22 February 2014

Kentucky Fried Ghost-Hunts at Boggo Road

Can 'ghost hunts' in places where recent deaths in custody took place be respectful? And should the state government approve them?

This story can be read at 'About Those Ghosts...'

Indigenous Deaths in Custody 1989 to 1996 report.

17 February 2014

The Fairfield History Walk

'A fair field full of folk found I in between,
Of all manner of men the rich and the poor,
Working and wandering as the world asketh.
Some put them to plow and played little enough,
At setting and sowing they sweated right hard
And won that which wasters by gluttony destroy.'
(W Langland, Piers Plowman, c.1390-87)

In June 2014 I 'sweated right hard' myself and braved late-afternoon Brisbane summer temperatures that hovered in the mid-30s (brave for an old Lancastrian lard-arse like me, anyway) and headed out to discover the hidden history of Fairfield in southern Brisbane.

The event was a free guided tour researched and headed by local resident Denis Peel, who had invited along a group of friends and colleagues for this inaugural heritage event.

The tour group at Robinson Park, Fairfield, 16 February 2014. (C Dawson)
The tour group at Robinson Park, Fairfield, 16 February 2014. (C Dawson)

I confess something of a personal attachment to Fairfield, having lived there with my wife during our hedonistic university days and having also written the Brisbane Beginnings: Fairfield local history book (not to mention having been born at Fairfield Hospital in Bury, Lancashire), so there was also a nostalgic element to my enjoyment of the day (especially finding that the little 'AM + CD' we inscribed into wet roadside cement 14 years ago was still there).

As pleasant as it is, in the 19th century Fairfield was a generally agricultural area where, much as Langland would have described it, "Some put them to plow and played little enough", and so its history is not as incident-packed as some nearby suburbs. It is also bereft of major heritage landmarks and, as Denis pointed out, it's never even been home to a pub or a school. I discovered as much during research for the Fairfield book, and places like this require digging a bit deeper to get to the historical stories.

Interstate train passes through Fairfield, Brisbane, 1930. (John Oxley Library)
Interstate train passes through Fairfield, 1930 (John Oxley Library)

Denis had clearly done this groundwork, and although he acknowledged the help of the Fairfield book, he had uncovered so much more beyond that outline. We went from the railway station to Robinson Park (home of makeshift Depression-era golf links), saw some historic homes, including those of the Grimes family (we had Pam, a Grimes descendant, in the tour group as well), a scenic riverside stop, a church and the old Wilkins estate. Even as a former resident of Fairfield I still learnt a hell of a lot of new stuff and saw nooks and crannies of the suburb I hadn't noticed before.

It was a really good crowd of people too, with a few other history makers and buffs along for the walk. Although Denis led things along very comfortably, there were plenty of times when others in the group spoke up to add to the mix of information. It's a democratic approach to sharing history we also like to see on the Moonlight Tours of nearby South Brisbane Cemetery.

Walking tour stops at Mildmay Street, Fairfield, 16 February 2014. (C Dawson)
Mildmay Street, Fairfield, 16 February 2014. (C Dawson)

The tour will be repeated later this year, and similar walks will also be taking place in West End. Its great to see these projects being initiated at a local level, often without the framework of a historical society. The fact that they are non-profit (and usually free) show they are labours of love and genuine interest, which for me always gives this kind of activity the edge over for-profit tours.

I've always advocated that promoting a historical understanding of the buildings and streets and parks and waterways in the everyday suburban landscapes that surround us will promote a deeper sense of attachment to place in the community, and a stronger desire to protect heritage when it is threatened. So the more that people like Denis step up and create these excellent walks, the better.

12 February 2014

The 'Lingering Doubts' of Brisbane's 1947 'Arcade Murder'

The murder of Bronia Armstrong in Brisbane in 1947 turned into a double tragedy when Reginald Brown hanged himself in Boggo Road’s F Wing just a few days after being found guilty of the crime. The authors of the new book Lingering Doubts (Deb Drummond and Janice Teunis) took another look at the case and discovered serious discrepancies that suggest there are - as the title suggests - lingering doubts about the verdict.

I recently interviewed Deb Drummond about the new book:

Congratulations on Lingering Doubts. What prompted you and Janice to research and write this book?

