In 2019, during a visit to Birdsville, my husband and I explored the Birdsville Cemetery. It’s an iconic site. The Birdsville Cemetery is not only a sacred place but also a window into the town and district’s remarkable history. Buried deep within the hallowed ground – gently undulating sandhills – are the remains of members of the local First Nations people alongside those of the district’s early European settlers and recent residents.

2019. Birdsville Cemetery
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Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

I’m sure not too many visitors to Birdsville include the cemetery on their must-see list!

The town is better known for the Birdsville Races, a horseracing meet held in September each year, and the Big Red Bash, a music festival held annually in July. People travel from all over Australia to attend these events.

NOTE: A list of references I used in preparing this story is found at the end of the post. Specific references are numbered and noted throughout the text by brackets: [X].

About Birdsville

Birdsville is a small town and locality, population 140 at the 2016 Australian census [1]. It’s located on the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert in southwestern Queensland near the border between Queensland and South Australia. That’s a long way from the Queensland coast – approximately 1590 kilometres by road west of the state capital, Brisbane.

A settlement sprung up on the site around 1881-82. It comprised a police centre, customs station and service centre for the large pastoral runs in the district. It was originally called “Diamantina Crossing” after the nearby Diamantina River that had to be crossed to reach the settlement.  However, after surveyor F A Hartnell surveyed and laid out the township in 1885, “Birdsville” became the town’s official name. [2]

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The former Diamantina River crossing. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
c. 1926. Post Office and general store at Birdsville. QSA on Flickr.
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c. 1926. Post office and general store at Birdsville. Photo source: Queensland State Archives (on Flickr). Public domain.
c. 1926. Mob of camels in Birdsville, Queensland.
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c. 1926. Mob of camels in Birdsville, Queensland. Photo source: State Library of Queensland. Public domain.

For many decades following European settlement, Birdsville was the farthest outpost in Australia. It enjoyed no modern conveniences, not even a telegraph line, and the nearest town was 480 kilometres (300 miles) away! [3] From the 1860s, Diamantina Crossing (later Birdsville) was on one of the major stock routes from northwest Queensland through to Adelaide in South Australia.

Birdsville is situated on land traditionally owned by the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi People. A Native Title Claim determination of 3 October 2014 recognised their native title rights and interests over nearly 79,600 square kilometres (sq km) of land comprising approximately 60,600 sq km in far north and northeast South Australia (including the Simpson Desert and land under pastoral leases) and approximately 19,000 sq km in southwestern Queensland (including the Munga-Thirri National Park and the township of Birdsville).

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Entrance to Munga-Thirri National Park, west of Birdsville. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
At sunset, on the "Big Red" sand dune, Munga-Thirri National Park.
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At sunset, on the “Big Red” sand dune, Munga-Thirri National Park. Photo source: Tony Salecich 2019.

The Birdsville Cemetery: Graveyard in the sandhills

The Birdsville Cemetery is located about two kilometres from Birdsville, on the western side of the town, near the airport. It comprises 10 acres (approximately 4 hectares) of land the Queensland Government set aside in 1886 as a permanent reserve for a cemetery. [4]

You can’t see the cemetery from the main road, that is, the road to Munga-Thirri National Park (and “Big Red”). You have to turn off to the right and drive about one kilometre along a gravel road to reach the cemetery.

I was taken aback when I saw the Birdsville Cemetery. It’s like no other Queensland country cemetery I have come across (I’ve written previously about my visits to the Banana Cemetery and the Croydon Cemetery).

The Birdsville Cemetery is a graveyard in the sandhills. It’s not a huge cemetery – it contains about 100 graves, many of which (I have since learnt) are unmarked. Sadly, we probably walked across a number of unmarked graves, most of which are completely hidden beneath the ever-shifting sand.

Birdsville Cemetery: Graveyard in the sandhills.
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Birdsville Cemetery: Graveyard in the sandhills. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

I took photographs of some of the marked graves. The resulting images (many of which I’ve featured in this article) inspired me to find out more about the persons whose remains are buried in these graves. Each grave represents a person who lived and/or died at Birdsville and whose story is worth telling.

The Birdsville Cemetery is an historic cemetery but also one still used for burials today. One of the earliest burials was that of Captain Robert Kyle Little, 54, who died at Birdsville on 15 January 1889. Among the recent interments were the ashes of Robert “Dusty” John Miller, 70, “The Birdsville Baker”, who died at Wallaroo (South Australia) on 11 December 2018.

A recent addition to the cemetery is a columbarium, the niches in which ashes of the deceased may be interred following cremation elsewhere.

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The Birdsville Cemetery Columbarium. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

The death of two of Birdsville’s “oldest” residents (1890)

The year 1890 had hardly begun when the people of Birdsville and district learned of the sudden deaths, within days, of two of the town’s “oldest” residents. Actually, neither of these men was old in years, but they were among the town and district’s earliest European settlers.

