Pattie Lees’ Question of Colour

Pattie Lees.

A few weeks ago I went to the Injilinji Aged Care facility to interview its CEO Pattie Lees about her autobiography “A Question of Colour: My Journey to Belonging” which she co-wrote with her son Adam C. Lees. Pattie was a member of the Stolen Generation and in 1958 from aged 10 she was taken from her mother and place in institutionalised care for eight years, the last six years of that in Palm Island. I hadn’t been able to read her book when I met her but I knew a bit about Palm Island’s troubled history and hoped I would be able to do justice to her story.

Among the many things I didn’t know was the foreword to the book was written by former prime minister Kevin Rudd who said Pattie’s was a story we all should be more familiar with, calling the legacy of the stolen generation “a blemish on our nation”. As PM, Rudd invited Lees to attend his 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generation. Lees turned it down in respect for those members of the stolen generation who weren’t invited. Rudd accepted that and noted that Lees had walked two conflicting worlds of protectionism and assimilation before rising to represent her people at the UN.

I didn’t know any of this. The lede of my article was that a new book by a prominent Mount Isan “looks back on the life of the stolen generation and growing up on Palm Island”. This was true to a point and Lees and her son praised my article after it came out. But I couldn’t wait to read the book to find out more. When I did I found I had missed the central point, the conflict in her life caused by the question of the title. The Queensland government made decisions about the lives siblings of Pattie and her siblings based on obsessive and archaic definitions of colour and race. Lees did not have the freedom to choose her own identity growing up.

Pattie’s best childhood memories are of her first 10 years when she lived with her Torres Strait Islander mother Agnes, two brothers and a sister in Cairns. Her Irish father was married to someone else and an irregular visitor. The kids were blind to the colour of their mother’s skin, she was just “mum” but was a beautiful singer from Mer (Murray Island) the same place as Eddie Mabo. As well as Torres Strait, she had Melanesian, Filipino and Aboriginal ancestry. Agnes was schooled on Thursday Island and moved to Babinba after marrying John Janke. They had one son also John and they separated in 1945.

Patricia’s father was Keron Patrick Glendon who was already a married man with 10 children when he met Agnes. They lived in a menage a trois with his wife Emma who turned a blind eye to their dalliance until Agnes became pregnant. Although Emma left Keron, he never formally moved in with Agnes though he fathered four children with her. Instead he married another women leaving Agnes to bring up the family and grief stricken she took to alcohol.

She played cabaret at local pubs to earn money but her drinking left her less time to look after the family. Though she married Kaj Eggertsen from Norway, they both drank heavily and had one child Elin. The children were unsupervised for long periods. Pattie was “Little Big Girl” and a defacto parent for younger siblings. Oldest son Terry was constantly in trouble and they had trouble putting food on the table. In 1957 the couple were charged with neglect and in 1958 the police intervened again.

Pattie was 10 when she and the other three older children were locked up at Cairns police station. Police were empowered to take neglected children into protective custody without a warrant, pending a court hearing. Agnes appeared in court without a lawyer and the hearing relied entirely on hearsay evidence from a local constable who said older brother Terry had broken into a neighbour’s house and stole crackers. At the house he found Terry feeding baby Elin with no mother around and took the children into custody (Elin was taken to hospital). He said the mother was addicted to alcohol and had been often arrested for drunkenness.

The magistrate removed the children from her care and declared them wards of state until 18. They were taken by train to Townsville State Children Receiving Depot as the state children’s department figured out what to do with them. They “belonged to neither race” but being “comparatively light-skinned” they weren’t sent to Palm Island. The Depot was a home for children deemed “neglected” or “uncontrollable” and the four children stayed there, enrolled at a local school while authorities sought foster parents. Johanne was fostered early and rarely saw her siblings again while misbehaving Terry was taken away on a “picnic” and didn’t return to the Depot, taken instead to Palm Island.

Pattie looked after younger brother Michael for almost two years at the Depot when they too were removed to the island in 1960. Unaccompanied as they landed on Palms they went to the police station where they though they had gone to the wrong place and should have gone to Magnetic island. “You’re a lot whiter,” the sergeant said, “You shouldn’t be here.” But here they were and they were escorted to island superintendent Roy Bartlam’s office. Bartlam’s power was absolute on the island and his reputation today is poor because of the 1957 rebellion but Lees says he treated her with nothing but respect.

She and Michael were separated, she to the girls dorm and him to the boys where he was reunited with Terry. Aged 12 Pattie was doubly disadvantaged, sent to Palms because she was too black and ostracised in the dorm because she was too white. All aspects of her life were controlled. She could not cross to the whites only Mango Avenue without authorisation, she was punished for failing to obey orders and could not leave the island without permission. Aboriginal people were expected to work 30 hours a week in exchange for accommodation and food rations which were poor. It was a womb to tomb experience for many.

Pattie was assigned to cooking, laundry, washing and yard work. She was constantly supervised and bad behaviour was not tolerated with lights out at 9.30pm. “We led silent lives”, she wrote. Pattie needed to convince her bullying dorm sisters she was a “proper blackfella” before they would accept her. One sympathetic girl rubbed soot on her face to make her darker and it worked, she finally started making friends.

It was tougher still in the boys dorm where Terry reported being beaten, set upon and sodomised within a month of arrival. He escaped in 1962 as indentured labour to a cane farm near Innisfail. Pattie earned pocket money cleaning the house of a white assistant and also discovered that house’s library where she devoured books.

Aged 14 in 1962 she met Father Cassian Double the Island’s new and unorthodox resident Franciscan friar. During her adolescence Double was her surrogate mother buying her her first bra and educating her on all matters female. Double became a guiding force helping her endure the agony of separation from her mother. She did well at school and got a scholarship to boarding school in Charters Towers aged 14.

Lees struggled to adjust to the freedoms of the mainland and her scholarship ended abruptly after a disastrous incident. On the weekend she was reading a book under a tree when the college principal took the book off her and start hitting her with it. Lees hit back and she was forced to leave college and return to Palms. Deeply ashamed she worked hard and got a clerical role in the island main office. In 1966 she saw a full page ad for the navy and wanting to “roam and explore at will” she applied and forgot about it. The same year aged 18 she left the island for good to go to Cairns to look for her mother.

She found her father first who said her mother had moved to Bloomfield River, 170km north. There Pattie and her mother had an emotional reunion after eight years. “Our years apart, the hurt, the pain, the loneliness endured without her, my sheer hunger for her presence all collided in one single moment.”

Pattie stayed at Bloomfield River for several months as she and her mother made up for lost time. She left when she found out her Navy application was successful and she enlisted three months after the 1967 referendum changed the laws relating to Aboriginal people. She trained up at HMS Cerberus in Victoria where fellow recruits had no idea of Aboriginal issues and assumed Palm Island was a paradise. Her comrades were shocked when she was not served in a Nowra pub but having come from Queensland with its segregation and colour bars, it seemed “no big deal for her”.

In the Navy Pattie met the love of her life Terry Lees, who had similar qualities to Father Cassian. They dated and married in 1969, forcing Pattie to leave the Navy. They lived in Canberra until Terry’s insurance business went under before returning to Cairns. In their five years together they had four children. But she couldn’t escape the ghosts of Palms.

Queensland’s Department of Native Affairs pettily chased her to repay the $20.39 advance on a new dress and other items while employed in the Palm Island main office. Her tally of receipts showed she owed $20.19 and she paid that back explaining the 20c difference. In the years that followed the Department sent more letters demanding the 20c. She learned they hassled her brother Michael for five years over a $5.44 debt.

In Cairns she found out she had another brother John from her mother’s first marriage. She also later discovered her sister Elin was still alive. Husband Terry was promoted to be an area manager for Carlton and United Breweries based in Mount Isa. Knowing no-one in the mining town she reunited with fellow Palm Islanders while Terry became well known for his Sports Time program on local television, his work as 4LM manager and his work with Rotary managing the growing Mount Isa Rodeo.

Pattie’s mother came to Mount Isa where she died at Christmas 1977 “a brilliant and talented woman but few of her dreams were fully realised”. But she spurred Pattie on. She found document that showed the effects her mother went to, to find her children after they taken. “We were simply caught in the scrutiny that befell her domestic situation”, Pattie wrote.

Her family’s story featured in the 1997 Stolen Generation report “Bringing Them Home”. Pattie ended up dedicating her personal and professional life to addressing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disadvantage. She was CEO of an Indigenous legal services group for 17 years and an ATSIC councillor for seven years. She was a delegate to the UN Commission on Human Rights draft declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2000 and also attended the UN General Assembly special session on women.

Pattie identifies as an Australian of mixed-race ancestry. She says that when the First Fleet arrived “one part of her mob greeted another part on the beach”. She says identity is shaped by the need, desire and necessity to belong. She finishes the story with a deeply emotional trip to her mother’s homeland Mer she took with son Adam in 2014. They visited the graves of family relatives and also the grave of Eddie Koiki Mabo. There her mother’s spirit was finally free to rest among the wind, the sea and the stars. The work of “Little Big Girl” was finally done.

Pat Mackie and the Mount Isa Mines dispute

Union leaders Pat Mackie (in his usual red baseball cap) and John McMahon (right) are interviewed by Albert Asbury of the ABC

The dispute that rocked Mount Isa Mines for nine months in 1964-65 was the most tumultuous time in the city’s history. At the centre of the story was the workers’ leader Pat Mackie. Mackie has written two books about his life, the first about his life leading up to the dispute called Many Ships to Mount Isa, the second was called The Story of a Dispute.

Mackie was painted out to be the devil incarnate during the strike and his colourful background and petty criminal history on two continents was used against him by the media, the company and the government. He was a committed unionist from his work in Canada and the US but this dispute pitted him and the workers against the unions as much as their employers. At the time Mount Isa Mines was owned by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) and its management was driving drive down costs by cutting contract pay and increasing efficiency though that had its own price – 1300 miners watched by 750 “supervisors”.

The workers had to be members of the Australian Workers Union and the company compulsorily deducted union dues from pay. Though many workers felt they would be better off in a purely miners’ union, the rightwing AWU jealously protected its rights and refused to let any other union muscle in.

There were many grumbles in the staff not least in the poor quality of the shower rooms where the water often cut out, leaving miners to head home dirty potentially carrying poisonous lead. The problem festered for eight years before Mackie complained in May 1964. When he threatened to quit over it, other workers asked him to fight it and many other problems they had on site.

At a union meeting workers wanted to hold a 24-hour stoppage against the advice of the union leader, who didn’t want to stir up trouble. Mackie also spoke against it, but for different reasons. He said a day-long strike would only lose them money and gain nothing. They needed to prepare properly for a strike and raise funds. The meeting agreed to give the company a week to fix the showers before taking further action.

