Isabel’s Death

There’s a white cross on the grave, and the ground around it is bare and dry. Three people are buried here, the last dying a hundred years ago, in the great influenza epidemic of 1919. That was my great-grandfather, Frank Matthews.

 

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The first to be laid to rest here was my great-grandmother Isabel, in 1903.

Frank and Isabel and their children had been living in Sandgate, in the old Queensland National Bank building on Eagle Terrace, looking out across the Bay. In 1901, Frank received a transfer to Barcaldine, a thousand miles away by steam boat and train; a town that twenty years earlier had not existed.

Isabel Turbayne Matthews
Isabel Matthews

Isabel and Frank were both, like so many Australians then and now, the children of migrants who had travelled much further than a thousand miles to make a better life for themselves and their children. They packed up their goods and the children and Topsy the cat, and with Isabel’s sister Jessie to help out, embarked on the steamship going north, beginning a trip into the heat, hazards and discomforts of the Outback.

Isabel wrote home to her family.

A terrible choking comes in my throat, whenever I think of you all standing on the wharf, and our leaving you all for perfect strangers…

Phyllis, my grand-mother, was five years old. She helped to keep an eye on three-year-old James and baby Evie as they travelled north, the ship anchoring one evening in Keppel Bay, at the mouth of the Fitzroy River.

Here they trans-shipped to a tender for the trip up-river to Rockhampton, Isabel and Jessie laying the children to sleep in their clothes on the dusty bunks. Just before four in the morning the exhausted family got to bed in a hotel in the city, only to discover when they woke up that the weekly passenger train to Barcaldine had left the night before.

There was nothing else to do but travel by goods train, and we could not even get sleeping cars. It seemed as though we would have to sit up for two nights, but we were so tired we managed to curl up with the children and get some sleep. The train crawled along, and it took us twenty-seven hours to come from Rockhampton to Barcaldine.   

But since we arrived and had a good night’s rest, we have quite regained our good spirits.                                   

They stayed in the then-new Shakespeare Hotel, on the corner of Oak and Beech Streets.

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Several days later, they moved into the bank residence, a low timber building with the bank chambers at one end.  The bank house faced across dusty Oak Street to the railway line, but there were lattice-enclosed verandahs around the bedrooms and the back of the house, opening on to Willow Street, and a patch of lawn.

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Original Qld National Bank house, Oak St, Barcaldine

That summer, the countryside was in the middle of a dreadful drought. The grid of flat streets and simple houses that made up Barcaldine was lashed by westerly winds like blasts from a furnace. On the remnants of lagoons around the town, hundreds of birds perished from the heat.

On the sheep stations, men cut scrub to feed the stock until the land was almost bare.  The town was over-run by goats. Fire and infectious disease threatened constantly.

Isabel must have thought often of cool Moreton Bay breezes and the family she’d left behind.

Two years after they arrived in Barcaldine, she died.

According to one family story, she was dressing for dinner. Raising her arms, perhaps to pin up her hair, she fell down with a brain haemorrhage. Others maintain that she was having a shower at the time. It would have been a warm shower, more of a dribble than a gush, and as it was from the town’s artesian bore, the water would have reeked of sulphur.

Barcaldine’s Western Champion printed the story the following Saturday, revealing that Isabel had never regained consciousness.

Frank was not at home when she collapsed. As bank manager, he was often out of town, visiting sheep stations in the area. He went duck-shooting and patronised the local race-meetings, and he could “keep one down” with the best of them.

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Duck shooters, Barcaldine. Frank Matthews second from right

The night of Isabel’s collapse, he was at Dunraven Station, fifteen miles out of town. The doctor sent a messenger for him, crossing Lagoon Creek in the dark, riding through gidyea scrub and across the open downs. Frank was home by two in the morning, but there was nothing anyone could do.

Isabel was only twenty-seven years old when she died.

Two years later, Frank married Isabel’s sister Vida, who had come out to help Jessie look after the children. Frank was excommunicated from the Church of England for marrying his dead wife’s sister. It was a scandal.

Poor young Vida – coping with Frank and Phyllis and the little ones, and soon to watch her own first child, little curly-haired Janet, die of gastro-enteritis. Many Barcaldine babies did, back then, what with the heat, an uncertain water supply and the open drain that ran down Oak Street.

Isabel, Frank and little Janet share the grave under that white cross.

Nearly a century later, I began to research Isabel’s life and death: visiting Barcaldine, trawling through old newspapers on film in the State Library, and collecting family stories, letters and photographs.

