October 1st 2006
Something about Mary's grave
Curious twists in history can make for an interesting yarn so when you combine huge cyclones, exhumed graves, mysterious stone crosses and some of Magnetic's more colourful historical identities, a rare insight into the Island's history emerges. Following is amateur historian Charlie McColl's carefully researched insight into those bygone days and something about pioneer Mary Bright's grave. Ed.
Although he had nearly twenty years of the seachange experience under his belt by 1900, the end of the nineteenth century must have come as something of a relief for William Bright. Bright's Nelly Bay farming estate had been wrecked by Cyclone Sigma early in 1896 and William's younger brother Henry, along with the family's Aboriginal factotum, Tucker, had been lost at sea in mysterious circumstances in 1898 (see previous MagneticTimes story "Bright threads of history"). Other Australians were gathering their resources to join England in the South African (Boer) war, an adventure that surely would not have distracted the Brights who were more likely to be stuck in the Townsville timewarp so eloquently captured, years later, in the words of Ian Moles (1979):
Townsville sprawls along the foreshores of Cleveland Bay whose shallow waters were for decades discoloured and polluted by the discharge of raw sewage and of offal from two meatworks. Only the foolhardy swim unprotected in the sea, which swarms with all the familiar marine denizens, as well as a profusion of exotics as lethal as they are lovely. The alluring silhouettes of Palm and Magnetic Islands just off shore, would grace the most tempting of travel brochures; but since the one is an inaccessible Aboriginal reserve and the other a soporific haven for retired folk, the avid tourist has never long entertained his chimeras in Townsville. Castle Hill, the city's most striking natural feature and virtually its only prominence, squats Gibraltar-like in the middle of the oldest part of town, seeming to squeeze the main business area into the sea. Most of the suburbs straddle a series of salt-pans and expiring mangrove swamps between Ross Creek and Ross River, two ugly and lifeless watercourses that roughly bisect the town.
The impact of Cyclone Sigma on the fledgling port of Townsville has passed from the collective consciousness with the passage of the years but eyewitness accounts from the time give a fearsome reminder:
Not even during the memorable hurricane five years ago, was the sea more boisterous than on Sunday afternoon and Monday. Enormous waves dashed over the breakwater and as far as the eye could reach - no great distance for the rain descended in furious, blinding gusts, and the crests of the waves were blown into spray - nothing was to be seen but a wild tumult, which bid defiance to any venturesome ship. In the spirit of which the philosophic should meet small mercies, the inhabitants of Townsville may be thankful that the dredge Octopus has escaped, but the harbour works have been badly knocked about. Several hundred feet of the western [casino side] breakwater with the iron standard, which was wont to carry the green light, have been swept away. The mischief done to the eastern [container crane] jetty is most extensive. From the bead northerly to the end where the little lighthouse, which showed its welcome red rays, stood, has been completely shattered. This represents a length of about 1,600 ft, the height of which has been reduced by 5ft or 6ft, while extensive breaches have been made in the structure nearer to the wharf, the cement coping and portions of the base being demolished. Both wharfs stood the extensive strain put on them successfully. The Dugong (hopper barge) sank alongside the western breakwater, and the Nautilus is on the rocks at the point beyond the foundry. One of the side delivery punts rests beneath the water not far from the Dugong. The roof of the Harbour and Rivers boat shed is gone, and some wreckage was driven through one end of the building and sand to a depth of 5ft or 6ft has been spread over the locality. The Harbour and Rivers wharf has suffered no serious injury, nor has the office but the cottage occupied by Mr Oxtoby, of the Department, is completely wrecked. The damage done in the harbour and property just about to be taken over by the Harbour Board is immense; probably£30,000 would not cover it.
The North Queensland Herald Townsville, Friday, 31 January 1896.
All of which reminds us how easily the waterfront can progress into modernity and post modernity while the ancient threats to it remain the same. During Cyclone Sigma nothing could hold a ship in place, even inside the port, as the NQ Herald’s account about the ‘Leura’ shows:
Her passengers – about 60 saloon and steerage – were then on board and she had still a large quantity of undischarged cargo and had taken on board some cargo outwards. At seven o’clock on Sunday night the vessel went on the eastern breakwater, and came off again on Monday morning at half-past seven when the wind changed from the North. One can realise the force of the wind from a statement of the lines with which the Leura had been secured, and which failed to hold her. She had out two 3½ inch and one 3 inch wire line and one 5½ inch Manilla hawser, all being new, and two anchors. The engineer reports that the rudder and propellor are all right; and the hold will be thoroughly examined when the vessel reaches Brisbane.