The threat worked and the showers were fixed that week. Miners began to look at other issues such as the chiselling away of contract rights which the AWU had done nothing about. Workers elected Mackie as local chairman and he used his union skills to organise delegates in all areas of the mine. In August 1964 the Queensland Industrial Commission turned down a wage increase as a ‘camouflaged bonus’ which it said it was prevented from awarding. Next a peeved AWU management decided Mackie could not be chair as he wasn’t a six-year financial member of the union.

The workers sidestepped the union, electing a six-man committee including Mackie, to negotiate with the company. Mines manager James Foots said they were losing money and unable to offer wage increases. The workers countered that contract men would use their award right to revert to wages losing productivity for the company. In two weeks production dropped 40,000 tons as many workers left Mount Isa. The company reported the dispute to the Industrial Commission but they found the miners were not on strike, so the company applied again calling it a “go slow”.

The AWU hierarchy sided with the company in wanting their workers to return to contract and a meeting was called on October 11. The official rep Kevin Costello from Townsville sought approval of return to contracts which was rejected by jeering workers. Union boss Edgar Williams told Brisbane media the decision was due to “Mackie’s standover tactics”. This was the start of the personal campaign against Mackie. Liberal Minister for Labour JD Herbert told Brisbane parliament Mackie was “doing the dictates of sinister international masters”.

The judge deferred the case until further notice. The AWU told the industrial court the workers agreed to return to contract but were prevented by “confusion in the hall” and they intended to take action against “Mount Isa chairman Mackie”. The action came just days later. When Mackie took a day off on union business to sort out a threat by the boilermakers to stop work, he was sacked the following day for taking a day off without permission. Unknown to him the AWU had changed its by-laws stripping him of union representation and therefore his legal entitlement to take time off on union business. News spread through the mine in a flash, but Mackie could see the outcome – the company wanted to goad the workers into a walkout.

The following Sunday Costello chaired an even angrier meeting. As he rose to speak he was drowned out by shouts of “we want Mackie”. Sitting at the back, miners shoved a reluctant Mackie up to the stage. Costello shouted “I declare the meeting closed!” and he left the building. Those that remained passed a vote of no confidence in the union leadership and vowed to remain on wages. Ten weeks into the dispute, Mackie began to organise his men, helped by support from local businesses who paid him a wage of £24 and he filed for wrongful dismissal in the Mount Isa Magistrates Court.

At the next meeting on November 1 the AWU tried to brand the action as “lawless” only for the local rep to be shouted down again in a call for Mackie. Again the meeting was closed. Again the workers held an unofficial meeting with Mackie as chair. Their demands were threefold, the original £4 wage increase, recognition of locally elected reps, and a 25pc rise in contract prices. Without official union support, the company would not meet to discuss these demands.

Instead they upped the ante shutting down the copper smelter on November 13. Manager Foots claimed it was too dangerous to continue. They did nothing to counter the media impression the shutdown was because of a “strike” led by “dangerous insurgents”. Even though the court found on November 23 there was no evidence of a go slow, the company appealed again on a point of law. On December 3 the company got its way, the court overturning the original decision, and ordered the AWU and its members to stop “taking part in an authorised strike” with onerous penalties for non-compliance. All workers could take up the offer, unless they were sacked for “misconduct”. But the only worker sacked for misconduct was Mackie.

A day later Mackie’s case for wrongful dismissal was dismissed as the onus of proof was on him. The following Sunday 1100 workers packed the Star Theatre for a miners’ meeting. Again the union official was howled down and closed the meeting, again Mackie chaired the unofficial meeting. The meeting voted to disregard the court order and reiterated the three original demands with a fourth added – the reinstatement of Pat Mackie. Mackie said at this point the dispute was no longer about pay and conditions but “a struggle for self-rule and industrial legality”. That week the AWU formally expelled him from the union for “misconduct”.

On December 11 Foots stopped all underground copper mining due to the “go slow” and cancelled coal orders from Collinsville and Scottsville. They were supported by the Nicklin government which introduced a state of emergency forcing workers to go back to work on contract or be fined or face jail with no possibility of fighting the action in court. Nicklin laid the blame on “one irresponsible individual…misleading them into foolish action.”

Mackie and the miners needed friends and got them in the Barrier Industrial Council which helped mobilise the Broken Hill mine workforce against similar threats. With the Broken Hill group set to attend that Sunday’s meeting the AWU sent state president Gerry Goding. The meeting took the usual course of boos and calls for Mackie perplexing Goding who believed the media hype that it was a one man show. The town would not be browbeaten by the company, the courts, or the union.

The following week when the new shift reported for work, supervisors asked them to accept contracts and when almost all said no, they were handed a “pinkie” (termination slip). That day (December 15) Foots announced all work at Mount Isa Mines would cease having sacked the entire 5000-strong workforce costing Australia a million pounds a week in lost exports. Four thousand people attended a public meeting where the Labour Council attacked the company and there were many pledges of financial support from town and outside. Mackie remained the de facto leader of the fight against the government, the company and the union, despite neither being an employee nor a union member any more.

On Christmas Eve the Industrial commission granted a surprising £3 prosperity payment to the workers though the now embittered workers agreed to hold out for £4. It wasn’t until early January that the AWU allowed a local Mount Isa miner address a compulsory meeting with union and management ordered by court. Though it was miner Barry Baker not Mackie, he focused attention for the first time on underground working conditions. The company refused to discussed money matters preferring instead to discuss the new draft contract. They also threatened to withdraw the annual bonus if financial results were bad.

Pat Mackie “wields” a chair at the January meeting

On January 16 there was a special meeting of all union men designed to get a local democratic representative body in the field. Court Commissioner Harvey who had denied their claims turned up and was heckled as was union boss Edgar Williams. Again the men shouted for Mackie to move up from the back. Someone pressed a chair into his hands which he took up to the platform amid cheers. The officials closed the meeting and Mackie called for a Labour Council meeting the following day. The press reported that a “howling mob” had shut down the meeting and published photos of him “wielding a chair” with the inference that it was for violent purposes (belied by the smiling men cheering him as he did the “wielding”). Back in Brisbane Williams blamed Communist infiltration which the press took up wholesale.

The town dug in for a long fight. Mackie and John McMahon, President of the Labour Council, were elected to travel interstate to raise funds. On TV’s Meet the Press Mackie was set up, being asked his real name, criminal convictions and communist history. When sneeringly asked did he get others to script his speeches, he replied “No I don’t, but it looks like you do.” A reviewer reckoned Mackie had more supporters at the end than he started with. They also addressed crowds in Broken Hill and Adelaide. Meanwhile the Queensland government enacted new laws giving police the power to keep strike-breakers out of Mount Isa.

When McMahon boarded a plane to Mount Isa from Sydney he was ordered off in Brisbane. Mackie hid in Sydney and the union organised a car to drive home the back way via Bourke non-stop for 2300km. With road blocks on all roads around the city, Mackie took a miners track via Duchess and snuck home. With no sign of police Mackie entered his house before he was moved in hiding to a safe house. McMahon took another flight from Brisbane to Darwin (intending to get off at Isa) but was ordered off at Longreach.

By end January national media was becoming aware of the Mount Isa dispute as the public mood shifted in the miners’ favour. The company decided to reopen the mine on February 1 reemploying all miners who were on the payroll a day before the shutdown but threatened to shut down the entire operation if miners did not return. Workers refused to go back until the government ended its emergency regulations and began picketing on February 1 – the first time there was an actual picket in the dispute.

Faced with the prospect of a general strike, the Nicklin government rescinded their legislation the same day. At a Labor Council meeting in the Bull Ring of the Isa Hotel, Mackie finally materialised to a hero’s welcome. The following day masses of police flew out, while McMahon flew back to cheering unionists who carried a banner with the Irish greeting “Céad míle fáilte”.

There was another compulsory conference on February 4 but Mackie and the miners’ delegation were not invited as “unaccredited”. McMahon stayed and negotiations foundered over the reinstatement of Mackie. Mackie himself flew to Melbourne to do more TV. Again he survived intimidation this time from Norman Banks with TV critic Frank Thring writing “this muscle-bound free-speaking gorilla brought fresh air into the stagnant swamp of television.” He stayed two weeks in Melbourne gaining popularity while Foots again threatened to close the mine.

With Prime Minister Menzies threatening to intervene (despite harsh words for “this curious character Mackie, not even an Australian”) and federal parliament looking at the possibility ASARCO started the dispute to deliberately lower the price of its share it wanted to buy back, Foots backed off. Mount Isa Mines reopened on February 17, 1965 offering work for all on the books on December 14. It didn’t hurt that copper prices were much higher.

When the mine reopened, the picketing resumed and would stay for the next seven weeks. The AWU and the Catholic Church urged miners to return to work. When a young boy, Bernard Kelly aged 15, died in a shooting accident while showing off his father’s gun, the father reported it was loaded “because of the trouble in town”. Media seized on this to blame the death on the strike with some families saying it was Mackie’s fault.

Nicklin brought in new laws banning picketing within half a mile of the mine gates while called Mackie a “nomadic thief, swindler, dope peddlar, gangster and gunman”. On March 18 police moved the pickets away from the mine over to the town side according to the new law with 100 police guarding the river crossings. McMahon, who lived on the mine side, was placed under house arrest during picketing hours. Mackie, who lived within a mile of the mine, faced similar conditions.

Having failed to get support for a national dispute, Mackie knew his situation was holding up resolution. On March 28 he advised workers to return to the job on guarantee of no victimisation. He quietened shocked workers saying they were beaten by overwhelming force. Most returned to work on April 2 and the AWU voted by a small majority to return six days later. As academic Raymond O’Dea wrote “the Mount Isa dispute had not been settled. It merely jolted to a sullen stop.”

The company made a comfortable profit in 1964-65 and the share price easily rebounded. There was an improvement in relations between management and workers with ASARCO finally accepting new arrangements for wage bargaining. There would not be another major work stoppage for 25 years, Mackie wrote.

Now a household name, Mackie moved to Sydney where he embarked on successful defamation acts against media who maligned his reputation. He had no regrets about the dispute which he said stirred the Australian Trade Union movement into supportive action – a revelation he said, a whole community could unite behind a cause. “It was a triumph of the human spirit,” he concluded.

When Bert Hinkler flew solo from England to Australia

Bert Hinkler

Bert Hinkler is a mostly forgotten early Australian aviator but there was a time when he was idolised as the country’s foremost flier. Born in Bundaberg, Queensland in 1892, his unfinished autobiography said “flight ever fascinated me” and like most of the early pioneers of flight he did not live to be an old man. Hinkler died aged 40 after crashing his plane into the mountains of Tuscany in Italy. Il Duce Benito Mussolini, himself fascinated with flying buried Hinkler with full military honours and he was mourned across Australia and the world. Grantlea Kieza tell his story with gusto in Bert Hinkler: The Most Daring Man in the World.

