityLibraries Townsville Local History Collection.
The grave of Francis John Earl, a squatter who died of a fever, aged 25 on 12th March 1866 at the Range Hotel, is possibly the oldest extant headstone in the region. (The earliest headstone at Townsville's West End Cemetery dates to 1868, although burials occured there before that date). Two other headstones also lie in this cemetery, that of Mary Langton and John Henry Bell, which date to the 1870s.
The Range Hotel Cemetery, after clearing of scrub in August 2008. The Earl grave is on the right, the Bell grave is set back, slightly to the right of the centre of the photo, and the Langton grave is lying flat on the ground, and can be seen on the left.  Photo:  T. Fielding.
The layout of the graves suggests that there may have been more burials there, but no other markers now remain.  Given the positioning of the graves, there may have been as many as 21 plots, in three rows of seven.

The graves are a reminder of just how harsh pioneer life could be.  Mary Langton was 28 years old, with three small children to care for while her husband John Langton was often away working for long periods of time. John was a carrier who carried goods from the port of Townsville to the Dalrymple township. Perhaps living such an isolated life led to despair, as Mary committed suicide by taking poison and died in December 1873.

The third gave is that of John Henry Bell, second son of Charles and Mary Ann Bell, who died 11th May 1875 from inflammation of the lungs. Little John was four months old.

The headstone of John Henry Bell, died May 1875. Photo: T. Fielding
The Range Hotel closed in 1884 and its precise location is now a matter of speculation, although a bottle dump, thought to have been associated with the hotel has been located. An archaeological study of this site conducted by James Cook University in 2008 found over 400 glass bottle necks/finishes of varying colours.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Torrens Creek Poisoning Tragedy

Late in January 1928, two families who lived in the same house in Torrens Creek, western Queensland, became suddenly ill.  The sickness aroused the suspicion of the local police, who made arrangements for all those living in the house to travel to Hughenden to attend the hospital there.

Two people died on the 56-mile train journey - a railway fettler named Thomas White, and his three year-old daughter Florence Isabel White. Shortly after reaching the Hughenden hospital, nine year-old Dorothy Olive Windley died. Initially, it was suspected that the victims had consumed water contaminated by sheep dip.

A few days later, eleven year-old Florence Isobel Windley became the fourth victim.  Post-mortem examinations found that the victims stomachs contained arsenic. 

On the 24th February, Albert Roy Windley, the father of two of the victims - Dorothy and Florence - gave evidence in front of the Police Magistrate (Mr W.J. Wilson) at Torrens Creek.  Albert Windley said that,

on the morning of January 22, he obtained some arsenic and caustic soda, and boiled it in a kerosene tin of water. The mixture was for the purpose of killing white ants. The balance of the arsenic, in a tea tin, had been placed on the top of a cupboard in the kitchen. There were three 100-gallon tanks connected with the house. He made tea from the water in the No. 1 tank but it was bitter to the taste. (1)
Somehow, the poison used to kill white ants had found its way into the drinking water of the household, however the deaths were found to be accidental.  An accidental tragedy.

(1) Brisbane Courier, 25 February 1928, p. 13.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Belgian Gardens School & the 1919 Influenza epidemic

As the Belgian Gardens State School celebrates its 125th anniversary, it’s a great time to discuss an aspect of its history that is now almost forgotten.  The school, which was originally called the Townsville North State School, was requisitioned in 1919 during the Influenza epidemic for use as an isolation hospital.  Tents supplied by the army were erected in the school grounds.  Over a period of ten weeks, a total of 195 patients were hospitalised at the school and remarkably, considering the death rate, only six people died.

Dr Walter Blake Nisbet practised medicine in Townsville for 30 years, including during the 1919 Influenza epidemic.  He estimated that somewhere between 6,000 to 7,000 of  Townsville’s citizens (or 25%) of the population contracted the illness in some form.  Eighteen people died in the epidemic, ten of those in hospital and eight in private homes.  During the epidemic strict rules were imposed on Townsville’s population.  Public meetings were banned, picture theatres and schools were closed and the main city streets were sprayed with disinfectant.

