Contagion in the Wool Sacks

Empty wool sacks were stacked high in the huge, corrugated iron wool shed, returned from wool stores in the city and ready to be refilled next shearing season. When their father, Fred, took the kids with him on a visit to the shed they would play on the piled wool sacks, jump on them, hide under them, put them over their heads.

Fred was the manager of Tara sheep station, outside Barcaldine. It was 1929, and his second child, my mother Pat, was nine years old.

ED6609A7-13BD-4BC0-A354-C102157AC36F
Bottle tree and canvas water bag, Tara homestead, 2000

Wool prices were strong. Later that year, Wall Street would crash and the Great Depression would loom. Life would change suddenly for millions world-wide; but for now, Fred’s four children enjoyed a fine and privileged childhood, with a big homestead and garden, dogs and ponies, peacocks, a billy goat cart, fresh meat, milk, vegetables and fruit produced on the station, and the occasional visit to town, a few kilometres away.

4EA2895E-2A5F-4839-988F-0A3E49D2BC70_1_201_a
Pat on her pony, in front of the old Tara homestead c.1929

 

Living on a sheep station in central western Queensland, where the air is dry, populations are small and distances are huge, the children were healthy, rarely suffering so much as a common cold.

Then Pat caught diphtheria.

Before effective and widespread vaccination, this was a dreaded disease, especially among children. According to Queensland Health,

With respiratory diphtheria a person can experience a sore throat, fever, enlarged lymph nodes and swelling of the soft tissues on both sides of the neck sometimes referred to as a ‘bull neck’. Within two or three days a membrane (a white or grey film) forms over the throat and tonsils that can make it difficult for the person to swallow and breathe.[1]

This is a bacterial disease, and that grey film is toxic.

There were vaccines, but they could be problematic. In 1928, there had been a tragic occurrence in Bundaberg when a batch of the diphtheria vaccination had become contaminated, and twelve children died.

Dangerously ill, Pat was admitted to the isolation ward of Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital, along with three other infected children.

diphtheria victoria hosp c 1930
Barcaldine Hospital, c. 1930

One evening she or one of the other children reached a crisis, and Dr James Cook, who had been the hospital superintendent since 1898[2], was called urgently to the isolation ward. According to the local newspaper: …in going across to the isolation ward in the dark about 8 p.m. the doctor fell over a form or some other obstacle and sustained a severe wrench or dislocation to his hip. The Doctor is now an inmate of the hospital.[3]

Dr Cook was months in hospital in Brisbane and never returned to work.

As Pat recovered, the family could only wave to her from outside the hospital fence. Her mother sent baskets of fruit and vegetables to the hospital from the Tara gardens. In time she was well enough to go home, but her heart muscle had been strained.

In 1976, and because her heart had weakened by her childhood diphtheria, Pat died of a heart attack, aged just fifty-six.

The isolation wing at Barcaldine’s Victoria Hospital had been built in 1921, after the Spanish Influenza viral epidemic swept the world.

In mid-1919, ten years before Pat had her battle with diphtheria, the ‘flu had come to Barcaldine. Her grandfather Frank, manager of the Queensland National Bank in Barcaldine, caught it, along with his wife and son. Frank died. According to the family story, Frank was already ill with kidney disease – a “pre-existing condition”, in our current language. Pat’s father Fred, Frank’s son-in-law, wrote to his brother about the death.

…he died about 11.15 on Wednesday night, and from what I can understand, just previous to dying he suffered great agony. I believe the cause of death was heart failure as at the latter end only half of his heart was working.

A report in Barcaldine’s newspaper, The Western Champion, seems familiar today, as we again face a world-wide epidemic.[4]

A proclamation was issued by the Government on Friday, ordering that, from the 30th of May and until the 31st of July next or such later date as may be prescribed every Church, Sunday school, school, or college, place of public amusement or resort, theatre, hall, dancing room, gymnasium, or other place or premises where people regularly or occasionally congregate for worship, education, meeting, amusement, entertainment, dancing, physical culture, or athletics shall be closed to the public.

diphtheria flu masks 1919
Women wearing surgical masks during influenza epidemic, Brisbane 1919 “Influenza pandemic”, nma.gov.au

In Barcaldine alone there were over one hundred sufferers. Anyone with symptoms was told to report to Dr Cook, and if deemed to have the ‘flu they were put into isolation in their own homes or in the isolation hospital established in the Shire Hall. Patients were urged to strictly obey the doctor’s orders.

diphtheria barcie shire hall slq
Barcaldine Shire Hall State Library of Queensland

The Queensland public were reassured that the epidemic would run its course and if they followed instructions the effects would be minimised.