Hinkler got into aviation as a young man in Bundaberg after hearing of the stories of the Wright Bros early flights in America and Frenchman Bleriot’s first dash across the Channel. In 1910 Harry Houdini became the first man to fly a plane in Australia at Digger’s Rest near Melbourne. After Lindsay Campbell exhibited a glider at a Longreach show Hinkler was inspired to create his own which he built from models in The Aero. He build his Glider 1 in the backyard which aged 19 he tested successfully at nearby Mon Repos beach.

When American aviator Arthur Burr “Wizard” Stone visited Bundaberg in 1913, Hinkler told him he knew the problem with his plane and after the American expressed disbelief, Hinkler told him about his gliders. Stone took his advice and it worked leading to a job offer as a mechanic for the American on his tour of Australia. With this experience under his belt Hinkler decided to travel to England with an endorsement from Stone. He got a job with Sopwith Aviation in London where he helped build planes and nurtured his dream of becoming a pilot.

When war broke out in 1914 Hinkler joined the new Royal Naval Air Service as a mechanic. At Whitley Bay he eventually flew as a passenger in a two-seat Gnome-powered Bristol hunting German Zeppelins. He was eventually moved to Air Wing and trained as a gunner. Assigned to France he would sit behind the pilot in a tandem cockpit and do battle with enemy planes and bomb German positions in the Saar. When the RAF was formed in 1918 he was made a Second Lieutenant (Technical) and trained as a pilot in Marske-by-the-Sea, Yorkshire.

After graduation he was assigned to the Italian front at the controls of a Sopwith Camel. The RAF supported the Italian assault on Vittorio Veneto in October 1918 and Hinkler led an attack on Austrian troops fleeing the front. He flew 50 operations in the final months of the war. He came back to Britain deciding he wanted to fly all the way home to Bundaberg. In 1919 Prime Minister Billy Hughes offered £10,000 to the first Australian or British crew that could fly London-Darwin and Hinkler was keen, becoming the first official entrant.

But when the rules were released he was unable to fly needing a navigator and a plane with 3000km range due to the scarcity of airfields in India. In the end there were six official entrants and brothers Ross and Keith Smith were first across the line in 27 days. A disappointed Hinkler stepped up the search for a plane that would make the dangerous journey alone. That plane would be an Avro Baby.

Avro was Alliot Verdun-Roe who made planes at Southampton. His Baby was a tiny plane with a 35hp engine and importantly it needed just 45m to take off. In 1920 his first attempt to fly to Australia ended in Turin over fears of getting stuck in a war in Syria and a year later he sailed back to Australia with the Baby as cargo.

Arriving in Sydney he unpacked the plane and beat his solo distance London-Turin with a flight to Bundaberg to great local acclaim. He went back to England where he raced planes in competition but kept alive his dream to fly to Australia. It wasn’t until February 7, 1928 that the timing was right and he set off from Croydon in his Avro 581 Avian plane. as usual without fanfare. He loaded the narrow cockpit with Ovaltine chocolate, a few biscuits and a flask of hot coffee. He also had a bottle of port, 400 cigarettes and official letters to take home.

Aided by pages from a Times Atlas map, he set off over the Channel and down through France crossing the Alps and wondered where he would stop as it approached nightfall. In the dark he made it to Rome where he flashed a feeble SOS with his torch. But with no-one to send up flares, he risked a dark landing and after a long wait to get through customs, he caught a tram into the city centre at 11pm, getting to bed in a hotel by 1am.

Four hours later he was up and went back to the airport where he saw in daylight the radio masts and wires he somehow missed while landing. Day 2 was a flight to Valletta in Malta, 900km away and Hinkler risked the sulphur fumes of Vesuvius and passed the snow-capped peak of Etna before arriving at the Malta RAF base at 3pm. He enjoyed dinner at the mess knowing that it would be the last of familiar pleasures.

The following morning he set off over the Mediterranean and made it to Benghazi, then on another 400km to Tobruk but with darkness falling he was forced to land 60km short of his destination. After a sandwich and coffee he took out the cockpit seat to use as a pillow, removed the inflatable boat and pumped it up. Upturned it was 2m long and a perfect bed. He set an alarm for an hour before dawn and fell asleep.

In the morning he was approached by two Arabs who had never seen a plane before. They helped Hinkler clear the rocks and camel thorn off an uneven runway. He flew quickly to Tobruk, refuelled and set off towards Ramla in Palestine, having no authority to land in Egypt. Again he fell short and needed another rough desert landing. In exchange for cigarettes, a bunch of locals helped him drag the plane to harder ground for take off. Day 5 he followed the railway line 100km to Ramla RAF base where he did an engine check.

The RAF persuaded him to stay the night and he ended up carousing in Jaffa till 1.30am. The following day he flew over the Biblical towns of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jericho over the Dead Sea and eventually on to Basra at the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates. There he landed at the air base run by Imperial Airways and worked on his plane till after midnight.

On Day 7, February 13 he had a 1400km run to Jask on a Persian peninsula opposite the Emirates. Jask was a desolate outpost for the Indo-European telegraph line and transit point for Europe-India flights. Hinkler took a bicycle into town and rode back to the Avian before dawn where he was shocked to find a dripping leak in the main fuel tank. He reckoned his fuel loss would still get him to Karachi, 1000km away though it was a race against time as the fuel loss was worse than he calculated. He just about made it, again landing at a RAF base and now the talk of the world as “Hustling Hinkler” having broken the record for the longest flight in a small plane.

The RAF men gave Hinkler a pith helmet to cope with the sun but it didn’t allow him to plug his ears the way his helmet did and on the next leg the ringing in his ears gave him a massive headache. Almost dizzy and stone deaf, he found a landing at Cawnpore (Kanpur), 1200km away and went straight to bed at 5pm. Refreshed at daybreak he set off again to Calcutta (Kolkata), wearing his helmet and a big crowd greeted him at the airport. Locals helped him work on the plane till midnight and he went into the city to sleep.

Day 11, February 17 Hinkler was bound for Rangoon (Yangon) in poor visibility.,flying by compass. He arrived on Rangoon racecourse at 2.30pm and local Shell reps put on a dinner for him while his flying suit was washed. Australian papers were now predicting he would obliterate the 27 day record of the Smiths though the Australian government was less impressed with foolish flyers killing themselves and said they would not provide facilities or forecasts.

Uncaring, Hinkler left Rangoon 6.30am the following morning and set off for Victoria Point (Kawthaung) on the Malay peninsula. He was chased by a rain storm all day ending his hope of seeing a tiger from the air and got in at 2pm. That left a 1300km trip to Singapore the following day which saw him caught in a tropical storm before landing in the wrong spot. The drenched pilot was redirected to Singapore’s racecourse.

There Hinkler met fellow aviators Bill Lancaster and Chubbie Miller who were also flying from England to Australia and survived almost crashing into the Arabian Sea, being shot at by Arabs and having a snake aboard at Rangoon. They were awaiting repairs now at Singapore – Bert left after them and would arrive before them. Lancaster gave Hinkler strip maps for the Darwin to Camooweal route that would be easier to use than the Times atlas.

The following morning was a difficult takeoff on soggy ground and he just cleared the fence. Hinkler dodged the rain all the way to Kalidjati on the island of Java, annoying the official welcoming party waiting in the rain at Jakarta, 125km back. He also annoyed Dutch officials by failing to notify them of his arrival in advance. Again uncaring Hinkler set off on Day 15 1400km to Bima on the island of Sumbawa where he relaxed in the Dutch commissioner’s Roman bath. Sleeping on the veranda he was kept awake all night by mosquitoes.

Day 16 was the difficult final 1450km leg to Darwin, more than 10 hours of flying with half of that across the desolate Timor Sea with not a ship in sight. Hinkler hoped there would be a few people to shake his hand on arrival but had no idea of the anticipation. Darwin expected him at 2pm but it wasn’t until almost four anxious hours later that Hinkler finally dropped out of the skies, circling the Ross Smith memorial twice before ending his 17,710km journey in under 16 days in front of a huge crowd. It was the longest solo flight made and he was now the most celebrated aviator in the world.

After three days basking in the Darwin glory which included a telegram from King George V, Hinkler took off again at 7am bound 1600km for Cloncurry. He was expected at Brunette Downs on the Tablelands mid afternoon but when there was no sign of him by 5.40pm the alarm was raised. At Cloncurry 20 cars were waiting with their lights on ready for a night landing but Hinkler never showed. The next morning he was still missing and authorities hoped at best he was forced into a bush landing.

The pilot of the Qantas plane from Cloncurry to Camooweal kept a close eye out as did another Qantas pilot on his own search but there was nothing. At Camooweal they heard Hinkler had landed in the Territory yesterday but had not checked in at Cloncurry. Finally just after midday Hinkler touched down at Camooweal saying he’d slept the night in the desert. He had become lost and landed near a windmill where an astonished stockman was pumping bore water for his cattle. He gave the stockman a note to take to Brunette Downs and camped with the herd for the night.

In Camooweal he fueled up then went for a beer at Reilly’s Hotel and stayed the night there at a party in his honour. The following morning the two Qantas pilots gave him an honour guard to Cloncurry where there was a welcome by 100 people. But he soon took off again to Longreach with stops at McKinlay and Winton and arrived at 4.50pm to a band playing See The Conquering Hero comes. There he had dinner with Qantas managers and rang his mother with the promise he would be home in Bundaberg the following day.

He left Longreach at 6.30am on February 27, 1928 and followed the railway east towards Rockhampton. Rumours spread he was going to land there but he didn’t leaving hundreds disappointed. Finally at 4.15pm he arrived at Bundaberg where the entire town and even the Premier of Queensland was waiting at the landing area which was marked by oil fires and a white calico cross. Police could not control the crowd which risked their own lives rushing to the plane. Among them all there was one person he wanted to see and he greeted her with “hello, mum.”

Hinkler told the press it was the proudest moment of his life to fly home to Bundaberg and praised “British workmanship and British organisation” for getting him there. Australians could now “look Lindbergh in the eye”, a year after the American flown from New York to Paris. Hinkler was cheap too, he had used just 2000 litres of petrol at a cost of just £45 and another £10 for oil.

With his reputation assured he went on a triumphant tour of Australia before returning to England. He was named the most outstanding aviator of 1928, following Lindbergh a year earlier. He continued to race planes in England and North America. In 1931 he flew south to Brazil and became the first to fly the South Atlantic crossing from Natal, Brazil to Bathurst, The Gambia in a dangerous 22 hour journey through ocean storms.

But in 1933, aged 40, he pushed his luck once too often. Setting off on another solo flight to Australia in a Puss Moth to beat the new record of 8 days 20 hours, he went missing in Italy. His body was found four months later next to his crashed plane in the Tuscan mountains. Mussolini, who aspired to be an aviator himself, buried Hinkler in Florence with full military honours with 100,000 mourners filing past his coffin. Among the many honours for him in Australia in the coming years was the Bundaberg federal seat renamed in his honour in 1984. The Hinkler Hall of Aviation, complete with his house Mon Repos, taken brick by brick from Southampton, remains one of Bundaberg’s major attractions.