Mr Robert Frew, 49, died on 22 February 1890 and Mr William Albert Tucker, “about 30”, died on 26 February 1890. Both died as a result of “inflammation of bowels”, after 3 weeks and 6 weeks duration respectively. Both deceased gentlemen were buried in the Birdsville Cemetery. [5]

Robert Frew, “Father of Birdsville” (d. 1890)

In 1876, Robert Frew established Pandie Pandie Station (or simply “Pandie Pandie”) on the lower Diamantina, in South Australia just over the South Australia – Queensland border. In the following year (1877), Frew took up Haddon Downs, the holding on which surveyor Augustus Poeppel “fixed” the Haddon Corner in 1880. (The Haddon Corner is the name of the point at which the borders of Queensland and South Australia meet.) Later, Frew went into a partnership with G B Armstrong, of Melbourne, in Cadelgo Downs, a western extension of Haddon Downs, in South Australia. [6]

Frew was clearly an entrepreneur. As well as taking up large pastoral runs in the district, he opened a general store at Diamantina Crossing (Birdsville). Frew’s store was the second to be established at Birdsville. Mr E A P Burt opened the first store at Diamantina Crossing as early as 1879.

At a public meeting at Birdsville in May 1886, Robert Frew was elected as one of three members representing the town of Birdsville on a proposed six-member Divisional Board for the district (to be known as the Diamantina Divisional Board). Robert Frew was appointed the first Chairman of the Diamantina Divisional Board, a position he held in 1888 and 1889. [7, 8, 9]

Because of his contribution to the establishment and development of the town of Birdsville and district over a period of more than 14 years, Frew was dubbed the “Father of Birdsville”. 

Robert Frew never married. He died suddenly on 22 February 1890, aged just 49. He died intestate, his only sister Jessie the sole claimant and subsequent beneficiary of his lands, business and worldly goods.

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Robert Frew memorial tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
William Albert Tucker (d. 1890)

In 1882, while still a young man in his twenties, and single, Tucker opened an hotel in the fledgling settlement of Birdsville. He called his establishment the “Royal Hotel”. It was Birdsville’s first hotel.

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The former (1882) Royal Hotel, Birdsville. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Interestingly, the first race meeting at Birdsville was held over three days, 20th, 21st and 22nd of September, that same year (1882). At least 160 station owners, managers, stockmen and other employees (including a large contingent of local Aboriginal people) attended the event. After the meet, the settling of bets and payment to prize-winners took place in Mr Tucker’s Royal Hotel. [10]

The weather was delightful, the entrances for the various events good, and the finishes in most of the races close and exciting. Nearly £200 was raised by public subscription, which speaks well for the prosperous condition of the district. … The settling [of bets] took place in Mr Tucker’s hotel, where the amounts were paid over to the respective winners, the usual toasts proposed and duly responded to. After which a meeting was held in Messrs. Burt and Co’s large iron store, when a jockey club was formed, to be called the “Border Jockey Club”, forty-two names being enrolled as members. Stewards were appointed, a working committee elected, and the next race meeting fixed for July 1883.

Entrance to the Birdsville Race Club Inc facility today
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Entrance to the Birdsville Race Club Inc facility today. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Birdsville racecourse today.
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Birdsville racecourse today. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

William Tucker applied for a publican’s licence for the Royal Hotel in 1883, the same year William Blair applied for a licence for the Birdsville Hotel. [11] In 1885, Tucker sold the Royal Hotel and transferred the licence to Johann H Groth. On the town’s official survey plan of 1885, the building is marked as Groth’s hotel.

On 26 May 1886, Tucker married Susanna Josephine Honan. The couple went on to have two children, May (born 1 May 1887) and Alberta Jasmine (born 14 August 1890). Sadly, William didn’t live to see the birth of his second daughter, as he died on 26 February 1890, when his wife was just 3 months pregnant.

At the time of his death, Mr Tucker was the licensee of the Tattersall’s Hotel at Birdsville.

William Albert Tucker grave and tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery
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William Albert Tucker grave and tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Deaths as a result of heatstroke (1889, 1896)

Birdsville has a hot, dry desert climate. In the summer months, it’s awfully hot there. The average maximum and minimum temperatures at Birdsville during January (the hottest month of the year) are 38.8 degrees Celsius (approximately 102 degrees Fahrenheit) and 24.2 degrees Celsius (approximately 76 degrees Fahrenheit). [12]

I’ve discovered that a number of Birdsville’s early European residents died as a result of heat stroke (“heat apoplexy”). Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the living conditions at the time. Most of the houses were rudimentary – rough timber buildings clad in galvanized iron – even temporary (calico tents) and, unlike today, there were no electric fans or air-conditioners. [13]

Robert Kyle Little, Sub-Inspector of Native Police (d. 1889)

Captain Robert Kyle Little was one of the first European residents of the district to succumb to the effects of Birdsville’s high summer temperatures. Little was Sub-Inspector of the Native Police Station at Cluney, Eyre’s Creek, north of Birdsville. He was a veteran of the Crimean War with the rank of Captain in the British Army (hence the title “Captain”). Captain Little died suddenly during a visit to Birdsville on 15 January 1889. [14]

Apparently, Captain Little had been unwell prior to coming to Birdsville but did not tell anyone. He booked into Tattersall’s Hotel, where he was seen and spoken to about ten minutes before he was found by one of his troopers “quite dead” on a stretcher in his hotel room. At a magisterial inquiry held at Birdsville the next morning, Dr J Milne pronounced that Little died from heat apoplexy. [15]

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Robert Kyle Little grave and memorial tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Robert Kyle Little was 54 years of age. He left a wife and large family to mourn their loss. At the same time, the awful suddenness of his death cast quite a gloom over the township of Birdsville.

