17 September 2015

The Fabulous Creatures of Walter Henry Bone


Walter Henry Bone is one of the forgotten illustrators of Australian children’s literature, which is rather a shame. Writing around the turn of the 20th century, he was able to apply his knowledge as an expert bushman and naturalist to creating an imaginative menagerie of animal characters. His What Became of Them? stories featured an outback world populated by creatures both strange and familiar. They were ruled over by the kindly Bunyip, referred to by the rest of the animals as ‘the
King’ or ‘Your Majesty’.

Bunyip and Oopidoop (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)

Bone’s animals were neither European nor Aboriginal, except for the bunyip, which in these stories was clearly a land animal, as opposed to the freshwater creature of Aboriginal legend. The bunyip also had magical powers with which he could transform animals, which happens in most stories, and these transformative incidents give the tales something of an Aboriginal quality, while also recalling Kipling's 'Just So Stories'.

Being a big-game hunter, soldier of fortune, naturalist, and children’s author was perhaps an odd mix. As was the style of the time, Bone's writing was a bit wordier and more colloquial than would be used in children’s books now, and although they had a fair measure of violence and death, they also had a quaint charm that seems surprising when considering the background of the author himself.

Walter Bone, Megalong Valley, c.1900. (Blue Mountains City Library)

Born in 1863, Bone attended Sydney Grammar School before setting off to Africa for a taste of adventure. He found it, and by the age of 20 he was an expert swordsman, revolver shot, and was the officer in command of the cavalry of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Sometime around 1890 he returned to Australia and became joint editor of the Blue Mountains Express newspaper in Katoomba. He was a frequent contributor to the Sydney Mail for 35 years. Bone wrote and illustrated popular animal and bush stories for children, including, Hoppity: being the life of an albino kangaroo (1933) and What Became of Them? Australian stories for children. These books continued to be reprinted until the 1950s.

Bone had a sound knowledge of bush lore and was a member of the Royal Society, the Linnaean Society of New South Wales, and the Zoological Society, and he contributed articles to a number of journals. He inherited his father’s printing business, renaming it ‘W. H. Bone & Co.’, and died in 1934.

Walter Bone and his wife Frances camping in the Megalong Valley, NSW, c.1900. (Blue Mountains City Library)

Being very much a creature of his time, he unfortunately portrayed Aboriginal and African people as clownish caricatures (see here for an example), and more than anything else it is these illustrations and other casually racist tones that make a revival of his work unlikely.

The Bunyip

In Bone's world, the Bunyip was the King of the animals, and the central character in the What Became of Them? stories. He had some familiar features known from alleged 'bunyip sightings', such as a bird's beak or bill, horns on his head, and large eyes, but he was clearly a land animal as opposed to the aquatic nature of reported bunyips.

(Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)
The Oopidoop 
Not so 'fabulous', perhaps, but the Oopidoop was an important character in the stories, being the 'Great Grandfather of the Frogs' and constant assistant and friend to the Bunyip. His origins are explained in this January 1906 story.

'You can dig another hole and commence business whenever you like'. (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)
'Of course you know as well as I do that the Oopidoop is the grandfather of all the frogs. Well, nobody who ever saw the Bunyip - who, as everyone is aware, is the King of Australian creatures - could understand how it is that he is invariably attended by the Oopidoop. As a matter of fact it was only through being on very friendly terms with most of our wild animals that I learned the reason myself. To make sure that what they told me was correct, I interviewed an old black-snake (with a shotgun), and as he said nothing to the contrary, of course the story must be true.' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
The Wongawhillilew
The Wongawhillilew was a strange pterodactyl-like bird who was not too clever and wanted to become a man after coming across an Aboriginal man in the bush one day. He appeared in this December 1902 story.