Six Keys: the 1932 Cloncurry bank robberies

The Bank of New South Wales in Cloncurry 1932. Illustration from the book Six Keys.

The Daily Mercury of Wednesday June 15, 1932 reported a daring robbery in Cloncurry the weekend before. Around £14,000 was stolen from two banks, so much cash it was “extremely difficult to carry on ordinary business” in the town. On state election night in 1932, thieves breached the strong room of the National Bank and made off with £11,000. Much to their surprise, the burglars also found the keys to the nearby Bank of NSW, where they helped themselves to another £3000. The culprits were never caught, despite a £500 reward.

The double robbery was the talk of the town and despite their confidence police ran into a wall of silence and could finger no-one despite strong suspicions, suspicions that last to this day. In 2010 Author John Joseph Williamson put together his version of events in 6 Keys: The Cloncurry Bank Robberies. Williamson says his account was a fictional account of proceedings. Luckily for him, he could accuse at will without risk of defamation: all the characters involved are now dead. As well as testimony from Roy Martell of Cloncurry, Williamson accessed the archives of the Queensland National Bank (now NAB) and Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac).

While he also sourced newspaper articles most of what he wrote was hearsay and a compilation of “apocryphal stories and anecdotes”. Yet Williamson does not apologise for naming the robbers in his account, which he said were common knowledge in Cloncurry and their exploits were “already folklore”. He said recording the names was in the interest of Cloncurry and Queensland.

The year 1932 was the middle of the depression and Cloncurry was not spared, with many local mines closed down. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone and people were kept informed by the Cloncurry Advocate which came out every Saturday. The QN and the Wales were the only two bank branches in town. QN branch manager Lewis Holland and his wife lived in the bank’s residence on the corner of Ramsay and Sheaffe St until Mrs Holland was disillusioned with remote living and left. Holland invited teller Stanley Spilsbury to move in. Spilsbury was fond of gambling and had a financial relationship with local identity and gambler Cyril Chaplain who gave him racing information and also probably, racing debts.

To make life easier at the bank they employed a full-time live-in housekeeper and widow Folly Faithful who liked and looked after them both. Faithful was good looking and attracted the attentions of Eric Guerin, owner of His Majesty’s Hotel in Scarr St and occasionally accompanying violinist to the silent movies that played in the Bio Talkies local cinema. Guerin and Faithful struck up a relationship and after a movie, they would go back to the bank for a pot of tea where she introduced him to Holland and Spilsbury.

Guerin became aware they were careless about the custody of their bank keys which they left lying around. After reading in the North Queensland Register about a robbery in Townsville with duplicate keys made from impressions while the holders were at the town baths, Guerin began to think of something similar. He studied the bank employees’ habits and noted they both went out every Saturday night. From Faithful he found out the money was kept in a strongroom which needed two keys to open, one with Holland, the other with accountant Justin Cosgrove. There were also two keys to the treasury safe, held by Holland and Cosgrove. Inside the safe were two locked drawers which held the money. Holland had the key to one of the drawers, Spilsbury had the other. To extract the money there were six keys in all, held by three men.

Guerin found out the best time to rob the bank was Saturday night when the employees were out drinking and also when the safe was most full with money from the Townsville train for the week ahead. Guerin believed it would be easy to get hold of the four keys held by Holland and Spilsbury. Cosgrove would be more difficult. He paid attention to Cosgrove’s movements but noted he never strayed far from his keys. He would have to be lured away. Guerin considered how to make duplicates of the keys and needing allies he took Tom Anderson into his confidence.

Anderson was the owner of the Bio and a dodgy friend, well known in Cloncurry as a cattle thief. Anderson thought Guerin was joking when he mentioned his plan and pointed out problems like where to get the keys copied and who exactly would carry out the robbery. It was risky but Anderson was excited and they decided to talk to George Duffy the key cutter who worked for the railways. Anderson pointed out Duffy was Cyril Chaplain’s man. They decided to go to Chaplain to discuss the plan.

Cyril Chaplain was called the Little King in Cloncurry. He grew up on a cattle property and eventually managed the property. By 1932 the Chaplains owned two stations and the town slaughterhouse and stockyards as well as the iceworks and a butchers shop. They also owned the Big House, the grandest house in Cloncurry on the corner of McIlwraith and Seymour Sts. He trained racehorses which his brother Boomarra Chaplain would ride and kept good relations with local police who turned a blind eye to illegal betting activities.

Guerin and Anderson met Chaplain and told them their plans. As well as getting his opinion on Duffy, they asked him to carry out the actual robbery. Chaplain considered it and said he would need to bring his brother Boomarra on board as well as Duffy. They agreed to split the takings, half to Guerin and Anderson, the other half to the Chaplain gang.

Boomarra and Duffy were best mates though Duffy had been distracted by his affair with Peach O’Callaghan, the wife of the new shire clerk from Townsville. Duffy was doing odd jobs at the house when the pair became infatuated while the husband was away.

The five would-be robbers got together to work out a plan. Duffy arranged for overtime work to make impressions of the keys while they worked out a plan to get Cosgrove’s keys. The plan was to convince him to go bathing at the Two Mile waterhole where they could take impressions while he swam. After they got the six impressions it would then be a matter of choosing the best time to do the robbery.

The Two Mile was the most popular waterhole on the Cloncurry River with gullies where there was privacy to dress and undress. Chaplain invited Holland for a swim ostensibly to discuss a cattle deal. He also invited Cosgrove who was standing nearby. Chaplain and Duffy collected the bank men and drove them to the waterhole. While swimming Duffy checked Cosgrove’s pants to ensure the keys were there but they needed a second outing to steal them to make the impressions. On that occasion Duffy invited Peach and her girlfriends to make the trip more appealing to the bankers. Peach was reluctant but Duffy said it would be worth her while which piqued her curiosity.

Duffy carried beeswax blocks to the river which he put in a case so they wouldn’t melt. Peach wanted to know what the beeswax was for but Duffy claimed it was polish for the car. On the day of the outing Duffy claimed to have a migraine so remained in the car while the others went swimming. Duffy grabbed Cosgrove’s seven keys and had to make impressions of them all, not knowing which ones were for the bank. When the job was done he returned Cosgrove’s keys to his pocket.

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The next task was to remove Holland and Spilsbury’s keys on a Saturday night. Guerin did this after the men returned from their drinking and slept on the verandah. Faithful discovered Guerin in Spilsbury’s room and he told her he was putting the keys back. He took them to the waiting Duffy who made copies and he told him Faithful had caught him. Chaplain was furious. Guerin assured him Faithful would not spill the beans. Chaplain decided Guerin would have to give her a job to get her away from the bank.

After getting the impressions Duffy had to make the duplicates. He chose seven keys as two looked similar and then made an eighth key for the front door. Chaplain worked on alibis for Duffy and Boomarra to carry out the robbery. He wanted them to get into a routine at the Prince of Wales pub and park their car in the same visible spot. On a Saturday night they would invade the bank to see if the keys work, but not actually rob it. Duffy did the break-in using Guerin’s plan of the house with Boomarra on lookout. Inside Duffy had trouble with the strongroom key and played with it for over an hour, filing the web until it finally worked. He had the same problem with the second key.

Outside Boomarra was holed up by a friend who started chatting. Boomarra was concerned but eventually Duffy arrived on the scene and they went to the pub. Duffy told him he had successfully worked two keys. But because of the noise Boomarra’s friend was making Duffy had no time to do the rest. They would have to repeat the test three weeks later to try the other four keys. The second time they got them all to work and found a surprise inside the safe – duplicate keys for the nearby bank of NSW.

When the gang next met they quickly decided to do both banks and decided to take a bag of silver coins also in the safe, which they would bury in a gully near the slaughterhouse. They set a date for the robbery of the following Saturday after finding out the bank manager of the Wales was away that weekend.

Saturday, June 11 was Queensland state election day and there was an election night party at the Katter house which the conspirators used as an alibi. The pubs were supposed to close on election day but police usually turned a blind eye. It would be a busy day in town with people expected to throng from the stations. On the night, Boomarra was assigned “cockatoo” (watch) while Chaplain and Duffy went to the banks first to the National where they emptied the safe and took the Wales key. They were done in 20 minutes but when they went out they found two drunks at Boomarra’s ute. Eventually they left and the robbers loaded the ute before the trio drove to the Wales. Again Duffy and Chaplain went in by forcing a latch. They quickly opened the safe and took the notes and silver in six heavy calico bags.

Duffy met Folly and they went to the Katter party while Boomarra and Chaplain drove the ute to their house where they transferred the notes to another car before driving the ute back to town. At 3am Boomarra and Duffy drove to the slaughterhouse to bury the barrels containing the coins. Their car light was spotted by a slaughterhouse worker who resolved to investigate in daylight. Chaplain took the other car to an unoccupied outstation two hours away where he hid a metal trunk containing the money. The following morning slaughterhouse worker George Park found the site of the first overnight dig and uncovered six drums which contained the silver coins. He stole two of the drums and buried them elsewhere. He never reported his find to police and eventually claimed £500 from all six drums when the robbers failed to return.

No other suspicions were aroused until Monday when the Wales manager opened the safe to discover it was empty. Wondering where the thieves got the keys he rang the QN where Cosgrove had made a similar discovery. When he remarked that Holland had shown the strongroom to Cyril Chaplain earlier on the Saturday, Spilsbury told him to be quiet about it, making Cosgrove suspect it might have been an inside job.

Police had similar suspicions when they were alerted especially when they realised the six keys were involved. Police also found a tyre imprint outside the bank, a Goodyear which the local tyre dealer reckoned he sold to six people. A similar tyre mark was found outside the Wales. Boomarra’s ute fitted the description.

Duffy discovered two coin barrels were missing and blamed Anderson, whom he felt didn’t deserve any of the takings. He punched Anderson who had no idea why he was attacked. Cyril told him it wasn’t Anderson as the silver he took to the bank on Monday was takings from the Bio on the weekend.

Most townspeople were in awe of the robbery and unwilling to communicate much to police frustration. Criminal Investigation Branch assigned sub-inspector Alfred Jesson who found out local police suspected Boomarra’s ute was involved and therefore Cyril Chaplain’s gang. Tyre shop owner Barney Long’s premises were soon torched and it had the desired effect, Long was no longer sure whose tyre tracks were involved in the robbery.

Police believed the robbery needed inside bank knowledge and concentrated on Spilsbury who bet on the horses and owed money to Chaplain. Spilsbury denied all knowledge under hostile questioning, as did Holland. Both suffered with the bank for their cavalier attitude in leaving keys lying around. Police interviewed Boomarra who said he was at the pub. Faithful vouched for Duffy who was at the party. Finally they spoke to Chaplain who also provided alibis for him at the pub. Convinced the money was still in Cloncurry police kept up road blocks for two weeks. Investigations came to nothing and bank rewards went unclaimed.

