Melba’s last northern stop: Toowoomba

Melba was at Toowoomba twice on her tour. The first time it was a case of a short stop before continuing on to Brisbane. The train trip to and from T’wmba as the locals and media call it, is breathtaking as it travels along the Lockyer Valley and then up the escarpment to town. A long slow journey up and a lot quicker going down to the coast.

Today, the Lockyer Valley is a large food bowl for Queensland which boasts great panoramic views.

We stopped at the showgrounds and were lucky to be right next to the dam which boasted a gaggle of ducks and lots of other feathered friends.

I had arranged to meet Jane at Toowoomba Library’s local history section and Margaret at the Toowoomba Historical Society were a great help. Both provided me with information and most importantly images.

The historical society operates out of the home of the former curator of the Queens Park Gardens so has one of the best outlooks of societies we visited.

At the library’s Special Collections, Michaela was a great help and nothing was too much trouble for her.  The first morning I spent there was going through their Toowoomba Chronicle on microfilm and the second morning checking through their many resources and images.

The grandiose Toowoomba Town Hall built in Ruthven Street in 189
The grandiose Toowoomba Town Hall built in Ruthven Street in 1899 and opened in 1900.

Wandering around the town centre, T’wmba blends the old with the new. Its magnificent town hall where Melba’s concert was staged, has been beautifully restored while in the same block massive retail and commercial developments are underway.

Like Melba we toured around T’wmba and went to Picnic Point on the edge of the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range and as 100 years ago could see many miles across the country towards the coast and northwards.

Views across the Great Dividing Range from Picnic Point, Toowoom
Views across the Great Dividing Range from Picnic Point, Toowoomba 2016.

After her concert at Toowoomba Melba could breathe a sigh of relief as her Queensland tour was finished as were her northern NSW and western NSW tours.

Ahead was Sydney, a rest, a couple of concerts and then the southern NSW tour back home to Victoria.

For us this is our final Blog on our New South Wales and Queensland Back Blocks Tour.


Marybough captivated Melba

The Maryborough Wide Bay & Burnett Historical Society calls the Maryborough School of Arts Home. The imposing two-storey building is opposite the just as impressive Maryborough Town Hall in Kent Street.

Although I just walked in off the street so to speak as I couldn’t find an email address on their website Ian and Ken were a great help. After explaining what I wanted he said he would ring me later and sure enough a couple of hours later he had assembled some wonderful images for me on the Maryborough of Melba’s time.

Ironically, the second School of the Arts was built in 1887 and opened the following year. The architectural competition was launched and the winning design was by J.G. Grainger of Melbourne. He was the father of Percy Grainger and who later in 1909 designed and built the additions to Melba’s home which became Coombe Cottage at Coldstream. This was one of his last projects. Did the people of Maryborough tell Melba about the School of the Arts as she arrived for the concert? I think so seeing he was from Melbourne and his son was now a famous pianist.

The building is brick rendered in the Classic Revival Style. The main façade includes Corinthian pilasters as first floor lever, additional circular windows, and a central arched entrance with a keystone featuring the Roman Goddess Minerva.

I was fortunate the town hall was opened and I was allowed in to photograph its magnificent interior and stand on the stage Melba would have sang from. It’s easy to visualize the audience, dressed in their best clothing listening and enjoying the concert.

Interior of the Maryborough Town Hall in Kent Street, 2016.
Interior of the Maryborough Town Hall in Kent Street, 2016.


The next day I spent a couple of hours in the Maryborough Library and several hours at the Maryborough District Family History Society’s impressive former bank building. Volunteer Leanne was on duty and was able to provide me with a wealth of information about the town hall, the Royal Hotel where Melba stayed and the various dignitaries she met during her overnight stay. The depth of their resources and the way they are building their databases was a real eye-opener. I shared some of our work with her and sent her one of our training manuals.


Melba captivated by an elderly lady

After leaving the coastal vessel the Aramac at Gladstone, Melba and her concert party headed south to Bundaberg.

On the banks of the river, Bundaberg was a thriving town with beautiful beaches on the coast and productive farming and can growing on the river flats.

I had been in email contact with the Bundaberg Library and arranged an appointment when we arrived in town. I was amazed at the work Peta Browne the Information Services Librarian had done for me. She admitted it was a fascinating project and was pleased to help.

