‘Total monster’: Outback horror house
WARNING: Sensitive and graphic content
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this story contains images of people who have passed away.
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The house where 40 pairs of human ears were nailed up around the walls still stands up in the Gulf country, in a remote part of the outback most Australians have never seen.
The grand old homestead is above a bend of a river which cuts deep gorges through the vast tract of woodland and savanna bordering the Gulf of Carpentaria.
It is called Lawn Hill station, and it lies smack bang in Waanyi country, the tribal territory of an indigenous gulf people who occupied around 25,000 square kilometres of land between northwestern Queensland and the eastern Northern Territory.
More recently, Lawn Hill was known as the location of the world’s biggest zinc mine, Century, once owned by Rio Tinto.
But back in the 1880s, it was the site of atrocities against the Waanyi, the molesting of their children, the raping of their women, the shooting of their men, and the taking of their body parts as trophies.
The two men linked to the trophy ears – the owner of Lawn Hill, Frank Hann, and his station manager, Jack Watson, are both recorded as having cut off the heads of Aborigines and presented them as souvenirs or bounty.
These atrocities were committed when Watson had moved on from Lawn Hill to the Northern Territory and Hann had migrated to Western Australia.
Lawn Hill homestead where owner Frank Hann and manager Jack Watson had 40 pairs of Aborigines ears nailed to the wall as trophies.
The 40 pairs of ears nailed on Lawn Hill’s walls were the ears of Waanyi people.
But that infamy would have been regarded just as a tale handed down by the Waanyi to the current generation, if not for the diary entries of a young white woman.
And but for the almost accidental discovery of the diary of Emily Caroline Creaghe, lying unpublished on a shelf, the story may never have been told.
Then a 22-year-old newlywed, Creaghe had only been living in Australia for seven years after emigrating from England when she wrote her diary.
She preceded by more than two decades her more famous successor Jeanne Gunn, author of the celebrated book turned movie, We of The Never Never.
Creaghe is now credited as the first white female to explore remote Australia, not only braving the frontiers of an otherwise all-male domain but recording it all in searing detail.
Her recollections of relations between white and Aboriginal Australians touch on degradation, abuse and the probable murder of colonial-era Aborigines.
But Creaghe’s handwritten diary might still be just another unpublished manuscript on the shelves of the Mitchell Library in Sydney had Adelaide historian Peter Monteath not happened upon it.
Flinders University professor of history, Monteath was researching Australian explorers when he came across Creaghe’s diary, donated to the library by her descendants.
Lawn Hill station in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northwestern Queensland.
First published in 2004, The Diary of Emily Caroline Creaghe is now throwing light on the violence perpetrated against indigenous people by two men – Jack Watson and Frank Hann – once hailed as heroes and pioneers of early Australia.
These are the two men directly connected with the house at Lawn Hill, known to some as “Lorne Hill”, on whose walls, as recorded by Creaghe, the ears were nailed.
In early 1883, “Carrie” as Creaghe was known, was staying at the Shadforth family’s Lilydale station at Carl Creek in the Gulf.
In December 1882 she had set sail from Sydney with her husband, Irish-born station manager Harry Alington Creaghe for Thursday Island.
There they met up with explorer Ernest Favenc to embark on a tour of the Gulf country, from Normanton in Queensland to Port Darwin in the Northern Territory.
The trip was bankrolled by a newspaper in Queensland, which was competing with South Australia, to open up the hitherto unexplored land of the Northern Territory for development.
When Favenc’s wife Elizabeth became ill and returned home, Creaghe became the sole female on the trip.
Mrs Creaghe did the whole trip on horseback, riding sidesaddle across thousands of kilometres.
Peter Monteath said Creaghe was intrepid, courageous and tougher than her husband Harry, who self-medicated against going “troppo” in the sweltering wilderness with laudanum [opium] on the journey.
Lawn Hill Gorge in Boodjamulla National Park in which lies the infamous Lawn Hill station. Picture: Reichlyn Aguilar.
While Favenc accompanied his pregnant wife back to Sydney, Creaghe – who would also become pregnant on the journey – spent three months waiting at Lilydale, 65km south of Lawn Hill.
Lilydale is now better known as Riversleigh, the world heritage fossil deposit dating back 25 million years and described by David Attenborough as the among the top four most important in the world.
In 1883, the conditions were atrocious, with the heat and the lack of facilities.
Creaghe wrote that Mr and Mrs Shadforth lived there “with their ten children in four rooms but no ceilings”.
On Thursday, March 8, 1883, Creaghe wrote in her diary:
“We slept again outside, but even then it was too hot to sleep. Mr Bob Shadforth went up to ‘Lorne hill’ Mr Jack Watson’s and Mr Frank Hann’s station about 40 miles away.
“Very hot. No rain. Mr Watson has 40 pairs of blacks’ ears nailed around the walls collected during raiding parties after the loss of many cattle speared by the blacks.”
Creaghe wrote daily in her diary.
A few days later she wrote, “The blacks are particularly aggressive in this district.”
A group of Aboriginal people on Lawn Hill station in the early 1900s.
On March 20, she wrote:
“The rainy season seems to have set in, in real good earnest; it has been raining heavily nearly all day. Mr Shadforth & Ernest Shadforth came home but had to leave the dray at Gregory Downs as the roads were too heavy & the rivers too high. They brought a new black gin with them; she cannot speak a word of English. Mr Shadforth put a rope around the gin’s neck & dragged her along on foot, he was riding. This seems to be the usual method.
And on the following day, Creaghe entered:
“No rain this morning, but dull & cloudy. Rained all the afternoon in showers. The new gin, whom they call Bella, is chained up to a tree a few yards from the house, she is not to be loosed until they think she is tamed. Madame Topsey, an old gin got threshing.”
Thereafter, Carrie Creagh’s diary entries refer to the flies as “something dreadful”, a plague of beetles, the alligators, the heat, the wet and the terrible food.
Powell Creek telegraph station, where Carrie Creaghe and husband Harry stopped with explorer Ernest Favenc in May 1883.
On 10 April: “Mr Crawford’s remains were found, killed by the blacks. Mr Lamond has gone out to get hold of the wretches and give them their desserts.”
On April 14, Ernest Favenc rejoined the Creaghes with overland telegraph officer, and assistant, Lindsay Crawford, and the party forged on into territory unexplored by Europeans.
Carrie Creaghe’s diary reflects paranoia.
Her entry of April 15 notes that all party members carried revolvers and the gentlemen had rifles slung on their saddles.
On Monday, April 23, Creaghe wrote, “We are now on what is called the ‘Table-land’, a flat piece of country on the top of a very high mountain.
“We are now in an unexplored country where no white man has been before, so it is uncertain when we may see water again.”
They reached Daly Waters in the Northern Territory on July 15 and Port Darwin on August 14, 1883.
Back at Lawn Hill station, the two men named by Creaghe as the owners of the house where the 40 pairs of ears were nailed – Jack Watson and Frank Hann – were forging reputations as so-called legends in the