Chaplain paid off the others who were impatient to get money immediately. Then he bided his time and laundered the money through Townsville and Brisbane bookmakers at a 50percent discount. Though Guerin took no part in the robbery, Chaplain remained grateful to him for the “fantastic idea”. Williamson in his book said Guerin later told Roy Martell the truth, saying “if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it”. Martell died around the time of publication. All the other participants were long dead. The Cloncurry robbery had descended into myth.

Contemplating history at Toowong Cemetery

Cemeteries are both ineffably sad and poignantly beautiful places. Brisbane’s Toowong Cemetery is in the rolling hills beneath Mt Coot-tha 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 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 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 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 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 helped 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 and 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, Palmer 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 before the Supreme Court cleared him and the other directors of blame.

Another of Queensland’s early governors is Sir Anthony Musgrave. Born in 1828 in Antigua, Musgrave was a true servant of global empire and held colonial positions in Antigua, 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. He joined the railways and worked his way up. 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 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, 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.

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 as 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 of Greek ethnicity. While most lived in Melbourne or Sydney, some came 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 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. 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 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 are 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 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.

Brisbane racked up the dead again in the Second World War including 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 war deaths it was a relief to see the Temple of Peace, though it too was a sad story. The heritage-listed memorial is a cross between mausoleum and Indian temple 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 where he died. 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 Johnson 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.

Venom: the search for the taipan

Roy Mackay, Neville Goddard and Kevin Budden prior to their 1949 expedition to north Queensland in search of a live taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus).

In 1949 Guugu Yimithirr man George Rosendale did what no one had done before him – he survived a taipan bite. He was bitten by an aggressive snake well over two metres long and whose venom was intense and fast, yet it had been unknown to science until a few years before and no anti-venom had been developed. It was known and feared by Aboriginal people of the cape. The people of Hope Vale called it a nguman, but it is more famous by the name others further up the cape called it, the taipan.

Taipans are ferocious biters. When Rosendale realised he was bitten he swung his leg around and the 2m long snake remained attached. He managed to kick it clear but had two fang marks on his ankle. Rosendale panicked and ran, making matters worse as the venom coursed quickly through his veins. Another man tied a ligature round his leg as he lost consciousness. A bush doctor saved his life by cutting along the fang marks until it bled. Rosendale was rushed by truck over bumpy roads to Cooktown Hospital, where somehow he recovered. Nurses later showed him photos of his blood which was black in places.

At Hope Vale they called him Mr Famous, but Rosendale had the misfortune to be as black as his blood in a time in Australia when black lives most certainly did not matter. Despite the media frenzy about the deadly taipan, Rosendale’s recovery was dismissed by racist media as “the Abo who survived the taipan.” His nameless survival was overlooked as North Queensland remained paralysed by this most deadly of snakes. Rosendale’s story is the centrepiece of a fascinating book called Venom by Brendan James Murray about the search for Australia’s deadliest venomous snake.

Nineteenth century German immigrant Amelie Dietrich was probably the first European to capture a taipan alive in 1866. She sent the snake to a Hamburg museum where it was identified as a new species but incorrectly as pseudechis scutellatus, a member of the black snake family. It was a poor taxonomy. Unlike the inoffensive black snake, a bite from these large coppery-brown snakes meant certain death.

Some early colonists called them “travelling browns” but they remained unknown to science until 1920s bird watcher Bill McLennan 1920s shot two large taipans and sent them to the Australian Museum in Sydney where they were reclassified as oxyuranus mclennani. A study of the snakes’ venom found it extremely toxic despite severe deterioration.

Though the name of the giant brown snake was unknown, its toxicity was well understood by Northern Queensland farmers as was its speed. When John Pringle went to kill a snake that was poisoning his cattle, he attacked with a hoe, but the snake covered 2m in an instance and bit an astonished Pringle on the shins. Though he felt fine at first, Pringle was rushed to hospital and within hours, suffered seizures, lost consciousness and died.

Pringle was not alone. Queensland’s rat-infested cane country was a pefect taipan habitat. Typically, bite victims would be convulsing within an hour and dead within two. Children were disproportionate victims in the 1930s and 40s as they played in the bush. The snake was finally named in 1933 after Cape York Wikmunkan people led naturalist Donald Thompson to one, a female he captured alive with a snake stick. He kept the snake for eight months, during which time she laid eggs and Thompson milked her venom, which sadly was never used as antivenom. In a scientific paper he deduced Dietrich’s and McLennan’s snake were the same species he called oxyuranus scutellatus. Its common name was its Wikmunkan name, the taipan.

The newly named species quickly gained a reputation as an animal whose bite was one hundred percent fatal. Frustrated medics tried to treat patients with tiger snake antivenom in massive quantities but this proved useless. A live taipan was needed, but given their aggressive nature, speed and toxicity of their poison, capturing one alive was extremely dangerous. A young group of Sydney naturalists who called themselves the Australian Reptile Club vowed to find one in the bush to use for antivenom.

In 1949 three young Club members Roy Mackay, Kevin Budden and Neville Goddard took their Sydney snake catching skills to Coen in FNQ to tease out the taipan. After a frustrating six week search they found one but it was too fast for them and escaped. To add insult to injury on the final day park rangers confiscated all the wildlife they collected.

Undeterred Budden decided on a second field trip the following year. He looked for them in the cane fields near Cairns. He arrived at the start of crushing season, using field labourers as spotters. When told there was one at the Cairns rubbish dump, he hunted among the debris where he found one distracted eating prey. The snake was too long to lift by the tail so he put his foot on its neck, finally grabbing it in his hands. However with the long body coiled around him, he couldn’t bag it by himself. He walked to the road and hailed down a truck, convincing the driver it was safe to take him.

At the truck owner’s house Budden lowered the snake into the bag but released his grip too early and the taipan bit his hand. Though it fell onto the grass he caught it again and bagged in inside a double knot. Budden was rushed to Cairns hospital but after a remarkably long fight he died. The truck driver took the bagged snake to the North Queensland Museum where he passed on Budden’s wishes it be sent to the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory in Melbourne.

Instead they sent it to the National Museum of Victoria as it had snake experts. No-one fancied opening the box so they called in David Fleay, a conservationist who ran the Healesville Sanctuary. He reluctantly accepted the task of freeing the snake and milking it for venom. In the heat of the museum room, the taipan worked on a hole in the bag and escaped into a larger bag the museum had provided to cover it. Fleay gingerly opened that bag and saw the taipan’s head in preparation to strike. He quickly upended the bag on the floor, threw himself backwards and grabbed the tongs.

The released taipan was about to attack when Fleay lunged forwards and snapped the jaws shut with the tongs while the enormous muscular snake thrashed around. Fleay released the trigger of the tongs with the snake held securely behind the neck. Fleay lowered the head to a vial and clear yellowish venom poured inside. Fleay waited before the snake pulled towards the bag before emptying it in, surviving one last terrifying moment when it launched its head back up but was fractionally beaten by the yanking of the wire. Everyone present in the room agreed it was ‘the most savage tempered, tough and resistant snake’ they had ever seen.

Soon afterwards Cairns Council staff captured a second taipan alive after a falling rock had temporarily stunned it, at a spot the workers dubbed “Taipan Gully”. Arrangements were made to send it to Melbourne zoo which would give the venom to CSL. However it died on arrival in Victoria leaving only Budden’s snake for anti-venom. The Reptile Club, now rebadged as the Australian Herpetological Society came up with a new method, finding snakes using a pinner to spear it close to the head while a second person held the writhing coils and a third grasped the animal by the neck.

In 1955 10-year-old Cairns schoolboy Bruce Stringer was taken to hospital with a taipan bite. After initial failure with tiger snake venom, doctors offered his patents the new untried taipan antivenom from CSL. The gamble saved Bruce’s life and once hospitals were stocked no-one needed to die from a taipan bite again.

We are still learning about taipans and their range across northern Australia is enormous, stretching from Brisbane to Broome. As recently as 2007 a new species was discovered – oxyuranus temporalis, the central ranges taipan. It was the third taipan species discovered, and the second, oxyuranus microlepitodus or the inland taipan, was pronounced the most venomous snake on earth. The rebadged original, or coastal taipan is the third on the list. However for its size and venom yield, the coastal taipan remains by far Australia’s deadliest snake.

Pat Mackie’s many ships to Mount Isa

Some 56 years ago Mount Isa Mines went through the bitterest dispute of its 100 year history. Starting in August 1964, when Queensland’s Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Commission rejected a proposed pay rise, it led to a miners go slow. The premier gave police powers to enforce a mandatory return to work, and mass sackings before the strikes petered out in early 1965 and a new award was struck in June that year.

Pat Mackie being interviewed during the miners strike.

The unionist at the centre of the action for much of those 10 months was so famous for his red cap, a musical by that name was made about it. In Mount Isa and across Australia he was known by the alias of Pat Mackie, but it was that man’s third change of name. Variously described as a Communist, an American, a criminal careerist, a Wobbly, and a destructive influence, he was revered by workers but fired by his own union and he left before the dispute was resolved. He ended up in Sydney mired in defamation cases against many newspapers that besmirched his reputation as the embodiment of evil in the strike.

Mackie wrote his own story in two parts with the help of his wife Elizabeth Vassilieff Wolf . There was “The Great Mount Isa Dispute” of course, but arguably the more interesting book was his colourful life leading up to that event, chronicled under the title “Many Ships to Mount Isa”.

Mackie was born Maurice Murphy in New Zealand in 1914. His father Michael was a timberman born in Australia, a fact which counted for Mackie when a vengeful Australian government failed to deport him after the Mount Isa dispute. His older brother and younger sister died young and he went to bush school near Rotorua. Michael was constantly on the move and Maurice schooled to age 14 at Moutohora and after one year of high school at Masterton he was forced to leave due to costs. Aged 15 he ran away to Wellington in the middle of the Depression drifting from one job to the next.

While staying at a hostel, Mackie met some older lads who gave him a life-long passion: wrestling. He went to Anton Koolman’s gymnasium, weightlifting and bodybuilding. Koolman was an Estonian with a flair for training and he passed his comprehensive knowledge to the youngster. After a year Mackie was good enough to win the Wellington Amateur Championships at welterweight division. He also studied the techniques of visiting American professionals. At the Hawkes Bay annual championships he was invited to join a professional wrestling troupe. He was billed as Giorgio Cortez champion of South America, and learned the arts of the professional showman.

He also learned a less good habit: getting in trouble with the law. He was arrested for joyriding and in court the sergeant advised him to plead guilty as “the quickest way to get out of trouble.” He was convicted and got two year’s probation, the first of many sentences opponents would use against him in the Mount Isa dispute.

