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.