Tuesday, 9 August 2022

Normanton - a Pilgrimage

Established in the late 1860s, Normanton, on the Norman River in the Shire of Carpentaria, is like a town suspended in time. Its boom years were tied to the discovery of gold on the Croydon goldfields, beginning in 1885. My great-grandmother, Emily, was born in Normanton in 1892, and her mother, Minnie, (along with Minnie's siblings Louisa and William) had been among the first prospective students at the Normanton School. I wanted to visit Normanton to see the place where Emily (and her mother) had grown up.

Side view of the Railway Station at Normanton, with steel framed Carriage Shade at rear.
Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

The journey from Croydon to Normanton was an easy 151km drive, with two lanes of bitumen all the way to Normanton. We arrived late morning and stopped at a small park with a quaint-looking QCWA hall in the centre of a lovely patch of green grass. A tiny oasis in a parched landscape. Home to around 1200 people, Normanton sits on an ironstone ridge, surrounded by savannah grasslands and tidal saltpans. Though dry and dusty at the time of year we visited (September), during the wet season, the landscape around Normanton morphs into a spectacular wetland, teeming with wildlife.

The landscape around Normanton. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

My first impression of Normanton was that it seemed to have a sort of forgotten feel about it - as though it's somehow still suspended in the middle of last century. The wide streets were mostly empty of people, but perhaps the locals have more sense than to be out sightseeing in the middle of the day? Highlights, in terms of heritage buildings, include the former Bank of New South Wales, the iconic Purple Pub (formerly known as the National Hotel), the Carpentaria Shire Building, the old Burns Philp Building, and the Railway Station complex.

Former Bank of New South Wales, Normanton. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

The Purple Pub - originally the National Hotel, Normanton. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Carpentaria Shire Building, Normanton. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Information Centre - originally Burns Philp and Co. Ltd. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Situated on the corner of Landsborough and Caroline Streets, the large, timber-framed and metal-clad Burns Philp & Co. building, built in 1884, is a dominant feature of the town, being visible from the air when flying into Normanton. It is a rare surviving example, and the oldest of the company's nineteenth century structures in Queensland which included those in Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns, Bowen, Charters Towers, Burketown, Cooktown and Thursday Island. It operated continuously as a general mercantile store and agency office for more than 120 years. It now houses an information centre and library.

Side view of the old Burns Philp Building, on the corner of Landsborough and Caroline Streets, Normanton. Caroline Street was named for Caroline Landsborough, wife of explorer and Police Magistrate William Landsborough. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Soon we were thinking about lunch, and we settled on the Albion Hotel. We sat outside under a covered verandah to have our lunch, and although it was a hot day this was pretty comfortable. The food was basic pub fare and the drinks were icy cold - so all up, we were happy.

Albion Hotel, Normanton, 2021. Photo: Trisha Fielding.

Albion Hotel, Normanton, 1953. Photo: State Library of Queensland.
I asked for (and received) permission from the bar staff to take some photographs of the painted tiles that decorated the top of one wall, close to the ceiling. These tiles (some are pictured below) once adorned the counter-top of the bar, and were illustrated by Percy Trezisean artist, conservationist, rock art specialist, Aboriginal rights activist, author, bushman, pilot and storyteller.

Illustrations by Percy Trezise, Albion Hotel, Normanton. Photos: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Normanton is the terminus for the Normanton to Croydon railway line, and the town's historic Railway Station complex is an absolute must-see. Construction on the Normanton to Croydon line began in 1881, under the supervision of a surveyor named George Phillips. The country around Normanton is sparsely timbered and prone to flooding, so Phillips designed and patented a system which utilised special U-shaped steel sleepers laid directly on the ground. During floods the line could be submerged without washing out the ballast and embankments normally used, so that it could quickly be put back into service when the waters subsided. The steel sleepers were also impervious to termite attack. The line reached Croydon in 1891. Phillips's steel sleepers remain in use to this day.

Carriage Shade, Normanton Railway Station. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Normanton Railway Station. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Built around 1889, the Station building and Carriage Shade were designed by James Gartside, a draftsman for the Railways Department, and built under Phillips's supervision. At its peak the station building contained a telegraph office, station master and traffic managers offices, clerk's room, parcels and cloak room, booking office, and a ladies room. The curved Carriage Shade sheltered the platform and three tracks.