The experience led him to stow away on a boat bound for NSW and once discovered he was pressganged into the dangerous business of loading coal for the engine. He got off at Newcastle and made his way to Sydney where he stowed away again on a steamer to Canada. He pretended to be Wesley Bredemus from Milwaukee. He was locked in a cabin and handed to immigration officers in Hawaii where he was forced into service for the judges instead of prison. After three months he was sent back to New Zealand on the ship he came in. There he was charged with breaking probation and sentenced to prison with hard labour for a month.

He found another ship bound for Nova Scotia through the Panama Canal and scored a job as deck hand. Stopping in Cristobal in the American Zone he crossed the main street to the Panamanian city of Colon and had his first taste of America with street cooking, red light districts and marijuana. After meeting a young prostitute he decided to jump ship and stay in Panama but could not get a job on the American side while there was no work on the Panamanian side. He stowed away again on a coffee ship bound for New York.

When discovered he claimed to be Canadian and was put to work. After he was locked up while the shipped called near Philadelphia, he busted the padlock and jumped overboard at midnight only to be washed away in the fast current of the Delaware river. Luckily he grabbed a rope from the ship, climbed into a lifeboat and was discovered the following morning. At New York he was handed over to immigration officers at Ellis Island.

They sent him back to Panama on a ship as a “workaway” (not a crew member but working for his keep). At Puerto Colombia he saw the ship’s carpenter fall overboard and be eaten by sharks and piranhas. While the ship stayed for the inquest he fell ill with yellow fever and was taken by rail to the Canal Zone. At Panama City he had the same problem as before, unable to get work without an American passport. He slept rough before the British consul sent him on his way as a “distressed British seaman”, as fireman on another ship bound back to New Zealand. He learned the ropes and back home found another ship which took him to London where he stayed and earned money on a wrestling circuit with the stage name Wildcat.

He ran out of money and went to sea again to Hamburg, in Hitler’s Germany where everyone wore uniforms. He disliked them but liked the beer and got drunk. After several police interrogations he wrote large graffiti on a wall “Heil Stalin, Fuck Hitler” and was promptly arrested at gunpoint. Luckily it was sailing time and he was allowed to leave. He sailed to Durban, New Zealand and eventually settled in Albury where his father had family. He fell in love with his cousin Kathleen and they eloped but he left her in Goulburn. He bummed a train to Cootamundra but was arrested and served two days for vagrancy. In Sydney he was arrested again, charged with breaking and entering though the judge for once overturned it.

Back in New Zealand in 1938 he was finally allowed to join the Seaman’s Union, beginning a lifelong love of unionism. He could not keep out of the courts, charged with drunkenness in 1939 and unjustly with assault of soldiers in 1941 and fined five pounds. In 18 months there were two more minor convictions, all used against him to paint him as a troublemaker in Mount Isa two decades later.

In 1941 his ship landed in Tahiti, and he was beguiled by the charms of local women. He lived in a grass and bamboo hut for a week and reluctantly sailed for San Francisco where he decided to take a bus to Vancouver, sneaking across the border on foot. There he took on a new identity Eugene Markey of Ontario. He met and married Pearl in 1942 as he worked the tugboats and organised the union. His success in improving pay and conditions got him and the union notice.

To earn extra money he went back to wrestling organising bouts with friends from gym and charging admission. He wrestled as Gentleman Gene and became popular with crowds of 6000 attending. Mackie said wrestling was neither real nor fake. It’s a form of dramatic entertainment with elements of acting, gymnastics and ballet dancing, he said, and professionals jazzed up the contest giving it form and meaning.

With the war on, Mackie was considered an essential worker as a seaman and moved cargo in dangerous waters around the world including freezing Murmansk in the USSR, where he was delighted to be in “the land of the workers”. Back home he was approached to join the Canadian Communist Party but he didn’t like the theoretical approach of its middle-class members and they huffily labelled him an anarchist.

Mackie preferred unions, saying his vocation was “organising the unorganised.” He earned a reputation as a brilliant talker and tough negotiator. He was elected to the Vancouver trades council and trained up other union delegates. At the library he studied union history, learned about the Wobblies and read the novels of Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos and Jack London. The Seafarers Union invited him to New York and organise their workers there. He accepted but Pearl wouldn’t go and their three year marriage ended.

He still went to sea and sailed to St Nazaire in Brittany after D-Day where he saw destroyed buildings and ships though the German U-Boat workshops were still standing. Back in New York he got into pro-wrestling and went on a lucrative tour of the Americas to leave him quite wealthy by war’s end. His tough training in the ring helped him deal with the hurly-burly of New York’s dangerous waterfront and its private armies of strikebreakers and gangsters and standover men. There was rough tactics on both sides. When police on horseback broke up a strike, unionists threw marbles on the ground causing the horses to fall.

The seafarers helped out other unions. When the hotel and restaurant workers went on strike, initially the cafes kept going with scabs. But the seafarers went into the cafes and ordered soup then took an emetic. After they vomited everywhere they shouted “I’m poisoned!” and business fell so rapidly the owners quickly came to terms with the unions. The same tactic was used successfully with recalcitrant taxi owners. When laundries went on strike, the seafarers emptied 120lb bags of soap into the washing machines and turned them on, covering the building in suds. The owners came to a quick agreement.

In 1946 Mackie returned to Canada to organise unions. Ship owners in Montreal were afraid of his reputation and issued threats and rough treatment. The city’s chamber of commerce was worried about his ability to organise other industries. Unions issued him a firearm in case of violence but authorities framed him using a lady called Beverley who he was attracted to. Returning from a union meeting across the American border, immigration officers found his gun. Worse still they found the butt of a marijuana joint left by Beverley.

Mackie was arrested for trafficking narcotics and imprisoned in Montreal. With accusations he was a Communist, Markie was advised to plead guilty, and got nine months jail. When he was released authorities finally realised he was not Canadian and booted him back him to New Zealand.

The image of Pat on the cover of Many Ships to Mount Isa.

There he found his father (though not his mother who had separated) and got a job painting. But his big mouth and unionising got him in trouble again and he moved to Sydney. There he met a painter heading for a place called “The Isa” where big money was to be made. Mackie thought this might help in his dream to build a ketch he remembered seeing in Tahiti.

He took the long trip north stopping in Brisbane where he fell foul of the law again. In a hotel where police were after stolen goods from a roommate, he got involved in a brawl. Police charged him on trumped up possession of stolen goods. Again he pleaded guilty and was fined.

He finally made it to Mount Isa in early 1950 in the middle of a blazing hot summer. The town, he said, looked like a derelict dead end of the world. He was advised to go to “The Barracks” where everyone who worked for Mount Isa Mines lived. He called it a “weird place” where people slept they could, many drunk amid card games, fights and arguments. He decided to take the first train back to Townsville but joined other new arrivals to meet “Hughie the Pieman” the only person selling bootleg whiskey, rum and cheap wine on a Sunday. After getting drunk, he woke up in the middle of the night “bitten to death by a million mosquitoes.”

Having missed the Townsville train the following morning, Mackie found the company was short of men and got a job as a painter. The foreman looked at his union tickets marked “E Markey” and asked what’s the E stand for. “Eugene,’ he replied, “Gene for short.” “That’s a bloody girl’s name,” he was told. “Well I don’t care what you call me, Call me Pat, that’s my other name.” He was called Pat Markey but the name on his first pay cheque was written Mackey which the newspapers settled on as Pat Mackie many years later. Eventually he gave up telling people his name was Markey.

Mackie attended the union meeting and immediately spoke out for workers’ rights, which marked him as a “Communist” to bosses. When he took a sick day after too much grog on May Day, they used it as excuse to sack him, refused to allow him sleep in the Barracks, and blackbanned contractors in Mount Isa from employing him.

He got work at a nearby Bernborough mine and with workers there took a fateful fishing trip to the Gregory River. He loved the fishing and the pub there but was even more intrigued by mineral finds. Mackie took up a lead mining lease at Lawn Hill he called Lucky Dollar. He sold his first five tons to Mount Isa Mines which allowed him to fit out a house on the lease. He spent eight years on the lease battling drought, flood, starvation, flies and isolation but earned enough money to send away for plans to build his Tahitian ketch. He said had the price been slightly lower he would have been sailing the seven seas instead of leading the dispute in 1965.

Times got tough when the price of lead dropped and he also got sick with lead poisoning. After unsuccessfully raising a syndicate of bush miners, and prospecting for wolfram (tungsten) on the Nicholson River, he had sell the lease to the company, and return to Mount Isa. Still warned off the mines, he got a road job with Thiess Brothers and rejoined a union. Finally in December 1961 with the Mines short of workers after a dispute and lokout, he got a job underground and joined the Australian Workers Union. Under an arrangement between MIM and AWU the company deducted dues owing to the union from workers’ pay packets. This issue would explode into the dispute of 1964, the subject of Mackie’s second book.

Remembering Ben Skeates, WW2 submariner

On the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, here’s a story about someone who fought in that war and ended up in Mount Isa. Ben Skeates died in 2010 so I never met him but I feel as if I know a little about him having read a book in which he features and having spoken to his son-in-law who still lives in Mount Isa and who says Ben was “his best friend” for decades before he died.

Ben Skeates and crew aboard the submarine Utmost. Ben is the petty officer on the right.

Come the start of the Second World War, Englishman Ben Skeates knew exactly what he had to do. After all he had joined the Royal Navy as far back as 1935. Four years in the sea had given him a thirst for the crazy life of an underwater mariner. And for six long years this small band of highly trained specialists and generalists took on some of the most dangerous missions of the war. The island of Malta got a George Cross for its refusal to buckle to the Nazis but it was Skeates and his submarine comrades that kept them alive.

Ben Skeates stayed alive too and after the war this sea wolf who saved Britain founded his own early electronics business. He followed family to Queensland and then the North West where he lived out most of the rest of his life, fossicking for opals. Until his death in 2010 Ben Skeates proudly wore his medals each year to Mount Isa’s Anzac Day parade though few people were aware of just how to close to death his service put him. His medals are among are among the proud possessions of Rod Lovelock, his son-in-law.

War hero Ben Skeates late of Hampshire, Barrow, Mary Kathleen and Mount Isa.

Skeates’ story featured in Tim Clayton’s book Sea Wolves: The extraordinary story of Britain’s WW2 Submarines. The book recounts how submariners battled innumerable dangers in difficult conditions. Being a submariner was a particularly dangerous role and they spent most of their time defending the fortress of Malta, an island that had refused to buckle under siege from German forces for well over two years. Despite the war Skeates loved the warmth and fun of Malta. He helped keep Malta alive though it almost killed him too.

Ben was born in Andover, Hampshire and his father Albert was a painter and decorator and an injured veteran of the First World War. Mum Lilian brought up four kids, Ben the second arriving on 5 February, 1919 just after the war ended. Ben was handy and after leaving school aged 14 he got a job with an electrician in Winchester until the work ran out in 1935. Rather than take a job plumbing he joined the Navy.