One story about an elderly lady who travelled a long distance for the concert intrigued me. She stayed in town and the mayor asked Melba to meet her. I won’t spoil the story but with the help of the Bundaberg Genealogical Association volunteers and a bit of digging and two days of hard work, we discovered she was the grandmother a later very famous Australian. I say no more at this stage.

The train from the north pulling in to Bundaberg Railway Station
The train from the north pulling in to Bundaberg Railway Station.Just like Melba did in 1909 though the engine was very different.

I also caught up with the Sue at the Bundaberg and District Historical Society while Wal had a wonderful time with Graham Hibberd at the Bundaberg Railway Historical Society who provided us with wonderful images of the railway station.

While at Bundaberg we followed the advice of the caravan park owner and booked lunch at Grunske’s by the river. It was magic – local seafood and a view over the Burnett River. Who could ask for anything more?

The Burnett River from Grunske’s by the river at Bundaberg. Au
The Burnett River from Grunske’s by the river at Bundaberg. August 2016.




Keeping the best for last

Our last Melba Back Blocks tour town in Queensland was Charters Towers, about 190kms south-west of Townsville.

If anyone is looking at a way of making money out of heritage tourism should visit CT, a former gold mining town which when the gold ran out so did the people. But now, those who remain have such a deep sense of heritage it pervades all levels and cater for all interests. There are tours, Ghosts of Gold audio, self-drive and/or guided tours run by those who have worked in the industry.

No one going to the Visitor Information Centre escapes without a selection of brochures and maps in a carry bag and suggestions as to what you should include during your stay.

I had arranged to catch up with Michael Brumby Community Historian at the Charters Towers Archives Group which is based at the Charters Towers Library later in the week so we wandered around on our own.

A parade down Gill Street, Charters Towers from Mosman street. c
A parade down Gill Street, Charters Towers from Mosman street. c 1910. (Courtesy Charters Towers Archives)

One of our first stops was at the Zara Clark Museum which is operated by a group of very dedicated volunteers. It is one of the few places I have seen the overhead cash and change system from a local shop set up and working – pull the cord and the canister with the money goes to the other end of the room. Kids found it fascinating.

However, it was when I walked around the corner to have a look in a case that my heart all but stopped – propped up against the back of the cabinet was another Melba 1909 program but tucked into the front of the frame were three tickets for the concert – all joined together and of course with consecutive seat numbers. These are the first tickets I have found in my trip in either New South Wales or Queensland. Both came from the same person and will be scanned and sent to me.

I contacted the president of the group and while she and her sister were very proud of the objects I don’t think they realized how rare they are and perhaps should be scanned and put safely away.

Are they the only Melba 1909 concert tickets in Queensland? Who knows.

Interestingly, the tickets should have been handed in to the usher so did the people attend the concert or not? Lots of questions but few answers.

I also told them about the Illuminated Address presented to Melba by the Charters Towers Australian Natives Association. This is the only address I have found in NSW and QLD. When presented with it Melba said she would always treasure it. And she did. Pamela, Lady Vestey donated it to the then Museum of Lillydale and a few years ago, the Yarra Ranges Regional Museum secured funding from the National Library for its restoration and conservation.

I met with Michael at the archive who was bowled over at the rarity of the programs and tickets and wanted to learn more about Melba and the Illuminated Address. I gave him the various links from the YRRM to look at and contact details.

It seems Charters Towers is working on a display to be staged at the Museum of Tropical Queensland at Townsville. Let’s hope they decide to feature Melba and perhaps secure a loan of the Illuminated Address which would make a very special exhibition and again ensure Melba’s contribution lives on.

The local media the Northern Miner which has operated in the town since 1972, learned of my visit and I did an interview with the editor Trudie Brown, who unashamedly revels in the town’s history. She told me the local families know the value of their forebears’ memorabilia and who knows we may just turn up more Melba information and possible images from her tour. Fingers crossed.

The weir across the Burdekin River near Charters Towers. 2016
The weir across the Burdekin River near Charters Towers. 2016

On a different note. The finals of the QLD and NSW rodeo circuit was in town so we went along and were amazed at the skill of the cowboys and cowgirls and how they and their horses worked together in the various events. There was lots of thrills and spills and the large crowd cheered, particularly for the local cowboys and cowgirls.

Melba wows far north Queenslanders

While on board the steamer Bingera Melba and her family had the chance to reflect on her years in far north Queensland. While it was not a happy time for her, with son George at her side, the pain must have been more bearable as coastal Mackay slipped by.