In a letter to the Mayor of Townsville dated 15th August 1919, Dr Nisbet (who was Medical Officer of Health at the time) praised the efforts of the Matron in charge of the isolation hospital - Hannah Sarah Pengelly.  He wrote:

“The ideal and harmonious working of this hospital, chiefly with a band of young untrained workers, shows what women can do in an emergency.  A large share of praise is also due to the tactful and untiring energies of the Matron – Nurse Pengelly”.

Both Dr Nisbet and Matron Pengelly are buried in the West End Cemetery in Townsville. 

Headstone of Walter Blake Nisbet, died May 1920. Photo: T. Fielding

Headstone of Hannah Sarah Pengelly, died 6 December 1940. Photo: T. Fielding

Monday, 14 May 2012

Charters Towers

When Hugh Mosman and a party of prospectors stopped to water their horses on Christmas Eve, 1871, they found that all that glittered was indeed gold.  That was the beginning of Queensland's Charters Towers.  An Indigenous boy named Jupiter found the first gold as he bent down to take a drink from a stream.  The party then collected 45kg of gold from the surface of the Washington Reef.

View of Charters Towers, taken from Towers Hill, 2012. Image: T. Fielding
 The city of Charters Towers was born out of the frantic rush for gold that ensued.  In 1899 the city was home to 30,000 people and was the second largest city in Queensland.  Known locally as 'The World', possibly for its cosmopolitan population than for anything else, it boasted 90 hotels, 7 newspapers and a stock exchange.  A staggering 193,000kg of gold was produced between 1872 and 1911.

Despite the fact that just over 140 years have passed since the first gold was discovered there, reminders of her glory days are all around. 

Stock Exchange Arcade, Mosman Street, Charters Towers, 2012.  Image: T. Fielding.
 Nowhere is this more evident than in the city's heritage buildings.  The Stock Exchage Arcade is a notable feature of the streetscape, due in part to its impressive arched awning and glazed roof.  Built for Alexander Malcolm, a Scottish miner, in 1887 as a shopping arcade, its original name was the Royal Arcade.  It came into use as a stock exchange in 1890 and each day there were three 'calls'.  The evening call was held in the arcade gallery and was open to the public.  Most of the population turned out for the Saturday evening call.  The building has retained much of its original character and is a stunning piece of north Queensland architecture.

Stock Exchange Arcade, 2012. Image: T. Fielding

Sunday, 6 May 2012


There’s still plenty to see in north Queensland’s old gold mining towns. Ravenswood, situated approximately 130kms south-west of Townsville is one of those towns.  With the discovery of gold in 1868, Ravenswood became a significant inland town and within the first ten years 214,000 ounces of gold came out of Ravenswood.  By the mid 1870s there were 2,000 people on the Ravenswood field and the railway had reached the town by 1884.  Hugh Mosman’s historic claim at Charters Towers, another significant gold mining town, was registered in Ravenswood in 1872.

Ravenswood, c. 1908, Image: John Oxley Library
Ravenswood’s boom years were over by about 1910 and World War I only contributed to the decline, but the town is still home to some wonderful old buildings, including the Railway and Imperial hotels, Post Office, Court House and St. Patrick’s Church. 

View of Ravenswood, 2009, Image: T. Fielding

There’s still a number of towering brick chimney’s scattered amongst mullock heaps, old mine poppet heads and rusting machinery peppering the landscape that hark back to the town’s boom days.

The Railway Hotel was built in 1902 by John Moran from 340,000 locally made bricks.
It is one of only two hotels remaining today, out of 42 during Ravenswood's heyday.

Railway Hotel, Ravenswood, Image: T. Fielding

The Imperial Hotel is the other hotel.  Built by Jim Delaney in 1902 from the proceeds of a mining venture at Donnybrook, Delaney died quite young and left his wife Anne to raise three daughters.  The hotel remained in the family for many years and the Delaney daughters are buried in the Ravenswood cemetery. 

Imperial Hotel, Ravenswood, Image: T. Fielding