The North Queensland Herald 31 January 1896.
About three years before the cyclone the Adelaide Steamship Company (ASC) acquired the aging Presto from Melbourne to serve as a coal hulk for its Brisbane operations and soon moved the vessel to Townsville harbour where it would serve as a floating warehouse. ‘Presto’ had started its life in very different circumstances. Originally named ‘Emergens’ and built in the Meursing’s De Nachtegaal (Nightingale) shipyards in Amsterdam, Holland in 1862, the three masted, barque rigged sailing ship was 138 feet (about 41m) long featuring a riveted iron hull and framework and cargo capacity of several hundred tons.
‘Emergens’ (later Presto) 1862, original construction
drawings from the Scheepvaartmuseum, Amsterdam.
In the 1870s the now-renamed ‘Presto’ was registered in Hong Kong and had repairs, including ballast stone being cemented into the bow, carried out in Shanghai, China. It was transferred to Sydney in 1887, to Auckland in 1888 and back to Melbourne in 1893 where it was acquired by Adelaide Steamship Company (Page 1975). When Cyclone Sigma devastated the Port of Townsville ‘Presto’ was severely damaged:
The company’s coal hulk Presto, which had been moored at the jetty wharf [landward end of the now container crane wharf], broke away during Sunday night or early on Monday morning, and went on the western [casino side] breakwater, afterwards sinking close beside that structure. There was only one man on board, and he escaped after a very critical experience. When the Presto sank she had on board 350 tons of coal, nine tons of sugar and fifteen tons of general cargo.
The North Queensland Herald Townsville, Friday, 31 January 1896.
The Minutes of a meeting of the Directors of ASC at Currie St, Adelaide on 24 February 1896 (obtained from the Butlin Archives at ANU, Canberra) reveal that although Presto was partly blocking the main access channel to Ross Creek and had been condemned by Burns Philp’s Superintending Engineer in Townsville as, “beyond repair”, the company could do nothing about moving the sunken vessel until the insurance underwriter (South British Insurance) agreed that the wreck was abandoned – a specific piece of maritime insurance jargon. ASC Manager E.Northcote wrote to fellow company boss W.E. Moxon on 28 February 1896 explaining:
I telegraphed Mr Elgar at Townsville that it was necessary to get out a specification for efficient repairs to the “Presto” and obtain tenders, as in the absence of the latter the Underwriters declined to admit a Constructive Total Loss.
Salvage costs (₤250) and estimates for subsequent repairs (₤450) added up to nearly half the vessel’s original purchase price but the insurers weren’t in any hurry to settle. There had also been trouble with an injured worker:
Accident on the Presto
Early on Tuesday morning, while working on the Presto, in Townsville Harbour, Captain Corbett had the misfortune to fall down one of her holds. He was at once conveyed to the Hospital and attended to by Dr Bacot. Examination showed that his injuries were fortunately confined to a very severe bruising of the back, and he was removed to his own residence.
The North Queensland Herald 19 February 1896
As if to jangle the owner’s already shaken nerves the Insurer wrote a few days later stating they:
“… can only conclude that at the time ‘Presto’ was insured with the Company she was not seaworthy or an insurable risk.”
Telegrams flew between Adelaide, Brisbane and Townsville and when Adelaide Steamship’s directors met again they concluded that the Insurer’s position was “most unwarranted”, and responded “for the benefit of the Underwriter” with a decision to get new quotes for the repair of the vessel, “including towage both ways” to Brisbane, where a suitable slip was located in the event that the Townsville slip could not take the Presto. These manoeuvres had the desired effect and within a few days the Insurer accepted that the wreck was indeed abandoned and the insurance claim could be settled. The local media recorded how the company then swung into action:
The Adelaide Steamship Company’s hulk Presto was patched up temporarily by Mr M. O’Brien, the diver, and having been floated out of the channel, is now on the bank awaiting permanent repairs.
The North Queensland Herald 4 March 1896.
