Friday, February 14, 2020

Cliffy Island - lighthouse, Dr Rutter, the Gledhills and the Myrtle Burgess.

At the South Eastern Historical Association meeting held on Sunday, February 9, 2020 at the Hastings Western Port Historical Society, John Woolley gave a talk about the Myrtle Burgess  a wooden, copper sheathed two masted ketch of 71 feet 6 inches, which was built in Hobart in 1917 for Bernie Burgess a member of a cray fishing family of Tasmania who also worked on the Victorian coast. John and Ron Bryant made a model of the boat and it is on display at the Museum in Hastings (corner of Marine Parade and Skinner Streets).

The model of the Myrtle Burgess on display at the Hastings Western Port Historical Society, made by John Woolley and Ron Bryant, 1987-1989. 
Rigging and final touches by Arthur Woodley, 2005.

As John told us, Bernie Burgess died in tragic circumstances on November 3, 1920 off St Helens, having been shot by the police for allegedly sailing to avoid arrest for illegal cray fishing. You can read a report of the Inquest in the Burnie Advocate of November 6, 1920, here. You can read accounts of the trial of Trooper Raymond Smith who was charged with the killing of Mr Burgess in the Hobart Mercury of December 1, 1920 here and the same paper on December 2, here. Trooper Smith was sentenced to seven years imprisonment. The Myrtle Burgess had been confiscated by the officials after the shooting but returned to Mr Burgess' widow after intervention by the Tasmanian Premier.

The boat was then purchased by John Ray and skippered by Jimmy Wilson and worked out of
Port Welshpool and Stony Point. In June 1943, the Myrtle Burgess was requisitioned by the Navy and worked in New Guinea where it remained after the War and was last seen in the 1950s eaten out by the Toredo worm. So that's the basic story of the Myrtle Burgess, however John introduced us to two other people - Mrs Gledhill and Dr Rutter. I have taken John's story and added some more information.

Mabel Annie Gledhill, was the wife of the lighthouse keeper, Ernest Bennett Gledhill,  on Cliffy Island, an island to the east of Wilson's Promontory, and in Victorian waters. Cliffy Island, named because if its cliffs (1) is part of Seal or Direction Island Groups, which consist of White Rock, Seal Island, Notch Island and Cliffy Island

Cliffy Island, part of the Seal Island group. The pink symbol represents a light of some sort and Cliffy Island is the light on the right. The chart also shows Wilson's Promontory, the Port Albert entrance and Port Albert, all referred to below. 
Image cropped from: Australia Bass Strait Maritime Chart - Surveyed by Commr. J.L. Stokes and the Officers of H.M.S. Beagle 1839-43, with additions and corrections from Australian Government charts to 1950. (2) State Library of Victoria

Ernest had married Mable (nee Cronk) in England in 1918. After they moved to Australia, we can trace their locations through the Electoral Rolls - 1921 they were in Parkville; 1924 Ernest was the assistant lighthouse keeper at Cape Everard (now called Point Hicks); 1927 they were on Cliffy Island; 1931 - Wilson's Promontory; 1934 - Cliffy Island; 1936 - Cape Nelson near Portland; 1942 - Cape Schanck and also listed at Cape Schanck in the 1949 and 1954 Electoral Rolls, although an article in the Herald  (read here) in 1945 had  a short interview with Mr Gledhill and he was stationed at Wilson's Promontory lighthouse.

Cliffy Island lighthouse - the photo well illustrates the bleak nature of the island and the difficult access. 
The photo is from Bass Strait: Australia's Last Frontier (3).
 Cliffy Island lighthouse was built in 1884 and converted to automatic in 1971 and the buildings destroyed (4).  

It was on their second stint on Cliffy Island that we meet Mrs Gledhill. The Gledhills were on the island with two other men - both light house staff, the wife of one of the men and  a number of children, so there was other female company for Mabel. In February 1934, The Argus had visited Cliffy Island and interviewed the Gledhills. The island was described as three acres in size and a huge granite rock.  The article says - A few months ago a bunch of gum-tips was sent to Mrs. Gledhill, wife of the head keeper at Cliffy. "It was more than six months since I had seen gum," she said. "I was so pleased to see it that I nearly cried. For more than six weeks I kept it in water." But she is content with her lot on the lonely island, though the lack of change is depressing. "We are quite happy here," she says. "There is the wireless and our own work. The only thing wrong is that there is nowhere to walk, nothing to see, and no gardens."  (The Argus, February 17 1934, see here.)

