This is an extract from ‘The Long, Long Road – Isa to the Burma Railway and Back’ written by George Beard (Founder of Playtime stores) and reproduced here with kind permission of the Beard Family.
My grandfather George Alfred Beard was a highly qualified Mine Manager, who was born on the Clermont copper field in Queensland in 1868, and died in Port Kembla, New South Wales in 1925, from Miners Phthisis.
He joined a multitude of mining men who died from this dreaded disease, caused by dust on the lungs, resulting in a slow and painful death.
As he had worked underground most of his life on the Gold Fields of Western Australia and later in Cobar, all dry hard rock mines with lots of dust, and his death was not surprising.
That was the sad fate of the majority of hard rock miners in those days.
At the time of his death I was six years old and remember clearly seeing him in bed in his home, which was not far from our home.
As far as I can recall, his death was not discussed in my presence.
I did not attend the funeral and to a large degree, just what happened to him was a mystery to me.
I missed the boiled lollies he used to have me purchase for him at a nearby corner store.
He used to give me threepence to make the purchase and he would carefully take out the black lollies and then hand the remainder to me.
This was a real treat because lollies were a luxury as far as I was concerned.
Sometimes he would talk with me, but most times he was troubled with a cough and appeared to be really tired.
My father, Alfred Patrick Leo Beard, eldest son of George and Nora Beard, moved from the civilisation of Port Kembla to a frontier town called Mount Isa towards the end of 1925 to take up a clerical appointment with the Mount Isa Mining Company.
My grandfather had been engaged in early 1925 to report on the newly discovered Mount Isa ore body.
When he returned to Port Kembla, with glowing reports, it caused my father to seek employment with the fledgling mining company, and he departed for Mount Isa in November 1925.
When my father left for Mount Isa in 1925, my mother and her three sons moved back to Cobar, where we were to stay until he sent for us.
It has always been a mystery to me why he moved to an isolated mining camp – which was all that Mount Isa was in those days – with a young wife and three young sons.
Money could not have been the reason, because his starting salary in Mount Isa was only seen pounds per week.
We left Cobar in June 1926 and headed for Mount Isa.
It was certainly an interesting journey, which occupied at least two weeks.
We travelled by train to Brisbane, where we stayed for a couple of days with friends of my mother.
I have scant memories of the days in Brisbane, but do remember we almost missed our ship.
The gang planks were already raised when we reached the wharf to join the M.V. ‘Cooma’ of about 4,000 tons, bound for Townsville.
Help was needed to get us all, plus our luggage, over the rail of the ship.
If it was an omen, we did not see it as such.
The ship hit a reef out from Rockhampton, where the old rust bucket stuck hard and fast.
Later, it caught fire and the hulk remains there until this day.
My mother, just 27 years, (I was 7, Teddy was 5, whilst Paddy was less than 2 years), must have been sick with worry.
Here she showed her true grit by playing the piano all night, while the passengers, all in life jackets, sat around and listened.
She was a first class pianist, with an excellent touch, could sight read, and play by ear, so she was the right lady in the right place that night in June 1926.
Soon after dawn we were taken off in life boats and travelled to Rockhampton, where the papers heard of her courage.
They wrote up the story of the young mother with three children who played the piano all night on the sinking ship, and kept the spirit of the passengers high.
The story was published without her name being mentioned because she would not divulge it.
From Rockhampton we continued by rail to Townsville and then continued to Duchess, where the rail line ended.
The 60 miles to Mount Isa were covered in a big American car driven by Black Harry Smith, father of Norman, who was later, for many years, MLA for Mount Isa.
Our shock when we awoke in Mount Isa the next morning was well expressed by Teddy, who asked, “When are we going to get there Mum?”
The replay, “We are here Teddy” brought the immediate reply “We cannot be Mum, because this is the bush!”
He was right.
It was the bush and there was not another house for miles.
I have no memory of my mother complaining, but she surely had ground to.
The small house, built on stilts, had roof and walls of galvanised iron with no ceiling or lining.
The kitchen was on the ground with the floor made from crushed white-ant nests.
These nests, red in colour, could be seen everywhere, looking not unlike tombstones, and up to six feet or more tall.
When crushed and mixed with water they made a hard surface, later used for tennis courts.
There were no neighbours, no electricity, and no running water, so to say it was primitive was an understatement.
I do not recall my mother crying, but she surely must have in private when she thought of her neat little home in Port Kembla, and all that went with it.
Researched by Kim-Maree Burton
Photographs courtesy of the Beard Family.
- The weekly history column can also be found online at northweststar.com.au in the community section.