'The mischievous young animals would swing on his legs.' (Sydney Mail, 31 December 1902)
"The Wongawhillilew was discovered, when quite a little thing, sitting on a stone in the pouring rain, squawking piteously with cold and wet, and when the Bunyip found it and took it home with him he anticipated some difficulty in rearing it, but being blessed with a healthy appetite and strong digestion, it recovered from the exposure, and under the tender care which the King of the Creatures bestowed upon all his subjects, rapidly attained its full growth. It was 6ft. high, had big goggle eyes, leathern wings furnished with strong hooks at the shoulders, and its long legs terminated in hands instead of claws. In colour it was green." (Sydney Mail, 31 December 1902)
The Goanthaspike
This was a large goanna or monitor lizard with a huge spike on the end of its snout, which he liked to use to play 'policeman' among the other animals. From April 1910.

'"Here, don't you call me names," the Monitor hissed venomously.' (Sydney Mail, 6 April 1910)
‘At first the bush creatures fled in frantic haste when they saw the Goanthaspike coming, but by degrees they became accustomed to his appearance, and their natural antipathy to each other reasserted itself. Quarrels and fights arose, and then the Monitor would lumber forward, and gently quell the disturbance with a mild application of his spike.’ (Sydney Mail, 6 April 1910)
The Boomerangatang
This was a kind of flying orang-utan that would spin around wildly in mid-air, boomerang-style, causing other fascinated animals to break their necks as they tried to watch him. Dozens of animals died in this manner in this September 1911 story.

'The King commanded the Boomerangatang to alight.' (Sydney Mail, 20 September 1911)
‘The first intimation of the presence of the Boomerangatang which the Bunyip received was when he was awakened, one very wet afternoon, by a succession of maniacal shrieks and chuckles that seemed to encircle the hollow tree in which he was sleeping.’ (Sydney Mail, 20 September 1911)
The Swalleremole
This massive snake ('swallow 'em whole') with armour plating and legs featured in this November 1911 story. It was eventually transformed into a much smaller creature.

'The Bunyip struck furiously at the creature's head.' (Sydney Mail, 22 November 1911)
‘It was the Swalleremole - the black snake with the crimson motor-scales - that brought the death-juice to Australia; there were no venomous snakes in our country before that. But he was somewhat different in appearance to what he is now, before the Bunyip took the matter in hand - you'll notice that at once if you glance at his portrait.’ (Sydney Mail, 22 November 1911)
The Hlpmtl
This was some sort of a giant ant with a penchant for killing animals unfortunate enough to fall into it's hole. It was featured in this December 1911 story.

'A pair of monstrous callipers closed with terrible force around him'. (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)
‘With a tremendous heave the creature emerged from the loose soil in which it had embedded itself, and crouched against the opposite side of the pit. The monarch examined it critically. 'Ha,' he muttered, 'body grey, ten feet long, flat, heart-shaped; six short legs, big head, goggle eyes, huge nippers-ah. Come here. Stop! How dare you crawl backwards. What d'you mean by it?' 'I can't crawl any other way,' the Hlpmtl whimpered apologetically.’ (Sydney Mail, 27 December 1911)
The Googleoggle
An ancestor of the frogs, the Googleoggle lost his ears but gained an unwanted tail after a fierce dispute with the koala (who, in turn, lost his own tail).

'"Now, get off the earth," said the Bunyip. (Sydney Mail, 25 January 1911)
'As for you,' he continued grimly, turning to the Googleoggle, 'your malice has caused the bear to lose his beloved tail and you your ears. As a punishment you shall wear his tail, and have no ears at all. Now, get off the earth!' And with one mighty kick he sent him flying into the water.' (Sydney Mail, 25 January 1911)
The Tuniuniantipec
When Australia was still joined to south-east Asia, this 'yellow monster' used to migrate down from China to devour children (i.e. young animals). There was nothing subtle about the racism in this February 1904 story. The problem was solved after the Bunyip had the wombats dig a trench that caused Australia to physically separate from Asia.


'"I believe you've eaten him yourself," said the Tuniunianipec.' (Sydney Mail, 3 February 1904)
'Our King sought the Tuniuniantipec at the full of the moon and prevailed upon him to return to his own country on condition that 10 animals should be given up to him whenever he asked for them, provided the moon was at the full. Years passed, and the Yellow Fiend grew older, and instead of full-grown animals he demanded that they be young and tender. This was done, and, so that the loss should fall upon each in turn, he brings each time a list of those who must give up their young to be devoured. Behold, people of the bush, the moon is at the full, and to-night he comes!' (Sydney Mail, 3 February 1904)
The Triantiwollipede
This bird-headed, tentacled creature had a habit of eating other animals before he was rather horrifically killed himself in this September 1902 story.