Five months after the interview, Mrs Gledhill took ill and they contacted the Wilson's Promontory lighthouse keeper, Mr H.  Dickson, who then contacted Dr Rutter of Yarram. Dr Rutter engaged the  Myrtle Burgess and they set out for  Cliffy Island, a journey of about twenty miles. This was on Tuesday, July 10 1934 however due to rough weather they couldn't land until the Thursday. Dr Rutter finally saw Mrs Gledhill and she was eventually lowered in a basket to the cliff base, back to the Myrtle Burgess where, accompanied by her husband she was the taken to Port Welshpool and then by car to St Elmo's Private Hospital in Yarram. It was thought that she had appendicitis but it turned out Mrs Gledhill had an abscess on the kidney. The Gledhills were soon after  transferred to Cape Nelson, near Portland. Mable Gledhill died in 1970, aged 78 years old and her husband Ernest, died in 1979 aged 93 years old.

The crew of the Myrtle Burgess who went to Mrs Gledhill's rescue were James Wilson (skipper), Edward Scanlon (mate), Jack Floyd (cook) and two hands, George Swords (18 years old) and Len Norman (17).  Dr. Rutter is himself is a good seaman. He has for many years tended the lighthouse dwellers. (Burnie Advocate, July 13 1934, see here)

Dr John Rutter (1880 - 1944)

Which brings us to Dr John Hemphill Rutter, who was born in Melbourne in 1880 to John and Elizabeth (nee Hemphill) Rutter. John married Carol Dodgson in 1910 and he served in the First World War in the Army Medical Corps. He died at the relatively young age of 65 in May 1944, having practiced in Yarram for  thirty five years, and left behind his widow, Carol and four children - listed in his obituary as Dr John Rutter (naval surgeon, R.A.N.V.), Joseph (A.I.F., prisoner of war), Elizabeth (W.A.A.A.F.), and Ellen (nursing sister at Yarram District Hospital) (The Argus, May 10 1944, see here)  As a matter of interest Dr Rutter's parents, John and Elizabeth,  had purchased 976 acres of land at Tooradin in 1877; he later had other property, including Moorlands at Tooradin which was operated by his grandson, Joseph, the one who was the Prisoner of War.  Rutter Memorial Park in Tooradin was left to the Tooradin Community by Dr John Hemphill Rutter. (5)

Cliffy Island and lighthouse October 31, 1933. Photographer: Russell Grimwade.
University of Melbourne Archive

There are reports in the newspapers of two other occasions where Dr Rutter attended the folk on Cliffy Island. On Saturday, February 1 1919 and fire took hold in the lighthouse keepers house and Mr and Mrs Owen were severely  burnt and the house was completely destroyed. Dr Rutter set out on Saturday night but it wasn't until Sunday morning that he could land and attend to Mrs Owen. She was then sent down in a basket to  awaiting surf boat, conveyed to the Lady Loch and lifted up in a derrick and then taken to Melbourne to recover (The Argus February 14, 1919, see here)

The Age of February 14, 1919 also had an account of the rescue of Nellie Owens which came from Mr N. Lockyer, who had been spending time at Yarram - we will just quote some of it to show you the conditions Dr Rutter and the crew faced. They has set out in Dr Rutter's motor launch, a vessel of  around 12 to 15 tons. He had enlisted the assistance of four fishermen - Goodwin Clarke, Charles Goulden, Cyril Robertson and Andrew Robertson - as a crew. The party left the wharf at Port Albert at 5.30 p.m. on Saturday, 1st inst. The distance to the entrance is seven miles. The wind had been blowing fresh from the eastward for two days, and a fairly heavy sea was running. There was a heavy sea on the bar, but the boat got out safely, and reached Cliffy Island after dark. ..... It was found quite impossible to effect a landing in the dark, and the state of the sea at that time, even if it were daylight, would have made such an attempt impracticable. The doctor and his crew held off until daylight. It was not possible to sleep, and they experienced a very rough time. At daybreak next morning the sea had slightly moderated, and Dr.  Rutter left the launch in a 12-ft. dinghy, pulled by Charles Goulden, to seek a landing. There is no safe landing place on the island, except in calm weather and at low tide, and then only by means of a crane and cradle. Notwithstanding this, the dinghy was taken close in, and by extreme good fortune, as well as by good management, the doctor, with a box of medical requisites strapped to his shoulders, succeeded in leaping on to the rocks waist deep in water. He scaled the cliffs with difficulty, and on reaching the station one of the men, on seeing a stranger dripping wet, exclaimed, 'Who in the hell are you' ? His astonishment was not lessened when he learned that it was "the doctor". Dr. Rutter did all he could to alleviate the sufferings of Mrs. Nellie Owen, who was severely burned, and attended to her husband, who was similarly injured. (The Age, February 14, 1919, see here)

Dr. Rutter was awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society for his bravery  and the
four fishermen were awarded certificates.