In July 1896, after extensive repairs, ‘Presto’ was towed across to Magnetic Island and ended its days beached on the reef in Nelly Bay with its bow up against Bright Point. It has been suggested that William Bright had purchased the wreck for the purpose of creating a breakwater at his Nelly Bay waterfront but no evidence has surfaced to support this notion and no mention was made of this possibility in the media.
A classic photo of Bright Point circa 1915
with the Presto in the background.
A (slightly elevated) view of the same scene in 2006.
In any case, about 1915 a wharf was built at the end of Bright Point and connected back along the shore to Our Island Home by a rickety boardwalk passing between the bow of the steadily corroding iron hull of ‘Presto’ and the granite boulders and mangroves on the shore.
The boardwalk from Our Island Home past the corroding
‘Presto’ to Hayles’ jetty at Bright Point – C 1920.
The wharf at the point was destroyed by a cyclone about the 1940s and never rebuilt. When the construction of the Nelly Bay harbour/marina (“Magnetic Quay”) began in 1989 the distinctly visible remains of the Presto, lying across the proposed entrance to the harbour, were dug up and dispersed – some to the Picnic Bay landfill and others into the reclamation. The concrete and ballast-filled bow section was too massive to shift with the machinery available at that time so it remained in situ.
The two adjacent houses at the end of Sooning Street including ‘Our Island Home’, one of the oldest dwellings on Magnetic Island, had become isolated at the base of Bright Point when a new street, Boulder Court, was constructed there in the late 1960s.
Bright Point in the 1960s prior to the opening of Boulder Court. Note retaining wall (1930s) supporting Sooning Street, the original reclaimed foundations in front of Our Island Home, the little ‘honeymoon hut’ on Bright Point, the diverted mouth of Gustav Creek and the dark shape of the rusting remains of “Presto”.
The two houses were acquired by Magnetic Keys Ltd, the developers of “Magnetic Quay”, and then demolished in a fit of pique to remove all trace of the public protest which had railed against the development from day one and which continued until the company collapsed in financial ruin in 1990. When, after a decade of idleness, the project was re-activated by the Queensland Government and the previously dredged entrance channel widened and deepened, only the concrete and stone ballast-filled bow section of Presto remained to connect the locale to its historic past. When the harbour was completed in 2002 this rusting weighty artifact was hauled out onto dry land at the base of Bright Point to face an uncertain future.
None of this would be any consolation for William Bright who, having lost his young brother, Henry and the Aboriginal offsider, Tucker, is said to have taken a hammer and chisel out to the tip of Hawkings Point and there chipped a cross into a granite boulder near the waterline where wreckage from the sunken boat was found. Townsville historian Dorothy Gibson-Wilde wrote that this memorialising occurred at Bright Point (GHD 1989) and in a beautiful twist yet another story (passed on in all its unreliability) says that it was in fact the Aboriginal man, Tucker, who, having survived the ordeal (against all reports to the contrary), chiseled the cross in memory of his ‘mate’. There is no one living today who can account for or verify these stories but some of Bright’s great grandchildren (born in the 1920s and 30s) say they remember having a cross pointed out to them by their elders on those occasions when, as children, they passed by Hawkings Point on the family boat “Ripple”. But how big does such a figure have to be before it isvisible from a couple of hundred metres away? Many people have searched without success for this ‘cross’ and yet one of those descendents, John Shaw, says a cross is really easy to see. The photo below demonstrates that at the right distance and angle a very clear and distinct ‘cross’ is visible today, even from the passing ferry after departing from Nelly Bay. It is located just above the high waterline, about the centre of the flattened tip of Hawkings Point. Formed from a natural cleft in the split of a boulder with a seemingly naturally formed overhang, this ‘memorial’ to the passing of Henry Bright and Tucker will remain visible for all time. Whether it is the cross attributed to a human hand is a moot point.
View to the south west across the front of Hawkings Point.
Town Common on mainland in the distance.