'"No, no,", said the Wallaroo, "It's all a mistake." (Sydney Mail, 6 September 1902)
'The triantiwollipede (Scarum kiddibus) is one of those extinct Australian creatures which for some unaccountable reason find no place in the books of natural history, but as there was only one, I am not surprised at it. The only mention I can find of the beast is- 
"He's all jet black, and his big fat back
Is round as a geebung seed:
So don't go nigh when you hear the cry -
“Trianti - wolli - pede!”'
- Alexander the Great.'
(Sydney Mail, 6 September 1902)
Drought Bird
Mentioned in a story
about Oopidoop, the Drought Bird was held responsible for causing droughts to occur.

'That night, the Drought Bird swooped down out of the sky.' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
''You see, my friends,' he went on after a pause, 'it is all the fault of the wicked Drought Bird. As you know, the Drought Bird is a huge winged creature that flies out of the sun, and drinks up all the clouds by day and the rivers and creeks by night - that's why nobody ever sees him.'' (Sydney Mail, 17 January 1906)
The Locashell
This giant insect with a fondness for soft wood trees was eventually shrunk down to become a cicada-type creature in this story from January 1912.

'He emitted a yell that made the trees shudder.' (Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)
'Almost asleep as he was, the Bunyip at first watched the thing with dreamy indifference, but as its bulk rose higher and higher from the earth, by degrees he became uneasily conscious of the two great eyes staring down into his. Unable to move, though now wide awake, he saw the huge claws groping for a firm hold upon the ground; his eyes widened, and his mouth gaped with astonishment, and - it must be confessed - apprehension, until the weird object, bending towards him, thrust forward a long, slender beak and touched him on the chest. Then he emitted a yell (and, mind you, I don't blame him) that made the trees shudder, and went over backwards.' (Sydney Mail, 31 January 1912)

08 September 2015

The Birth of Boggo Road

(The following is extracted from the Brisbane Courier, 3 July 1883. HM Prison, Brisbane - known colloquially as Boggo Road - was used for the first time on 2 July 1883. It was initially comprised of a single cellblock designed to hold short-term male prisoners.)

'The new gaol is reached from North Brisbane by means of a threepenny 'bus. Some people are taken there free of charge, but it is not to ordinary mortals that the State pays such attention. The building lies like a country gentleman's mansion within its own grounds. Alighting from the 'bus we pass through a gate and along what is by courtesy termed the avenue. This title is anticipatory, but, judging from appearances, not without good reason. Here a warder watches over ten hard labour men who are ‘grubbing up’ stumps. They are an able bodied lot of follows, and belong to a class of prisoners who have broken the law and are taking their punishment quietly and with no ambition to make themselves notorious by essaying escape or to prolong the terms to winch they have been sentenced.

Superintendent's Quarters at front of Male Prison, Boggo Road, c.1914. (BRGHS)

The courtyard of the prison is entered upon by passing under a lofty arch, on one side of which are the offices of the establishment, and on the other the quarters of the governor of the place, Mr Bernard. In the centre of the courtyard is a large circular bed of choice flowers which do much to break the monotony of the scene when once within the walls. Under this flower garden is a vast underground tank, from which the water supply of the gaol is drawn.

Courtyard inside main gates of Male Prison, Boggo Road, c.1915. (BRGHS)

On the left is the hospital ward, and the room of the warder in charge of it. This is upstairs, while other offices and a surgery are on the ground floor. From this we pass to the yard where men committed for trial and on remand are allowed to exercise themselves. They are allowed tables and stools, and have a fine spacious bathroom with a shower that, after a warm dusty drive, looks rather inviting. Leaving the yard we entered the principal building within the walls. On the ground floor is a wide corridor with cells on each side, and then a staircase leads to a higher region where there are other cells. The building is very lofty and well ventilated, and the cells are of very fair dimensions.

