Monday, 14 April 2014

Special Collections Fossickings 35: Mary Wardle, the spirit of Mount Mulligan.

Mary, in 1921, with her brother (seated) and stepbrothers (standing).  Bill Harris, who first found coal on the mountain is standing, second from the right.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3185.
Among the women who rushed to the Mount Mulligan pithead that day in 1921 was Mary Grant (later Wardle). After an agonizing wait of four days and nights her husband’s body was one of the last to be retrieved. Frank Grant had been the deputy mine manager.
Mary's husband, Frank Grant (at left) with rail ambulance, 1920.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3199.
Few people could better embody the history and spirit of the Hodgkinson, and of Mount Mulligan, than Mary. Her long life and large family were inextricably entwined with the district. Born in Irvinebank, she was the youngest of six siblings: one brother and five stepbrothers.  Mary liked to tell how her mother, with a clutch of young children, had walked 80 miles from Port Douglas to join her first husband on the remote Hodgkinson goldfield. Later, as a widow living in Herberton, she met and married mine manager, Bill Richards, who became Mary’s father. In 1892 this blended family of nine moved back to the Hodgkinson and two-year-old Mary had begun her long association with the district.

Fifteen years later it was one of Mary’s step-brothers, Bill Harris, who discovered a coal seam on the mountain. Bill had been a babe-in-arms on his mother’s trek from Port Douglas, but in 1907 he went looking for Burdekin plums in a mountain gully. Whether he found plums is unrecorded, but the story of Mount Mulligan’s mines had begun.
The tiny Mount Mulligan School ca 1920.  Publications Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 3199.
In extensive interviews given to Mike Rimmer for his “Up the Palmerston” historical trilogy, Mary described growing up and enjoying a life of freedom and friendship in the district. These interviews, preserved in the Special Collections’ Mike Rimmer archive, are a particularly rich resource, revealing  Mary’s strong bonds with local Aboriginal people and her knowledge of tribal languages. Despite being offered a music scholarship to Leipzig her marriage to Frank Grant, and the outbreak of WWI, cemented her destiny in the north.
The school after the 1924 extension urged by Frank Grant.  Mount Mulligan Album, NQ Photographic Collection, ID 20215.
Mary’s brother, Frank Richards, was the school principal and her husband was secretary of the school committee. Shortly before his death the latter had written to the Queensland Minister urging action to expand the overcrowded school building . Sadly, he never saw the 1924 extension that resulted. Mary remarried, a John Wardle, and the couple remained under the shadow of Mount Mulligan until mining operations closed in 1957. Despite the 1921 tragedy she never lost her love for the town and the mountain.

In 1971 the 50th anniversary of the disaster was commemorated with a return to the abandoned town. Then over eighty, Mary was a much-loved guest of honour at the event and the unassuming star of the ABC documentary, “Too Young to Die”. Forty-three years after it was made this remains compelling and poignant viewing. Without Mary’s remarkable memory and her contribution to the oral, written and photographic records, our understanding of this lost world of far north Queensland’s mining communities would be immeasurably poorer.

Story by Miniata

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