Edward Ward, Inspector of Border Customs and Police Magistrate (d. 1896)

Seven years later, in January 1896, eleven people died of heatstroke at Birdsville. Daytime maximum temperatures that month were excessive – ranging from 46 to 49 degrees Celsius (that is, 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit). One of the eleven victims of the heatwave at Birdsville that summer was Mr Edward Ward. [16]

In 1896, Edward Ward, 54, was the Inspector of Border Customs and Police Magistrate at Birdsville. Mr Ward had been stationed at Birdsville since 1882. Prior to coming to Birdsville, he served as Inspector of Border Customs at Curriwillinghi (later Hebel) on the Queensland – New South Wales border, 100 miles (62 kilometres) southwest of St George. At Birdsville, which is about 11 kilometres (7 miles) north of the border between Queensland and South Australia, Mr Ward served as Inspector of Border Customs (14 years) and Police Magistrate (7 years). [17, 18]

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c. 1925. Birdsville Police Station and Courthouse. Photo source: State Library of Queensland. Public domain.

When Mr Ward took up the position of Inspector of Border Customs at Birdsville in 1882, no land had been set aside for Customs purposes and there was no Customs Station. He had to set up his office and home in a calico tent, 12 ft by 10 ft (approximately 3.7 m by 3.0 m). [19]

This [the tent] he put up in the centre of the town, little dreaming at first in what climate he was rigging his tent. It had just been up two days, and one of our usual gales swept it towards the four corners of the earth. Since that time our good-natured resident contented himself with the shade of a tree near the bank of the creek. And he lives there, transacts all the Customs business, banks all their money, and some days, I am of opinion, he has about £2000 stacked around him. But I do not think he will lose it readily, as he keeps his musket ready for the blacks [sic.] and perchance a would-be meddler. I trust the person who is responsible for this careless state of affairs will put it right immediately, in case the officer has to go on patrol duty. In that case some trustworthy person would have to be trusted with the care of H M Customs papers.

Mr Ward was appointed Police Magistrate at Birdsville in 1889 (or thereabouts). Around the same time, 1888-1890, Birdsville acquired a courthouse. The building was erected in Adelaide Street, as part of a police and law complex. Although other buildings on the reserve have come and gone, the nineteenth century courthouse still stands today.

Birdsville Courthouse today
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Birdsville Courthouse today. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Birdsville Courthouse today.
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Birdsville Courthouse today. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

When my husband and I visited Birdsville in 2019, the courthouse building was under repair. It is listed on Queensland’s Heritage Register, being one of only three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville. [20] The other two are the former Royal Hotel (c. 1883) and the Birdsville Hotel (c. 1884).

According to Mr C P Rich (Acting Clerk of Petty Sessions), Mr Ward complained on several occasions during early January 1896 that he was completely exhausted from the heat. However, on the 14th and 19th of January, when 93 points and 28 points of rain fell at Birdsville, and a cool change set in for 24 hours, Mr Ward said he felt much better. Nevertheless, the excessive heat that summer eventually told on him. Mr Ward died of heatstroke at 7:15 pm on 22 January 1896. [21]

Edward Ward grave and tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery
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Edward Ward grave and memorial tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

That same month (January 1896), not long before his untimely death, Mr Ward had received instructions from his employer to leave Birdsville and return to the customs station at Hebel. [22] Sadly, this was not to be.

Edward Ward never left Birdsville.

“Burned to death”

Rose Bowman (d. 1889)

One of the oldest graves I photographed was that of Rose Bowman. The inscription on her tombstone reads: ‘In memory of Rose, the beloved wife of Frank Bowman, who was burned to death, Sept. 27th 1889, aged 20 years. “Those whom the Gods love die young.”’

Rose Bowman grave and memorial tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery
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Rose Bowman grave and memorial tombstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Seeking to know more about Rose and her tragic death, I uncovered the following pieces of information from birth, marriages and death records.

Rose Bowman (nee Lamerton) was born in 1868, in South Australia. She was the daughter Mary Inchcliffe and William John Lamerton. Rose came to live in Queensland when she was 19. She married Francis (“Frank”) Bowman in Birdsville on 6 August 1889. The couple made their home in Birdsville.

Just over a month after their marriage, on 29 September 1889, Rose died as the result of burns to her legs, back and arm. According to her death certificate, she lingered for 13 days before succumbing to her burns. The tombstone inscription gives the impression that Rose died instantaneously as a result of her burns. The death certificate gives Rose’s age as 21 years, 2 months and 11 days (not 20 years, as on the tombstone).

Less than a year after Rose’s death, on 22 July 1890, widower Frank Bowman married Esther Lamerton, Rose’s younger sister.

An outbreak of typhoid fever (1894)

It appears that an outbreak of typhoid fever occurred at Birdsville in the first half of 1894. In March 1894, the Inspector of Border Customs at Birdsville (Mr Edward Ward) described the typhoid infection as “a very severe form” [23]:

I am sorry to have to report that there is a great deal of sickness in the township and district this season: typhoid, influenza, dysentery are all here, and (typhoid especially) in a very severe form.