Normanton Railway Station. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

The rail-motor known as The Gulflander now runs weekly between Normanton and Croydon.
Photo: Tourist Information Board, Normanton.

I loved experiencing the place where my great-grandmother grew up.  Now I can really appreciate (and better understand) why (when she was very old, frail and blind; and staying at my grandparents' house in the 1980s) she kept asking whether we had packed enough water for our trip? This was just a trip in our car to our house - a few suburbs away - but she was concerned we might not have enough water for the journey. A child at the time, I thought it was a funny thing for her to say - but I truly get it now. She was remembering back to her days in Normanton. You wouldn't last long up this way if you set out without water. Not then. And not now, either.

Oh... and one last thing... the sunsets in Normanton are spectacular!

Sunset, Normanton. Photo: Trisha Fielding 2021.

Be sure to check out my other blog post: Watching the last light in Normanton.

Friday, 28 January 2022

Croydon — historic gold-mining town

Population-wise, the town of Croydon, in north-western Queensland, is a shadow of its former, bustling self. Though it's now home to only a few hundred people, back in 1887, the town's population was 7000. (At its peak, around 1890, Croydon was Queensland's fourth-largest town). The rush to the Croydon goldfield began in late 1885, and thousands flocked there from far and wide seeking to make their fortunes in gold. More than 130 years later, it is the town's historic buildings and mining relics that attract most visitors to Croydon. I'll admit, Croydon had been on my "must visit one day" list for many years, and in 2021, I finally got to explore this fabulous little old gold town. It did not disappoint.

Replica mine headframe outside the True Blue Visitor Information Centre, Croydon.
This centre is home to informative, museum-like displays, as well as outdoor artefacts. It's perhaps the best "information centre" of its kind, outside of the large, regional north Queensland centres.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.
We arrived in Croydon on a Sunday, around the middle of the day. Our first stop was lunch at the pub  the Club Hotel. This hotel was built around 1887 and is now the only pub (of the 36 that were operating in that era) that remains in Croydon. It's a charming old hotel that offers food, drinks and accommodation. We ordered some lunch and sat near an open window to eat and enjoy a cold drink.
The Club Hotel, Croydon, NQ.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

The view diagonally across from the pub was of the former Male Ward of the old Croydon Hospital. This building, originally built in 1894, was relocated here from its original location in the 1980s. It's now called Matron Morrow Hall and is used by the community for various purposes. 

Former Male Ward of the Croydon Hospital, now known as Matron Morrow Hall.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.
There are lots of relics to see in Croydon, that evoke the town's mining heydays, particularly the old machinery you can see on display.  The gold on the Croydon goldfield was not alluvial, so you couldn't scratch around near the surface and find gold, like other North Queensland goldfields. The gold was in "reefs", so it had to be mined underground. That's why so much old hefty-looking mining equipment is laying around here. Some of it is in the (open) grounds of the Croydon Shire Council, or at the True Blue Visitor Information Centre (essentially a small museum); but there's also the site of the Iguana Consuls Mine, just a few minutes drive out of town. Most of what you'll see in town has been brought in from old mine sites, so none of it is in situ, which does take something away from the interpretive value of these relics. There is some signage on the displays outside the Visitor Information Centre, which does provide some context, but the machinery in the Council grounds has no signage at all, unfortunately. The exception to this is the heritage-listed Iguana Consuls Mine site, which has mining relics still in situ. This mine is the site of the last deep prospecting shaft sunk on this goldfield  in 1915.
A Langlands ore-crushing battery, (a ten-head 'stamper'), in the grounds of the Croydon Shire Council.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Two Langlands boilers, in the grounds of the Croydon Shire Council. These were originally located on the nearby Esmerelda goldfield.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Machinery on display outside the True Blue Visitor Information Centre, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Stuart & McKenzie's Union Foundry, established in Croydon in 1891, manufactured machinery for the field.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021. 

The buildings in the town's heritage precinct are all free for the visitor to wander through. Several have very informative displays inside and its worth allowing a couple of hours to have a proper look through them all. The former Town Hall, built around 1890, is a highlight of the streetscape  with its statement tower adorned with a delicate cast iron balustrade. Built of timber and corrugated iron, the building is now used as a movie theatre and dance hall. The stone-pitched gutters on the footpath and the period street lamps add to the authentic feel of this beautifully preserved building. 

