Contemplating history at Toowong Cemetery

Cemeteries are both ineffably sad and poignantly beautiful places. Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery in the rolling hills beneath Mt Coot-tha is both and much of the city’s history and memories are buried here. The heritage-listed cemetery, the largest in Queensland came into being as Brisbane grew rapidly westward in the 19th century. After the council set aside land here in the 1860s, Queensland’s second governor Samuel Blackall was the first person to be buried here and he selected the highest spot on the land for his grave.

Blackall was an Irish soldier who was appointed governor in 1868 to popular acclaim but had been plunged into a constitutional crisis. After a deadlock in parliament the Liberals lost the election but petitioned Blackall to dissolve the assembly saying it did not properly represent the colony. Blackall refused to intervene and the crisis rolled on through his tenure. The kindly and soft-spoken Blackall was very popular but by 1870 his health declined rapidly and he died on January 2, 1871, aged 62. Parliament voted £500 for the erection of a monument over his remains designed by Colonial Architect Francis Stanley. It remains the tallest spire at Toowong.

The second person to be buried in Toowong was 21-year-old Ann Hill. Ann was the only child of Walter and Jane Hill. Born in 1850 Ann Hill died of a lung complaint on November 3, 1871. Her father Walter was trained as a botanist in his native Scotland and appointed superintendent of Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens in 1855. He introduced the jacaranda and poinciana trees to Australia and help popularise the mango and pawpaw trees. The Walter Hill fountain was named for him in the city botanic gardens.

Near Blackall’s monument is another to an administrator involved in the Queensland constitutional crisis at the end of the 1860s. Maurice O’Connell was born in Sydney in 1812, the grandson of William Bligh. He formed an Irish regiment in the British Auxiliary Legion which fought in Spain’s Carlist Wars in the 1830s and then came back to New South Wales where he was elected to parliament. He was a founder member of Queensland’s separatist parliament in 1859. He was president of the council for two decades until his death in 1879.

Also in the same area is the grave of Arthur Palmer, Queensland’s seventh premier. Born in Ireland in 1819, he moved to NSW as a young man and worked his way up to become general manager for Henry Dangar’s properties. He moved to Queensland in 1861 to become a squatter and entered parliament in 1866, serving as a minister before Blackall in one of his final acts appointed him premier in 1870. Palmer wanted to bring in free education but that lost him support from Protestants and Catholics who benefited from existing state aid system and he was defeated at election in 1874. His later years were shrouded in controversy over his directorship of the failed Queensland National Bank. He died in 1898 just before the Supreme Court cleared him and the other directors of blame.

Another of Queensland’s early governors buried at Toowong is Sir Anthony Musgrave. Born in 1828 in Antigua, Musgrave was a true servant of global empire and held colonial positions in Antigua, before being governor of Nevis and Kitts, then Newfoundland, Natal, British Columbia, South Australia and Jamaica. He was appointed governor of Queensland in 1883 and clashed with premier Thomas MacIlwraith over Musgrave’s power to issue pardons. He died in office on October 9, 1888.

This grave commemorates James Forsyth Thallon, Commissioner of Railways. Thallon was born in Scotland in 1847 and moved to Queensland as a young man for health reasons. Thallon joined the railways and worked his way up the ladder. He became Commissioner in 1902 and led Queensland Railways through a period of rapid expansion. He was a strong supporter of Queensland’s narrow gauge which he said was appropriate for a “young country”. A very popular manager, his staff were devastated when he died in office in 1911 of dengue fever and they launched a subscription to erect this monument a year later.

This unusual monument marks the grave of Edward McGregor. McGregor was another Scotsman, born in Edinburgh in 1862. He worked for fellow Scot Thallon in Queensland Railways for 20 years before buying the Grosvenor Hotel. He then built the Lyceum Theatre which he ran until his death in 1939. His wife Mary Jane died 18 years earlier and the sculpture is of McGregor mourning her death in 1921.

Toowong Cemetery shows Brisbane was a multi-cultural entrepot in the 19th and early 20th century. On the western side of the cemetery is the Russian Orthodox plot. Brisbane was the first place in Australia to establish a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1925, as many fled the Russian Revolution. That church was later rebuilt into what is now St Nicholas Cathedral Church in Vulture St. It is one of four parishes in Brisbane with another at at Tweed Heads and a mission in Toowoomba. The Russian cross has three horizontal crossbeams, with the lowest one slanted downwards. The top crossbeams represents Pilate’s inscription INRI. The middle crossbeam is the main bar where the hands are fixed, while the bottom crossbeam represents the footrest which prolongs the torture.