Hospital ward, Boggo Road, c.1915. (BRGHS)

After spending a few minutes downstairs in the dark cells, with the outer doors closed and complete darkness established, one cannot fail to come to the conclusion that there are places on earth more bearable than these underground cells in the Brisbane Gaol. The darkness can almost be felt; the stillness is awful, and there grows on one the reeling of utter gloominess and desolation. To a hard-headed man who could stretch down and go to sleep, a few hours in one of these cells would not mean much, but to a sensitive organisation might mean madness or death. This may seem incredible to those who have, never been shut up where not even the faintest colour of light can be discerned; if they are wise they will not try the experiment in a prison cell. Even when the thing is done out of curiosity the sensations, for some time after experiencing the confinement, are by no means pleasant.

Gladly do we pass from the cells and into the kitchen, where an imperturbable Chinese prisoner holds sway. Now here, thinks the political economist, is a chance of exposing an official shortcoming - Chinese labour allowed to usurp the poor white man even within the prison walls. Well, perhaps our civilisation can boast a few who would be more eligible for the post than the Chinaman; some of those smart lads who make our street corners lively with oaths and our pavement slippery with exuded saliva for instance. The kitchen is spacious, clean, and the Chinese cook and his European helps looked as though their occupation agreed with them. In another yard we saw another Chinaman, a fat old fellow, whose once raven hair bears the silver sheen of many summers. If his sentence is served through it is quite probable that he will have little hair, silver though it be, to weave into a pigtail and trot gaily back to the Flowery Land.

Vegetable patch to the side of the Male Prison, Boggo Road, c.1915. (BRGHS)

Outside the walls work is going on in all directions; Mr Bernard has certainly not wasted the labour at his disposal, for the hungry ridge on which the gaol stands has been trenched, good soil deposited on it; fruit trees are blossoming, the chaste pink of the peach begins to burst out from the branches, and vegetables are springing up in rows made with mathematical precision. By-and-by the place will look pleasant outside, and the buildings will not be such an eyesore to the people who live in the neighbour- hood. Inside the gaol one cannot help remarking from the general appearances that though prisoners may be made to feel that they are suffering punishment, there is not that cruel severity exercised which hardens even the least criminal of them and breaks down the constitutions of all.'

05 September 2015

A History of Queensland Bunyips (Part One): The 19th Century

‘The bunyip, though its fame has spread over all Australia, and though nearly every large reedy swamp boasts of one, has never been captured; and it is regarded by most people very much in the same light as the unicorn is viewed - as a myth.’ (Warwick Argus, 14 January 1893)
By the time the country beyond the Moreton Bay region was opened to non-Indigenous ‘settlement’ in 1842, the ‘bunyip’ of Aboriginal lore was firmly established in the consciousness of non-Indigenous Australia. These mysterious water creatures had many names across Aboriginal Australia, including Mochel-mochel (Condamine River, Queensland), Moolgewanke (Lake Alexandria, S Australia), Kuddimudra (Diamantina River, S Australia), Kadimakara (Lake Eyre, S Australia), Banib (Lake Albacuytya, Victoria), Tunatpan (Port Phillip Bay, Victoria), Kajanpratic, Tumbata, Toor-roo-dun (Victoria), and Kianpratty (New South Wales). The white arrivals generally referred to them all simply as 'bunyip'.

Early Non-Indigenous Reports of Bunyips

European interest in the bunyip had been kindled - but then largely doused - by a series of fossil discoveries during the early-19th-century. A reference to the creature was included in a pamphlet published in 1812 by James Ives, who spelled it 'Bahnuip' and referred to a 'black, seal-like creature that has a terrifying voice'. Large bones found at Lake Bathurst in New South Wales in 1818 were described as being much like a hippopotamus or a dugong, but the discoverer never returned to the find site. It has been suggested that the bones were similar to those of a Diprotodon. A significant discovery was made in 1830 of very large fossilised bones in the Wellington Caves, New South Wales. These were later identified as megafauna Nototherium and Diprotodon.

