When the First World War broke out in 1914, Townsville’s harbourmaster, Captain Romer, who was of German origin, found himself labelled an “enemy alien”, and he was removed from his position lest he become a security risk to the nation.
|Captain Walter Christian Romer.|
Photo: Townsville City Libraries.
Captain Walter Christian Romer joined the Marine Department at Townsville in 1882 as a boatman. He was later made coxswain, master of the government schooner and assistant pilot, then pilot, acting harbourmaster, and eventually harbourmaster and pilot.
In those early days, the city’s principal wharves were all in Ross Creek: Clifton and Aplin’s wharf at the rear of Howard Smith’s, Burns Philp and Co.’s wharf, Rooney’s wharf, and wharves at the rear of the railway station. Cargo from steam ships had to be brought in to the wharves by the lighters Emu, Sampson, Electric Light and Star of Hope.
Ship docked at Clifton & Aplin Bros. wharf, Ross Creek, circa 1875.
Photo: State Library of Queensland.
After the outbreak of World War I, even though Captain Romer had been living in Townsville for more than 30 years, he was classified as an “enemy alien”, and removed from the position of harbourmaster.
Considering he was in charge of three light and signal stations, Captain Romer’s removal was probably a matter of routine. His replacement - Captain Rhodes, from Cairns - later enlisted for war service, but when he returned to Townsville after the war, was transferred to Rockhampton to make way for Captain Romer’s reinstatement.
A vocal minority felt that Captain Rhodes’ status as a returned serviceman should override Captain Romer’s right to resume his position as harbourmaster and this caused a good deal of controversy.
Appeals were made to the Queensland Governor from the Returned Sailors and Soldiers’ Imperial League, the Queensland Naval Association, the Waterside Workers Federation, and the Townsville Chamber of Commerce.
The latter were “emphatically protesting against the removal of Captain Rhodes from Townsville to make way for an appointee of enemy birth,” believing “his war service should protect him in his senior position.”
Since there had never been any suspicion of disloyalty on the part of Captain Romer, and considering his long years of service to the government, the Queensland Treasurer noted in parliamentary proceedings that:
“It would be regrettable to pursue a vendetta against a man such as Captain Romer, even though he happened to have been born in an enemy country.”
“Captain Romer had two sons who served honourably at the (western) front,” he said.
Captain Romer doesn’t appear to have held a grudge about his treatment during the war years and when he retired at age 65, in 1923, he left on good terms, with the praise and good wishes of his colleagues ringing in his ears.
At a presentation for Captain Romer, Mr McDonald, the Marine Department’s engineer surveyor, noted that the Department would find it difficult to replace Captain Romer, considering his experience and abilities.
“To carry out the duties, a man had to have a good deal of local knowledge, had to handle deep draught ships, and in case of distress, as in the case of the Bombala, had to go out and bring people in with small vessels,” Mr McDonald said.
(The Bombala ran aground on Salamander Reef in December 1919 and 171 passengers had to be transferred back to Townsville.)