I enjoy exploring a place’s shadows, not because I have a particular fascination with morbidity, but because they tell me so much about life, which I dearly love. Shadows illuminate history in a way unlike any other, which is why I found myself standing outside Brisbane City Hall – beneath tall pillars blazoned with neon ice-cream cones – waiting for my ghost tour of the CBD to begin…
Minutes ticked by before I walked over to a young lady dressed in black (of course) named Lily, who was our guide, it turned out, addressing a small group in a heavily feigned voice not unlike an Elizabethan actress. Inching closer to Brisbane City Hall, amidst the garish lights and urban din, we were told our first tale, which felt a bit like I was watching a dramedy.
Brisbane City Hall
We learnt that four ghosts are believed to roam Brisbane City Hall, which was built sometime between 1920 and 1930, although only two deaths are known to have occurred here. Both appear to be suicides.
The first occurred, ironically, on Halloween in 1935. A man by the name of George Betts took a lift to the tower’s observation landing 40 metres up and was found sprawled across the pavement below. What exactly happened at the top remains a mystery. His ghost gave rise to the legend of the haunted tower after a series of strange noises and events occurred here. The area was closed for decades as a result.
Then, on the 21st of December 1937, a lady by the name of Hilda Angus Boardman leapt to her death from the clock tower’s observation platform. Unfortunately for her, a galvanised roof partly broke her fall and she took some time to die of massive internal injuries. A ghost has been seen in the foyer of Brisbane City Hall and is perhaps hers, although no one is certain. In February of 2012, a photo of a ghostly figure on the hall’s stairs was posted on a forum.
The dampening part of these cadaverous tales is that we heard them out front and weren’t allowed inside. For our next stop, however, we were granted access into the back of Brisbane Arcade, allegedly one of Brisbane’s most haunted locales.
Following Lily into Brisbane Arcade, we were taken to the back corner of the upper level, where the ghost of a lady allegedly patrols a corridor. Workers have reportedly seen her reflection in a window or door, only to turn and find nothing there. Others, we were told, have felt a hand slip into theirs, or felt a brush of fabric. The origin of this female spectre is uncertain, however one theory, which Lily postulates, is as follows:
One evening in the mid 1800s, a man came into a considerable sum of money, went to a bar, became drunk and bragged about it. The next morning he was found hacked to pieces. Shortly after, a man by the name of Patrick Mayne came, rather mysteriously, into a large amount of money and opened a butcher’s shop (of all things). Although heavily under suspicion, he died in 1865 without conviction.
Brisbane Arcade was built over Patrick Mayne’s butcher shop and it’s believed the female spectre could be Mayne’s wife or daughter, trapped in the back arcade corridor, paying for their beloved’s sins. The passage is actually a short landing, about 15 metres long, accessed by a staircase on either side. One by one we wandered across the landing, ostensibly this shadow’s favourite haunt, while Lily waited downstairs. Interestingly, Lily told me she has never wandered up there. I did and felt and saw nothing. Just some faint green lights, likely a reflection from outside.
The Brisbane Registry Office
The Brisbane Registry Office, formerly the Government Printing Press, is the only building in Brisbane to contain grotesques (otherwise known as gargoyles), which are perched on either side of its rooftop. They are thought to ward off evil spirits, however these ones invite them, Lily tells us. Printing presses, much to the displeasure of the church, used to print copies of the Bible. This made the book more accessible to commoners and limited the church’s ability to manipulate its contents.
The church therefore condemned printers, citing them in league with the devil. However instead of backing down, the printers took on Lucifer as their patron saint. Thus the term the ‘black arts’ is said to refer to the black ink stains on the devilish printer’s hands. And in one particular incident here, an apprentice printer (it’s believed) attempted to fix the gut-wrenching noises of a printer against the wishes of his seniors. He stopped the machine, went inside and after a few minutes it started again, as did his harrowing screams.
Legend has it, it took three days to clean out the machine and all that was left was his wedding ring finger, ring still intact. Lily tells us the printer still exists in Brisbane’s archives, and unlike other printers – which contain black ink stains – this one is still stained blood red. Today the building is the Registry of Births Deaths & Marriages and the head of Lucifer, which sits above the building’s arch, casts a watchful eye.
Superstitious newlyweds beware: in her prophetic, Lord of the Rings-esque voice, Lily tells us all who pass beneath the arch will be “marked for the entire day.”
This was the last and, at least for me, the tour’s most interesting story. Inside Brisbane’s old Executive Building, cleaners have allegedly seen ‘things’ along the second corridor. Here, Lily tells us, a female ghost has been spotted, often just staring from the end of a corridor, or rushing about, dressed in the garb of the 1930s. Others have heard scratching in the walls, floor and ceiling and a woman begging, crying for help in room 323 (formerly room 11). Taps have been turned on and garments thrown about this room.
The woman, it’s believed, was Marjorie Norval, the secretary of the wife of William Forgan Smith – the Premier of Queensland during the 1930s and early 1940s. Norval was a very social woman and had been seen courting men of parliament. One night on the 11th of November in 1938, she allegedly withdrew a large sum of money, rode in a car to Central Station and was never seen again. Interestingly, despite the fact she was missing from work, Forgan Smith and his wife took eight days to alert the authorities.
It took a further five years for a formal inquiry to be held into the matter, and magistrate Mr Leahy concluded he believed that Ms Norval had undergone an operation from which she did not emerge alive. Rumours then circulated she was impregnated by a politician, had an ill-fated abortion, was hacked to pieces and disposed of within the walls, floor and ceiling of room 11, now room 323.
After noticing several other wanderers had eavesdropped on our baleful narrative, I followed our group towards a large square, where Lily began to tell us one last tale while lights blinked across the cityscape and classical music rose to a crescendo. Unfortunately, I didn’t catch any of it due to the noise. In fact, I didn’t experience any ghostly feelings or sightings on this tour, which wasn’t helped by the busy atmosphere.
Should you go on the tour?
While I found parts of Brisbane’s history fascinating, I wouldn’t recommend this tour, for several reasons: firstly, the accent of our tour guide Lily was over the top. I thought it diminished the experience and any authenticity the stories might have. Also, we only went inside one site, therefore you could do this tour yourself with a bit of research. Lastly, as much of the stories were told on the streets, they were sometimes hard to hear and see. I do, however, recommend Brisbane Ghost Tours’ Boggo Road Gaol tour, which I’ve written about here.
Disclosure: I received a complementary tour for writing this review. However all thoughts expressed here are, as always, entirely my own.