At Townsville, the capital of far north Queensland, the many musical groups had rallied an arranged two concerts at His Majesty’s Theatre in Walker Street, behind the School of Arts.

Townsville, today is a big bustling town. It is a university town, an army town and air force town and a town servicing the needs of farmers, miners and the growing population.

Today is has numerous specialty arts and heritage organisations, most of whom I contacted and they helped me with a lot of information.

At James Cook University Haidi from Special Collections produced a real surprise: my first look at a Melba 1909 Queensland concert program. It was amongst many other items donated by a family to the university.  It was so exciting to finally see one after months on the trail of concerts in New South Wales and Queensland.

Front page of Melba's 1909 concert tour program for Queensland.
Front page of Melba’s 1909 concert tour program for Queensland.

I also spent a lot of time in the University’s microfilm library as JCU had a copy of the Northern Register Herald – obtained from the UK – which is not on Trove. Sadly, copies of the Townsville Bulletin for 1909 are lost. The only copies available anywhere are for January to March when I wanted July.

Marilyn, the treasurer of the Family History Association of North Queensland did a fantastic job for me as there is a group of people indexing all their books and research so she was able to turn up a lot of information on Melba in Townsville and elsewhere.

The next port of call was the citylibraries Townsville where Local Collections Librarian Annette Burns was a great help and provided me with wonderful images of people and places of the time.

The Performing Arts Museum turned up some interesting later Melba stories some just a few years ago which shows the impact she still has on the Townsville community today.

The Army Museum North Queensland and the School of Arts. At the School of Arts I was invited into the Ann Roberts Auditorium which was formerly His Majesty’s Theatre. The interior is the same as in Melba’s day and was a real thrill to stand and think about the concerts Melba staged there.

Finally, something I discovered at the Pioneer Valley Museum had been bothering me for a couple of weeks, so I spent time at the Townsville Department of Natural Resources and Mines where I discovered Melba and David Mitchell leased and then owned land at Sarina, south of Mackay. But that’s another story with lots of twists and turns. As the Dept had to get the original files from Brisbane, we spent another week at Townsville finding out more and more about Melba.

We discovered Melba is immortalized in two separate places at Townsville and most don’t seem to realise it – in a bronze plaque on the Strand and on the front pillar of the School of Arts building.

The Heritage Trails plaque on the School of Arts Townsville whic
The Heritage Trails plaque on the School of Arts Townsville which says: “hosted leading performers of the day including Dame Nellie Melba”. (September 2016)

In between we did the touristy things such as a military tour, a trip to Magnetic Island and a couple of lunches at the North Queensland Cowboys club.

Like Rockhampton Melba gave her first concert at Townsville then headed inland to Charters Towers and on her return gave her second concert. After that it was back on a coastal steamer and back to Gladstone for concerts at Bundaberg and Maryborough before returning to Brisbane.


Mount Morgan welcomed Melba

Mount Morgan east of Rockhampton turned on a royal style welcome when Melba and her concert party and friends took the train to their town.

Unlike most other concerts the party arrived in the late afternoon, did the concert and returned back to Rockhampton afterwards.

Melba would have experienced one of Mount Morgan’s most famous features – the use of an Abt rack engine to handle the train up and down the Razorback Range which had a 1:16.5 gradient. It would have been more than a little scary going down in the dark.

At the School of Arts, the party was welcomed by hundreds of people and also the local band. Thanks to the local historical society and Rhonda from the Mount Morgan Railway Museum, a descendant of the band master at that time has sent me some wonderful images for use … later.

The crowd outside who couldn’t get tickets waiting and listened to the concert.

Mount Morgan, famous for its gold mine which was established in the 1880s and worked by hundreds of people from all parts of the world.

Mount Morgan mine. 2016.
Mount Morgan mine. 2016.

The former railway station is now a wonderful museum and visitor information centre and armed with brochures we gained the history of the town from the many interpretive boards. We also took a guided tour of the mine which gave us access to the site which is closed to the public. Our guide was a “mine of information”. The Mount Morgan Historical Society houses a great local collection which tells the human story of the town.

Mount Morgan Railway Station now a museum and visitor informatio
Mount Morgan Railway Station now a museum and visitor information centre. 2016

After the bus tour it was lunch time so we headed to the Grand Hotel for a meal and drink.

Work is underway assessing the viability of re-opening the mine by processing the tailings which still hold a lot of gold. Let’s hope it happens and breathes some new life into the town which is now largely the dormitory town for Rockhampton.