At least three Birdsville residents died during the outbreak. One was a young man aged 23; another a man “about 40” and a third was the 26 (or 27) year old wife of the Birdsville doctor. [24]

Thomas Kendle Bowman (d. 1894)

According to his death record, Thomas Kendle Bowman, 23, died at Birdsville of “Typhus abdominalus” (typhoid fever) on 10 February 1894. He battled against the infection for 31 days, but in vain. Prior to his untimely death, he had been working at Birdsville as a contractor. Thomas was born at Wirrabura, South Australia, the eleventh son of Alexander and Charlotte Bowman, of Stone Hut, South Australia.

Thomas Kendle Bowman grave and cross memorial, Birdsville Cemetery
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Thomas Kendle Bowman grave and cross memorial, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Robert John Bates (d. 1894)

A second death due to typhoid fever at Birdsville that year was that of Robert John Bates. Mr Bates, a cordial maker of Birdsville, died at the Royal Hotel on 19 February 1894. He was born in England some 40 years earlier and had been living in Queensland about 16 years. I do not know how long he had been living and working at Birdsville, but he appears to have been there alone, living at the Royal Hotel. His mortal remains were interred at the Birdsville Cemetery. His grave is unmarked.

Eleanor Dingley Hoche (d. 1894)

The third death at Birdsville during the 1894 outbreak of typhoid fever was that of Eleanor Dingley Hoche, the young wife of Dr Edward Hoche. She died at Birdsville on 26 February 1894. [25] Eleanor’s body was buried in the Birdsville Cemetery. Hers is another one of the unmarked graves.

Eleanor (born 1867) left behind her husband Edward and their three children: Edith Emma (born 1889), Richard Francis (born 1890) and Leonard Welms De Le Hand (born 1893).

Eleanor’s husband, Edward Georg Herman Oscar Hoche, M D, arrived in Australia in August 1886, on the ship Christina, from Hamburg (Germany). In 1888, he married Eleanor Dingley Ferry, daughter of Mr John Ferry, of Napperby (near Port Pirie), South Australia. Dr Hoche set up a medical practice at Port Pirie. Around October 1892 he left Port Pirie and moved to Farina, in the far north of South Australia, then on to Birdsville. Dr Hoche had been working at Birdsville just over a year when he lost his wife to typhoid fever. [26]

Dr Hoche stayed on in Birdsville for about four months after his wife’s death. In July 1894 he returned to Port Pirie and resumed his medical practice there. Tragically, less than 18 months after losing Eleanor, on 3 June 1895, Dr Hoche died at Port Pirie of an overdose of morphia. According to evidence given at the inquest into his death, Dr Hoche was suffering from influenza and was unable to sleep. The jury returned a verdict that he died as a result of taking an overdose of morphia for the purpose of inducing sleep. [27]

It may be of interest to the reader to learn that Richard Francis Hoche (later “Hockey”) married Kathleen Isabel Butler, whose father was Richard Butler, Premier of South Australia (1 March – 25 July 1905), and whose brother of the same name “Richard Butler” was Premier of South Australia for nearly 9 years (1927-1930, 1933-1938).

By June 1894, the outbreak of typhoid fever at Birdsville was over. A newspaper report of 7 July 1894 stated: “The country around Birdsville was looking rich and green last month, and typhoid fever, which was so long prevalent in the district, has now disappeared.” [28]

Australian Inland Mission (AIM) and a drowning death (1929)

The Australian Inland Mission (AIM) established a bush hospital or hostel at Birdsville in 1923. The hostel was a first for the AIM in Queensland and the seventh in Australia. The AIM, a missionary arm of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, eventually had 13 such hostels operating throughout remote parts of Australia.

At Birdsville, the AIM leased the former Royal Hotel complex and set it up as a hostel. At the time, the main building consisted of 6 rooms and was unfurnished. The Queensland Government agreed to pay half of the cost of leasing the complex. The former Royal Hotel served as the AIM hostel until 1937, when a new purpose-built prefabricated hospital was built on land purchased by the Presbyterian Church. [29]

c. 1926. Nurses at the Australian Inland Mission at Birdsville, Queensland.
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c. 1926. Nurses at the original AIM hostel at Birdsville, Queensland. The hostel operated from the former Royal Hotel buildings until 1937. Photo source: Queensland State Archives (on Flickr). Public domain.
The second purpose-built hospital building at Birdsville, built in 1952-53 after a fire destroyed the first building in November 1951. It continued to be used until 2005. The former hospital building is now a museum.
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The second purpose-built hospital building at Birdsville, built in 1952-53 after a fire destroyed the first building in November 1951. It continued to be used until 2005. The former hospital building is now a museum. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

The AIM hostel (later hospital) at Birdsville was staffed by two nursing sisters. The first two nurses appointed by the Presbyterian Church arrived in September 1923. [30]

At the same time the hostel opened at Birdsville, the head of the AIM, Reverend Dr John Flynn, was planning to establish a flying doctor and air ambulance service in the remote parts of Australia. He was also experimenting with radio as a means of communication for people living in the outback.

Following Alfred Traeger’s invention of the pedal radio in 1929, in September that year Flynn had Traeger install at the AIM hostel at Birdsville one of six experimental transceivers linked to pedal generators. He had the other transceivers installed at four head stations in far western Queensland and at the Aboriginal Mission on Mornington Island. The flying doctor and radio receiving station was based at Cloncurry, in north-western Queensland. [31]

The death of Jesse Shackleton, AIM Assistant Padre (d. 1929)

I obtained the following information from a newspaper report dated November 14, 1929. [32]

On Saturday 2 November 1929, AIM wireless expert, a Mr Frazer, arrived at Birdsville. He brought with him Mr Jesse Shackleton, also of the AIM, a young Presbyterian clergyman. Mr Shackleton, 23, an Englishman, had been at Cloncurry about four weeks prior to his arrival at Birdsville.