All so familiar to us now, a century later. The media of communication have changed, though, and this week on the Barcaldine Regional Council’s Facebook page, C.E.O. Steven Boxall has been speaking via YouTube about washing hands and safe distances, local closures, and new procedures at the airport.

Typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, the plague, polio, tuberculosis, influenza: Australia has had to cope with many epidemics, and quarantine stations were set up in every state to prevent both the arrival of diseases in the country and their spread.

This year’s COVID-19 epidemic is another in a long line. Who knows what it will bring in its wake?

They never found out how Pat caught diphtheria, out on that isolated property. Perhaps it was a visiting carrier. Throat swabs of suspected carriers were carried out frequently.

However, according to the Queensland Health website, while the disease is known to be spread in “respiratory droplets or direct contact with respiratory secretions or infected exudate of infected person or carrier”, it can also be spread through “contact with articles soiled with discharges from lesions of infected people.”[5]

According to the family, it was in the wool sacks.

38DD8C81-CFB9-4039-9845-95CA56A0280B
Shearing stations, Tara station woolshed, 2000

[1] http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/condition/14/33/40/diphtheria

 

[2] https://barcaldine-peopleplacesthings.org/government-services/victoria-hospital/

[3] The Western Champion, 18 May 1929.

[4] The Western Champion, 7 June 1919

[5] https://www.health.qld.gov.au/cdcg/index/diphtheria

Mackay Crocodiles

“Daily Mercury”, Mackay. 30 July 1913

The search for Mr George Noble, who wandered from his home near The Leap at the beginning of the month, has now been abandoned without the slightest trace of the missing man having been discovered. The missing man might have been taken by alligators, his farm being situated between Reliance and Constant Creeks, the waters of which are infested with these reptiles. Native dogs also frequent the neighbourhood and may have attacked the man once he became helpless through exposure. Mr Noble was a man of 78 years of age and in his declining years had become rather childish. He evidently lost his way through wandering off on a bye-track.

Reliance Creek National Park now protects one of the last patches of scrub along the creek, not far from its estuary between Mackay and Cape Hillsborough. A century ago, although already surrounded by farms and sugarcane fields, this area, dense with vines and palms, would have been a dangerous place to be lost.

mackay reliance creek nat park mackay conservation group
Mackay Conservation Group explores Reliance Creek National Park

In 1883, George and Jane Noble had emigrated to Mackay from Newcastle on Tyne, England, with their children. They settled on the farm at The Leap, amongst the cane fields and wilderness north of Mackay. It was thirty years later, in his old age, that George disappeared. The search involved local people, police and a tracker, but nothing was ever found.

Perhaps somewhere out in the Reliance Creek estuary there is a pair of spectacles or set of false teeth lying hidden under the sand, lost by poor old George Noble, his Geordie accent stilled forever, far from the Tyne.

George and Jane Noble were the great-grandparents of my husband Con, and only a vague story of the old man wandering off and disappearing was passed down in the family.

Every year in Northern Australia, people are taken by crocodiles. North Queenslanders have lost access to many of their old favourite swimming holes because of them. Endlessly cynical about governments in the south, they say whenever an appeal for crocodile culling is turned down, “When the first croc appears in the Noosa River, they’ll change their minds!”

Or the beaches of the Gold Coast. Perhaps the Brisbane River, near the Tower of Power, home of state government administration, poised above the river at 1 William Street. A crocodile under the mangrove boardwalk there would cause a stir.

Queensland has a service called “Crocwatch” that people ring to report crocodile sightings. Every year there are many such calls, from Torres Strait to Rockhampton. This year, someone said they saw a crocodile at Tin Can Bay, which is scarily close to south Queensland waters.

mackay croc-country
Qld Government’s “Crocwatch” map

This year there have been twenty-five recorded crocodile sightings in the Mackay region, near swimming enclosures along the coast, up the creeks and the Pioneer River, and one in Constant Creek, near where George disappeared.

On trips north to Cairns we’ve often spent a night in Mackay, where the cattle country to the south changes to the land of sugarcane, coconut palms and rainforest. It’s a fine old city, and a good place to break a journey. This is spectacular country, from the beautiful beaches, up the sprawling Pioneer Valley to the rainforest-covered ranges of Finch-Hatton and Eungella. The climate has extremes – from cyclones and floods to the occasional fall of snow on the ranges.

This year, just before reaching Mackay we turned west on the road to Walkerston, then right on to Mackay Eungella Road, and drove up the Pioneer River valley, through picturesque small towns – Marian, Mirani, Pinnacle, Finch Hatton.