A bunyip as depicted by Aboriginal man in 1848.
A bunyip as depicted by an Aboriginal man in the 1840s.

One of the first recorded mentions of a ‘bunyip’ came in an 1845 Geelong Advertiser article titled ‘Wonderful Discovery of a new Animal’. This was a story about fossils found near Geelong. A local Aboriginal man was shown one of the bones and reportedly claimed it belonged to ‘the bunyip’, which he then drew. He also related a story of an Aboriginal woman killed by a bunyip, and a man named Mumbowran ‘who showed several deep wounds on his breast made by the claws of the animal’. This description was provided by the reporter:
‘The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but the blacks say its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height.’ (Geelong Advertiser, 2 July 1845)
There was an outburst of ‘bunyip-mania’ in 1846-47 after a squatter found a strange skull by the Murrumbidgee River, New South Wales. He showed it to local Aboriginal people who reportedly told him it was a ‘bunyip’. A number of experts studied the skull and by 1847 it had been identified as the deformed foetal skull of a foal or calf. Despite this, the skull was displayed to large numbers of enthusiastic visitors for two days in the Australian Museum in Sydney, prompting many of them to claim their own ‘bunyip sightings’.

The skull found at Murrumbidgee, NSW, in 1846. (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1847)
The skull found at Murrumbidgee, NSW, in 1846. (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 February 1847)

Most Europeans did not seem to take the bunyip stories too seriously, but this was - to them - a new continent and the possibilities for discovering exotic new fauna were very real. In that sense, the term ‘bunyip’ seems to have been used in much the same way as ‘Unidentified Flying Object’ was in the 20th century. The term UFO technically refers to something that has not yet been identified but probably has a rational explanation, but it also carries cultural connotations of extra-terrestrial origins. Likewise, the European use of ‘bunyip’ merely signified an unidentified aquatic animal, while also conjuring up popular notions of a fantastical and almost supernatural creature. 

Nevertheless, newspaper accounts of bunyip sightings were imbued with a strong sense of scepticism that often bordered on outright mockery. This was clearly demonstrated in 1853 after wealthy members of the New South Wales government attempted to create an Australian aristocracy with themselves. This idea was famously derided by politician and democracy advocate Daniel Deniehy as a ‘bunyip aristocracy’. The message was clear; much like the bunyip, the proposed aristocracy was a colonial fake.

A Colonial Queensland Bunyip Chronology

Waterhole at Bromelton, near Beaudesert.
Waterhole at Bromelton, near Beaudesert.

The first recorded European account of an alleged bunyip in what would become Queensland came in 1850, when a woman walking near a waterhole on the Bromelton property near the Logan River claimed to have witnessed a huge horned creature with eel-like features and a platypus-like bill. She estimated that the visible portion above the water was about 10 metres in length. She left and returned with two witnesses but they only saw the tail for a short while before it disappeared below water. She did, however, provide the most detailed and fantastical description of any ‘bunyip’ sighting in Queensland history. A fuller account of this incident can be read here.

Many other reports of bunyips appeared in Queensland newspapers over the following century, and most were unconvincing to say the least. What is noticeable about these accounts is the geographically sporadic nature of the data. Not one single location seemed to sustain a consistent record of bunyip sightings. The usual pattern was that somebody would claim to have seen ‘something’ in a particular river or waterhole, and then that alleged bunyip would never be heard of again. While this might tally with the Aboriginal concept of a supernatural being, the scattered nature of the sightings combined with the complete lack of a physical record nullify the notion of the bunyip as an undiscovered animal.

In 1868, a letter signed ‘Alex Warder, Boom Boombah’ appeared in the Brisbane Courier, telling of the bunyip tales that station workers shared with each other. He claimed that men acquainted with the Logan, Upper Mary, Fitzroy, Condamine, Laidley and other rivers all had stories to tell, and that:
‘There being so little variation regarding the bunyip in the accounts of these men, is it not reasonable to suppose that there is truth after all in what not a few only scoff and jeer at? The blacks to a man believe in the bunyip, and look horrified when it is mentioned.’ (Brisbane Courier, 12 December 1868)
In 1873 Alderman Eastaughffe of Dalby claimed that while he was out shooting ducks near a creek there, he saw what he described as a ‘huge monster, with a head like a seal and a tail consisting of two fins, a large and a smaller one.’ No further details, such as an estimated size, were recorded.