The next day, Sunday 3 November, Mr Frazer and Mr Shackleton accepted an invitation from some of the young townsfolk (both male and female) to drive about a mile and a half (2.4 kilometres) up the river to the “Fish Hole” for a swim.

Mr Shackleton was the last to go in for a swim. Almost immediately he went under the water and did not reappear. Other bathers dived looking for him. About 10 or 15 minutes lapsed before Mr Scott, the Shire Clerk, found Mr Shackleton’s body and brought him to the bank. The locals tried for an hour and a half to resuscitate the young man, but their efforts were in vain.

Mr Shackleton’s funeral was held the next day, Monday 4 November, in the afternoon. Almost all the townspeople came to pay their respects. The local schoolteacher, Mr P Maddern, conducted the burial service.

Jesse Shackleton grave and memorial headstone
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Jesse Shackleton grave and memorial headstone. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

The resident police officer, Mr F Lewis, conducted an inquiry into Mr Shackleton’s sudden and surprising death. He took statements from all who witnessed the tragedy. The general opinion is that the cause of death was heart failure, as Mr Shackleton could swim and also that no water came from the body while resuscitation operations were conducted.

At the time of his death, Jesse Shackleton had been at Birdsville less than 2 days. Mr Shackleton’s mortal remains were interred in the Birdsville Cemetery. In death, at least, he stayed on in the community he had come to serve.

The First Nations Australians of Birdsville and district

There are many graves of First Nations Australians in the Birdsville Cemetery. I photographed quite a few of them. It seems to me that many of these graves are the resting place of the deceased of two of Birdsville and district’s Wangkangurru Yarluyandi families.

Graves of a number of former Wangkangurru residents of Birdsville, Birdsville Cemetery
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Graves of a number of former Wangkangurru Yarluyandi residents of Birdsville, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Mintulee Thurrabarree (d. 1955)

One of the earliest Aboriginal burials in the cemetery appears to be that of Mintulee of Thurrabarree, known throughout the desert as “Old Joe the Rainmaker” or “Rainmaker Joe”. According to the inscription on his tombstone, he died at Birdsville on 23 September 1955, aged 95.

Mintulee of Thurrabarree, commonly known as "Old Joe the Rainmaker", memorial headstone, Birdsville Cemetery.
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Mintulee of Thurrabarree, commonly known as “Old Joe the Rainmaker”, memorial headstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Mintulee was one of the Wangkangurru People who came from the southern Simpson Desert in the late 1800s and made their home in and around Birdsville. He gained the pseudonym “Rainmaker Joe” because he belonged to a long line of senior Aboriginal elders who reportedly had the ability to bring about rain.

Ruby Harris (d. 1957)

Ruby Harris was a young Wangkangurru woman and wife of Willy Harris Nhanpika of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrwarrka Peoples of South Australia. Ruby and Willy lived on Minnie Downs Station, South Australia. Willy worked there as a stockman. The couple had three children (Joey, Elizabeth Maud and Norman).

Tragically, Ruby was just 33 years old when she died during childbirth. The foetus was stillborn. It was Ruby’s seventh pregnancy. She had lost three children previously – two females and one male. Ruby died at the AIM hospital at Birdsville on 2 November 1957.

2019. Ruby Harris (nee Naylon) grave and memorial headstone, Birdsville Cemetery
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Ruby Harris (nee Naylon) grave and memorial headstone, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Ruby Harris was the daughter of Robert (“Bob”) Naylon and Maudie Naylon.

Bob Naylon Milkili (d. 1977)

Robert (“Bob”) Naylon (or Neaylon) Milkili was born about 1895 on the lower Diamantina, in South Australia. According to his death certificate, he died at Birdsville on 11 April 1977 and was buried in the Birdsville Cemetery.

Bob was the son of a European man, one of the brothers Tom and Jack Naylon, and an Aboriginal woman. His father acknowledged him, but the young Bob was raised by one of his mother’s relatives, an old Simpson Desert resident Yaratuli (“Yellow Tree”), so Bob’s native tongue was Wangkangurru. [33]

Maudie Naylon Akawilyika (d. 1980)

Bob Naylon’s wife was Maudie Naylon Akawilyika. She was born in the Simpson Desert in 1887 (or thereabouts) and died at Birdsville on 16 February 1980.

2019. Maudie Naylon Akawilyika grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Maudie Naylon Akawilyika grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Maudie Naylon was a gifted person. She had an in-depth knowledge of the customs and beliefs of the indigenous folk of the whole of the north-east of South Australia. Incredibly, she spoke many languages fluently – Ngamani, Yarluyandi, Yawarawarrka and Diyari – although her main language was the Simpson Desert dialect of Wangkangurru. Sadly, with her death in 1980, Ngamini became extinct and Yarluyandi lost its last fluent speaker. [34]

Maudie was one of the First Nations people with whom German-born linguist Luise Hercus worked during the 1960s and 1970s, recording a vast amount of linguistic data, traditional songs, beliefs, history and other aspects of Aboriginal culture. [35]

Besides Ruby (Harris), Bob and Maudie Naylon had two other daughters: Ethel and Esther. Like their mother, they were fluent speakers of the Simpson Desert dialect of the Wangkangurru language. [36] Ethel and Esther married and had families of their own. Both died and were buried in the Birdsville Cemetery.

