Scareships over Australia — IV

Phantom airships come and go, but sometimes they come again. According to the scattered accounts of the 1909 Australian wave I've seen (meaning Bill Chalker's The Oz Files and random internet sites), there was a late airship sighting on 25 October 1909 at Minderoo station in Western Australia. But I couldn't find that event in any newspaper report; instead I found one that took place on 25 October 1910. This means that it was not directly related to whatever caused the rash of scareship visitations in August and September 1909, whether that be astronomical or sociological or aeronautical or etc in origin, the Minderoo airship sighting was a separate event. And a very strange and interesting one too.

There were a number of stories about the Minderoo airship in the press, including: West Australian, 5 December; Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 1910; Advertiser, 5 December; Western Argus, 6 December; Mercury, 7 December; and Western Mail, 10 December. The longest and fullest was that of the Sydney Morning Herald, from which I'll quote here.

The source for the story was evidently an official one. The bulk of the article comprises the report of the Sub-collector of Customs at Bunbury, L. C. Timperley (a name which none of the newspapers gets right, but he was the son of the former Sub-collector of Customs at Bunbury, William Timperley and was still working for Customs in 1934), to his superiors in the Department of Trade and Customs. It would seem that the Minister himself, Frank Tudor, released Timperley's report to the press (the byline is given as Melbourne, the temporary seat of government at the time). The reason for this is not given, but presumably it was political.

Timperley begins:

I beg to report that in consequence of a report circulated to the effect that an airship had been seen at Minderoo station, I have made further enquiries into the matter, and now place before you the particulars as given me. On Saturday, 12th inst, I interviewed Mrs. A. J. Roe, wife of the manager of Mr. David Forrest's station, Minderoo, 22 miles out of Onslow, and received from her the following information:

In Australian English, a station is a very, very, very big farm, used for raising sheep or cattle. I'm not sure how big Minderoo was in 1910, but a few years ago it was 226,585 hectares (about 560,000 acres or 2270 square kilometres). So it's not particularly big as these things go, but it is fairly well known, as it was the family seat of the Forrest dynasty, who had already provided Western Australia's first premier and, more recently, Australia's richest person. So Minderoo was not your average farm. It was, however, quite close to the coast, relatively speaking, only 22 miles from the port at Onslow. But it was a desolate 22 miles, with hot and dusty roads which would have been travelled by horse in 1910. Minderoo did apparently have its own telegraph station, however.

The other thing to note here is that Timperley seems to have investigated the airship mystery on his own initiative. He may have been concerned about the use of an airship to circumvent the customs regime he was paid to enforce (at Bunbury, a port on the Indian ocean, he would have been in charge of inspecting ships' cargoes). Or he may have been mindful of the implications for defence: for the previous few years he had been a lieutenant in the 18th Light Horse, a militia formation; he became a major in the 10th Light Horse in the war to come. So he had military interests as well. (See below.)

'At 5.30 p.m. on October 25, when at the Minderoo homestead, my attention was directed by a native to a big object in the air, several miles away. The object was travelling from us in an easterly direction. It looked compact, like a dirigible balloon, but appeared to be squarer, more like an aeroplane. The sun shone on it, and flashes came from it, as though reflected from something revolving or off metal work. The colour of the object was dark brown or black. It was too far away to distinguish its exact nature and size, or whether any persons were in it. There was no mirage at the time, and not on any account could such an object be taken for a bird.'

This appears to be a direct quote of a statement made by Roe, the station manager's wife and one of the witnesses. And yes, the 'native' who pointed out the airship to her was an Aboriginal.

Unlike most of the 1909 phantom airships, this one was seen in broad daylight: at 5.30pm in late October at Minderoo's latitude the Sun is still well over 35 degrees above the horizon. So this was no mere night light, no planetary conjuction or will-o'-the-wisp. Given that it was moving away in an 'easterly direction', it must have been somewhere in the opposite side of the sky to the Sun, and moving inland, away from the coast and towards the desert. The object was dark in colour and appeared somehow mechanical, perhaps more like an aeroplane than a dirigible (which is what we would now mean by the word 'airship', which was a more generous term at this point in time). Roe assured Timperley that it was not a mirage or a bird, both of which would have been familiar sights. She, unfortunately, didn't give (or Timperley didn't ask or didn't report) any information about the airship's apparent speed or how long it was visible for. But reading between the lines, the dismissal of the bird theory seems to be based on its appearance and not its motion; likewise, no mention is made of ludicrous speed. So we can probably infer that the airship was visible for a few minutes.