581BB516-EEB8-4002-A387-BF2A77F5ED33_1_201_a
The Pioneer River at Marian

Con’s mother Min grew up here. George Noble’s son Bill and his wife Mary became cane farmers in this valley, still one of Queensland’s richest sugarcane areas. Bill farmed at Alexandra, on the Palms Estate, a large area of farms located about ten kilometres south-west of Mackay, somewhere between Walkerston and the river.

In 1908 it was from this family farm that Bill and Mary drove away in a buggy to Mackay Hospital. Mary was to have an operation for a goitre in her neck. She died under the anaesthetic. She and Bill had six children under nine, and it was hard times for the bereaved family.

F46C1516-64C7-4F34-87DF-B8C1873CFE45_4_5005_c
Mackay District Hospital, 1910 (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min was the second-eldest child, and she told us stories about life on the farm.

She spoke of the time her little brother, Jim, lost two fingers in a chaff cutter.

She spoke of city men, desperate for work as the Great Depression started to bite, who came here with soft hands and cut cane with blood running down their arms until their blisters turned into calluses.

9E6749DF-53E1-42A7-B261-B9DD605A9341_4_5005_c
Cutting sugar cane (Image: Mackay Regional Council Libraries)

Min spoke of going to dances at nearby Walkerston or Marian. During the Wet, when the roads were cut, to get there they would travel along the cane train tracks on a pumper trolley.

This year it’s dry in the Pioneer Valley, like most of the state. Last December, for the first time, bushfires got into the iconic rainforest on the Eungella range. It was a shock to us all. Rainforest doesn’t burn, we thought.

CFE12488-DC2A-407A-AE05-7FBDFF5E4B4F
Eungella Range: fire damage from December 2018

The barman in the Finch Hatton pub, where we enjoyed a beer and toasted sandwiches, looked up at the hillside across the road and said, “It was burning right to the top of that range. Up the Gorge as well. I’ve never seen anything like it.

“It’ll grow back, though. It always does.”

I hope he’s right, but rainforest trees, unlike eucalypts, are not adapted to burning. This September, South-east Queensland’s Binna Burra rainforest also burned, along with its heritage-listed lodge. Perhaps we’ll have to become accustomed to fires in ancient forests.

B7CBC891-E637-45A3-B20B-297C5AE3214C
Coomera Falls, Binna Burra, 2018

When you take the winding Mackay Eungella Road up the range, the scars of last year’s fire are still visible, although green is emerging. Over the range and down to Broken River, the forest is untouched, with platypuses in the river and whip birds scratching among the leaf litter; but we’ve had a shocking taste of how things may be in the future.

Crocodile attacks might be the least of worries for the people of Queensland, both north and south.

Mackay, though, is beautiful, in all its faces; and one of the loveliest sights in Queensland is that of kangaroos on the spectacular beaches of Cape Hillsborough, only a few kilometres north of where old George Noble’s specs may still lie hidden in the sand.

mackay cape hills kanga(Queensland.com)
Cape Hillsborough (Image: Queensland.com)

Queensland Songs

Song making is an ancient Queensland art. Songs have always been part of every Indigenous celebration and every mourning ceremony, and song lines were like maps guiding people across country.

By contrast, whitefeller Queensland songs range from nineteenth century convict times to the twenty-first century.

The best of those Queensland songs, the most evocative of its time and place, is the haunting Moreton Bay, about convict life in Brisbane in the late 1820s under the notorious commandant, Captain Patrick Logan.

 

convicts 2
Convict Brisbane

 

The first European settlement was built along what became William Street. Captain Logan’s house was here, and this part of Brisbane is still the home of government offices.

convicts best
Convict era Brisbane seen from south of the river. Image: State Library of Qld

The huge state government building at 1 William Street is near the site of the commandant’s house.

CiKIvPWU4AEqDm-.jpg-large
Looking upstream towards 1 William Street as it was nearing completion

Now the Queens Wharf high-rise development is going up on William Street.

The flogging triangle was located in the convict barracks at the top of what is now Queen Street.

convicts 3
Convict life in Brisbane Image: Museum of Brisbane

The Brisbane River loops around this raised stretch of land, down past what is now the City Botanical Gardens, past the New Farm, and past Eagle Farm. Convicts worked on all these farms.