Barcaldine, 1910 Jim, Frank, Phyllis and John, Vida, David and Evie Matthews
Frank and his second wife, Vida, in the bank house garden in 1910. My grandmother Phyllis is seated in the middle, holding Vida’s youngest.

In 2015 I went back to Barcaldine with my cousin Nadine, and on that bare grave we placed two little pots of artificial greenery, with loving messages written on the pots. Maybe they’re there still.

Afterwards, we walked up Oak Street for a pub crawl. It was Rugby League Grand Final night, with two Queensland teams competing, the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys. The epic game was played in Sydney, but Nadine and I watched it in five different Barcie hotels: Union, Railway, Artesian (“The Artie”), Shakespeare and Commercial. Some were cheering for the Broncos, but most were ardent Cowboys supporters – people in the regions supporting the regional team.

For the thrilling finish we were at the Artie, and with ecstatic locals we watched that moment when, in extra time, Johnathon Thurston kicked the winning field goal.

After a final Kahlua and milk, Nadine and I meandered back down Oak Street to our motel; past the Shakespeare Hotel, across Beech Street and Willow Street, past the spot where our great-grandmother Isabel had died one hundred and twelve years earlier in the long-gone bank house.

I have a great affection for Barcaldine, and not just because of its attractive old streetscape, its position in the centre of the state, its importance in Queensland’s pastoral and political history, its interesting museums.

I like it most of all because my family’s story links me to this place. Stories are powerful that way.

Tara Homestead 2000 shearing shed

Rocky

In southeastern Rockhampton, between the river and the swamp, lies the suburb of Depot Hill. Depot Hill residents know all about floods.

In 2011, when Rocky experienced some of its worst-ever flooding, the entire city was isolated. The airport was submerged, and so was the highway. The main northern railway line, which passes by Depot Hill, was awash. Built on low, swampy land near the Fitzroy River, in spite of its name the Hill is always at risk. As the waters rose, it was decided that the suburb should be evacuated.

“I’m staying put,” said one old lady to the television cameras. “I’ve been here for sixty years, and my house has never flooded.”

Power to the area was cut, but still people stayed. Most of the houses there are high-set, and the media showed locals sitting on their front steps, drinking beer and watching the floodwaters.

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Depot Hill during the 2011 floods ABC Capricornia: Alice Roberts

The Sydney Morning Herald reported it:

An old pine desk is drying beside Del Moss’s house in Depot Hill – drawers pulled out, in case they swell. ”It floated past yesterday. And it’s better than mine,” the 75-year-old says. ”Three lounge suites went past the other day. It was like the Sydney to Hobart watching them. If you don’t laugh, I suppose, you cry.” [Sydney Morning Herald”, 08-01-2011]

Livestock from the nearby Common took refuge on the Hill. One photo showed a house above the flood level with a goat on the landing and a donkey and a camel in the front yard.

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Camel in the Cyclone Debbie floods, Rockhampton, 2017

Four years later, in 2015, Rocky flooded again. This time, Cyclone Marcia was to blame. Since the previous floods, one Depot Hill grandmother had invested in a kayak for getting to the shops. Depot Hill people are proud of the way they cope, but this time it exhausted even the most stoic – not just at the Hill, but across the damaged city, with thousands of households without power, its citizens cleaning up in a heat wave.

Rockhampton Regional Libraries are a great asset to the city. Following the visit of Cyclone Marcia, the Library, via its Facebook page, invited the city in.

         With most of us still without power, a great place to spend the day will be Rockhampton Regional Library. Open again tonight until 10pm! Enjoy our air conditioning, watch a movie, grab a coffee, charge your devices, read a book, access free Wi-Fi, have a chat to the ladies from the Red Cross or visit the nurses for a health check. We have it all at the library today and would love to see you here!

Founded in 1858, Rockhampton is one of Queensland’s oldest cities, and, lying as it does on the Tropic of Capricorn, most of the time it has an ideal climate. Like Cairns, Townsville, and other coastal cities, it was first developed as a port, servicing the pastoral industry. The railway was built west from Rockhampton before the coastal line was completed, and long before the Bruce Highway came into existence.

Rocky has a notable collection of substantial old buildings, as well as typical old-style, high-stumped, timber tropical housing, such as those of Depot Hill.

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A house at Depot Hill in dry times

Rockhampton Art Gallery has one of the finest regional collections in Australia, including a magnificent collection of mid-twentieth century Australian art. The city has renowned Botanic Gardens, as well as the splendid Kershaw Gardens.

