Special Collections Fossickings 28: Sister Alice & the Red in the Bed

Ross River Meatworks, date unknown, Townsville Albums, NQ Photographic Collection ID 4638
The tall chimney that looms over the upmarket suburb of Fairfield Waters is all that remains of the once thriving Ross River meatworks – a major local employer that began operations in 1892. Meatworks frequently became places of industrial strife and the Ross River works were no exception with a bitter, long-running dispute exploding into civil unrest and violence in June 1919.

In her book “Arctic Regions in a Torrid Zone”, Dawn May describes how, early one morning, a group of men deliberately set loose and stampeded the cattle. Following the arrest of ringleaders, Pierce Carney and Mick Kelly, their enraged fellow-workers made their way to the “Tree of Knowledge”, on the corner of Denham and Flinders Street. From here, inflamed by speeches and alcohol, they reportedly broke into a gunshop before marching on the watch house (adjacent to the present Court House theatre) where the arrested men were being held.

It was at this point that the diminutive but feisty Sister Alice – sister-in-charge of St Anne’s School – became involved. A recent publication tells the tale. In 1919 the newly-established St Anne’s (now the Cathedral School) was located across the road from the watch-house.  The Spanish flu pandemic was raging and the nuns were providing hospital care for victims, many of whom were housed on the school’s verandahs.  When sounds of protest and the singing of the Red Flag disturbed the quiet Sunday evening, Sisters Alice and Frances hurried to the school gate. Even when shooting broke out Sister Alice remained outside trying to move her patients to safety. Before long a man wounded in the conflict was brought for her care and to her surprise she learned that one of the ringleaders had already been admitted as an influenza patient. According to Sister Frances, whose narrative is included in Ray Geise’s history, this man claimed to be Mick Kelly, a fact which, if true, would give a surprising twist to the more conventional accounts of the incident.

Sister Alice, at left.  Cathedral School Album, NQ Photographic Collection ID 9303
Whoever he was, having discovered a “red” literally in the bed, Sister Alice took him into her charge. There ensued a lively exchange while each tried to covert the other to their respective beliefs. Who wouldn’t want to have been a fly on the wall that night? Clearly Sister Alice’s faith was unaffected as she continued to lead the School for a further 19 years. Whether her own conversion attempts were more successful is unrecorded. The tree of knowledge was eventually brought down by Cyclone Althea more than half a century later, and the meatworks closed in 1995. Only the chimney remains.
Flinders street in Townsville with Tree of knowledge, at right. W. J. Laurie Album, 1912, NQ Photographic Collection ID 156