Barcaldine and the
Comet Masonic Temple
Peter Marquis-Kyle is a Brisbane architect who has
specialised in the conservation of historic buildings.
Barcaldine is a town of Queensland's central west, set
in sheep country about 600km inland from Rockhampton. I first stopped
there briefly in 1973 as a student doing research for a thesis about town
conservation. At the end of that trip, amongst blurred impressions of a
hundred towns, Barcaldine stuck in my mind. As I worked on my research,
and as I looked more closely at this and other towns, I came to see why
Barcaldine remains so memorable.
The circumstances and events of Barcaldine's history
are the main determinants of its present character. The town was founded
in the 1880s, flourished and grew quickly to a population of about 1,500
in its first few years and has maintained a fairly stable population and
economic function since then. These circumstances have produced a town
much of whose fabric is a clearly readable document of history. Barcaldine
has changed and developed of course, but it has not been subjected to the
wholesale rebuilding or radical economic changes which make some other
towns so puzzling to read.
Barcaldine sprang into being with the arrival of the
railway in 1886 and is 'the most notable of the "instant"
railway towns' which flourished at the successive termini of the Central
Railway as it was pushed westward from Rockhampton.(1)
In 1891 the Western Champion Almanac described the formation of the town:
In September 1886, Lagoon Creek consisted of
Shakespeare's Hotel, brought from Pine Hill, and several tents,' but in a
few weeks the exodus set in from Jericho, and when the station of Lagoon
Creek (since called Barcaldine) was opened in December, the town had
assumed formidable proportions. Although '358 miles' did not terminate the
section — the line being actually carried over the downs 12 miles
further west — the Government promised not to open the line at the
twelve-mile, and subsequently further promised not to open a station
between here and Longreach, 64 miles from Barcaldine, a place intended for
a terminus, for some years to come. The 'rush' to Barcaldine was
unprecedented in the annals of Central Railway history. Both Aramac and
Blackall being in close proximity, each sent settlers to the new township.
The proprietors of the 'Western Champion' newspaper removed their plant
from Blackall, and one of Blackall's leading storekeepers also sent a
portion of his stock and opened a branch. An Aramac storekeeper intended
doing likewise, but noticing the place gave promise of being overdone,
wisely remained where he was.(2)
Lagoon Creek was no sprawling ad hoc encampment, but a
properly laid out town with a rectangular grid of streets surveyed by
Desgrand in September 1885 in accordance with the government regulations
of the time. The town's situation on a slight ridge amidst flat terrain
immediately to the south of the railway line permitted a perfectly regular
street layout to be adopted and the pattern of building in the town has
the same diagrammatic regularity. The half dozen hotels and the main
stores and businesses are lined up along the south side of Oak Street,
looking across at the railway line. The next street to the south contains
the Court House, government buildings and churches. The rest of the town
is filled out with wooden houses under great shady roofs, sitting on tall
stumps on large sparsely planted allotments.
This layout makes the town oddly lop-sided, with its
centre of gravity off to the south of the single-sided main street and
nothing much but the railway and open ground to the north.
Street trees are notable features in the town and a
reminder of the contribution artesian water has made in this part of
Australia. The first deep bore in Queensland is said to have been sunk in
Blackall in 1885, but local opinion suggests that a bore near Barcaldine
predates the first Blackall bore.(3) In Barcaldine,
as in other towns of the inland plains, the town water tower is a strong
visual element whose appearance on the horizon warns approaching
travellers they are about to arrive.
The most notable of Barcaldine's street trees is the
so-called 'Tree of Knowledge' under which meetings were held during the
great shearers' strike of 1891, which climaxed a bitter confrontation
between the union shearers and the pastoralists on the issues of working
conditions and 'freedom of contract'. The shearers '... in order to
witness to their solidarity and to prevent the incursion of non-union
labour, established themselves in camps at all the principal centres of
the West and Barcaldine came to be regarded as the headquarters of the
movement because it was here that policy was laid down and decisions
The presence of three or four hundred men in
Barcaldine camp alarmed the government and a contingent of the Defence
Force was dispatched to the town. With the arrest of the strike committee
and some of their supporters, the strike lost its impetus and strikers
began drifting away. All but two of the fourteen men arrested were
convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to three years' goal. One of the two
acquitted, Thomas J. Ryan, secretary of the Queensland Labourers Union,
became the first endorsed Labor man elected to Parliament, in a
by-election the next year.
This election victory and the 1891 strike were parts
of a great social movement which, although centred for a time in
Barcaldine, has left few marks on the fabric of the town — a plaque
commemorates the meetings held under the 'Tree of Knowledge' and scattered
debris on the site of the strikers' camp help to evoke the scene. Perhaps
archaeological investigation would discover further fragments of
information from this camp site, but the visible evidence is subtle
Other social activities of the early days of the town
have left more tangible evidence. The way buildings were shifted in stages
as the railway advanced was a remarkable feature of the development of the
Central Railway line. As well as Shakespeare’s hotel, already mentioned,
the Methodist and Catholic Churches, the government school, various
railway buildings, houses and the Masonic Hall, were all picked up and
moved to Barcaldine. Some had already moved before, but all found their
last resting place at Barcaldine. As the town prospered, and as its future
appeared secure, the light movable structures were replaced by more
substantial and stylish ones.
