Borroloola, a small town 50 kilometres inland from the south west corner of the Gulf of Carpentaria on the banks of the McArthur River, is the final resting place of several characters. Two of the men, Roger Jose and Jack Mulholland, with a third man, simply known as the Mad Fiddler, feature in a short film called, The Hermits of Borroloola. The film was produced in 1962 by David Attenborough for the BBC.[i]
Rumours claimed the Mad Fiddler was the son of an English Lord, but he said he'd been an actor who left England for England's good. As he refused to appear on camera or make an audio recording, the interview was brief. He is even more reclusive in death.
Roger Jose and Jack Mulholland were not so reticent, nor were they hermits in the traditional sense. They simply preferred the peace of a ghost town to the pressures of conventional life. Roger in particular was not antisocial, but they were characters who enjoyed the quiet life.
Borroloola was once an important port. Ships detoured to anchor in the river on their runs from Darwin to Townsville, Burketown or Normanton. The cattle stations on the Barkly Tablelands relied on Borroloola for their stores. When the South Australian Government had to replace the wooden poles on the Overland Telegraph Line with steel ones, those for the section from Pine Creek to Daly Waters were shipped through Borroloola.
At one time Borroloola is reputed to have had the best library in Northern Australia. Founded in 1890, it had over 3,000 books by the 1920s. No doubt the founder, Cornelius Power, hoped it would improve the lives of the residents of the town. However, it was not humans who devoured the words, but white ants and silverfish.
After its heyday in the early twentieth century the town's importance declined, the population also declined, and Borroloola became a ghost town without a future. It has now recovered and is a Mecca for tourists. It's a great place to hang a line in the river and perhaps catch that elusive barramundi or, like the hermits, escape the pressures of modern life and relax for a few days in the Australian bush.
Three, quite different stories are associated with graves at Borroloola. The Roger Jose story is unexpected, a gentle tale of compassion and devotion. It contradicts vividly the conception held by many people of an Outback pioneer. In sharp contrast the Jack Johnson tale is one of distrust and violence, more in keeping with the fight for survival so often the scenario of life in the Australian Outback. Jack Mulholland's story is another unexpected tale. The underlying sadness that is so evident is cause for wonder at what event changed this gentle man's life to make him such a private individual.
Maggie, Biddy and Roger Jose
The story associated with Roger Jose begins in 1916 when he walked into Borroloola from Cunnamulla in Queensland.The folklore is that when he arrived he claimed to be the brother of the Dean of the Adelaide Cathedral, but fails to identify which cathedral. Records show that George Herbert Jose, who had studied at Worcester College, Oxford University, was the Dean of the Adelaide Anglican Cathedral from 1933 until 1953. [ii] So Roger would not have claimed that his brother was the Dean of the Adelaide Cathedral when he first arrive in Borroloola in 1916. Folklore has distorted the facts.
Maggie and Biddy were two Aboriginal sisters who had become opium addicts at Pine Creek. When Roger found them he persuaded them to leave Pine Creek and the Chinese influence with their opium, and to live with him at Borroloola.[iii]
Several conflicting versions of this story exist. In one Roger married Maggie after Biddy died. In another Maggie sold the house to Harry Blumenthal after Roger's death. But, as the dates on the graves show that Maggie was the first to die, this story has to be incorrect. In yet another version, Biddy was cared for by Harry Blumenthal after Roger died, but again the dates on the grave dispute this. Roger survived both the women.
Of course, Roger could have married again after Biddy's death, which could account in part for the Harry Blumenthal confusion.
This account arranges the events in the chronological order suggested by the plaques on the grave, but over the years the story has become folklore. So does it matter if the facts are a little distorted? It is a beautiful story of racial harmony.
When he arrived in Borroloola, Roger looked for somewhere to live. At the Borroloola Hotel he found a disused 5,000 gallons (23,000 litres) rainwater tank, which suited his needs perfectly. Not wishing to live so close to the bustle of the hotel he rolled it to a more secluded location in a grove of tamarind trees on the bank of the McArthur River. To modify the tank all Roger did was to set it upright and cut a door into it. When asked why he had no windows his reply showed a simple practical approach to life. 'I live outside during the day and it gets dark at night. Why would I want windows?'
Maggie, Biddy and Roger lived happily together in the rainwater tank for many years. Roger earned the little money they needed by undertaking casual work around the district, such as road maintenance, fencing and performing general labouring jobs. Folklore states that he was careful never to earn more than £100 in any year so that he did not have to pay income tax. He would have also fished for barramundi and no doubt the women gathered bush tucker.
In 1937 a cyclone hit Borroloola and amongst the buildings damaged or destroyed was the Tattersal's Hotel. Roger salvaged the water tank from that hotel to install a second storey on his house. This was to be his new guest room.
Maggie died in 1957.
After Maggie's death Roger married Biddy. When she became so obese she couldn't walk, he pushed her around the town in a wheelbarrow. She died in 1959 and was buried beside Maggie.
Roger died in October 1963 and was buried with his two consorts. So, after sharing a home for so many years, they now lie side by side in the same grave.
The grave has been restored and is fenced with steel posts and galvanised chain. It bears just three simple bronze plaques which give no indication of their eccentric lives, nor their devotion to each other.
From left to right this is the scant information presented to the reader;
Historical Graves Historical Graves Historical Graves
Gulf Branch Gulf Branch Gulf Branch
BIDDY JOSE MAGGIE JOSE ROGER JOSE
born — 1896
died — 1959 died — 1957 died — 1963
Jack Johnson and John O'Shea
Jack Johnson first walked into Borroloola to find a wake was being held after the death of a man at sea.[iv] His death was the reason for the wake.
He and his partner had been sailing a small boat to Arnhem Land when it capsized. Jack was a poor swimmer, so his mate left him clinging to the upturned hull while he swam ashore and went for help. Mounted Constable Birt, stationed at Borroloola, organised a search, but the searchers could find no sign of Jack, and after returning to Borroloola they were holding the wake.
Although when he walked into the Tattersal's Hotel Jack was in poor health, he was by no means dead. After he recovered he settled in Borroloola. His partner moved on.
Johnson became a close friend of John O'Shea, the publican of the Tattersal's Hotel. Later he opened a store, where he lived with an Aboriginal woman named Florida. She was a widow and under Aboriginal law when her husband died she became the wife of his brother. In due course her late husband's brother claimed her and she was driven away from Borroloola in a truck belonging to John O'shea's brother, Tim.
When Florida left, Johnson accused John O'Shea of conspiring with Tim to take Florida away so Tim O'Shea could keep her for his own purposes. As a result the two men fell out.
Periodically Johnson made threats against John O'Shea, he also threatened Constable Birt. Relations became gradually worse and after Johnson fired several shots in O'shea's direction, Constable Birt warned him to keep the peace. Johnson then tried to set fire to the Tattersal's Hotel, but John O'Shea discovered the fire before it had taken hold and extinguished it. As a result Mounted Constable Birt went to Johnson's store to arrest him, but Johnson refused to come peacefully. In the ensuing struggle Constable Birt shot him in self defence, hitting him in the stomach. Johnson died from his wound. The year was 1939.
John O'Shea was the original publican of the Tattersal's Hotel, which was owned by his brother Tim. When he died in 1945, time must have healed the memories of the rift with Jack Johnson because he shares the same grave. The area where they are buried had been recognised as the town cemetery for many years. However, there is no evidence of other graves and it is well away from the present cemetery.
The grave has been restored and similar plaques to those on the Jose graves placed at the head.
Historical Graves Historical Graves
Gulf Branch Gulf Branch
JACK FREDRICK JOHNSTON JOHN O'SHEA
Born — 1874
died — 1939 died — 1945
In the concrete over the grave proper;
aged 71 years
Born in Ireland in 1912, Jack arrived in Borroloola in the 1930s to avoid Europe's wars. He became the publican at the Tattersal's Hotel in 1945 after John O'Shea died. As the town declined so did trade at the Tattersal's Hotel until, by the time he was interviewed by David Attenborough, Jack had only about five patrons a year. Jack took this philosophically, in truth he seemed to welcome it, as it gave him time for reflection.[v]
As the hotel trade dwindled he became a prospector. Whilst he found bits and pieces of various ores they never amounted to anything. This bothered Jack no more than the lack of trade at the hotel. Much of his prospecting involved thinking and he claimed he had found the most precious of all rare resources — contentment. He fiercely guarded his solitude and independence.
Jack married a local Aboriginal woman and together they had five sons and two daughters. Both daughters died in childhood and are buried north of the tamarind trees.[vi]
He had found an old abandoned truck, of 1928 vintage, and fixed it up so it was in working order. It would be an exaggeration to call it a restoration, but it ran and was reasonably reliable, at least for a competent bush mechanic. The truck had no starter motor, and Jack never found the starting handle. When he needed to use it, he'd jack up one rear wheel, switch on the ignition, put the truck into gear and spin the wheel. Most people would find this inconvenient, but the arrangement was perfectly adequate for Jack's purposes.
In time, as Borroloola began to grow again, it seems Jack became disenchanted with life in town and moved to a camp in the bush, about six miles (10km) away. It also seems he was lonely. Perhaps he thought an animal would satisfy his need for company better than people. He decided to find a pet and chose a king brown, a highly venomous snake.
One morning he was found dead.
His grave is marked by a home-made concrete cross. The character of the monument is in total harmony with the man beneath the earth.
It is inscribed with these words;
laid to rest 4-4-82
[i] The Hermits of Borroloola, David Attenborough, BBC.
[ii] Verbal Communication, office of St. Peter's Cathedral, North Adelaide.
[iii] Verbal communication Val Seib, Borroloola.
[iv] Information at the Borroloola Museum.
[v] The Hermits of Borroloola, op. cit.
[vi] Verbal communication Val Seib, Borroloola
© Jim Ditchfield