Rockhampton a double success

On the recommendation of the leaders of the local community, John Lemmone committed Melba to two concerts at Rockhampton separated by a day trip to nearby Mount Morgan.

The concert party caught the train at Brisbane and made the long slow trip to Rockhampton, a distance of just over 600kms (kms) which took 18 hours. Today it is a 7½ hour trip.

The Rockhampton concerts on July 5 and 8 were a great success and the party met some people whose descendants are still leaders in the arts in Queensland.

Today, Rockhampton on the Tropic of Capricorn is the beef capital of central Queensland and blends the old with the new. Just to re-enforce the influence of beef there are lots of the bovine sculptures of various shapes and sizes scattered around the city.

Cheryl and Jane at the History Section of the Rockhampton Regional Library were a great help with information, images and contacts for further information.

The magnificent staircase of the Criterion Hotel, Rockhampton, 2
The magnificent staircase of the Criterion Hotel, Rockhampton, 2016.

One valuable contact was the Australian Country Hospital Heritage Association. Errol from that group helped me immensely and put me in touch with someone else whose ancestor was at Melba’s Mount Morgan concert.

Across the Fitzroy river I met the president of Rockhampton & District Historical Society John Fletcher who with his team of Erica and Margaret, helped me with my research. Their society was housed in the magnificent old Rockhampton Council Chambers, a wooden 1885 building on the banks of the Fitzroy River.

They have on display some rare and fascinating objects from the region.

Melba stayed at the famed Criterion Hotel and the staff were happy to let us wander around and admire the wonderful interior which has changed little since Melba’s time.

As Rockhampton was at the end of the railway line north, after the concerts, the party boarded the train and headed 108km or 67 miles south to Gladstone to catch the coastal steamer Bingera north to Townsville.

The modern Rockhampton Railway Station designed to cater for cus
The modern Rockhampton Railway Station designed to cater for customers from Cairns to Brisbane and coal trains and workers from western coal fields. 2016.



Casino is passionate about its past

Casino in the Great Divide on the Richmond River gave Melba the chance to see how a community valued its music and arts. The station was argu

ably the smallest she arrived at but the welcome from the townspeople made up for that.

Her concert at the School of Arts was across the road from the Commercial Hotel where she stayed so it was a simple walk across the road crammed with hundreds of people.

Today the School of Arts still operates and has its own lending library based in minimal membership. However, it is the third building on the same site. Not only does it still operate but it actively supports the arts of the town. The Casino Family History Group has its home in the building along with many businesses at street level.

The Casino School of Arts building at the corner of Johnston and
The Casino School of Arts building at the corner of Johnston and Walker streets, Casino.

We made contact with both the family history group and the Casino & District Historical Society.

At the family history group Barbara Hollis was a great help. Her husband is a relative of Bill Hollis of Coldstream who was a gardener at Coombe Cottage. It’s such a small world.

At the historical society, president Bob Moran made us very welcome and he and his team of volunteers produced lots of images and information.

We were privileged to be asked to attend the society’s special function and we happily agreed. The School of Arts had given the society funding to setting up the internet at the museum. The Richmond Valley Council provided the infrastructure as the society was operating in a council-owned building.

The internet was officially launched by specially worded emails being sent to the New South Wales Governor David Hurley; NSW Deputy Premier and Minister for the Arts Troy Grant and local MPs Chris Galaptis and Kevin Hogan.

After the commissioning, society president Bob Moran asked me to say a few words about my Melba Back Blocks Tour and mention the support I had received from the society.

I was only too happy to oblige and over supper spent time chatting with the Richmond Valley Council’s general manager Vaughan McDonald who is passionate about preserving the district’s history.

The commissioning of the internet at the Casino a & district His
Left to right: Vaughan McDonald, General Manager Richmond Valley Council; Sue Thompson and Casino & District Historical Society President Bob Moran.

We also enjoyed a great supper and meeting many of the society’s members.

Plans are being developed to build a purpose-built facility housing the society and its collection, the military museum and Visitor Information Centre. Let’s hope by the time we visit Casino again the building has proceeded.

I was very impressed with the work of the society with its displays and publications. It is a real credit to the town.

Melba’s lasting legacy Mackay style

Since 1882 Nellie Mitchell and the Marian/Mackay area have had a close relationship. It was the building of a sugar mill for the fledging sugar industry at Marian that bought David Mitchell and his daughter Nellie to North Queensland.