“Mum reckoned that the Navy life would be (too) rigorous for me, as the doctors had stated I wasn’t very robust in my formative years. This naturally had the opposite effect to that intended, and made me even more determined, to join the Navy,” he wrote in his diary.

He served mostly in cruisers in the Mediterranean and home waters and enjoyed the freedom the Navy brought though the discipline was memorable too. He never forget the day in training his class was ordered to climb the mast in threes without boots.and the entire 30 of them had to do in it in three minutes. If they failed they were marched to the mess and ordered to throw in the bin the breakfast they were about to have. “If you hesitated at swimming you were pushed in and when you came out of the shower you received a whack on the backside from the instructor,” Ben recalled.

Ben’s five official medals. He often wore three or four other medals on his right side: these were unofficial and awarded by the British Submariners Association.

But when war broke out, Ben decided to leave the relative safety of the cruisers and volunteered for submarines, the most dangerous part of the service. At his farewell he ignored the fatalistic jibes of his Navy mates. “Sooner you than me sparks.” “Mind you don’t fire them bloody torpedoes as us, that’s all”.

They were right to be worried. Of the British 49 subs, 19 went down in the war, 13 of them in the Mediterranean where Ben was headed. Ben was drafted into HMS Dolphin submarine base at Portsmouth to learn the ropes – and there were a lot more ropes to learn here than above water. The training was tough and it needed to be for the claustrophobic environment of the submarine.

Dealing with pressure – atmospheric and psychological – was the biggest concern and they started in a tank. Not an army tank but a water tank for long periods where both kinds of pressure could be measured. “Some people who passed the test in the tank could not stand the submarine once they got in, the atmosphere of being in this sardine can locked up,” Ben told Sea Wolves author Clayton.

Each man aboard was trained to do everyone else’s job because in an emergency they might have to. “If you were in the control room and near the main ballast diving vent panel, you pulled the vent levers in the correct order else the bleeding sub would go down head first,” Ben said.

Initially he was in the spare crew and could sneak home for weekends using rum as currency to bribe guards. That suddenly changed when he was assigned to the submarine Utmost to support the island of Malta which was surrounded by German positions in the Mediterranean.

Ben Skeates served on HMS Utmost. Photo by Royal Navy official photographer – This is photograph FL 4279 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 8308-29), Public Domain,

HMS Utmost was a British U class submarine soundly built by Vickers Armstrong in Barrow-in-Furness. These small submarines, of around 570 tonnes and 50m long and less than 5m wide, were originally intended as unarmed training vessels to replace an older class to be used as practice targets in anti-submarine training exercises. Initially converted fishing boats, more were built from scratch as war approached. The U Class proved to be useful warships in the confined waters of the North Sea and particularly in the Mediterranean.

Skeates’ electrical knowledge scored him a job in the Utmost radio office and on March 9, 1941 he radioed in a signal that three enemy Italian cargo ships were close by. They took out the Capo Vita, carrying gasoline and ammunition, and it detonated in a huge explosion sending debris in all directions, killing all on board. A second ship was torpedoed a day later.

When the submariners had shore leave they spent it in Malta where they let their hair down drinking and talking to “sherry queens”. The women were so named because if they bought them a sherry they would sit and talk with the soldiers. At a pound a pop, it was too expensive to take them home for the night.

At 11.30pm one night and alone, Ben heard the air raid siren sound. He could hear the screamers on the bombers as they dived but the all clear sounded and he dozed off. He didn’t hear the second raid and remembered dreaming the bedroom wall was splitting open. When Ben regained consciousness he was pinned down with an immense weight on his chest. He lost consciousness again and woke up a second time in a Maltese hospital. “A nurse was busy with scissors, trying to cut away the hair from my head,” he said. “There were some deep gashes in the scalp and she thought my skull had been fractured in several places.”

Rescuers had spent an incredible 27 hours digging him out of the rubble from a 500lb bomb though he was fortunate an unbroken sandstone block fell over his chest allowing him to breathe. With no anaesthetic available the nurse gave him a tumbler of brandy to dull the pain. The wound turned septic and he left for Gibraltar in a hospital ship.

A heavily bomb-damaged street in Valletta, Malta. Photo Imperial War Museums. Crown Copyright expired.

When he recovered he was assigned as a petty officer telegraphist at the submarine building yards at Barrow-on-Furness, England. There he met and fell in love with 17-year-old Muriel, the daughter of the family who owned his lodgings. Ben and Muriel married a year later. In 1944 Ben paid his first visit to Australia when he was ordered on to the sub HMS Maidstone to accompany a convoy to Fremantle. “The Yanks were already there with their inane jokes about our toy submarines,” he said. “Their’s were like battleships with deep freezers full of chicken and ice cream.”

Ben Skeates with wife Muriel and their three children in Barrow-on-Furness.

Ben survived the war and he and his young family carved out a life in Cumbria starting his own electrical business. His son-in-law Rod Lovelock said Ben was the first man in Barrow to make his own television. “He used a broomstick as an aerial and made a cathode ray tube out of radar parts,” Rod told me.

Rod played an important role in Ben’s later life and Rod said Ben would become his best friend for the last 50 years of his life. Rod, from Wiltshire, met and married Ben’s daughter June and they decided to move to Australia in 1974.

Son-in-law Rod Lovelock with the Skeates and Lovelock family history book that was compiled by Ben Skeates.

After a stint in Brisbane Rod got a job at Mary Kathleen uranium mine, east of Mount Isa, where he worked at Bell & Moir’s service station. Sadly by then Ben’s wife Muriel had died aged just 42 and at a loose end Ben decided to follow his daughter out to Australia. But there was no ordinary way out for this intrepid submariner, with two younger mates Ben decided to do the overland hippie trail and they took 18 months to get from Britain to Australia.

Ben Skeates (left) with one of his companions somewhere on the overland trail to Australia.

Rod said Ben followed him and his wife out to Mary Kathleen where Ben worked as the garbage man. “Later he went down to Kynuna to go opal hunting,” Rod said. After 18 months at Mary K, Rod and June moved to Mount Isa where Rod worked as service manager for Max Platt (now Malouf Auto) and Rod would later start his own business. “Ben stayed at Mary Kathleen till it closed and then moved back to live in a donga in Mount Isa,” Rod said. “He worked on the buses for Campbell Coaches running the midnight shift to Hilton (now George Fisher mine).”

Ben Skeates on Anzac Day in Mount Isa. Year not known.

Anzac Day was always important for Ben, Rod recalls, but he didn’t like talking about his war days. “The only time he talked a lot about it was for two days after his wife died,” he said. Rod said that in 50 years he and Ben almost never argued except when in 2010 when Ben decided to leave his extended Australian family and return to live in England where he had two other children. Perhaps Ben must have known something Rod didn’t at the time. The the old sea wolf died within weeks of returning home to England, aged 93 and he was buried in Barrow. But Ben Skeates’ legacy remains strong in England and his adopted Australia.

Pemulwuy, scourge of Sydney

White Australia has a hard time dealing with heroes of the Aboriginal resistance. With no treaty and no way of properly commemorating a century of frontier wars we prefer to forget them. America is far from perfect dealing with its history but at least the likes of Cochise, Crazy Horse, Geronimo and Sitting Bull have made it into popular consciousness. But Australian equivalents such as Yagan, Jandamarra, Windradyne and Bussamarai, who fought to save their way of life, remain steadfastly unknown. Most famous of all should be the Sydney warrior Pemulwuy who almost cast the new colony back into the sea. He too remains in the shadows, a fate he has endured since his own lifetime over two hundred years ago. One of his biographers, Eric Willmot, calls it a “conspiracy of silence”.

1803 engraving by Samuel John Neele of James Grant’s image of ‘Pimbloy’, the only known depiction of Pemulwuy (Grant’s original image has been lost).

The more famous way of dealing with the foreign invasion of the First Fleet was that of Bennelong, arguably the first ambassador to colonial Australia. Like all his people Bennelong was concerned by the uninvited newcomers but he tried to act as a bridge between his people and the whites. In the time of first governor Arthur Phillip he had some success. But illness and disease took many of Bennelong’s comrades and when a ship took Phillip and Bennelong to England, the new colonial leaders dished out farms as favours leading to inevitable confrontation with prior owners of the land.

With diplomacy failing, it was time to turn to war and that was the job of Pemulwuy and his supporters. The name Pemulwuy, means “earth” and he was the man of the earth. Pemulwuy lived in the last generation of Indigenous Australians who owned the Sydney area. Born around 1756 he lived for 46 tumultuous years, the last 12 in rebellion, dying at the hands of the British invaders in 1802. Pemulwuy led a rebellion that almost ended the infant colony. Pemulwuy terrorised the colony from 1790 until his death and the war he inspired did not end until his son Tedbury was captured by governor in 1805, three years after his father’s death.

Pemulwuy was a mythical figure to the people of Sydney, black and white. David Collins wrote in 1798 that they believed he had been so frequently wounded in attacks, firearms could not kill him and he led the attack at every turn. But Collins noted too this myth would likely prove fatal in the end. When it did, Governor King sent his head in a jar to England in 1802. King called him a pest to the colony, but also a “brave and independent character”.

Pemulwuy was from the Bidjigal subgroup of either Eora or Dharug and lived further away from the penal colony, so he did not immediately come in contact with the new Sydney experiment in 1788. Though Phillip tried to kidnap Eora and Dharug, first Arabanu then Bennelong and Colby, Pemulwuy remains elusive until 1790. The first mention that year is when Bennelong, then living with the governor, accuses Pemulwuy of killing a missing convict. The British called him a woodsman who ranged from Parramatta to Botany Bay. He was tall and athletic and had a pronounced cast in one eye.

He also hunted meat and provided it to the newly established white colony in exchange for goods. He developed a relationship with Phillip’s gamekeeper John MacIntyre though Pemulwuy eventually fatally speared him after a confrontation between soldiers and Pemulway’s warriors in December 1790.

MacIntyre was a complicated man who also tried to bridge the divide between black and white. He had been well known for his recurrent wounding and killing of natives while competing with them for food. When trespassing on tribal land he also frequently shot and ate totem animals revered as spirit ancestors which was forbidden by Governor Arthur Phillips’ new law. While the Eora may have accepted gifts from him, they were all too aware of the ways he had broken their old laws too.

According to Watkin Tench the 1790 confrontation began when soldiers were surprised by two natives who they thought were about to ambush them. MacIntyre calmed the soldiers down saying he knew the two men. He put his gun down and spoke to them in their language. He walked with them a while before “one of them jumped on a fallen tree and without giving the least warning launched his spear at MacIntyre and lodged it in his left side.” Tench said the attacker was a young man with a blemish in his left eye.

