The ghost hearse

In 1854 George Dowden became his town’s first cabinet maker and upholsterer – and one of the first undertakers.  He combined these three trades to ensure a steady flow of business, and so that his coffins were the most comfortable for the dead. And his hearse proved to be extraordinary. I told a version of this tale live on West Bremer Radio.

George lived and worked on the corner of Brisbane and Ellenborough Streets in Ipswich, Queensland. For years the location was known as Dowden’s Corner, but ironically before becoming a funeral parlour it was a butcher’s shop. Today it’s occupied by the art deco old Queensland Times building.

Corner of Brisbane and Ellenborough streets today

George introduced the first hearse to Ipswich. Before that the dead were carried on a wood cart. His business thrived for over a century with at least four generations of George Dowdens carrying on with the dead. From the mid-1870s George’s hearse didn’t just take the dead away, but brought death as well, while the hearse itself remained indestructible.

The menace surfaced in June 1875 when George was declared insolvent. The following month in July, George used the hearse to bury his own ten-month-old daughter Bridget. Four months after that in November, the stable at the back of George’s house and business caught fire. George’s hearse escaped unscathed, but the stable was totally destroyed. George couldn’t say what started the fire, except to speculate that maybe young boys were secretly having a smoke near the hay.

In December of that year, John Drysdale died. Drysdale was the innkeeper of the Royal Mail Hotel at Goodna. He was seized with an apoplectic fit and died within minutes.

On new years’ eve, in George’s worst ever year, George rolled up with his hearse. As the cortege was enroute to the cemetery with George sitting up on top, George himself was seized with an apoplectic fit and he died. George Dowden was the first undertaker in Australia to actually die while conducting a funeral. And as far as I’ve found, it’s only happened twice since.

Dowden’s ghost hearse

What got the blame for George’s strange death was the undertaker’s ghoulish tradition of sitting up on the hearse in the full sun for hours on end, dressing in a heavy black suit and coat, and with his head covered by a black silk hat wrapped round with a heavy black silk band. On this deadly day, George’s macabre garb soaked up the extreme heat of an Ipswich heatwave to conspire with his hearse to kill him.

The business was supposedly taken over by his son George Dowden Junior, although perhaps the hearse continued its influence. George Junior was actually born at the funeral parlour. But in April 1908 George Junior died at just 47-years-old. He was transported to the cemetery in his own hearse.

The business was then taken over by his son George Dowden the Third who shared the mortal danger by bringing on other family members. This included his sister Martha and her husband Thomas Reddy. Martha had also been born at the funeral parlour. The very next year in October 1909, Martha’s heart gave out and within minutes was also dead while still a relatively young woman.

Martha Dowden and her husband Thomas Reddy

The Dowden hearses appeared indestructible despite all this unexpected family death and destruction around them.

In June 1927 on Melbourne Street in South Brisbane, a steam wagon careered out of control. It missed the Dowden hearse that was out in front of their South Brisbane funeral parlour, and instead smashed into George the Third’s car. Incidentally, this was on the same day that Dame Nellie Melba arrived in Brisbane to slay audiences in concerts at what is now the old Queensland Museum.

But the worst was still to come.

In October 1934, an open bus was travelling along Ipswich Road at Darra. Then, as if appearing from nowhere, the dark Dowden hearse was suddenly on the road and the two vehicles appeared doomed to crash head-on. The passenger vehicle veered off the road and rolled.

A passenger was Richard Young. He was a butcher from Woody Point near Redcliffe who had survived being shot to pieces in the First World War including a severely fractured skull. This time Young was killed with even more horrible head injuries. He became another victim of the Dowden ghost hearse – which first claimed George Dowden himself back in 1875.

The hearse again was untouched.


Photo credits:
19th century hearse, Laidley Historical Village 2022 – Harold Peacock.
Old Queensland Times building, Ipswich 2022 – Harold Peacock.
Hearse outside George Dowden funeral parlour, Ipswich mid 1920s – Picture Ipswich.
Thomas and Martha Reddy nee Dowden Reddy, Ipswich 1904 – Picture Ipswich.

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