Esther Alison Naylon was born at the Innamincka Waterhole, South Australia. She married Richard (“Chippy”) Flash. She died on 12 August 1988.

Ethel Naylon married Henry Butler. Together they had six children. Ethel died on 10 May 2003. “Nanna But” (as she was affectionately called) was 74 years old at the time of her death. It is noteworthy that part of the inscription of her tombstone is written in her first language.

2019. Ethel Butler grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Ethel Butler grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Willy Harris Nhanpika (d. 2006)

Willy Harris Nhanpika, of the Yandruwandha and Yawarrwarrka Peoples, was born around 1917 at the Cullyi-Murra Waterhole, Innamincka, South Australia. He was the husband of Ruby, nee Naylon (or Neaylon). During the 1980s, linguist Luise Hercus worked with Willy Harris at Innamincka recording data on the Yandruwandha and Yawarrwarrka languages. [37]

Willy died on 27 July 2006 and his body was interred in the Birdsville Cemetery. He was “about 89 years” of age.

2019. Willy Harris grave headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Willy Harris Nhanpika grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Linda Crombie Alinda (d. 2010)

Linda was an amazing woman. She lived a long and fruitful life. As well as being a loving wife and mother of twelve, she was one of Birdsville’s highly respected Aboriginal elders and keepers of the traditional knowledge of the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi People.

After Luise Hercus’s main Yarluyandi consultant Maudie Naylon died in 1980, Luise started working with Linda Crombie at Birdsville. Linda was a fluent speaker of what Luise called “Eastern Wangkangurru” and Linda remembered some of the Yarluyandi language. Luise worked with both Linda and Linda’s husband, Frank, recording data in the Birdsville area, Simpson Desert National Park and Eyre’s Creek. [38]

Unfortunately, Frank Crombie (a Wangkangurru man) died in September 1987 as the result of injuries he sustained in a car accident west of Birdsville. He was returning from a field trip to the Simpson Desert when the accident occurred. He died before the Flying Doctor reached the scene. After Frank’s death, Luise continued to work with Linda for a number of years. [39]

Many of Linda and Frank Crombie’s descendants still live in and around Birdsville. Linda was one of the six members of the Wangkangurru Yarluyandi Native Title Claim Group. Unfortunately, Linda died on 12 July 2010, four years before the result of their claim was known, on 3 October 2014.   

2019. Linda Crombie grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Linda Crombie Alinda grave, headstone and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

Other recent burials

Frank Purser (d. 2012)

Francis (“Frank”) Roger Purser was born at Kingaroy on 24 October 1916. His parents were Alfred and Elsie Purser, farmers, of “Bendee”, Murgon. Frank grew up on his parents’ farm. On 30 June 1942, at Bonegilla (Victoria), he enlisted in the 2nd Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Frank didn’t see overseas service but attained the rank of Warrant Officer. [40] On 22 April 1946, at Milang (South Australia), he married Alice Annie McBain, of Milang. [41] After their marriage, the couple made their home at Albury. Frank was discharged from the army on 4 September 1946.

I’m not sure when Frank returned to Queensland but, in the 1960s, he and Alice and their family were living at Charleville. Their son Donald Charles enrolled at Charleville State School in January 1965. On the school’s enrolment file, Frank’s profession is listed as “mechanical engineer”. [42]

At Birdsville, for many years Frank was the town’s only refrigeration mechanic. According to Geoff Morton, Diamantina Shire Mayor 2012-2020, Frank was dubbed the “fridge man”. Geoff is reported as saying, “He kept the beer cold and that was his big thing. He was a legend, so much so that he had a special place at the bar.” [43] According to the inscription on his tombstone, he was still working as a refrigeration mechanic in his 80s.

Frank died at Charleville on 30 May 2012. He was 95. His family chose to bury him at Birdsville, in the Birdsville Cemetery, because of Frank’s love of the town. [44]

2019. Frank Purser grave and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Frank Purser grave and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Frank Purser grave and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery
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Frank Purser grave and memorial plaque, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

In the bar of the Birdsville Hotel, where Frank was always treated as royalty, Frank’s hat is one of many on display. His hat is one of those whose owners have done the “hard yards” at Birdsville and have since passed away. I note that on one side of Frank’s hat lies that of Willy Harris (died 2006) and on the other side is the hat of Richard “Chippy” Flash, Esther’s husband, who died on 6 January 1989.

Birdsville Hotel, established 1884.
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Birdsville Hotel, established 1884. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Birdsville Hotel: Hats belonging to some of the Birdsville locals who have died, including Willy Harris, Frank Purser and "Chippy" Flash.
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Birdsville Hotel: Hats belonging to some of the Birdsville locals who have died, including Willy Harris, Frank Purser and “Chippy” Flash. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.
Robert “Dusty” John Miller (d. 2018)

Robert John Miller was born at Peterborough, South Australia, on 5 September 1948. He died on 11 December 2018 at Wallaroo, South Australia, surrounded by his family. His open-air funeral service was held at Kapunda, South Australia. Early in 2019, his ashes were brought to Birdsville, where they were interred in the Birdsville Cemetery, in the plot next to that of his best friend in life, Frank Purser.