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The famous banyan trees of Rockhampton Botanic Gardens

As a city that services beef cattle country, Rocky is also known for its many statues of bulls, in parks and median strips – in recent years often photographed surrounded by floodwaters. There’s also a steady business in supplying replacement testicles for these bulls, as they are always losing them, sawn off in the dead of night. Rocky’s bulls’ balls are evidently prized as collectables.

In April 2017, the floods were on again, when Cyclone Debbie, one of the most widespread and expensive of all, made its slow and devastating way down the coastal ranges, from Airlie Beach all the way to Lismore.

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The swollen Fitzroy River after Cyclone Debbie, April 2017 ABC

This time most of the water came down the Fitzroy from the ranges to the west, and the floods were predicted to reach the highest level for sixty years. It didn’t reach that peak in Rockhampton, but once again the city was in clean-up mode for weeks. Once again, calls were made to build a levee to protect the city. Maybe that will happen one day; but in the meantime, the people of Rockhampton will stay prepared.

This is a tough old city.

Rockhampton bull Debbie RACQ Helicopter

Speeding Tickets

 

We were on our way to Rockhampton in the old red Falcon. The Bruce Highway to Rocky was at last almost free of road works, after years of major upgrades. Constant speed limits still applied: one hundred kilometres per hour signs, then eighty, sixty, forty, and back up again. Construction had finished, but road marking was still going on, and so the speed zones were still in place.

North of Gympie, we failed to notice a forty kph sign. A police car appeared out of nowhere, and a handsome young policeman with a Welsh accent wrote Con a ticket for three points and two hundred and twenty dollars.

Considering that we are not tradies in a hurry, over-confident young drivers or hoons, Con and I have forfeited a lot of points over the years. We’ve both come close to losing our licenses at times, and it’s usually for going over the limit in a speed zone such as this.

We drove on, cautiously, and stopped for the night at Childers.

Childers has a quaint streetscape, with heritage buildings, trees, sculpture and mosaics, charming even with the Bruce Highway running through it. The traffic keeps the Childers pedestrians nimble, those pensioners, grey nomads, hippies and backpackers. We checked into a motel and dined at The Federal Hotel, a pretty, heritage listed building.

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Next morning, Con did the Walk of Shame, down to the Police Station to pay his speeding fine. He likes to get these things over with.

“Can you remember your first speeding fine?” I asked him, when we were back on the highway.

“Yes, I can!” he said, with bitterness. “It was May 1977, in the Golden Holden. Nothing but trouble, that car!”

The Golden Holden was the same colour as the foil in Con’s cigarette packets. He was a great smoker in those days.

“It was our first trip south in the new car – going to a wedding, do you remember?”

Over the years, Con and I have travelled Queensland, north to south or south to north, for four weddings and four funerals. We could make a movie of it.

“Between Marlborough and Yaamba, a policeman stepped out of the long grass and pulled me over. ‘You were clocked on radar at one hundred and thirty. That’s three points and one hundred and thirty dollars.’ Only one hundred and thirty dollars. Those were the days…

“Next ticket – 1998. First long trip in the Falcon, and I got caught twice. The first was at Kuttabul, north of Mackay – a speed camera. The other one was south of Rocky, on the way home. A cop in a patrol car waved his finger to me to stop. Three points each time!”

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“I remember. You were still down those six points when we started the round-Australia trip.”

“Yes. And just after we started, a few kilometres the other side of Cunningham’s Gap, I overtook a semi-trailer. I was going one hundred and twenty k’s when I came back over to the left. There was a white police van parked beside the road, and I knew I was done again.”

That would have meant that Con was nine points down before we’d even left the state. One more ticket, and I would have had to drive the whole way around Australia, so I said I was driving at the time, and took the points myself.

Back then Con did most of the long-distance driving because he has always been better at overtaking than me. I remember with pleasure, though, that I drove the straight stretch on the Nullarbor Plain, one hundred and forty-six kilometres without a curve; the longest straight stretch of sealed road in the country.

“Do you think I should overtake this truck?” I’d asked, about halfway along.

“If you can’t overtake here,” Con had responded dryly, “you won’t overtake anywhere.”

Now, on the way to Rockhampton, he continued to list his speeding tickets.

“It’s 2001, I’m going to Gympie for Uncle Frank’s funeral, and I get pinged for doing eighty-two in the eighty zone. I lost a point, and they sent me a form suggesting a driving counseling course. Ha!”

I’m pleased I didn’t get spotted last year, overtaking a semitrailer on the Marlborough stretch at one hundred and forty. No overtaking lanes on the Marlborough Stretch. Or the time I accidently set the cruise control to one hundred and twenty instead of one hundred and ten. That was a quick trip.

 

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