Former Croydon Town Hall, Samwell Street, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Former Croydon Court House (c. 1887), Samwell Street, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Side view of former Croydon Police Station (c. 1896), Samwell Street, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Front verandah, former Police Sergeant's Residence (c. 1897), Samwell Street, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

A fascinating site to visit is the Croydon Chinese Temple and Settlement archaeological dig site, on the fringe of the town. There’s a circular track around the cordoned-off site, with interpretive panels on small posts and each of these elaborates on the life of a Chinese person who lived in Croydon in the gold rush days. According to the Queensland Heritage Register:
Chinese settlers moved into the area soon after gold was found. It has been suggested that their involvement was primarily ... as gardeners, cooks, and carriers. No Chinese held claims at Croydon, although some worked on tribute for other miners. The majority however, worked as market gardeners on 172 acres surveyed in the town plan as garden areas. The Chinese were the chief providers of fresh fruit and vegetables on the goldfields usually growing fruit such as custard apples, mandarins, watermelons and lemons.

... the size and form of the temple was far more substantial than would be expected in an itinerant community. The floor plan shows that the temple was slightly larger than the Atherton temple where the regional Chinese population exceeded 1000. According to a 1986 analysis of the Australian Chinese population after 1881, Sydney, with 3,500 and Melbourne, with 2,400 were the two key centres of population. Research showed that the total Chinese population in all other colonial capitals did not exceed 500 in each place. So Croydon, with an average of 300 people, probably had one of the largest Chinese populations in regional Australia. 

Most interestingly, according to historian Dr Jan Wegner, there were also Chinese hard rock miners who invested in mines on the Croydon field. So the Chinese settlers here weren't only market gardeners, storekeepers or cooks.  

The remnants of six sandstone bases on the site of a Chinese Temple at Croydon, dating to the 1880s.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

No visit to a town like Croydon would be complete for me without a visit to the cemetery. The day we visited was a warm one, around 32 degrees celsius, with very low humidity (18%) that made your eyes sting a bit. We waited until late afternoon, to avoid the worst of the heat. 

Croydon Cemetery.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

The grass was so crispy and dry here that it made a loud crunching noise under my shoes. No one else was around. We wandered about, looking at the headstones  calling to each other’s attention a particularly interesting headstone or inscription, when each of us found one. It was a quiet, but moving experience. Just us and some raucous cicadas. And the silent presence of the people buried here, who once had such high hopes for their futures — hopes of gold and prosperity. But so many were cut down in their prime. Illness or accident prevailed as causes of death here, more so than old age. I got the sense that not too many grew old here, back then. 

Chinese headstone, Croydon Cemetery.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.
Headstone, Croydon Cemetery.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Apart from all the history and heritage attractions in Croydon, there's also a great lookout from which to take in the spectacular sunsets up this way. And a beautiful man-made lake — Lake Belmore, which is less than 4km from town. Built in 1995, Lake Belmore provides Croydon with its town water supply. You can fish and swim here (though I probably wouldn't, given the prominent sign warning of freshwater crocodiles!) and there's also a picnic ground here, complete with well maintained BBQs, under large, covered shelters. We thoroughly enjoyed a beautiful BBQ picnic here one evening, right beside the lake. It was a tranquil spot. And the progression of glorious colours — of powder blue and burnt orange and blood red — as the sun had set and reflected off the lake, was a glorious sight to behold.  

Croydon, as seen from Diehm's Lookout. Kapok tree in foreground.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Sunset over Lake Belmore, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

There's something special here for the train buffs too! Croydon is the end of the line for the Normanton to Croydon rail line. This line, built between 1888 and 1891, is a stand-alone rail line  it only ever ran between Croydon and Normanton (from "nowhere to nowhere"). The iconic 'Gulflander' railmotor arrives in Croydon once a week between February and December, weather permitting. But more on this in my next blog  on the port town of Normanton. 

The end of line, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021. 

Oh, and incidentally, the meals at the Club Hotel were excellent. It's just the usual pub food, but it's as close as you'll get to a home-cooked meal when you're a long way from home. I can recommend the lamb chops with vegetables and gravy. Out the back in the "beer garden" is the best spot to enjoy your dinner!

Out the back of the Club Hotel, Croydon.
Photo: Trisha Fielding, 2021.

Sources and further reading: