1949 Cyclone

(As published in Gladstone Observer, 2 March, 2016) ©Paulette Flint, 2016

Lincoln Theatre

Corner of Goondoon and Roseberry Streets – this building was originally the Lincoln Theatre.

Mention the possibility of a cyclone to any old Gladstone local and it won’t be long before the conversation shifts to stories of the great cyclone of 1949 which devastated Gladstone and Rockhampton and affected many other smaller towns along the coast on Wednesday 2 March 1949. Their stories tell of the force of the cyclone and the damage to property, and also tell of lucky escapes from injury. In 1949 there was little education about preparation for the cyclone season.

The full force of the cyclone hit at about 1 pm, and took the townspeople unawares. There had been little warning that a cyclone was approaching. Men rushed home from work at lunchtime and children were sent home from school early.

The wind, which was accompanied by torrential rain, blew furiously for about 16 hours, and was estimated to have a velocity of 85 knots (100 mph/160kph). It left a trail of devastation in its wake.

One outstanding fact, recounted by many, is that the many hotels in the town survived the fury, but most churches succumbed to the intensity of the wind and rain. This is not quite true, as the Queens Hotel lost its roof in the onslaught.

The largest church in town at the time was St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which was an imposing edifice in Goondoon Street. A brick structure, the church was completely demolished. Locals say that the pressure built up inside the building causing it to ‘explode’. Services, including wedding ceremonies, were held for months afterwards in the church hall, the Watt Memorial Hall, until a new church was constructed.

Dora and Lorna Presbyterian church Aug 1949

Dora Spencer and Lorna Spencer in front of the remains of the Presbyterian Church (They were attendants at Dora’s brother’s wedding. (Herbert and Evelyn Spencer – see Spencers Home Cookery – this site)

Another structure that didn’t survive the onslaught was the Catholic school. The two wooden buildings of the school were to be replaced by a brand-new brick building, but this was not due to be completed until August. The wooden buildings of the old school were flattened. Fortunately, the children had been sent to their homes about two hours before the school buildings collapsed.

Sisters of Mercy ConventStar of the Sea Catholic School

The shattered remains of the Star of the Sea Catholic School and the Convent. Corner of Goondoon and Herbert Streets.

A Gladstone railway worker, Les Hockings, wrote in a letter to his brother, Lew, in Toowoomba: They just managed to get the kiddies out in time. As soon as they had them out the whole building collapsed. There were eight pianos in it, and they were in a figure eight.

The Sisters of Mercy Convent behind the school, also a wooden building, was completely destroyed, but the sisters had evacuated the building before it caved in. Mr and Mrs D Curran subsequently vacated their home in Toolooa Street, to make it available to the sisters as a temporary convent. School lessons were held at the Showgrounds.

St Saviour’s Church of England, a wooden building, lost its roof and suffered some other structural damage, but St Matthew’s Church of England in the Valley area was a total loss.

The Gladstone [Central] State School in Auckland Street also had several buildings partially unroofed, and water damage to books. The Head Teacher, Mr T White, later said that the welfare of the younger children caused the teachers much concern. Not wanting to send them home in the strong wind and rain, they were kept at school, some of them still there at 11 o’clock in the evening, along with some teachers and parents, awaiting a safe time to return to their homes.

The town was without electricity from about 10 o’clock on Wednesday morning.

Cominos Building Goondoon Street

Goondoon Street taken from the corner of Goondoon and Roseberry Streets looking south towards Cominos building and the National Bank

Les Hockings in his letter compared the cyclone to his wartime experiences:  I went through a lot at the war, but I never experienced anything like the recent cyclone. I was at work and was going to come home at dinner time, but we got the full force at about one o’clock, so I decided to come home. And believe me I was lucky to get home alive. It took me an hour to go half a mile. The wind would knock you down every few yards.

There were many stories of lucky escapes from serious injury, but one Gladstone man, Jacob Worthington, was not so lucky. When the eye of the cyclone was passing over the town, he had climbed up onto the roof of his shop to secure the iron, which had started to lift. The wind returned with fury from the opposite direction, hurling roofing iron and other debris through the air. One whole portion of his roof lifted and came down on top of him, killing him instantly.

Mr F King of Fisher Street was thrown 60 feet (18 m) from the roof of his house while attempting to nail down the iron. He was lucky to survive with fractured ribs and lacerations which were treated by Dr John McGree.

Flying glass from the veranda of her home struck Lorraine Stanley of Fisher Street. She received lacerations to her nose, face and right arm. After treatment at the Gladstone hospital, she returned home.

Others had no home to go to. The roof was blown off the home on the Breslin Estate in Kent Street, and a large pine tree crashed onto the building. The occupants of the house escaped injury.

My cousin, Cecilia Barker, was a young girl of eleven years at the time of the cyclone. She recalls that the roof on their Herbert Street house started to lift, so she and my uncle and aunt, Eric and Olive Barker, after seeing what had happened to the Convent School on the opposite side of the road, decided to go to the next-door neighbour’s house. Uncle Eric and Mr Crowson, the neighbour, had previously taken out some panels of the fence to form a small gateway, so Eric, with Cecilia safely cocooned under his body, crawled from his house to Crowson’s house. Olive followed, also on all fours. They reached safety before the roof on the front of their house lifted off and was swept away by the storm.

Les Hockings also told of the devastation to houses: Some of the houses have been lifted right off their blocks and been placed flat on the ground. I was very pleased when I heard it [the cyclone] going out to sea about 3:40 in the morning.

One eighty year old woman and her daughter had a most unenviable experience. They were forced to evacuate their home at the height of the storm. After two hours’ battering they reached the home of a neighbour only to find that they, too, had been forced to leave their home. They were eventually rescued by other neighbours.

My mother, Sybil Fohrman, who had a six month old baby at the time, was to recall that it was her birthday the following day, 3 March, but she forgot about it in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Auckland Street home of Ted and Marie Barker

The home of the author’s grandparents – Edmund (Ted) and Marie Barker at 109 Auckland Street. Note the roof has started to lift at the South-Eastern corner.

Motor launches in Auckland Creek suffered heavily. Some were thrown up on mud banks, while others were sunk at their moorings.

The meatworks sustained considerable damage to buildings, and lost refrigeration for a short time. However this was soon restored, and killing commenced again early the following week.

Friends Pty Ltd, the main emporium in town, suffered a considerable amount of damage to the roofing, especially that of the outbuildings.

Iron and nails were in short supply so soon after the Second World War, but a committee made approaches to the Government Departments for the release of emergency supplies, and also for roofing timber from Builyan sawmills. A relief fund was also opened to assist those in distress in restoring their homes.

The Queensland Cruising Yacht Club, who had been planning with Port Curtis Sailing Club members for some time for a yacht race from Brisbane to Gladstone, was one of the first to offer financial aid to cyclone victims. The secretary said that the club intended to conduct the first Brisbane to Gladstone yacht race as an appeal for funds for the relief of cyclone victims.

Gladstone’s water supply from the Boyne River Pumping Station was cut off, so council employees worked to connect the water mains to the old Tondoon Creek Dam. Other council employees were busy clearing the streets of fallen trees and other debris.

Les Hockings summed up the feelings of locals in his letter: A man’s heart is still up in his mouth from the shaking up it gave us all. I would much sooner have a few shells fall around than go through that cyclone again.

©Paulette Flint, 2016

Unroofed warehouse

Unroofed warehouse unknown location (Help needed to identify this building)