Social historian and journalist NICHOLE OVERALL shares the story of Queanbeyan’s Boer War memorial and its long journey from Monaro Street to the Moore Park Memorial Rose Garden.
YOU can still make out the oddly-shaped indentation in the centre of the primary crossroad of Queanbeyan’s CBD where an unusual monument stood for more than 50 years.
From resurrection to transplantation, the journey of the NSW town’s memorial to a brutal, almost three-year conflict in which Australia really didn’t have any quarrel, the South African Boer War, 1899-1902, is almost unknown.
On November 9, 1903 – 120 years ago – an “imposing” procession led by the town band (est 1871) with local members of the 1st Australian Light Horse joined by children from the Queanbeyan Superior Public School (1877), marched down Monaro Street to the cheers of a 350-odd throng.
The crowd attired in “Sunday best” milled excitedly around the front of Byrne’s Royal Hotel (of 1850) or gathered on the balconies of well-positioned two-storey establishments, jostling for the best view of the “striking” 12-foot high, banded column.
Adorned with streamers and flanked by the district’s horse-drawn fire engine (the volunteer brigade formed in 1890), it was among the first – and forever few – of its kind throughout the country. Intended to honour the brave and the dead, so too was it a demonstration of the still small town’s progressive path.
Over a decade earlier, Queanbeyan had dashed a proposal to become one of the earliest regional centres to be electrified (coincidentally, Tamworth was first on November 9, 1888).
Instead, in 1903 illumination of its public spaces was limited to a few kerosene lamp posts (until 1920).
Funded by the community, the memorial’s dual function in lighting up the main intersection was another relatively rare occurrence.
Atop it was a platform bearing a large and ornate vapour gas lamp. A tank to supply it was buried deep beneath the hard-packed dirt of the main thoroughfare, accessed by a stone and timber tunnel constructed almost 20 years earlier.
Among the esteemed guests present, grazier, future member for Queanbeyan (1906-1910) and decorated war hero, Major Granville Ryrie, of Michelago – one of 190 to enlist from the region (63 from Queanbeyan alone, making it one of the largest contingents in NSW).
Australia, as a frontier nation volunteering for a frontier war to aid Mother England in the pursuit of far-off lands and riches (in particular gold and diamonds), saw some 20,000 “citizen soldiers” pledge their service.
For the skilled riders and crack shots, the appeal was adventure with a side serve of patriotism, evidenced in felt slouch hats buttoned up on one side with the badge of a rising sun; a practical allowance so as to shoulder a rifle without damaging the brim.
The unanimous outcome of a Queanbeyan public meeting had been for the district’s tribute to “bear the names of all the locals who participated in the war”. Only five though, would be etched for eternity on the marble plaque: among the 1000 or so to die or never be found.
Trooper James Swan, of Stony Creek (Carwoola) is one.
Twenty-four years old, his enlistment number was 56, his older brother Richard, 57.
Richard returned. James died in 1901 following a neck injury when his horse was shot from under him.
“One of Queanbeyan’s best known landmarks” would stand vigil to them all for just over half a century – until progress almost led to its demise.
From the arrival of the town’s first Model T Ford in 1910 thanks to “Moore Bros, the pioneers of the motor car in Queanbeyan”, the central position had become a traffic hazard.
A 1935 controversial suggestion of replacing it with a clock tower was resisted (“must be kept sacrosanct”) but when hit by a truck in 1956, requiring a three-year restoration effort, nearly 10 years on, preservation was paramount.
Rebuilt from “synthetic stone” with a less ostentatious electric light fitting, it was afforded a “distinct place of its own” on a median strip across from the Town Park.
Come 2020 it was decided a location more befitting was in order: the Moore Park Memorial Rose Garden – which I had the great honour to open as mayoress in 2015 to mark the Anzac and Red Cross centenaries.
Intended as a community’s reminder of the sacrifice of the “flower of our youth”, the Boer War Memorial also came to symbolise patriotic fervour: the rallying point for “sons of the Empire” called to emulate those previous “noble efforts” in “the war to end all wars”. On the initial plea from this poignant pulpit, 27 locals enlisted for World War I.
As crosses row on row mark their place, so does a well-travelled but much overlooked marking in the middle of a regional city’s heart bear testament to the march of time.
More of Nichole’s investigations into the history and mysteries of the Canberra region at capitalcrimefiles.com.au.
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