It seems to have been a commonly accepted theme among non-Indigenous writers that Aboriginal people were terrified of bunyips. An 1876 newspaper series titled ‘A Strange Exploring Trip’ mentioned this scene near the Barcoo in central west Queensland:
‘You would have been astonished if you had heard all the noises on a big waterhole like that early in the night. Such groans, harks, cackles, whistles, gobbles, and noises as never seemed to come from beast or bird. The fact is that a waterhole like that brings them all together, and in the cool of the night they have a grand corroboree. The blacks won't go to the water at night, not of the big holes, as they say the bunyip lives there. I can't say whether he does or not, as I never saw one, but he couldn't make a more terrible noise than what was going on already.’ (The Queenslander, 22 April 1876)
A stockman and two South Sea Islander labourers witnessed a strange creature while fishing in a waterhole on Gigoomgan station near Tiaro in 1877. They turned and ran, but from their descriptions it sounded like a 4-metre crocodile. It was never seen again, but a few weeks later a reporter from the Darling Downs Gazette investigated the place and:
‘An extraordinary animal was seen. It had four legs, a head, a long tail, and two humps on its back. These are undoubted facts. Now for the theory which accounts for them. The bloated carcase of a kangaroo was floating in mid-water and on the protruding surface were seated two fresh water tortoises, engaged in the congenial operation of sucking the putrid flesh. Disturbed by the human intruders, the reptilians slipped into the water, and their 'floating island' turned over, displaying its legs, and appeared to the affrighted spectators to perform a somersault and a plunge simultaneously.’ (Maryborough Chronicle, 20 March 1877)
Sketches of Australian Scenes, 1852-1853, JG Sawkins - Gigoomgan (Messers Hays)  State Library of NSW.
Sketches of Australian Scenes, 1852-53, JG Sawkins - Gigoomgan (Messers Hays), State Library of NSW.

An article in the Queensland Figaro in 1888 referred to a bunyip sighting, although the description seems to be very much of a land animal. The name of the witness was not provided, nor a specific location apart from it being somewhere in the vicinity of the Mary River. It is doubtful that much credence can be placed on this report.
‘He saw the animal, lying asleep in the hollow end of a log. It was stretched along on its stomach, its chin resting on its paws, similar to a dog; it was, without doubt, as large as a tiger, its limbs, apparently, quite as strong, the forelegs being as thick as a man's arm, and the chest wide and seemingly very powerful. The head was nearly round, nose short - not unlike a cat's - ears short and pointed, and the mouth, which was firmly closed, was clean and beautifully formed, having no loose skin hanging from the jaws. A large brush of hair stood out from either side of the upper lip, and the eyes tightly closed, apparently, quite round. The body was clean built and very neat; the hind quarters were not so plainly visible; in fact, it could not be seen whether the animal possessed a tail - at any rate he had got it curled round by his side, as is customary with dogs, cats, &c. But the most remarkable feature in connection with the creature was its beautiful color, a deep-brown, thickly studded over with jet black spots about the size of a shilling, the hair, which was quite short, having a nice glossy appearance.’ (Queensland Figaro, 7 July 1888)
More reputable information was provided in 1891 when Dr Joseph Lauterer presented a talk about he called the Yerongpan languages of Brisbane and Ipswich to the Royal Society of Queensland. He claimed that:
‘The Yerongpan natives believe in a kind of bugbear, who kills and eats the blackfellows. They do not call it bunyip (which is an imported name) but worridziam.’ (Brisbane Courier, 16 March 1891)
This is the only reference to the word ‘worridziam’ that I have so far found.

Lake Elphinstone, about 100 km west of Mackay, was the scene of the kind of elaborate bunyip hoax that was perpetrated decades later at Lowood. A large number of police and civilians set out to investigate the lagoon after hearing new tales of a strange monster from local Aboriginal people. They claimed that a ‘huge, hairy, horned monster had risen from the lake near their camp, his eyes shone like globes of fire, and lit up the shores of the lake’.

