One hundred and fifty years ago there was a catastrophe in Ipswich, Queensland, with the death of two pupils at Saint Mary’s Catholic School. It’s time to rewrite the name of the hero back into history. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
On the afternoon of Sunday the 26th of November 1871, a number of the boarders at St Mary’s were in their dormitory. It was a detached wooden building with a galvanized iron roof. They were waiting for a storm to end, and they were doing different things, some reading, some talking, and others lying on beds.
A thin iron wire extended across the room on which a dividing curtain was hung. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck and entered the dormitory travelling along the wire – it lit up the room with an enormous flash as if the whole world had burst in flames.
All the boys were left lying on the floor in different parts of the room and spread in every direction. Only one of them remained conscious. Eight had to be carried unconscious to safety, two of whom each had a boot blown off and shredded. The two remaining boys were instantly killed. They were both struck in the head and their faces were blackened.
Their names were Frederick Thomas Ahrens and George O’Brien, they were aged fourteen and eleven years respectively.
The father of young Ahrens had built the Bowen Hotel which was the first hotel in Roma and said to be the best hotel west of Toowoomba. Young O’Brien was the son of a bailiff of the Queensland district court.
Arriving on the scene were Mr James Breen who was in charge of the school, Father Henry Brun, and Brother Polycarp. They began to rub the deceased boys with brandy in a bid to revive them.
Within ten minutes Dr William Von Lossberg arrived. He was the same doctor who years later caused so much controversy with his autopsies of the infamous Gatton Murders.
One of the survivors with a blown off boot was Ted O’Neill who only four days earlier had celebrated his ninth birthday. His father was a grazier at Beaudesert. Ted would grow up to inherit the farm and be elected a Beaudesert councillor.
Sixty-three years after the disaster, Ted recounted the story for his local newspaper in what proved to be the last public retelling. In it he told how a boy called Sydes was the only one to have remained conscious.
The sixteen-year-old Sydes carried all but one of the boys out of the smoke-filled room to safety. While Sydes was rescuing them, he sent one for a doctor and another for Father Brun.
The lad was Edward Sydes who grew up with his family on Nicholas Street in Ipswich. He became a well-known Brisbane barrister and then studied for the priesthood. He enlisted for the First World War and served as a chaplain with the Australian 5th Field Artillery Brigade. In 1918 Edward was slightly gassed and returned to England. There he died in hospital at Wandsworth, London, just four days after the Armistice. He was buried at Kensal Green with full military honours.
This was a sad end for the Hero of St Mary’s – except that it wasn’t true!
You see, in the retelling of the story, the name of the well-known Edward Sydes had been substituted for that of his forgotten older brother. Their names had been confused because both attended Ipswich Grammar School and had brilliant academic careers. But one of them died young, and the other enjoyed a high public profile.
It was the older James Sydes who dragged the survivors of the St Mary’s tragedy out of the dormitory. It was James who had the presence of mind to send for Dr Von Lossberg and Father Brun. And it was James’s testimony on which the inquiry relied all those years ago.
James became a schoolteacher. He spent five years as head teacher at Drayton School before taking charge of Toowoomba South in 1890. However, that’s where he died on the 30th of April 1891 during a flu epidemic. He was only thirty-five-years-old, unmarried, and so he disappeared from history.
This year marks the 130th anniversary of the death of James Sydes, and next month is the 150th anniversary of the St Mary’s Tragedy itself.
The event changed the lives of those involved. Of the school staff on the scene, Mr Breen turned to the priesthood. Father Brun and Brother Polycarp were both sent back to France, ending their days in New York and Jerusalem respectively.
It’s time to re-write the name of the young hero James Patrick Sydes back into history.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO
St Mary’s Catholic Church and School, Ipswich, 2020 – my own
Reverend Father James Benedict Breen – Telegraph, Brisbane, 23 December 1916, page 8
Dr William Henry von Lossberg – Queensland Times, Ipswich, 1 November 1913, page 10
Captain Reverend Edward Sydes – Queenslander, Brisbane, 30 November 1918, page 24