Janice Teunis, co-author of 'Lingering Doubts'.
Deb Drummond, co-author of 'Lingering Doubts'.
Deb Drummond
It began so simply - curiosity. Although, if I had any inkling about the enormity of what I was setting in motion, I may have walked away from the State Library and had a coffee instead of leaving with a bundle of newsprint.

My scrap book grew until Bob Bottom, respected investigative journalist, read the material. Bob went so far as to suggest a title for the story, which he said should be told, not only for the sake of our family but also in the public interest.

My cousin, Janice, was equally disturbed by glaring anomalies and, at her prompting, our partnership was formed. We began the long and arduous research that produced this book. In fact each injustice uncovered, made not writing Lingering Doubts, no longer an option.

The short answer: we wanted to give our grandfather the voice he was denied from the moment Brisbane detectives targeted him.

Could you outline the types of injustices and anomalies you came across?

Where do we start?

From the outset, without legal representation, our grandfather was interrogated by Det. ‘Stewie’ Kerr (later Comptroller General of Prisons) and Det. Sub-Inspector Frank Bischof (later Police Commissioner). Verbal accounts from various police officers were inconsistent and conflicting.

Boggo Road Gaol authorities confiscated the notes Reg Brown attempted to hand his solicitor. A known criminal was ‘discovered’ by police as a witness. A physical health problem our grandfather suffered from was concealed. And so it goes on...

In the book, you have acknowledged varying forms of assistance from dozens of people over the last seven years. The story has obviously been extensively researched - do you feel that the research is now complete? 

We are surprised at the interest Reg Brown’s story has generated and grateful for the support we have received and continue to receive (yourself included). Over the years the Queensland Police Service has readily allowed us access to files and material, without which, the task of advocating for our grandfather would have been impossible. We’d like to think we’ve exhausted all avenues but hope our book might prove to be a springboard, so to speak, and more information may surface. To help with this endeavour, one of our supporters and family friend, Emma Starr, has designed our website. Our dream is that one day a, perhaps retired, legal professional will read Lingering Doubts and feel inclined to continue where we left off. 

How much has this research changed your own perception of your grandfather? What effect has it had for your wider family?

Reginald Brown
Reginald Brown
When we started this journey, we (and our sisters and cousins) had no perception of our grandfather at all as he was missing from our childhood and our parents did not speak of him until we were adults – and then only to reluctantly disclose scant details about his arrest and imprisonment. My Dad, and Janice’s Mum, are well into their eighties now and retain wonderful memories of their father, Reg Brown. It’s taken enormous courage on their part to come forward and offer their contributions to Lingering Doubts. Although release from their crippling secret is liberating to a degree, they have had to relive the horror that shattered their family. The good thing is they now know much more than they ever knew.

Positive perceptions of our grandfather have consolidated as we began to meet him vicariously through archived material and personal memories of those who really knew him. We regret this loving family man was not in our lives.

This whole story is obviously within living memory for some of your family. How does the wider family feel about that story being used commercially in an unsympathetic manner?

Two of Reginald Brown’s children, teenagers at the time of the murder, are now in their 80s and have borne the stigma of their father’s ‘crime’ all their lives. By very careful analysis of all relevant details available to us via archived police files, trial transcripts and our interviews with people who were involved at the time, we believe we have made a credible argument for our grandfather’s innocence, and displayed the deviousness of police an
d the Crown prosecutor.

Our book needs to be read in comparison with other available works on this crime. The family thinks anyone peddling this very sad story needs to understand there is compelling evidence to suggest the tale being promulgated is a fabrication of cobbled half-truths.

A new book sheds new light on a 1940s Brisbane murder and questions the outcome that led to the suicide of a man in the cells of Boggo Road prison

Where can people get the book from?

Books are available at our talks, details of which are on our website. They can also be purchased on and at Copyright Publishing, and at The Book Bank (Top Floor, Toowong Village, Toowong).

February 2014

09 February 2014

Aliens Are Not History: The Credulousness and Despair of our Times

Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

This story can be read at 'About Those Ghosts...'

Why does the so-called 'History Channel' insist on showing hours of pseudo-scientific nonsense?

02 February 2014

The New Farm Shark Attack of 1862: Fact or Fiction?

