The first Australian scareship to be reported was not described as an airship, but simply as 'beautiful revolving lights', albeit of a mechanical aspect. This was published in the Melbourne Argus of 9 August 1909. Reverend B. Cozens, of the Port Melbourne Seamen's Mission, came into the newspaper's office to make a statement about something he had seen from a farm at
Eltham Kangaroo Ground, to the east of Melbourne, on the previous Saturday night (7 August):
At 10 o'clock on Saturday night my wife and I saw two beautiful revolving lights high up in the air above the Dandenong Range. These lights whirled like the propellers of ships, slowed down, dipped, and rose again, as if they were beating up in a zig-zag course against the wind. They were about six miles apart, and about half a mile in the air over the top of the range. They changed from white to red and then to blue, as if they were revolving beacons with three-coloured slides.
A neighbour, J. Swain (a monumental mason with premises in the City) and his two sons also saw the lights. They watched the lights for two hours, by which time one of the lights had nearly disappeared behind the ranges. Reverend Cozens got up again at 2am and saw the second light had also nearly disappeared in the same place, and also 'five more very dim in the distance, driving up in the track of the ones we had seen':
They seemed to be coming from the lakes along the coast [...] The whole impression of their movements was that of machinery.
Some readers of the Argus immediately wrote in to say they'd seen the same lights on both Friday and Saturday night from North Malvern.
The Sydney Morning Herald also picked up the Cozens story, describing it as 'Another aerial mystery'. This may be a reference to the New Zealand sightings, already well under way. But that night, 9 August, New South Wales had its own visitor, at Moss Vale south-west of Sydney, as reported by the Herald the next day. Many people apparently gathered in the main street and 'speculation was rife as to the meaning of the strange illumination'.
Above the large light some large body was distinctly visible, as the rays of light were reflected upon its surface. The supposition generally held is that the mysterious floating body is either a large balloon or airship. That this object is not stationary has been proved by getting objects near at hand in line with the light, and in a few minutes it was found to move a considerable distance.
It was also seen by passengers on the overnight express to Melbourne: 'the distance was too great to detect the nature of the floating body', but it was called an 'airship' anyway. Far to the north, in Queensland, the Cairns Post reported the same day that at Bundaberg something had been seen which looked as if 'a balloon were floating in midair with a powerful lamp suspended from it'. The airship presumption had very quickly taken hold.
11 August brought more reports from Moss Vale and also from Goulburn, further south. Apparently the airship had been seen for some days before reaching the press. Now the story was being reported not just in Sydney but in Adelaide and Melbourne. The Argus amusingly (to me, at least) couched the sightings in terms of sibling rivalry:
Since the appearance of the mysterious moving light in the heavens was reported from New Zealand and Victoria, the people of New South Wales have turned their attention skyward, with the result that they determined that neither the Dominion nor the sister State shall have the monopoly of a visitation of this kind.
This tells us that even at this early stage the idea of visiting airships was not taken too seriously by newspaper editors. (But that didn't stop the Argus publishing another Victorian sighting that same issue.)
Reports now started to come in from all over. The following day, Saturday, 14 August, the Argus printed another letter confirming Reverend Cozens' sighting. Across the continent, the West Australian published a longish account of a police investigation of what appeared to be a 'lighted airship' over Victoria Park, a Perth suburb. These were thought to have been related to the two lights which passed 'rapidly' over Pingelly, a town east of Perth, on the previous Tuesday evening. The Government Astronomer had been informed of the Pingelly lights by telegram, and Perth Observatory turned its telescope to the skies over Victoria Park, but 'without leading to any discovery':
No explanation could be offered with regard to the lights alleged to have been seen either at Victoria Park or at Pingelly.
And from Zeehan in Tasmania came reports of 'two lights, white and brilliant, which seemed to be travelling rapidly in a north-westerly direction, against the wind'. Indeed, according to the Hobart Mercury something similar to the New Zealand lights had already been seen around Tasmania in July, which if true would make these the earliest Australian sightings. The following Tuesday, it was reported that among the residents of Penguin the 'airship theory' had the 'most supporters' among those who had seen the mysterious lights.