Nearby is the Greek Orthodox section. Greeks are the seventh largest ethnic group in Australia with almost 400,000 people in the 2011 census saying they were Greek ethnicity. While most lived in Melbourne or Sydney, some came up to work the cane fields in Northern Queensland. Paul Patty was the youngest of three Patty brothers who came to Brisbane to open up two cafes on Queen St. Brisbane’s most famous Greek resident was Corfu-born Lady Diamantina Roma, wife of first governor George Bowen.

The Jewish portion on the eastern side of the cemetery has around 800 graves. The first Brisbane Jewish community began in 1865, and its synagogue, Sha’arei Emunah (now Brisbane’s main synagogue in Spring Hill), was consecrated in 1886. There were then 446 Jews in Brisbane with 724 in Queensland. A second congregation opened in South Brisbane for Russian immigrant in 1928 and another opened at Surfers’ Paradise in 1961. Relatively few immigrants settled in Brisbane after World War II, and the growth of the community has been slow with less than 2000 Jews in Queensland today.

Dr Harry Lightoller was born in Manchester in 1876 and came to Queensland where he was a well-known doctor in Ipswich. After a long trip to Europe where he studied “diseases of women” he returned to Queensland and retired to Brisbane with wife Minnie. They died within three years of each other in the 1920s.

Almost 8000 Australians died in the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War. They included Lt Leslie Norman Collin of the 15th Australian Infantry Battalion. He died two weeks into the conflict which had already descended into stalemate. A party from the 15th Battalion crept out the night of May 8 and captured the Turkish trench in front of Quinn’s Post, a key position at Anzac Cove. Next morning, they were driven back with many men killed or wounded as they ran for the Australian line. Leslie’s cousin Stanley Collin Larkin meanwhile fought in Palestine with the 2nd Light Horse and would have almost certainly taken part in the charge at Beersheba. Stanley was tragically killed barely days before the armistice after “four year’s hard service” at Gaza on October 28, 1918.

The lives of all those who died in that war were commemorated in another monument at Toowong and the cemetery had a crucial role in making Anzac Day a national day of commemoration. When army chaplain Canon David Garland returned from the war he met many people at the graveyard honouring newly dead relatives. For the next 20 years Garland organised an annual Anzac Day service at Toowong. He helped form an Anzac Day committee and in 1923 the stone of remembrance and cross were laid in time for 1924’s Anzac Day. The “Evermore” inscription is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus as recommended by Rudyard Kipling for each Stone of Remembrance across the Commonwealth.

Neither Ecclesiasticus nor Kipling could not stop the Second World War and again Brisbane racked up its share of war dead. They included Flight Lt Duncan Matheson. Matheson died in an air crash near Alice Springs aged 36. He was a passenger on a Douglas C-39 heading for an appointment at Birdum. The plane of the 21st Troop Carrier Squadron of the 374th Transport Carrier Group crashed after takeoff. The aircraft was overloaded and was a complete loss. It had arrived at Alice Springs the day before after a forced landing during bad weather after flying from Batchelor. After taking off it was seen to bank to the north east of the airfield whereupon it crashed and exploded in flames. Matheson was one of 11 men dead.

After all the deaths by war it was a relief to come across the Temple of Peace, though it too was a sad story. The heritage-listed memorial is a cross between mausoleum and Indian temple and was built in 1924 by Brisbane dissident and Wobbly, Richard Ramo. Its dedication took the form of a pacifist rally. Ramo was grieving for three sons killed in World War I, and an adopted son who committed suicide. “All my hope lies buried here, ” Ramo wrote. He interred the recovered ashes of three of his sons in a red flagged coffin. “There is no Heaven! We Shall not meet again. Make thy Heaven here and thou shalt not have lived in vain,” is written near the ornate temple’s door.

My final stop was a pilgrimage of my own. I knew about boxer Peter Jackson from my Roma days as he died there in 1901. Jackson was a black boxer from the Caribbean who learned his ringcraft after moving to Sydney aged 16. He had success in the ring in Australia and Britain and moved to America where he drew after 61 rounds with Jim Corbett but world champion John L Sullivan would not fight a black man. After an injury he gradually went downhill and was advised to move to the drier air of Roma to treat TB. After his death he was buried in an unmarked grave at Toowong. After a public subscription, Sydney mason Lewis Page carved a dazzling white Carrara marble monument over Jackson’s grave with an image that looks nothing like Jackson. The inscription repeats what Shakespeare’s Antony said about Julius Caesar: “This was a man”.

When Jack Johnson won a fight in Sydney in 1908 to become the world’s first black heavyweight champion, he too took a pilgrimage to see Jackson. A.E. Austin of the Brisbane Courier said the living champion spent a quiet few moments in silent contemplation at the grave of his brother-in-arms. “It was an impressive sight to see the living gladiator kneeling for a moment over the tomb of he who was Australia’s fistic idol”, Austin wrote.

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