The secret of the church minister’s granddaughter

Bulimba Uniting Church 2018There’s an old wooden Methodist church on the other side of my town that was built in 1866. I was expecting to find ghosts of early British colonial history there, but instead discovered a one-in-a-million Second World War mystery that needed to be solved.

Today the Bulimba Uniting Church (pictured above) stands beautifully amid an affluent café-loving populace surrounded by a bend of the Brisbane River. Back in the 19th century all you saw were farms and tall ships. The names of parishioners who enlisted for the 1914-1918 First World War now adorn honour boards inside the church. In 1942 during the Second World War the Americans arrived, built their camps, and changed everything.

CoinsCameron showed me around the grounds. The church council was happy for me to metal detect in search of forgotten history – watch the video here – and some members hoped that I might find lost graves from the time of the bubonic plague.

What I found beside the original hall was an 1860s English threepence, its sterling silver image of Queen Victoria worn down by the touch of the original congregation. I also unearthed Australian pre-WW1 sixpences, pennies, and halfpennies from as early as 1911. (Pictured above)

Then I was led to the overgrown back garden to look for those lost graves. There had been an outbreak of the black death in Brisbane in the early twentieth century, in 1900 the first victims of which was a man working on the Bulimba wharves and an unfortunate Bulimba baby. I was never going to find the graves, but what I did discover was stunning Second World War history begging to be saved.

Qing Dynasty charmsDuring the war, behind church was known as a “Chinese garden”, and an air raid siren was installed on top of a large telegraph pole at the police station next door. There was a huge US military presence and they employed 800 Chinese workers at a barge-making facility just six minutes’ walk away. When the shift changed at six o’clock every morning, the whole district would be awakened by loud Chinese music blasting over the speakers. A local boy was a Royal Australian Air Force pilot who flew from Brisbane to Port Moresby almost every day. Whenever he returned he would do a fly-past, with his DC3 at 100 feet, the full length of Oxford Street in front of the church to let his mother know that he was home.

BroochesAll these stories breathed new life as every item was unearthed. There were Australian coins from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. There was a coin spill of eight Chinese Qing Dynasty charms (pictured above). The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1912, however these replica coins were almost certainly kept for good luck by the Chinese who were working for the Americans.

Army Nurse rising sun badgeThen the personal items appeared. I found two beautiful brooches, one with gold gilt and the other with a calming purple amethyst (pictured above). There was a sterling silver nurses buckle, a sterling silver Australian Army nurse’s rising sun collar badge, five Australian Army buttons, and an officer’s shoulder star (pictured right). I wanted to find out who lost these items, but it was literally a million-to-one chance.

Over 980,000 Australians enlisted for the Second Word War, 577 of them had a connection to Bulimba, three were nurses, and only one was a Methodist. She lived five minutes’ walk away, and her grandfather was a minister of the church. Marjory Alice McDonagh, it has to be you.

Rev Thomas Thatcher 1844-1913Marjory was born in Ingham, Queensland, on the 9th of July 1913. Her grandfather The Reverend Thomas Thatcher (pictured right) was the second ever minister at the Bulimba Methodist Church, preaching there until 1877. Marjory’s uncle Thomas Thatcher Jnr was at one-time private secretary to the Governor of Queensland. The Thomas Thatcher Memorial Library at the University of Queensland is named after him.

Marjory was living with her family in Jamieson Street, Bulimba, when she enlisted one month before her 30th birthday in 1943. Marjory and the other professional nurses were given the full rank of military officers. She served as a Lieutenant with the 2/11 Australian General Hospital in New Guinea in Lae, Madang, Buna, and Aitape. It was in Lae or Port Moresby that the nurses got to know some RAAF boys who were in a small ship that used to run supplies up the coast. My dad was a radar operator in the RAAF on an island 100km north-west of Port Moresby. The war ended with the surrender of the Japanese on the 15th of August 1945. Below is a photo of Marjory shortly afterwards inspecting a native burial on Koil Island off Wewak, New Guinea. A boulder is placed on top of the grave to prevent the spirit of the dead escaping. She was discharged from the army back in Brisbane on the 7th of January 1947.

Majory Alice McDonagh - Koil Island New Guinea 1945 - AWM 098488Other finds in the Chinese garden were a number of military buckles, and most exciting of all an RAAF other-ranks forage cap badge, RAAF officers cap badge, and an RAAF Training Corps unit badge (pictured below). I needed to know who lost these and how was he connected to Marjory, but it was another one-in-a-million chance.

Of those 980,000 who enlisted, remember that 577 had a connection to Bulimba, 104 of them served in the RAAF, two were in the Training Corps, and only one was an officer. Hello, Alfred Alexander Harrison.

RAAF badgesAlfred was born in Belfast, Ireland, on the 1st of October 1922, and he lived with his family in Victoria Street, Bulimba, when he enlisted in the air force in 1941. He served as a warrant officer with the 7th Operational Training Unit. This was an RAAF training unit for B-24 Liberator Bomber crews, but it was a suspiciously risky posting. Six men were killed in accidents at the unit. In 1944 at Tocumwalin in southern New South Wales, it was proven that the unit had fallen victim to one of the few verified instances of sabotage during the war. Wiring looms in twelve B-24s were cut and removed, believed to have been done by a Japanese cell embedded in Australia before the war.

Alfred was discharged but re-enlisted, being Mentioned in Dispatches while serving in the Malaya Emergency in 1954. He died in 1985 aged just sixty-three.

Mary Alice McDonagh 1913-2000How Alfred was connected to Majory, I’ll never know, however maybe understanding more about him may offer an explanation.

Alfred was engaged to a Brisbane girl during the second-last year of the war and they were married at the Bulimba Presbyterian Church in February 1947. Marjory had been discharged from the army just six weeks earlier and so was home at the time of the wedding. Maybe Marjory threw out her wartime memorabilia, including that from Alfred, not wanting to remember a lost love. It remains a secret yet to be told.

Marjory, seen here later in life, died in 2000 aged eighty-seven, never having married.

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Photo credits:
Bulimba Uniting Church 2018 – my own
Coins – my own
Chinese charms – my own
Brooches – my own
Rising Sun – my own
Rev Thomas Thatcher – Thatcher Descendants in Australia (1993), Isabelle Thatcher
Koil Island – Australian War Memorial 098488
RAAF badges – my own
Marjory McDonagh – Thatcher Descendants in Australia (1993), Isabelle Thatcher


  1. Lovwly story, it’s good to explore the past, so many details are just lost. I live in California and have never been to Australia, but so much history here is also lost.

    Liked by 1 person

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