Marking time

Marking time

Thursday 26 February 2015

Significant places and related objects

The Queensland Maritime Museum in Brisbane has a wonderful gallery of lighthouse equipment that displays the de­vel­op­ment of lighthouse technology since the nineteenth century.

The centre­piece of the gallery is a third-order rotating lens made by Chance Brothers & Co Limited of Birmingham in 1915, com­plete with its mer­cury-float pedestal, hand-wound clockwork, and kerosene pressure-lamp. The lens was built for the light­house at Cape Don on the Cobourg Peninsula in the Northern Territory.

View of the lighthouse gallery at Queensland Maritime Museum

The Cape Don optical apparatus on display in the lighthouse gallery at the Queensland Maritime Museum.

Chance Brothers & Co were the dominant suppliers of lighthouse equip­ment to the Australian colonies from the 1850s until the 1920s. The Cape Don lens is a good example of the type of large, kerosene-pow­ered rotating dioptric lighthouse ap­pa­ra­tus built by the firm, and brings joy to the hearts of lighthouse fanciers. From the factory near Birmingham equipment like this was shipped out to lighthouses all over the world, from Adelaide to Zanzibar.

The lantern house and optical apparatus of the Cape Don lighthouse shown in section. This blueprint was produced in 1915 in the drawing office of Chance Brothers and Co Limited, the English lighthouse en­gi­neers, at Smethwick near Birmingham. [National Archives of Australia]

This is not just a generic piece of lighthouse technology. It has his­toric associations with the particular place and structure it was built for. The Cape Don lighthouse was the first tall reinforced-con­crete tower built in Aus­tralia. Building that light­station was the biggest single project undertaken by the newly-established Com­mon­wealth Lighthouse Service. Work started in May 1915 and finished in September 1917, over three long dry-sea­son campaigns. During the intervening wet seasons, when rain and the risk of cyclones would have made work impossible, the site was abandoned. The materials were all brought by ship from Melbourne, except for the gravel which was obtained locally. This was a project of national importance, carried out during the Great War on a very remote and difficult site.

Lighthouse construction crew at Cape Hotham, about 50 km south of Cape Don, with a saltwater crocodile in 1928. [Northern Territory Library]

The finished lighthouse was operated by light-keepers and their families who lived in the country of the Iwaidja speaking peoples of the Cobourg Peninsula. The story of those light-keepers is told at the Queensland Maritime Museum by a display of photo­graphs and drawings of the site.

Whenever I visit the museum the display reminds me of Cape Don. I have been to that remarkable place on two occasions​—​in 2007 for the heritage lighthouse survey project, and in 2014 to gather information for a heritage man­age­ment plan.

The light-keepers climbed thirteen of these steep flights of stairs to get into the lantern-room to tend the light.

Cape Don lighthouse is still showing the way for ships navigating through the Dundas Strait between the mainland and Melville Island on the approach to Darwin. The Australian Maritime Safety Authority has recently carried out major repairs.

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Wednesday 28 January 2015

Barcaldine and the Artesian breakthrough

Just posted on the John Oxley Library blog​—​a piece by Thom Blake​—​17th December 1887​—​a significant day for Queens­land, in which he tells the story of the first government-sponsored artesian well in Queensland.

That well was sunk at Barcaldine, one of my favourite country towns, and was a big factor in the success of the town​—​an early success that is still marked by a magnificent set of pubs, their shady veran­dahs lined up along the southern side of the main street. Their names record their old associations: the Union, the Railway, the Commercial, the Shakespeare, the Globe​—​and the Artesian.

The eastern side wall of the Artesian Hotel, Barcaldine, 1974.

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Sunday 21 December 2014

A Christmas pudding at sea

In the late 1800s illustrated weekly news­papers published some of the best artists of the day, through the medium of the wood en­grav­ing, as I have mentioned before. Before half-tone re­pro­duc­tion of photo­graphs came in, this was the common way to publish re­al­is­tic im­ages of both ordinary and extraordinary events.

I have chosen another wood engraving for my email Christmas card for 2014​—​the fourth in a series. There is no lighthouse in this one, but there is a Christmas pudding, and a story of life at sea. The artist was Edwin Buckman (1841–1930) and he called the picture A Christmas pudding at sea.