Moreton Bay

 One Sunday morning as I went walking
By Brisbane waters I chanced to stray
I heard a convict his fate bewailing
As on the sunny river bank I lay
I am a native from Erin’s island
But banished now from my native shore
They stole me from my aged parents
And from the maiden I do adore

I’ve been a prisoner at Port Macquarie
At Norfolk Island and Emu Plains
At Castle Hill and at cursed Toongabbie
At all these settlements I’ve been in chains
But of all places of condemnation
And penal stations in New South Wales
To Moreton Bay I have found no equal
Excessive tyranny each day prevails

For three long years I was beastly treated
And heavy irons on my legs I wore
My back from flogging was lacerated
And oft times painted with my crimson gore
And many a man from downright starvation
Lies mouldering now underneath the clay
And Captain Logan he had us mangled
All at the triangles of Moreton Bay

Like the Egyptians and ancient Hebrews
We were oppressed under Logan’s yoke
Till a native black lying there in ambush
Did deal this tyrant his mortal stroke
My fellow prisoners be exhilarated
That all such monsters such a death may find
And when from bondage we are liberated
Our former sufferings will fade from mind

Western Queensland has always been a tough place: even more so in the years of the Great Depression, when people, especially men, had to leave home and travel in harsh conditions to find work and collect rations. In Sergeant Small, a swaggie jumps a train in Mitchell, heading for Roma. When he arrives there, he is tricked by the local sergeant into revealing his hiding place, ends up in court and is sentenced to thirty days.

mitchell railway station
Passengers on Mitchell Railway Station Image: State Library of Qld

 

The “Weddings Parties Anything” version captures the spirit of the time.

Sergeant Small

I went broke in western Queensland in 1931,
Nobody would employ me so my swaggy days begun
I headed out to Charleville, out to the western towns,
I was on my way to Roma, destination Darling Downs

And my pants were getting ragged, my shoes were getting thin,
When we stopped in Mitchell, a goods train shunted in,
The engine blew her whistle, I was looking up to see,
She was on her way to Roma, that was very plain to me.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

As I sat and watched her, inspiration seemed to grow,
And I remembered the government slogan, ‘It’s a railway that you own’
So by the time the sun was setting, and night was going nigh,
So I gathered my belongings and I caught her on the fly.

And as we came into Roma, I tucked my head down low,
And a voice said ‘any room mate?’ and I answered, ‘Plenty ‘bo’
Then at this tip this noble man, the voice of Sergeant Small,
Said, ‘I’ve trapped you very nicely, you’re headed for a fall’

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

The Judge was very kind to me, he gave me thirty days,
He said, ‘Maybe that would help to cure my rattler jumping ways’
So if your down and outback, let me tell you what I think,
Just stay off the Queensland railways, it’s a shortcut to the clink.

I wished that I was 16 stone and only seven foot tall,
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.
I’d go back to western Queensland, and beat up Sergeant Small.

 

Songs that evoke a familiar place and atmosphere often find a lasting place in the culture.

Sounds of Then, better known as This is Australia, written by Mark Callaghan, was inspired by his memories of living with his family in the canefields east of Bundaberg. After its release in 1985 by the rock band Gang Gajang, it soon became an iconic Australian song. As Callaghan said in a 2002 interview with Debbie Kruger, “The song is actually about how smells and sounds and sensations can rekindle a memory – which is what music does so successfully for people.”

lighning over cane

From Sounds of Then (This is Australia)

…That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings home the heavy days,
Brings home the night time swell,

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.

The block is awkward – it faces west,
With long diagonals, sloping too.
And in the distance, through the heat haze,
In convoys of silence the cattle graze.
That certain texture, that certain beat,
Brings forth the night time heat.

Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think that this is Australia.

To lie in sweat, on familiar sheets,
In brick veneer on financed beds.
In a room of silent hardiflex
That certain texture, that certain smell,
Brings forth the heavy days,
Brings forth the night time sweat
Out on the patio we’d sit,
And the humidity we’d breathe,
We’d watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
This is Australia…

Songwriters: Mark Callaghan / Graham Bidstrup / Chris Bailey / Geoff Stapleton / Robert James / Kay Bee

Sounds of Then (This is Australia) lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

Cattle and Cane, from Brisbane band the Go-Betweens, 1983, has the same lovely, nostalgic Queensland feel:

cattle and cane

Cattle and Cane

I recall a schoolboy coming home
through fields of cane
to a house of tin and timber
and in the sky
a rain of falling cinders
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a boy in bigger pants
like everyone
just waiting for a chance
his father’s watch
he left it in the showers
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
I recall a bigger brighter world
a world of books
and silent times in thought
and then the railroad
the railroad takes him home
through fields of cattle
through fields of cane
from time to time
the waste memory-wastes
the waste memory-wastes
further, longer, higher, older

Songwriters: Robert Derwent Garth Forster / Grant William Mclennan

Cattle and Cane lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

For something contemporary, and a completely different view of Queensland as seen from south of the border, here is comedian Sammy J’s 2019 song, inspired by the result of this year’s Federal Election: Queensland, we’re breaking up with you.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