Nellie met and married Charles Armstrong and the couple moved into a newly built home at the Marian Sugar Mill where Charles had been appointed manager.

At Marian the couple’s only child George Armstrong was born on October 16, 1883 but by early 1884 Melba had had enough of the heat, rain and isolation and returned to Melbourne. She never returned to Mackay.

However, Melba continued to own the land purchased near Sarina prior to her marriage which was named Armstrong Beach in her honour. But that is another fascinating story.

When Nellie became the famous Australian opera singer in 1887 Mackay was proud of their part in her early married life and the common thread of the sugar industry.

To strengthen that link many years ago Marian Mill now part of Mackay Sugar Limited named one of their engines Melba and the other Nellie.

Melba 2  locomotive cane engine at Mackay.
“Melba 2 was the first Melba loco not sure the year it was purchased. It was 24 ton Clyde loco and its run was MT Jukes. This loco was my first loco when i started as a driver’s Assistant on during the 1970s. It’s name was changed to Melba 15.” Daniel Dutton.

Engine driver Lorraine Emery heard about my interest in the Melba and Nellie engines and asked about the engines and Daniel Dutton of Mackay Sugar Limited happily sent me a series of images which I have now put up on our society’s Flickr site.

He has personal links with the Melba locos:

“Just bit history. Melba 2 was the first Melba loco. Not sure the year it was purchased. It was 24 ton Clyde loco and its run was MT Jukes. This loco was my first loco when I started as a Driver’s Assistant during the 1970s. My driver was Syd Smith. Unfortunately the original loco went over a bridge was replaced with a new loco built by Baldwin Company using parts from the original loco. The name remained the same but changed to Melba 15. After it was transferred to Racecourse Mill, it has been refurbished again with a Mercedes Engine and Alison converter and repainted. It is now based at Racecourse.

“Nellie 12 is an 18 ton Clyde it used to work on the Mia Mia line at Marian and later was given to navy’s for ballast duties and navy work at present I think it decommissioned at north Eton Depot.”

Melba 2 crashed off the bridge across the Pioneer River in 1964.

The new Melba 15 hard at work pulling cane in Pioneer Valley Mac
The new Melba hard at work pulling cane in Pioneer Valley Mackay.

Nellie was built in 1958 and de-commissioned a year or two ago. Today she spends her retirement in the loco sheds at North Eton where eagle-eyed Wally Thompson spotted and photographed her.

Melba's partner Nellie isan 18 ton Clyde Locomotive  and is now
Melba’s partner Nellie isan 18 ton Clyde Locomotive and is now retired and living in a shed at North Eaton near Mackay. Nellie 12 used to work on the Mia Mia line at Marian and later was given to navy’s for ballast duties and navy work at present I think it decommissioned at north Eton Depot – Daniel Dutton Mackay Sugar Ltd cane train driver.

With Melba’s former home at Marian Sugar Mill, now Melba House, the home of the Pioneer Valley Visitor Centre and the Melba engine working amongst the cane the name Nellie Melba will never be forgotten.

To learn more about cane railways and engines go to:





Triumph and Recovery

After riding the train up the picturesque Tweed Valley from Murwillumbah, Melba and the concert party arrived at Lismore to a resounding welcome on July 28.

Bookings had been so great that Melba agreed to do a second concert on her return from her concerts at Casino and Grafton. This was scheduled for August 4 but was cancelled due to the whole concert party succumbing to colds and bronchitis – the dread of every singer. The doctor was kept busy attending to everyone.

The party were staying at Mrs Ryan’s Hotel which had only opened four years earlier. It was a grand hotel but sadly was demolished for an office block.

The concert was staged at the Federal Hall later the Federalette and Vanity and now The Comfort Inn Hotel in Molesworth Street. The station where Melba was greeted by the leading dignitaries of the time is closed and faces an uncertain future.

The site of the former Federal Hall, Federalette and Vanity Thea
The site of the former Federal Hall, Federalette and Vanity Theatre in Molesworth Street, Lismore. Today in, 2016 it is the site of the Comfort Inn – 203 Molesworth St, Lismore.

Today, Lismore is a busy, bustling major service centre. The Richmond River Historical Society and its museum is housed in the former Lismore Council offices and is a hive of activity. Thanks to Bridget and other researchers, I spent several hours finding images and information about Melba’s stay.