One of my favourite subjects of historical research - no doubt driven by my irrational phobia of being eaten alive underwater - is Brisbane River shark attacks. There are slim pickings in the modern era, but back in the 19th century people were much more inclined to jump in the river. In a sub-tropical environment with no refrigeration, no swimming pools, no on-tap domestic water supply, no air conditioning, the sparkling-clean estuarine waters were a great temptation, especially in summer. This was also the same time of year that some rather large specimens of the river’s apex predator, the Bull Sharks, were in abundance. Humans and sharks (also dogs, as seen in this story) are an eventful mix.

One of the earliest recorded fatal attacks (although there must have been plenty during the millennia of previous Aboriginal activity in the Moreton Bay region) took place in December 1862, but it has to go down as ‘unconfirmed’ because there was no official record created. It involved Aboriginal people, who at the time were still ‘outside the system’, so there was no death certificate, no police report, and no cemetery funeral to be had.

The only European witness was a young boy named Tom Murphy. He was shooting birds near the first Brisbane racecourse, which had opened near New Farm in the 1840s. The exact location of this racecourse is unclear, although it was probably in the vicinity of the modern-day Brisbane Powerhouse. Tom was evidently a decent shot and he managed to hit a flying bird, but it fell wounded into the middle of the river.

According to Tom, a group of Aborigines were camped on the opposite bank. One of them was a young boy who saw the bird hit the river and immediately jumped in after it. He had swum about thirty yards from the bank when he noticed a large shark nearby. The boy quickly turned round and headed back to shore but the shark was in pursuit. The youngster dived three times, but reportedly ‘upon his rising the third time the shark was seen to turn upon his belly and seize the boy, who gave one scream and disappeared’.

His family and friends screamed out but there was nothing they could do. They were heard mourning loudly all night.

Tom was reluctant to officially report the incident because he thought he might get into trouble for shooting near the racecourse, but the story was relayed to the Courier newspaper by a reportedly ‘respectable correspondent’. A summary of the incident appeared a few weeks later, noting that victim’s body had disappeared and ‘was never afterwards seen’.

Bull Shark.

I treat this account as being probably reliable, if only because of the detailed and realistic description of the attack. It was also in the same stretch of river where, 60 years later, a man carrying his young son out to a moored boat was attacked by a bull shark. The father was badly injured and the boy fell into the river and was swept away, also ‘never afterwards to be seen’.

The 1862 attack certainly has more credibility than a story which, quite bizarrely, formed part of a real estate ad for Newstead House, near Breakfast Creek, in 1878. The ad featured a fictional conversation between Captain John Wickham, a resident of the house in the 1840s, and ‘King Talloo-woobulloowagoapilly’ (aka ‘King Billy’) about a shark attack that took place near Newstead in the years preceding European arrival at Moreton Bay. This rambling piece is transcribed more fully in the book Shovelnose: Tales of the Brisbane River Sharks.

‘King Billy’ recalled his group, including a young sister Eullah holding onto their small brother Oollu, swimming in the river one morning. A shark was spotted and a scream went up as the people swam for shore. The shark’s jaw gripped Eullah:
‘My dear sister’s form, with her long hair floating above the surface, was seen amidst the foaming spray, caused by the velocity with which she was being hurled through the water, while each hand encircled the ankles of Oollu, whose little head just peeped above the wavelets, fortunately face upwards… Eullah’s life’s blood mingled in the track she was forced along…’
The two children disappeared beneath the surface and hope seemed to be lost, but a young man named Warkoona (also identified as ‘Duke of York’, leader of the Brisbane clan in a similar ad) had swum to their rescue. After an underwater struggle the shark surfaced, ‘his entrails protruding’ and then sank, quite dead.

The children survived, although Eullah lost the calf of her left leg. Warkoona had cut the shark’s belly open with the fish-bone he had in his hair. He later married Eullah.

Now there could be a germ of truth in the story, but the style was so excruciatingly awful it is hard to take seriously (for example, as the children’s mother watched this scene her eyes ‘seemed literally to shoot in and out of their sockets involuntarily’). Unlike the Tom Murphy account of 1862, it is best ignored.

New Farm shark attack in 1862? It's probably true.