The cross on the rocks is just one of the mystifying Bright stories that passed into legend and emerged later as a matter of fact. Another is the changing location of Mary Bright’s grave which is supposed to be in the official cemetery next to her husband William, their daughter Fannie and grandson Fred Bargent. The mystery starts in a letter sent by one of Mary’s descendents (great grand-daughter Joy Cavill [nee Shaw] of Townsville) to the trustees of the Nelly Bay cemetery in 1987, recorded in Nancy Williams’ report for the Magnetic Quay marina development (Linkon Project Consultants 1989). Mrs Cavill wrote that Mary Bright (formerly Hyden, nee Lintern) died in Townsville Hospital in August 1916 and:
William buried her firstly in the front garden of their third home “New Brighton” next to the Mandalay side of the school fence. The banyan tree still stands in what was their front garden. Sooning Street fronts “New Brighton” homesite. …A few days after her burial William was made to shift his wife to the Nelly Bay Cemetery. …Mr Bottiger and another friend helped William shift her body to the Nelly Bay Cemetery in the middle of the night.
The middle of the night is a great time for a mystery to evolve. The banyan tree mentioned above, which stood about 30m along from the current front gates of the school, was removed about 2002 in preparation for construction of the shopping complex built on the corner of Mandalay Ave and Sooning Street the following year. All accounts agree that Mary Bright ended up in the cemetery although her grave was never marked by a headstone.
It wasn’t until more than seventy years after her death that the story of Mary’s burial came to be questioned. While searching the Brisbane archives for records of Aboriginal burials and other connections to the proposed Magnetic Quay site, consultants unearthed a document dated 29 November 1916 from the Surveyor General instructing the government surveyor in Townsville, Alfred Marshall, to survey a new subdivision and intersecting road through the unofficial “proposed cemetery reserve” in Nelly Bay.
Part of 1902 plan of Nelly Bay with “Proposed Cemetery Reserve” over-written with detail of sub-division Ep228 created in 1917. Note mouth of Gustav Creek in lower left corner and the “Graves” in Portion 73.
This subdivision, to become Kirk Street, would open up four blocks of land there including a formal cemetery reserve – a proposal first mooted at the turn of the century. The instructions were to create a straight road avoiding any of the existing graves, European or Aboriginal, which dotted the rising ground there. At the time, the waterfront was still undisturbed Esplanade. Sooning Street would come much later.
Detail of Marshall’s 1916 subdivision plan showing Mary Bright’s grave at the north east corner of Por. 35. Portion 73 would later (January 1918) become the official Cemetery Reserve R.300. Although Por.35 is also labeled R.300 this would appear to be an error.
On locating the graves here I found it necessary to bend the road considerably to avoid interfering with Mrs Bright’s burial place on [newly created] Por35. I made the two front blocks fairly small so that both could be reserved for a cemetery if thought necessary. The aforesaid grave is the only one on Por35.
Mr Bright has made sundry threats of what he intends doing to anyone buying the land containing this grave, but from a conversation I had with him I gathered that if the new owner of 33V wanted this land he would be willing to “shift the old woman”.
The two back blocks are good sites and I think there will be competition for them.
Interpreting these records and reconciling them with the family’s oral history is slightly complicated. Mary Bright’s grave was only a few months old and would have been clearly visible to the land surveyor. The recently widowed William, by now in his mid 60s, would have been very sensitive about the grave, especially if he had already moved it once “in the middle of the night.”
Portion 33V, covering a large part of Nelly Bay (see plan above), had long been leased by Bright and then by his daughter Fanny Bargent. Bright transferred the lease to her in October 1914 for ten shillings and the written words:
“…in consideration of the natural love and affection which I bear to the said Fanny Louisa Bargent, my daughter…”
Fanny obtained freehold possession about 1916 and soon sold the property to a Mrs Brand, the “new owner of 33V”. Although the surveyor had canvassed the possibility that both the front blocks (Por.35 and Por.73) “could be reserved for a cemetery if thought necessary”, the fact that Mary’s was the only (visible) grave on Por.35 might have appeared a little indulgent. Could it be that Mary’s body was moved a second time?
The new owner of 33V, Mrs (and Mr) Brand, did indeed become interested in purchasing the newly created Portion 35 and several months later on 25 September 1917 opened correspondence with the Land Commissioner on that very matter:
With reference to my application for a portion of ground adjoining the eastern boundary of Portion 33V, Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island, I understand that a portion has been surveyed but is being withheld on account of a grave on it. I shall be glad to hear from you as to when it will be put up for auction. I may state that should I acquire this piece of land the position where the grave is will be fenced off. Thanking you, yours faithfully, R.K.S. (Richard Kenneth Scougall) Brand.