2019. Robert Dusty John Miller memorial, Birdsville Cemetery
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Robert “Dusty” John Miller memorial, Birdsville Cemetery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

“Dusty” Miller had become a legend in Birdsville where he was known as “The Birdsville Baker”. Despite the naysayers, in 2004, Mr Miller opened a bakery at Birdsville, a first for the town. “How will it survive?” people asked. Well, under Mr Miller’s management, the bakery didn’t just survive, it thrived! Mr Miller capitalized on Birdsville’s tourist trade. The bakery operated from April through to October each year, the months when many tourists visit to the town. [45]

2019, Birdsville Bakery.
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Birdsville Bakery. Photo source: Judith Salecich 2019.

One of Dusty Miller’s innovations was the curried camel pie. It was a great success, and the Birdsville Bakery is still known today for its curried camel pies.

In March 2017, Mr Miller sold the Birdsville Bakery to Marin Josselyn, a Townsville-based tour operator, for $1.2 million. Unfortunately, Mr Josselyn’s business operations failed, and the bakery closed two years later. When my husband and I visited Birdsville in October 2019, much to our surprise and disappointment, the bakery was closed.

The good news is that Dusty Miller’s Birdsville legacy lives on. In 2020, local couple, Talia and Courtney Ellis, bought the Birdsville Bakery along with the Birdsville Hotel. As well as the bakery and the pub, the couple run a broadacre cropping farm at Berrigan in New South Wales.

I can’t wait to visit Birdsville again and call in at the Birdsville Bakery. Judging by the images posted on its Facebook page, the Birdsville Bakery offers many tantalizing goodies (besides curried camel pies).  

Your tour of the Birdsville Cemetery is over

I hope you’ve appreciated exploring the Birdsville Cemetery with me. I’ve taken you on a virtual tour of the site and, in so doing, revealed a little of the history of Birdsville and the lives of some of the folk whose mortal remains are buried in this sandy graveyard.

Today, Birdsville is a popular tourist destination. But, more importantly, it’s the resting place of people who, over the years, came here and made this tiny remote Queensland town and district their home.

The Birdsville Cemetery contains the graves of entrepreneurs, public servants, housewives, stockmen, tradesmen, those called to ministry…men, women and children…First Nations Australians and early European settlers. Their life stories are instructional and, in many cases, inspirational. Some are incredibly sad.

As we delve into the lives of these folk, we can’t help but admire their courage, perseverance and commitment in the face of adversity and trials and gain encouragement from their achievements and triumphs.

I am so glad my husband and I included the Birdsville Cemetery in our list of must-see sites during our visit to Birdsville and district in 2019.

It is better to go to a house of mourning
    than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
    the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:2 (New International Version)

REFERENCES

GENERAL REFERENCES

For information about births, marriages and deaths of the deceased persons and their families featured in this account, I accessed the family history research services of the Queensland Government and Genealogy South Australia (SA): 

Queensland Government. Family History Research Service: Historic births, deaths and marriages (website). Online: https://www.familyhistory.bdm.qld.gov.au/

Genealogy SA. Online database search: https://www.genealogysa.org.au/resources/online-database-search