The Comet Lodge of Freemasons has '... had a career
which is probably unique in the records of Freemasonry in this State. It
holds its Warrant almost 300 miles distant from the town for which it was
granted. It erected and re-erected its Masonic Hall six times at the
several towns which became the temporary termini of the Central Railway
during the first nine years of its existence.'(5)
The Lodge was formed in 1876 at Dingo Creek where a
hall was erected. The building remained there only a short time before
being moved to Cometville. After 18 months it was shifted to Emerald, two
years later to Bogantungan, then to Pine Hill, then to Jericho and finally
'The expense of continually pulling down and removing
the hall and the purchase of land always kept the lodge funds very low.
However, when Barcaldine was reached it was felt the Lodge was here to
stay: the building was considerably improved internally...'(6) We read that in 1891 this building was '... an
unpretentious two-storeyed affair of iron, but beautifully furnished
inside.'(7) This hall served the Lodge until 1900 when
£720 was raised to erect a new building.
The new Masonic Temple in Beech Street was dedicated
in 1901. It shared some points of description with its well-travelled
predecessor — it was two-storeyed, and so far as its back and sides are
concerned, ironclad and unpretentious. The front, however, is anything but
unpretentious. This facade is a fantasy of fluted pilasters, string
courses, scalloped friezes, arched openings and a tiny pedimental porch,
all arranged in picture book symmetry and executed in timber boards and
mouldings. This building is surely one of the gems of the town and
'discovering' it was one of the delights of my visit in 1973.
I was pleased to renew my acquaintance with Barcaldine
in 1980 when Richard Allom: Architects, with whom I work, were engaged to
advise on the care and conservation of the Masonic Temple, and it fell to
me to do the work.
This was my first opportunity to see the marvellously
intact and original interior of the building — the ground floor with its
beige painted walls with dark brown dado and green stencilled frieze, and
the upper chamber with curved ceiling, complex panelled linings and
mouldings painted in different shades of blue, the whole most carefully
executed in tongue-and-groove boards.
Among the photographs hanging in the ground floor
meeting hall was one of the building itself taken soon after construction.
This picture was to provide the key evidence for reconstructing the
original extraordinary colour scheme of the facade. The photograph showed
the building behind a long-lost picket fence, with the chamfer-boarded
wall surfaces decorated in faceted ashlar stonework, apparently painted
on, and covering the whole front.
There was sufficient detail in the photograph to allow
me to mark out on the boards the pattern of 'stonework', complete with the
mortar joints and the facets of the stone blocks. This preliminary marking
out showed me just where to examine the paint surface to find if evidence
of the old colours survived. From that point, the task became the
accustomed one of scraping under magnification to note the sequence of
To my delight, I found in the earliest layers of paint
evidence confirming that the sham stonework had been the original colour
scheme, and information about the actual colours used: not surprisingly,
the facets of the 'stone blocks' were painted in three different shades of
stone colour, and the sham mortar joints were mid grey. Other parts of the
facade had been originally painted in deep red, and various shades of
stone and tan colours.
Once the investigation was complete, and drawings and
specification for the repairs and painting had been prepared, the
difficulties of getting the work done had to be faced. In a small, remote
town like Barcaldine, skilled specialist tradesmen are not available on
call. The task of finding and coordinating tradesmen was undertaken by
Kevin Kerr, an engineer and Barcaldine resident.
Minor repairs were made to the timber work; new pieces
of capitals and astragals were run to match the originals where parts were
missing; sills and flashings were repaired. Then the surface preparation
and painting were carried out, by an out-of town sign writer and two local
house painters. The result, as I saw on a recent visit, was an admirable
piece of conservation work, which reveals again an important aspect of
this curious building. While pressed metal sham stonework facades on
timber buildings do survive, exterior paintwork seldom lasts longer than
twenty or thirty years and I do not know of an original painted mock-stone
facade in Queensland. The accurate reconstruction of this charming and
naive wall treatment at Barcaldine is, I think, valuable for its power to
evoke the past.
This project shows how the National Estate Program,
even with its present meagre resources, can work very effectively for the
preservation of important things which might otherwise be so easily lost.
The small grant made to the Lodge in 1980, and a grant announced in 1984
for further repairs, like other grants made under the National Estate
Program, provide the community with real value for money. Before they
heard about the program, the brethren of the Comet Masonic Lodge even
planned to solve their maintenance problem with aluminium siding!
Meredith Walker, Historic Towns in
Queensland: an introductory study, Brisbane: unpublished
report to the National Trust of Queensland, 1981. Back to text.
Anon., The Western Champion almanac and
year book, Barcaldine: The Western Champion, 1891, p. 53. Back to text.
Peter Forrest, The National Estate in the
Central West Region of Queensland, Brisbane: The National
Trust of Queensland, 1976, p. 15. Back to text.
S. Cowen, Barcaldine Praeterita; or,
pages from the past, Barcaldine: Barcaldine Shire Council,
1958, p. 18. Back to text.
Anon., Comet Masonic Lodge: centenary
celebrations, Barcaldine: Comet Lodge, 1977. Back to text.
Comet Masonic Lodge: centenary
celebrations. Back to text.
Western Champion almanac and year book,
p. 55. Back to text.