Hardships of Mount Isa's early days

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.

Of all the hardships she (my mother) suffered in those early days in Mount Isa, loneliness must have been the worst.

My father had a most demanding job; he was the only one in the office, and so had to become a jack of all trades, working at least half of all Saturdays as well as often on Sundays.

Everyone employed by the company worked hard, all worried about whether the mine would ever be developed.

My father was close friends with the general manager, George Gray, whom he knew from Cobar, John Campbell Miles, who had discovered the Mount Isa field, Charlie Leonard, the blacksmith from Cloncurry, Jack Spence, the mining engineer, and many other down to earth characters.

They all worked many unpaid overtime hours.

For my mother, this meant that there was not a single adult with whom to talk after my father went to work.

She was for a long period the only woman living on the mining lease.

There were other women living on what was known as the ‘Town’ side, across the Leichhardt River, as opposed to the ‘Mine’ side, to the west.

As I was the oldest child, Mum talked with me quite a lot.

Perhaps that was one of the reasons I was serious as a boy, and possibly more mature.

As I recall, she accepted her lot without complaint, and there is no doubt her strong faith sustained her to a huge extent during this trying period in her life.

Water was obtained from soaks in the river bed, and was delivered to us in 100 gallon tanks, at a cost of three shillings.

A soak is made by digging a hole in the sand of the dry river bed.

Timber is used to prevent the sand falling back into the hole, and the water which seeps through the sand is crystal clear after it is allowed to settle.

The water was clear, with a good flavour, much more so than the water from bores which were sunk later.

(There bores were sub-artesian, which gave good water from about three feet; this water had distinct flavour, and had a very heavy metal content).

At times it was necessary to dig several feet into the river bed, but always the water was there.

In those early days I remember seeing fish up to six or eight inches long the day after rain filled the creek.

Apparently the fish dig down in the sand just as far as is necessary for them to find sufficient water to survive.

After rain, they can continue their life in water.

As there was of course no running water, we used to fill a special bucket and pull it to a height of about six feet with a rope on a pulley.

The water would come down like a shower when the second rope was pulled.

These showers were taken in the back yard, standing on boards, barely hidden from view by a couple of sheets of galvanised iron.

The only cooling to prevent butter turning to oil, or the meat from going rotten, was from the use of Coolgardie safes.

These were boxes about three feet square and a little over three feet in height.

The base and frame were made of wood with hessian walls.

On top was a galvanised iron tray about three inches deep.

This tray was filled with water and pieces of cloth were raped in the water of the tray and over the hessian sides.

The water thus moved slowly down the hessian sides, and particularly if there was a breeze, the inside was quite cool – cool enough to prevent the butter, which was supplied in tins, from turning into oil.

Bush flies were a challenge, but if we were alert in pulling aside the hessian opening, the flies were kept out.

Most evenings we tended to eat after dark, to avoid sharing our food with tens of thousands of bush flies.

These flies are smaller than the normal household fly, but very determined to penetrate noses and eyes.

They caused a great deal of eye trouble; as children we used to have castor oil rubbed around our eyes to deter their fierce attacks.

At times they would sting an eye, causing it to swell so much that vision was almost nil for a few days.

Pioneer: A.P. (Neane) Beard - Fifth employee in 1925 and first Controller of Accounts for Mount Isa Mines - photo circa 1951.

Pioneer: A.P. (Neane) Beard - Fifth employee in 1925 and first Controller of Accounts for Mount Isa Mines - photo circa 1951.

These stings were called ‘bung eyes’, and they were very common indeed.

Flies also carried germs to the eyes which created a condition called ‘sandy blight’.

Much pus would be discharged from the eye, and if allowed to continue for long period, permanent damage could be done.

The name ‘sandy blight’ was apt, as sufferers felt as though they had sand in their eyes.

Our mother was very diligent in caring for our eyes, and Teddy, Paddy and I had little eye trouble.

But my sister Lola, who was born in the Cloncurry Hospital in 1928, was badly afflicted with sandy blight when she was about three.

She had to go to the hospital for an anaesthetic while here eyelids were ‘turned inside out’ so that the granulated tissue could be burned out – with bluestone (copper sulphate).

I believe, Lola never forgot the experience, and for years afterwards, until she was about 10, she wore a large fly veil around her hat in summer.

The doctor had warned my parents that a further attack of sandy blight could put her eyesight at risk.

Storage:  A coolgardie safe with hessian sides. Photos supplied courtesy of MIMAG.

Storage: A coolgardie safe with hessian sides. Photos supplied courtesy of MIMAG.

Researched by Kim-Maree Burton.  

Pests: House and Bush flies of the outback.Photos courtesy of MIMAG.

Pests: House and Bush flies of the outback.Photos courtesy of MIMAG.


Photos courtesy of MIMAG.

The history column by Mount Isa local Kim-Maree Burton, including previous editions, can also be read online at northweststar.com.au in the community section of the website. It appears in the print edition of The North West Star each Saturday.

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