SPECIFIC REFERENCES

  1. Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2017). ‘Birdsville’. 2016 Quick Stats. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from https://www.abs.gov.au/census/find-census-data/quickstats/2016/SSC30261
  2. WESTERN EXPLORATION. HISTORIC LANDMARKS. (1949). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), Wednesday 9 March, page 4. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/63449341
  3. Pearson, S. E. (1940). The south-west corner of Queensland. The Historical Society of Queensland Journal 3 (2) 100-122.
  4. Official Notifications. (1886, January 2). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 25. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19802425
  5. Stock Movements and State of the Country. (1890, April 12). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 713. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20282031
  6. COMMONWEALTH CELEBRATIONS. CAPT. CHARLES STURT. (By “BARTLE FRERE”). (1951). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), Friday 2 February, page 5. Retrieved November 11, 2019, from https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/63141410
  7. Country News. (1886, May 29). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 859. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19805548
  8. Pugh, Theophills P. (1888). Pugh’s Queensland Almanac, Law Calendar, Directory, Coast Guide, and Gazetteer.  Text Queensland. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/journal/f29acd3247f84877d185f8108437158f
  9. Pugh, Theophills P. (1889). Pugh’s Queensland Almanac, Law Calendar, Directory, Coast Guide, and Gazetteer.  Text Queensland. Online: Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.textqueensland.com.au/item/journal/0160cca6b04fa1813b06a708bcfed30e
  10. BIRDSVILLE (LOWER DIAMANTINA) RACE MEETING. (1882, November 18). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 702. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19787884
  11. Advertising (1883, May 18). The Western Champion (Blackall/Barcaldine, Qld. : 1879 – 1891), p. 3. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article77213398
  12. Australian Government. Bureau of Meteorology. Climate statistics for Australian locations: Summary statistics Birdsville Police Station. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/tables/cw_038002.shtml
  13. Country News. (1883, December 1). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 871. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19794918
  14. Country News. (1889, March 2). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 390. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19811900
  15. BIRDSVILLE (1889, February 9). Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 – 1904), p. 32. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article160793779
  16. Local and General News. (1896, February 26). The North Queensland Register (Townsville, Qld. : 1892 – 1905), p. 18. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article79289534  
  17. Wooroorooka Border Customs. (1886, October 30). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 708. Retrieved June 25, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19808769
  18. Heat at Birdsville. (1896, February 28). The Week (Brisbane, Qld. : 1876 – 1934), p. 22. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article183089992
  19. Country News. (1883, December 1). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 871. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article19794918
  20. Birdsville Courthouse. Queensland Heritage Register (website). Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://apps.des.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600460
  21. OBITUARY. (1896, February 3). Evening Journal (Adelaide, SA : 1869 – 1912), p. 2 (SECOND EDITION). Retrieved February 23, 2021, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article199885812
  22. BORDER CUSTOMS REPORTS. (1894, March 30). The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), p. 6. Retrieved June 21, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3576982
  23. QUEENSLAND NEWS. (1894, March 24). Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908), p. 2. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article123758957
  24. Family Notices (1894, February 28). The Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), p. 4. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article25679412
  25. Family Notices (1894, April 28). Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 – 1904), p. 24. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article161803053
  26. AN OVERDOSE OF MORPHIA. (1895, June 8). South Australian Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1895), p. 12. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article93971489
  27. Ibid.
  28. Epitome. (1894, July 7). The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 – 1939), p. 8. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20717831
  29. Royal Hotel/Australian Inland Mission Hospital (former). Queensland Heritage Register (website). Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600459
  30. A FAREWELL FUNCTION. (1923, August 28). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 4 (SECOND EDITION). Retrieved June 21, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article182481859
  31. Royal Hotel/Australian Inland Mission Hospital (former). Queensland Heritage Register (website). Queensland Heritage Council. Retrieved June 20, 2022, from https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600459
  32. BIRDSVILLE NOTES. (1929, November 14). Townsville Daily Bulletin (Qld. : 1907 – 1954), p. 10. Retrieved June 9, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article60826765
  33. Hercus, L., & Australian National University. Department of Linguistics. (1994). A Grammar of the Arabana-Wangkangurru Language Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia / Luise A. Hercus., Pacific linguistics. no:128.
  34. The Australian Women’s Register. Naylon, Maudie Akawiljika (c. 1885-1980). Retrieved June 10, 2022, from https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1179b.htm
  35. Tom Gara (2016). Luise Hercus’ research in the Lake Eyre Basin, 1965- 2005. In Language, land & song: Studies in honour of Luise Hercus, edited by Peter K. Austin, Harold Koch & Jane Simpson. London: EL Publishing. pp. 23-43. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://www.elpublishing.org/PID/2002
  36. Hercus, L., & Australian National University. Department of Linguistics. (1994). A Grammar of the Arabana-Wangkangurru Language Lake Eyre Basin, South Australia / Luise A. Hercus., Pacific linguistics. no:128.
  37. Tom Gara (2016). Luise Hercus’ research in the Lake Eyre Basin, 1965- 2005. In Language, land & song: Studies in honour of Luise Hercus, edited by Peter K. Austin, Harold Koch & Jane Simpson. London: EL Publishing. pp. 23-43. Retrieved June 10, 2022, from http://www.elpublishing.org/PID/2002
  38. Ibid.
  39. Ibid.
  40. National Archives of Australia. Defence Service Records. Francis Roger Purser, QX45711.
  41. WEDDING BELLS. (1946, May 2). Southern Argus (Port Elliot, SA : 1866 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved June 23, 2022, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article96831236
  42. Queensland State Archives, Item ID ITM741633. Admission Register – Charleville State School, 05/10/1964 – 04/06/1965.
  43. Outback Qld Farewells “Fridge Man”. (2012). ABC News (Website). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-18/outback-qld-farewells-fridge-man/4076648
  44. Ibid.
  45. Creator of coveted curried camel pie from Birdsville Bakery remembered. (2018). ABC Western Queensland News. ABC News (Website). Retrieved November 10, 2019, from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-19/creator-of-coveted-curried-camel-pie-remembered/10632800
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Author

Judith Salecich

Writer, researcher, former secondary and tertiary teacher and public servant, wife, mother, grandmother, child of God, photography enthusiast, lover of life, history, food and all things creative.

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6 thoughts on “The Birdsville Cemetery: Graveyard in the sandhills”

  1. Judith this is an amazing story. I grew up in Jundah and in 1973 my parents who had the Jundah Cafe and Bakery did the catering for the Birdsville races. Thank you for the read.

    Reply
  2. Judith another well put together read. Diamantina Crossing becomes Birdsville in 1885 after being surveyed.Way back in the days camels were the mode of transport. It was a very hot dusty climate to be living in and the people had plenty to put up with with all that sand blowing in and then you ended up with big sand dunes. The Cemetery you have the real old and then the newer sections The first burials were in 1890.As you mentioned there were a lot of unmarked grave sites in the cemetery. It was nice to see that some sites had headstones and looked like they were being maintained.and It was a good idea I think for the inclusion of a Columbarium so that people cremated elsewhere if they wish can have their ashes interned at Birdsville.

    Reply
    • Dear Maurie. As always, it’s so good to receive your feedback. You show that you’ve taken the time to digest all aspects of the story, and that you’ve appreciated it. Thank you. Blessings, Judy.

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