Sunday, March 6, 2011

And his ghost may be heard

 While I was writing the book about Adelaide (which is now finished and sent to the publisher as of last week; hallelujah and so on), I became acquainted with the magnificent Australian Newspapers Digitisation Program being undertaken by the National Library of Australia. Much material of the livelier sort – merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative – comes straight from the Adelaide papers of the times, mainly the Register and the Advertiser.

And here's something I just stumbled on (you do an awful lot of stumbling over treasure when you're noodling around at that site) a moment ago while looking for something quite different. It sounds eerily familiar. Nuriootpa is in the Barossa Valley. NOW READ ON ...

From The Advertiser, 21 March 1908


NURIOOTPA, March 19. - An apple-packer, while passing over the North Para bridge, at 6.45 a.m. to-day, saw the body of a man floating in the river near Mr. C. Schelz's house. He called at Tolley's distillery and the police were communicated with by telephone. Mounted Constable Grosser soon arrived on the scene and with assistance took the body from the water.

It was found to be that of a man about 75 years of age, and 5 ft. 5 in. in height. The deceased was toothless and had blue eyes, grey hair, and a grey goatee beard.

The deceased arrived in this town on Tuesday night with a swag and was last seen alive late yesterday afternoon, when he was camping on the bank of the river near the spot where his body was found. He was a stranger in these parts. A paper found on him bore the name of Michael Whelan. The swag, which was neatly arranged, was attached to the body. An inquest was considered unnecessary, everything pointing to accidental death from drowning.


  1. It was found to be that of a man about 75 years of age, and 5 ft. 5 in. in height. The deceased was toothless and had blue eyes, grey hair, and a grey goatee beard.

    ... who was of a caucasian appearance and was last seen floating beneath the North Para bridge in a northerly direction. Police advised that he should not be approached as he might be decomposifying and dangerous. Anyone spotting the floatee should call SA Police.

  2. Only one problem with this scenario: the North Para River flows southwest.

    I think coppers in this era must have been given specific training in fishing dead bodies out of bodies of water. Around the same time as this, there was a purpose-built structure on the banks of the Torrens in Adelaide specifically for stationing a police officer whose entire job was to fish the suicides and the the victims of murder and accidental drowning out of the river. (Those who scoff at the idea of it being possible to drown in the Torrens might recall that one can drown in a bucket of water.)

  3. A friend of mine, Megan, who you know, was canoeing on the Torrens once long ago when her friend poked something which she thought was a green mossy floating log with her paddle. It turned out not to be.


    Do you think Whelan might have been the original Swagman? (Too lazy to look up exactly how old the song is!)

  4. Helen, I looked it up -- the song was written in 1895, in Queensland. (Hence the tag 'prophecy'.)

    What this story suggests to me is that the drowning swaggie was an extremely common phenomenon. If this one was 75 and still wearing his swag it strikes me as just as likely to have been suicide.

    I was intrigued by the phrase 'a stranger in these parts' which I've often heard (and said myself) in an exaggerated American accent as a joke -- but it was clearly not, in 1908, any sort of cliche or indeed confined to the States.

  5. The NLA site is great, I agree! Recently I had to check a source used in a manuscript I was editing. Thanks to the NLA newspaper database I discovered that it was so, so secondary it wasn't worth quoting. Hallelujah!