Mrs. Rowe [sic] stated she is positive it was an airship of some kind, but did not care to sign a statement, for the reason that she could give no details on account of the distance the machine was away. A couple of white men, station hands, and a civilised native also saw the aerial object from the shearing-shed, which is a mile from the homestead. From what I can gather it appears that both parties saw it about the same time. I have to-day interviewed the native, Frank, who drew a rough sketch for me of what he saw, and it resembled a dirigible balloon. He also stated that neither he nor the other natives at Minderoo had seen anything like it before. I venture to think an airship of some kind was seen. The natives being noted for their keen eyesight, I think it improbable that the object seen was a bird, and yet mistaken by them.

There were at least three more witnesses, two white men and one 'civilised' Aborigine, Frank, who independently saw the airship from a mile away. It's a shame that the newspapers did not publish Frank's drawing (perhaps it still exists, attached to Timperley's report, deep in the National Archives of Australia somewhere?)

The strange visitor may be the result of a Western Australian inventor, who wishes to perfect his machine before making his invention public, and has chosen this remote locality for his preliminary flight. On the other hand, it is possible that some foreign vessel is anchored off the coast reconnoitring the country. Personally, I am convinced that the statement made by Mrs. Roe is authentic. I am, however, at a loss to understand why the occupants of the mysterious aerial visitor did not alight and report when so near the telegraph station. Should this report not be considered a Custom's matter, possibly it may be of some use to the military authorities.

Timperley concludes that Roe was telling the truth about what she saw and that the airship was real. But he is puzzled as to where it came from and who was flying it. But he does think the 'mysterious aerial visitor' important enough to bring to the notice of his superiors at Trade and Customs, perhaps at risk to his own career; and if they weren't interested, he unsubtly hints, perhaps his report should be passed on to the Defence Department. For Timperley this would seem to be no trivial matter.

After quoting Timperley's report, the Sydney Morning Herald remarks that the Minister for Trade and Customs will indeed 'probably forward the report to the Minister for Defence, who has charge of the military airship competition' (so that's still running!), and the last published reference to the Minderoo airship I could find says this was done, though that may have been just an assumption. But the final sentence of the Herald article is this:

Up to the present the Defence Department does not appear to be aware that any competitor has a machine so perfected as to accomplish the flight described from Onslow.

This pushes the foreign reconnaissance theory into the fore, which (a) perhaps hints at some bureaucratic or political jostling (Tudor was a player; he became leader of the Australian Labor Party in 1917 after it split over conscription) and (b) makes me wonder, again, why there was no true scareship panic in Australia. And (c) makes me also wonder what the hell it was they saw at Mindaroo on 25 October 1910, because it wasn't any foreign airship either.

A postscript to this postscript: in 1934 Timperly was again in the news after discovering the carcass of a sea monster washed up on the shore of Rottnest Island. Phantom airships, light horse, sea monsters: not your average customs career, I suspect.

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6 thoughts on “Scareships over Australia — IV

  1. So. I'm slightly at a loss here. When did Mindoro come into the Forrest hands? I'm wondering if we can construe an attempt to tell a different kind of political story in the scareship idiom.

    That is, all scareship stories are political stories. But the Australian stories seem to be working from a different script to start with. So perhaps the locations where the sightings come to light are doing (some of) the political work here. Sorry. I'm perhaps not being very clear here, since I'm struggling with someone else's framework here.

    So the point is that Mindoro is, as well as a real place in a real landscape, a signifier in a discursive network. Or a shared mental landscape. And the basic political operation here is to co-locate "mysterious airship" with Mindoro, as well as to bring forward specifically as what is significant about Mindoro its position as the frontier of White--Black Australian contact. Are we expected to do the last bit of connecting the dots for ourselves, and link airships--racial dividing lines--Premier Forrest?

    Clearly that's only viable speculation if the Forrests are already associated with Mindoro!

  2. Post author

    Alice:

    Yes, I thought so too, but I don't know what to make of it. My impression is that Aborigines were respected more on stations than they were elsewhere, even if they weren't treated as equals. Of course, this is Western Australia, which in a few years would appoint the notorious A. O. Neville as Chief Protector of Aborigines, so it can't have been a golden age in race relations anyway.

    Erik:

    Interesting. Yes, Minderoo was already Forrest land -- the article I quote from mentions Andrew Forrest, younger brother of the former premier. I think the Forrests came into possession of Minderoo in the late 1870s, and it was about to pass into the hands of the second generation. I did wonder if readers would associate 'Forrest' and 'Minderoo' with political power in any sense. Maybe in Western Australia they would have, Forrest was a huge name there, even though John Forrest hadn't been premier for nearly a decade. But I wouldn't assume that readers in Sydney or Melbourne would know much about politics in WA; they certainly don't today. It's a big country.
    Anyway it's hard to know what anyone made of the Minderoo/Forrest/airship connection; nobody seems to have commented on it.

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