Now, I did say that the Australian scareship sighting were less spectacular than those in Britain and New Zealand. But that was before I came across this bizarre story from Bulli, on the New South Wales coast south of Sydney. As reported in the Adelaide Advertiser of 17 August, people there didn't just see the usual two lights in the western sky, but saw and heard them collide, with a sound 'like the distant roar of falling waters'. But wait, there's more:
Last night several inquisitive residents of Bulli proceeded to investigate the lights by means of a telescope, and on their authority it is stated that it looked like a distant world, on which they could plainly see a group of gigantic creatures illuminated and adorned by a celestial radiance quite foreign to anything on this earth. They appeared to be trying to signal to the earth, and one in particular, who seemed to have control of the others was so enthusiastic about it that he wanted to jump right off to this planet, whilst the reminder of the group were doing their best to restrain him. Then a dark bank of cloud crossed over the sky and the silent watchers went home.
It is believed locally that the nocturnal illuminations were caused by the Martian peoples who have got word that the American astronomers are about to establish communication with them by signalling. It might be mentioned that this is the district recently subjected to the tiger scare.
It's hard to know what to make of this. It sounds for all the world like a leg-pull, and there are certainly precedents. And it may be telling that only the Advertiser, out of the major dailies, seems to have reported the Bulli… thing. But the Advertiser did publish a follow-up article two days later suggesting that the Bulli 'collision' may have been the result of the spontaneous ignition of coal gas. Bulli was indeed coal country, and there had been a big gas explosion at a mine there in 1887. Maybe this was an attempt to extend the joke, but it seems fairly serious to me and it's wedged in a perfectly sober general news section.
Reports of airship sightings are now starting to thin out. The Argus published another eyewitness account on 19 August, presumably from Melbourne, describing a light low on the horizon continually changing colour, 'first a deep fiery red, then a most beautiful blue, then to white', and so on. On 24 August, the Kalgoorlie Western Argus published an article originating in Perth, but dated 18 August, nearly a week earlier. It tells of a letter written by Wilfrid Gull, the young owner of a property near Balingup in Western Australia. Gull recounts riding home after midnight from visiting friends, when a 'bright light suddenly made its appearance in the sky'. It came nearer and he 'observed that the light belonged to a long, dark object'. As it passed overhead and seemed to descend 'straight upon him', Gull had cause for some 'trepidation'. He went back for his friends and together they watched the object moving around the sky until 3am when it disappeared. The Western Argus also reported that:
Quite recently a lady in Claremont declared that not only was a veritable airship seen there by her husband and herself, but that its proximity to her house was such that her spouse called out to the occupants to be careful of the chimney, to which reminder he received a reply in some language to him unknown.
At Colebrook in Tasmania, according to the Mercury, several residents, 'in all seriousness' saw 'The much-talked-of airship' on 21 August. At one time it assumed 'the shape of a torpedo; at another, like that of an umbrella, and carried head or side lights, which flashed at times like the search lights of a warship'.
A dispatch from Gundaroo to the Queanbeyan Age (not far from the site of the future national capital) on 31 August laconically reported that 'The mysterious lights which are causing such excitement are visible here nightly'. The next day, the West Australian had a rather more excited report from W. A. Fearn of East Fremantle, who saw a 'bright light in the sky' on 26 August, which was 'making a beeline for Perth at a terrific pace':
It was brightly lighted up and appeared to have a dark object in the centre, and was evidently being propelled by some mechanical arrangement, as nothing else could have sent it along so fast. By my calculation I should say it was travelling at the rate of 160 miles an hour.
Fearn notes that he has been looking out for explanations in the press, but not finding any begs leave 'to trespass on your valuable space' to ask for enlightenment.
By now sounding rather bored, the Advertiser reported on 3 September that 'A large three-winged apparatus, presumably an airship, passed over Dorrigo [New South Wales] yesterday [1 September] at about noon', flying west. It 'hovered and appeared to be about to descend', but kept its course and disappeared out of sight. This ought to have excited more interest, as it's the first daylight sighting I've come across, as opposed to lights in the sky. But even wonders pale after a while.
The Dorrigo airship was almost the last sighting of all. Judging from an apparent first-hand account published in the Perth Western Mail on 11 September, the very last may have been on 5 September in Fremantle, nearly a month after Reverend Cozens had his encounter. But I'll leave off discussing that until my next post, in which I'll talk about the meaning of the Australian scareships.
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