The spear was barbed with small pieces of red stone and MacIntyre suffered a perforated lung and several broken bones taking several agonising weeks to die. Although MacIntyre confessed to depradations against the natives on his deathbed, Phillip was furious at the loss of so valuable a convict, and believing that Pemulwuy had killed or captured 16 others he ordered the reluctant Tench to form a large revenge party to capture and kill Pemulwuy and five of his associates. The posse turned out to be a hopeless failure. Pemulwuy had disappeared into the bush.

Pemulwuy was a “carradhy” or a “clever man” as noted by Colby, another who mediated between the Eora and Phillip. Colby said Pemulwuy’s left foot, which was bruised and dislocated by a club, which indicated his status in the tribe. He was likely seen as a leader who could dispense justice. On adulthood he acquired the name Bembul Wuyan, meaning “the Earth and the Crow” sometimes shortened to Butu Wargun, just “Crow”. They believed that he had the spiritual ability to transform into a crow in an incident later in his life where he was locked up and was able to escape.

After MacIntyre’s death Pemulwuy stepped up his resistance against the British, especially as they began to develop their system of European agriculture. Over the next five years he coordinated attacks against farms and crop fields to weaken the newly established colony almost entirely dependent on maize and wheat and their limited livestock. His hit-and-run tactics quickly diminished the settlers’ supplies and stores.

Pemulwuy sought alliances with other clans of the area including the Dharug and Tharawal people and even accepted two runaway convicts William Knight and Thomas Thrush. It was another convict that almost killed Pemulwuy. John “Black” Caesar was one of 12 prisoners of African origin on the First Fleet, and Australia’s first bushranger. Caesar was part of a work group at Botany Bay in December 1795, when it was attacked by Pemulwuy’s band. Caesar cracked Pemulwuy’s skull in a fight, leading many to think he died, however Pemulwuy managed to escape with a critical injury.

Two years later in 1797, he led a frontal attack of several tribes against the government settlement at Toongabbie. Settlers tracked him to Parramatta, where he was heavily injured with seven pieces of buckshot in his head and body. He was taken to a prison hospital and was unconscious for days while chained to the bed. Nevertheless “the crow” escaped one night adding to his magical unkillable reputation. He defended the lands of Prospect, Toongabbie, Georges River, Parramatta, Brickfield Hill and the Hawkesbury River, raiding settlers ’ farms and pillaging food and supplies.

Pemulwuy was responsible for the death of 30 colonists and in 1801 a fed up Governor Phillip King issued a reward of 20 gallons of spirits or a free pardon for his capture, dead or alive. Despite this incentive, most were too afraid to consider it. Pemulwuy had an unrivalled aura around him that bullets could not harm him, and chains could no longer keep him tied down. John Washington Price marvelled he had now lodged in him “in shots, sluggs (sic) and bullets, about eight or ten ounces of lead.”

While the colonists held a healthy of fear of Pemulwuy, London had no idea of his existence. Those leaders that followed Phillip – Grose, Patterson, Hunter and King – excised his name from all correspondence for fear the colonial office would investigate why there was an insurrection at all. The Rum Corps wanted no interference with their activities. He appears only a handful of times in public records.

As English firepower increased, Pemulwuy’s luck finally ran out on 2 June 1802 and he was killed in one ambush too many. It was likely Henry Hacking, quartermaster of First Fleet flagship the Sirius, who fired the fatal salvo but his death was coming. King had his head cut off and preserved in alcohol and sent it to 1770 hero Sir Joseph Banks who continued his abiding interest in all matters flora and fauna in Australia. Indigenous skulls were very highly prized for research and scientists took samples and attempted to test them.

The whereabouts of Pemulwuy’s skull is unknown today. Prince William pledged in 2010 to help Bidjigal elders return Pemulwuy’s remains as did former minister Christopher Pyne. There were rumours of Pemulwuy’s head being kept at the Royal College of Surgeons in London. From there, the remains are said to have been moved to the Natural History Museum, however the museum denies this. After his death, he became known as the “Rainbow Warrior” for his ability to unite tribes. His son Tedbury was brave too and continued the war, but he lacked his father’s magical reputation and was imprisoned in 1805 and killed in 1810.

In 2015 an exhibition at the National Museum of Australia honoured Pemulwuy for his impact on Australian history with a plaque was permanently erected bearing his name. NMA director Mathew Trinca said Pemulwuy was a hero to Aboriginal people. “Pemulwuy’s daring leadership impressed enemies and comrades alike and the story of his concerted campaign of resistance against British colonists should be more widely known,” he said. Bidjigal elder Uncle Vic Simms said the exhibition was helping get history right. “Pemulwuy as a Bidjigal man, resisted and rebelled against the settlers and stood up against them when they were giving blackfellas such a hard time,” Simms said.

Farewell John Hume

John Hume’s abiding influence was his respect of institutions. Hume recalled his first visit to Strasbourg as a member of the European Parliament in 1979. He went for a walk across the bridge from Strasbourg in France to Kehl in Germany. He stopped in the middle of the bridge and I meditated. “If I’d stood on this bridge 30 years ago, at the end of World War II, and I’d said that’s the last war in the history of Europe, and in 30 years or so these countries will all be totally united, I would have been sent to a psychiatrist.” This meditation informed his belief his native Northern Ireland could be similarly transformed.

Having heard John Hume died on Monday, aged 83, I remembered the only I saw him. It was in my brief time at University College Dublin when I was 17 years old and grappling with a degree I didn’t want to do in a city where I had just moved and had no friends. To fill in the time I joined clubs and watched university debates on any topic and with any guest speaker. Only two remain in my memory. One, the late Dermot Morgan (Father Ted) in hilarious flights of fancy and then John Hume, who was impossibly eloquent and who inspired belief in all sorts of possibilities.

The year was 1981 so Hume would have been 44 years old. By then he had been two years into the role of replacing Gerry Fitt as leader of Northern Ireland’s Social Democratic and Labour Party. At the time the SDLP was the North’s main non-Unionist party, and Hume moved heaven and earth to make sure it was defined that way and not as a Catholic or Republican party.

Hume’s quarrel with the Unionist approach was what he called “their Afrikaner mind set”. They held all power to protect themselves with widespread discrimination in housing, in jobs and in voting rights. The worst example of that was the city of Derry where Hume grew up.

Hume wasn’t immediately interested in politics and studied for the priesthood in Maynooth. He eventually settled for a MA and a teaching position back in Derry. Interested in helping people he joined the Derry Credit Union, which in an interview after Hume won the Nobel Peace prize in 1998 he says was the proudest involvement of his life.

Before credit unions, poor people couldn’t borrow from banks and had to resort to loan sharks or pawn shops. Hume helped start the Derry Credit Union in 1960 and became president of the Credit Union League of (All) Ireland by 1964 when he was just 27. It helped poor people manage money and inspired local small business too.

Through his credit union work, Hume realised there was a housing problem too. Several families often lived together in one house in working class districts, and it was very difficult to get a house due to discrimination. Hume helped found a housing association to build houses in the same manner as the credit union, housing 100 families in the first year. When he put in a plan to build 700 houses, local politicians wouldn’t give planning permission because it would upset the voting balance in their gerrymandered system.

This injustice led Hume into the civil rights movement. The leadership of Martin Luther King in the US had a major influence and civil rights soon meant political involvement. He stood for election in the 1969 Northern Irish election. He ran as an independent Nationalist but sought a mandate to found a new political party based on social democratic philosophy.

“We would deal with real politics, with housing, with jobs, with voting rights, and not into flag-waving politics, because in my belief that was a common ground, and if you work common ground together, that that would end the divisions in our society,” Hume said in 1998. His was a winning message and he was elected. Hume and his followers believed the Unionists had every right to protect their identity, but their methodology caused widespread discrimination and was bound to lead to conflict. He wanted to reach agreement with them. The problem was there were others less patient about finding common ground, and the Troubles had started.

A minority within the Nationalist minority had the territorial mindset that it was their land and the Unionists could not stop a united Ireland. Hume’s challenge to that mindset was that only people had rights, not territory. “Without people, even Ireland is only a jungle, and when people are divided, victories are not solutions. When people are divided, the only solution is agreement,” he said. Hume’s father had warned him off extreme republicanism. “You can’t eat flags,” Hume Sr told him.

Nevertheless as the Troubles escalated, Hume had no hesitation in direct dialogue with those organisations engaged in violence. “When I was very severely criticised for doing that I said very clearly ‘Look, given that thousands of British soldiers on our streets haven’t stopped the violence. If I could save one human life by talking to somebody, it’s my duty to do so’. That’s what I said at the time.”

After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, Hume was finally elected as a Westminster MP in 1983 – two years after I saw him speak. Hume said his job was to go to the British and Irish governments to get them to make a joint declaration backing his position on the IRA. That view expressed in the Anglo Irish agreement was that the majority supported British rule but if the majority changes their mind the British will leave.

While the 1985 Downing St agreement was rejected by hardline Unionists and republicans alike, Hume believes it was a crucial starting point to the later Good Friday Agreement and a lasting peace. He was undeterred by the failure and kept talking to the IRA, and Gerry Adams in particular.

He also used the enormous influence of Irish American politicians especially the “four horsemen”, Senator Edward Kennedy, speaker Tip O’Neill, Senator Pat Moynihan and NY governor Hugh Carey. “The four of them had worked very closely together with me in giving strong support to our peace process,” he said. The new president Bill Clinton also put peace in Northern Ireland at the top of his agenda in 1993.

In December 1993, the Joint Declaration on Peace (the Downing Street Declaration) was issued by Prime Minister John Major and Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. It called for an end to British “selfish strategic or economic” interest in Northern Ireland, the right for the people of Northern Ireland to decide its future, and the right for the people of all Ireland to solve the issues between North and South by mutual consent. These were all positions Hume advocated.

The mid 1990s was punctuated by ceasefires and resumptions of violence. Spurred on by a new Labour government in London, Hume and Adams issued a joint statement in 1997 about achieving a lasting peace. “There is a heavy onus on both governments, particularly the British, to respond positively and imaginatively, both in terms of the demilitarisation of the situation and particularly in dealing with the issue of prisoners.”

Fixing that last issue was one of the most contentious issues of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. It also called for a devolved, inclusive government, troop reductions, paramilitary decommissioning, provisions for polls on Irish reunification, and civil rights measures and “parity of esteem” for the two communities in Northern Ireland. Despite (or maybe because of) the Omagh bombing atrocity later that year, the peace miraculously held.

Hume and Unionist leader David Trimble were justly rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998. Surprisingly when it came to power sharing, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, not Hume, who became deputy to Trimble in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. When he finally resigned the party leadership in 2001, Hume was praised even by his arch-enemy Ian Paisley. Paisley and the other extremist Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein eventually went from demagogues to democrats and took the political success from moderate Unionists and the SDLP.

But Hume could look back on a job well done. By the mediation of the ballot box and not by the brutality of the bullet, he had achieved another miracle of Strasbourg. As the Irish Times said in their obituary, John Hume was the architect of peace. Over 20 years later Northern Ireland is still reaping the rewards of his great work.