Cliffy Island October 31, 1933. Photographer: Russell Grimwade. 
It makes you dizzy just looking at it.
University of Melbourne Archives

In September 1930, Mrs Evelina Myers of Cliffy Island gave birth to a premature baby girl. Sadly Dr Rutter was too late to save the baby but he did save the life of Mrs Myers. After temporary assistance, Dr. Rutter decided to take Mrs. Myers ashore. The plucky woman although in great agony, went stoically through the ordeal. of being lowered 40ft. in a basket to the open boat. She is now in hospital at Yarram. (Gippsland Times, September 22 1930, see here)

These stories show us the perilous life that lighthouse keepers and their families lived and for women, I imagine, it would have been especially isolating. After the publicity of Mrs Gledhill's case there was a letter to the editor of The Argus, signed Sympathy-  It seems to me that a change is necessary with regard to the keepers at this isolated station. I think that single men should operate at the Island, and, further, that they should only be there for a limited time. If the authorities took this step it would relieve the great anxiety we have for the welfare of our womenfolk. (The Argus July 16, 1934, see here)

However, not everyone agreed with with this letter and this was published in response, showing how good conditions were - it was signed 'Here's to the Service'  - In reply to "Sympathy's" letter to-day suggesting the substitution of single men for married men at Cliffy Island, I would like to say, having spent many years in the lighthouse service-two and a half of which were spent on Cliffy Island that it is practically impossible to condemn single men to service there. Unmarried men have never at any time been encouraged In the service. The nature of their duties necessitates that they be properly housed and fed. Commodious, comfortably furnished houses, one for each keeper, are provided. The term spent at such a place rarely exceeds two and a half years, and, as in my own case and that of many others I know, the time may be very happily and profitably spent.

There is a weekly supply steamer, bringing mail and reading, and such fresh provisions as meat, vegetables, &c. A steamer arrives every quarter to deliver the dry goods and lighthouse stores. Goats are kept for milk supply, and fowls can be raised in large numbers. Fresh fish is often obtainable. Under Federal control the service enjoys many privileges unknown in former days, when each State controlled its own coastal lights. Women and children now receive special consideration. Lightkeepers of 30 and 40 years ago suffered far greater hardships than do their present day successors. Cliffy Island had a boat calling only once in six months then. To-day, the public is at last awake to the conditions under which the people of the lighthouse service are living, and is beginning to realise the value of their services to the community. (The Argus, July 21 1934, see here)

I found John Woolley's story of the Myrtle Burgess really interesting and I am glad that he introduced me to the Cliffy Island, Ernest and Mabel Gledhill and Dr John Rutter and Dr Rutter led me to Nellie Owens and Evelina Myers.

Trove list
I have created  a short list of articles on Trove relating to this story - the Myrtle Burgess court case and the stories connected to Mrs Gledhill, Mrs Owens and Mrs Myers. All the articles referred to here are on the list, which you cab access here.

(1) Names of Bass Strait by P. D. Gardner (Ngarak Press, 1996)
(2) Hard to believe that the charts of Bass Strait made by Commander Stokes and the crew of the Beagle from 1839-1843 were still being used, which shows you how accurate their mapping was and how skilled they were. We purchased a chart of Bass Strait  (Eastern Portion) Chart 1695A in June 1989 from Boat Books at 268 St Kilda Road, St Kilda and it was still based on Captain Stokes original chart printed with updates to 1982, and then of course updated to the date of purchase by Boat Books. John Lort Stokes (1812-1885) served on the Beagle for eighteen years, you can read his Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, here.
(3) Bass Strait: Australia's last frontier edited by Stephen Murray-Smith (ABC books, 1987)
(4) From Dawn to Dusk: a history of Australian lighthouses by Gordon Reid (Macmillan, 1988)
(5) Tooradin : 125 years of Coastal history, compiled by John Wells and the Tooradin Celebrate Together Committee (The Committee, 2001)

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