The investigators set up an overnight camp on the banks of Lake Elphinstone:
‘At midnight the monster appeared gliding from the centre of the lake towards the shore. A thrill of horror ran through the crowd. Shot after shot was fired, but still the monster steadily advanced. They could discern his great thick horns and shaggy head, while his eyes glared as the blacks had described. A whole volley was now fired, and replied to by a peal of demoniacal laughter from the monster, who still advanced. Every man skedaddled for his life, save one Jack Fortescue, the biggest dare-devil in the north, who, without a moment's thought, threw himself on the enraged bunyip in a struggle for life or death. Jack had recognised the cackling laugh of his mate, Jim Playford, the most inveterate joker in Nebo, and penetrated the hoax. Jim had mounted the hide and bend of an old scrub.bull, carefully stuffed with straw, on the bows of a small bark canoe. Swimming behind, he pushed the canoe along in front of him, with the mock bunyip for a figurehead. The eyes of the monster were two skilfully placed bullseye lamps, highly burnished with Kangaroo Brand Alumina Polish. The little boys of Nebo now call out to the custodian of the peace, "Who shot the bunyip ?" and Bobby hangs his head and looks tired.’ (The Telegraph, 19 March 1892)
Lake Elphinstone, Queensland.
Lake Elphinstone, Queensland.

During that same year, the fishermen on the Condamine River became very wary of a spot in the river about 20 km from the town of Warwick. Several lost their lines there to an animal that was reported to ‘resemble, in appearance, a bunyip’. No further description was provided.
‘It does not roam about much, but confines itself to one very deep hole in the river. Some people here believe it to be a fresh water seal. A very strange feature is that where it habitates no fish of any description are to be found. Several people of late have tried to "sneak" on it from behind trees, while basking in the sun, but can never succeed.’ (Warwick Examiner and Times, 6 February 1892)
In a rare example of bunyip reports coming from the same region within a short time frame, fisherman on the Condamine claimed to have seen a bunyip near Darkey Flats (now known as Pratten), northwest of Warwick. They described it as being;
‘About as large as a medium-sized dog, skin covered with fur the color and appearance of that of a platypus, legs short, head shaped like a pig's, and the ears pricked and inclining forward.’ (Warwick Argus, 14 January 1893)
The reporter added that ‘…people (unscientific) are apt to class the bunyip with those visionary snakes so often seen by those that love the bottle not wisely but too well…’ It was a comment that well summed up attitudes to the bunyip at the end of the 19th century, but there would be plenty more sightings in Queensland during the decades to come...

01 September 2015

The Bromelton Bunyip of Beaudesert

The idea of the ‘bunyip’ as a mysterious and possibly mythical water creature was well established in non-Indigenous Australian lore by the time the Moreton Bay Penal Settlement closed in 1842. For several decades there had been sporadic accounts of strange unidentified freshwater animals across the country, which were first named in print as ‘bunyips’ in the Geelong Advertiser in 1845. Not long afterwards, the new arrivals moving into the unfamiliar Aboriginal lands surrounding Brisbane provided the first local non-Indigenous reports of ‘bunyip’ sightings.

The first recorded sighting of a bunyip in Queensland took place in 1850, on the 'Bromelton' property of Thomas Murray-Prior, by the Logan River near Beaudesert. This was the first run to be taken up anywhere on the Logan River. The Aboriginal name for this place was Bungropin, reportedly meaning ‘the place of parrots’, after the great flocks of parrots that used to frequent the area.

One of the dominant features of this property was a large and deep lagoon, which according to Aboriginal legend was dug by a platypus escaping from a dingo. The lagoon is about 1.5 km in circumference and up 30 metres deep. Local Aboriginal people believed that a tunnel connected this waterhole to a smaller lagoon called Ilbogan.