The Land Commissioner’s office had already indicated they wanted to sell Portion 35 but also wanted to separate it from the grave which was still officially located there nearly a year after William Bright’s words with the surveyor. A Mr Trower from the Land Commissioner’s office had written (28.9.17):
“I suggest that the corner where the grave is situated be cut off and the balance offered at auction.”
In August 1918 Hilda Brand made a declaration that the improvements, valued at ₤5/10, located on Por.35 when it was offered at auction at the time, were hers and by August 1919 she was advised that the Instrument of Perpetual Country Lease No. 2347 over the land “…has issued and is lying at this office awaiting delivery.” The area of Portion 35 was the same 33 perches (835 square metres) that had originally been surveyed so no portion had been “cut off”. Portion 35 had been sold and was now part of the land transaction system like any other. No further reference to Mary Bright’s grave would be made for more than 60 years.
In 1924 a Land Ranger inspected Portion 35 and found “no one in occupation” and only minimal improvements and since there were overdue rents his recommendation of forfeiture of the land was soon formalised in the Government Gazette (11 April 1924).
Portion 35 passed through several hands over subsequent decades including those of Alfred Charles Armour between 1952 and 1959. Mr Armour went to some effort (over an extended period!) to install a well, windmill and tank in order to meet the obligation to spend money on improvements. In November 1959 it was reported that the
“Well, to a reported depth of 24ft, collapsed during cyclone and rain before concrete cylinders could be put down. (Water) supply is reported good and is to be cleaned out and encased.”
The well, with a square concrete lid, is still evident today only about four metres from the officially surveyed site of Mary Bright’s grave.
In 1981 Land Inspector M. Hefferan compiled a “full conversion report and valuation” for Portion 35 in response to the most recent freeholding application – there had been earlier applications which failed. The letter accompanying the report (PTL 20682 9 February 1981) is mainly about the valuation and makes no mention of the windmill or well but finally states:
“Survey Plan Ep.228 of 24th January, 1917 shows a grave on the north-east corner of the subject land. There are a number of very old graves in this locality (eg.R.300 opposite). If a grave was ever sited on the subject land, there is no longer any sign of its existance (sic) and, since the lessees already hold a perpetual lease over the land, there would exist a statutory right to freehold regardless of the probable existance (sic) of an old grave on the area.”
Assuming that the family recollection about Mary Bright’s body being shifted shortly after her death is accurate, and accepting that no government agency ever recorded a formal disinterment of the 1916 grave, then unless Mary was secretly dug up again and interred a third time, her actual burial site is not in the modern cemetery at all but across the other side of Kirk Street in the ‘knee’ of the dogleg - on Portion 35.
The grave would be beneath the arrow.
The power lines indicate the "dogleg" in Kirk Street.
H.O. (Charlie) McColl
I am thankful for the valuable assistance of Vivienne Moran (Townsville Maritime Museum), Zanita Davies (Magnetic Island History and Craft Association), staff at the Noel Butlin Archives in Canberra, staff at the Department of Natural Resources and Mines, Townsville, library staff at JCU, Townsville, Gavin Ryan for stitching Presto’s digital graphics together, Jo Wieneke for the priceless aerial photograph and George Hirst at www.magnetictimes.com. Mr John Shaw (Townsville) and his sister Edna Shaw (Melbourne) provided many useful anecdotes over several years. Thanks also to everyone who collects newspaper clippings and other local flotsam and jetsam and shares it around. Someday, somewhere, someone will find an application for it.
Ian Moles “A Majority of One – Tom Aikens and Independent Politics in Townsville”. University of Queensland Press 1979.
Michael Page. Fitted for the Voyage. Adelaide Steamship Company 1875-1975. Rigby 1975
North Queensland Herald, Townsville, January 31, Feb 5,12,19, March 4, July 1, 1896
Townsville Harbour Board, General Plan/s of Townsville Harbour, ~ 1913-14, 1926-27, 1936-38
Vivienne F Moran, Statement of Significance for the Presto wreck, Nellie Bay, Magnetic Island. Queensland Museum, July 1998
Photo of Mary Bright at top of page courtesy of the Miriam Hardy Collection.