Edwin Buckman, A Christmas Pudding at Sea, wood engraving from The Graphic, 25 December 1870.

Buckman has drawn a view of the deck of a sailing vessel healed over in a heavy sea. We see ten people, rugged up against the cold, huddled around the companionway. At the centre is the big Christmas pudding which appears to be fixed to the deck by a mar­lin­spike driven through its middle. There is a knife stuck into the pudding but no other cutlery or crockery is in sight. This is not a luxury cruise.

The picture is full of other details. We are looking for’ard. The bow is plung­ing into a rough sea. The people are hunkered down on the deck, except for one man who is hanging onto the mast​—​a mast rigged with a fore-and-aft sail with sheets eased right away, and a reef in the sail. We are running before a stiff wind, and con­di­tions are pretty lively.

Who are these boat people? Refugees? Eco­nomic migrants? Why have they put them­selves in harm’s way, with the children too? Did they pay money to some merchant of danger to make this trip?

The magazine published a poem, Ode by a Christmas Pudding at Sea, in the same issue, which adds another layer to the story:

          lat. 49° 5′ n.; long. 9° 17′ w.

To all you Puddings now on shore
    I write, to give a notion
Of what mishaps there are in store
    For Puddings born on Ocean :
It blew a gale from sou’-sou’-west,
But the skipper’s wife she did her best,
As she kneaded the dough on her own sea-chest,
          With a fal lal lal lal la.

The vessel gave a lurch, a wave
    Right down the hatchway came ;
The skipper’s wife stood stout and brave,
    I wish I’d done the same ;
For I rolled in a fright along the floor,
And the skipper, coming in at the door,
Gave me a kick, which my jacket tore,
          With a fal lal lal lal la.

His good wife gather’d up the bits,
    And put my limbs together ;
Says she, “I must have lost my wits
    To cook in such foul weather ;
But sailor-boys they love good cheer,
And Christmas comes but once a year,
So I won’t be beat, I’ll persevere.”
          With a fal lal lal lal la.

The galley fire burnt bright and clear
    As she put me into the pot ;
Thinks I, “It suits me being here,
    I feel so jolly and hot.”
But a great green sea burst over the deck,
And I fancied myself a perfect wreck,
In cold salt water up to my neck,
          With a fal lal lal lal la.

Cries cook, “The Pudding’s surely spoiled.”
    “No, no ! ” says the skipper’s wife,
“That Christmas Pudding shall be boiled,
    If I sacrifice my life.”
With her own fair hands she lit the fire,
And though the waves rose higher and higher,
At last she accomplished her desire,
          With a fal lal lal lal la.

And here they are, these Sailor boys,
    All full of mirth and glee ;
They sit in a ring, with lots of noise,
    And they’re going to eat poor Me !
When smack ! there comes a roaring squall,
A lurch- and into the scuppers fall
Sailor boys, Christmas Pudding, and all,
          With a fal lal lal lal la.


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Monday 15 December 2014

Broxburn school

I recently inspected the buildings collected in the Pioneer Village at Pittsworth on the Darling Downs, with my historian colleague Dr Thom Blake. One of the buildings is a one-teacher school from Broxburn near Pittsworth.

The school was built by the local community and opened as a pro­vi­sional school in 1898. Provisional schools were set up in places where there were few pupils, and were usually temporary structures. This building was a cut above the norm. It became a State School in 1909, and closed in 1959.

As Thom pointed out, provisional schools were ephemeral, and this is a rare and highly significant survivor. I’d be interested to hear of any others.

The Broxburn school, re-located to the Pittsworth Pioneer Village.

The Department of Education has published a short online history of Queensland provisional schools.

The single classroom is furnished with desks and other artefacts.

I was a pupil in a one-teacher-school back in the 1950s. I remember sitting on a form with five other kids at a desk like this. This room brought faded sensations back to my mind​—​the scrape of a slate pencil, the scratch of a pen nib in a copy book, the ritual of mixing ink powder and filling ink wells, the chanting of times-tables, the smell of warm school milk…

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Significant places and related objects
Barcaldine and the Artesian breakthrough
A Christmas pudding at sea
Broxburn school
Bad business at Mowbray Park
Noel Pearson remembers Gough Whitlam

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