Bromelton House, 1872 (John Oxley Library)

There was a report in the Moreton Bay Courier in 1850 about a sighting of a strange creature on the Bromelton property. A woman staying at the house (possibly a sister of Murray-Prior's wife Matilda Harpur) claimed to have seen a ‘living animal of extraordinary shape and dimensions’ while she was walking near a large lagoon there. She provided this vivid description:
‘The head appeared to be elongated and flattened, like the bill of a platypus. The body, from the place where it joined the head, to about five feet backward, seemed like that of a gigantic eel, being of about the ordinary thickness of a man's body. Beyond this it was of much larger apparent size, having the appearance of being coiled into innumerable folds. Beyond those coils was what seemed to be the tail of the animal, which had somewhat the shape of the tail of a fish, but is described as having the semi-transparent appearance of a bladder. The head, which was small and narrow in proportion to the size of the body, was furnished with what seemed to be two horns, which were quite white. Under the circumstances it was, of course, difficult to judge accurately of the whole length of the animal, but, by comparison with other objects, it is supposed that the parts visible above the water must have been thirty feet in extent.’ (Moreton Bay Courier, 9 February 1850)
The lagoon at Bromelton.

She quickly left the scene before returning with two other women, but all that was visible of the creature (for a short time before it disappeared underwater) was a tail.

The Moreton Bay Courier article continued:
‘… it appears that this lagoon has long enjoyed the reputation of being the home of a monster answering the above imperfect description, and which is stated to have been seen more than once by men on the station. It is certain that the aboriginal natives will not bathe in the lagoon, and that they have evinced much fear of something that they believe to be an inhabitant of its waters… There is… ‘ample space and verge enough’ for more than one of these huge denizens of the still waters to live in retirement. Whatever may be the natural character and attributes of this extraordinary animal, we have some hopes of their being shortly made known, for we are informed that a regular crusade is being organized against it, and every preparation made to secure it, if possible, dead or alive. We shall not fail to lay before our readers any further particulars that may be gathered upon this interesting subject.’
This last paragraph demonstrates one of the key aspects of colonial attitudes to the bunyip. While the creature was attributed with supernatural qualities within Aboriginal cultures, many Europeans viewed it as yet-to-be-identified fauna. To the new arrivals, this was still a new landscape filled with exotic fauna and untold zoological possibilities. Several decades were to pass before white Australia relegated the bunyip to the status of mere folklore.

Rosa-Campbell Praed, c.1878. (JOL)

In fact, one of the authors responsible for popularising the bunyip within folklore was the novelist Rosa Campbell Praed. Thomas Murray-Prior was her father, Bromelton had been her childhood home, and it was her aunt who had reportedly witnessed the bunyip back in 1850. No doubt influenced by these connections, Rosa wrote a short story titled ‘The Bunyip’ in 1891 (it can be read here).

It would seem that despite the extraordinary description given of the creature in 1850, it was never seen again - certainly not by any westerner, anyway. It is difficult to know what to make of this report. Most bunyip sightings of the following century seemed to be the result of people misidentifying seals, eels, crocodiles and even ducks, and while the most likely suspect in the 1850 account would be a giant eel, the overall description is still quite fantastic. Could the witness have been influenced by the subtropical summer heat? Whatever it was, the Bromelton Bunyip entered into local legend and almost 80 years later an article about a nearby racecourse carried this reminder:
‘Many years ago this lagoon provided excellent sport for the enthusiastic fisher map, mullet and perch in plenty being readily obtainable. Although its submerged snags were well known, it was, nevertheless, an extremely popular bathing place. This fact recalls an incident when a huge serpent-like water monster was alleged to have been seen, by a party of bathers, whose statement was, at a later period, corroborated by a party of aboriginals who were in the habit of camping at the lagoon, and who claimed to have seen this monster sporting about in the water. The blacks described it as a "big fella bunyip," or "debil debil," and thereafter it was familiarly known as the Ilbogan bunyip. Firm in their belief that the lagoon was haunted, the aboriginals were loathe to approach its precincts for a considerable period there-after; in fact, the alleged presence of the monster had the effect of dampening the ardour of all who were in the habit of enjoying a customary week-end dip.’ (Brisbane Courier, 11 May 1927)
Another view of the lagoon at Bromelton.