Brisbane City Hall - formally opened by his Excellency the Governor Sir John Goodwin on the 8th April 1930, the grandiose building at the heart of our city had already celebrated multiple milestones in a gradually increasing capacity since 1927 (at which time it had been partially occupied amid ongoing construction) by the time of its official inauguration. The site on which the City Hall now stands had been purchased in 1877, however the site had been deemed unsuitable for a municipal hall in preference of a more elevated location.
Considered a low lying, flood prone, swampy tract of the emerging Brisbane business district, there is no doubt that regular flooding of the Brisbane River reinforced this concern - in the 40 years leading up to 1900 (in 1841, 1844, 1890, 1893 & 1897), Brisbane had been inundated by 5 major flooding events that rivaled & exceeded the recent 2011 flood levels earlier this year. Whilst other suitable sites had been recommended & another purchased for the specific purpose throughout the early 1900's, a shift in opinion coupled with nearly 2 decades of economic stagnation saw the original site again championed for the role. Thus, the legendary architectural partnership of Hall & Prentice were approached to design the structure, with the foundation stone being laid in 1920 by Edward, Prince of Wales - Edward eventually ascended to the throne on the death of King George V in early 1936 as King Edward VIII, however abdicated later the same year after announcing his intention to marry an American socialite who was yet to divorce. His brother Albert stepped into the role, assuming the title of King George VI (as outlined in the recent blockbuster, "The King's Speech").
So...where do the ghosts fit in?? Brisbane City Hall has earned a local reputation for housing at least 4 ghosts - one ghost is said to be female & frequents the foyer, foyer stairs and mezzanine balcony overlooking the foyer; one ghost is rumoured to haunt an entire wing of City Hall that was subsequently shut down for decades as a result, before being converted into a childcare centre; one ghost is alleged to be that of a WWII American sailor who was embroiled in a fight over a woman with another sailor, & was stabbed to death in the Red Cross Tea Rooms beneath City Hall. All of these legends are based & perpetuated on an element of truth, however we can savour them for a later date - for now, we shall focus on the 4th reported haunting: the Lift Attendant's phantom that haunts the renowned tower of City Hall.
This legend has been retold extensively over the past 13 years, however the details differ slightly - a lift attendant or workman at City Hall, perished in his dereliction of duty (differing versions of the story claim he either fell, jumped, or was crushed by the lift during installation) early in the building's history around the 1930's - hence, his ghost rides the elevator of the tower & causes ongoing mechanical issues. Let's survey the history: in June 1998, the Queensland Independent reporter Louise Rugendyke, reported that, "One [ghost] has been continually riding the lift since the 1930's (he was killed while installing it)." In 2008, 10 years later during renovations of City Hall, an article written by Kelmeny Fraser published in the City News on the 21st November stated, "When the clock tower was renovated a construction worker claimed to have seen a ghost which presented as [a] silhouette of a man standing in an area off-limits to the public." By 2009, Nicole Carrington reported in the City News that, "[The ghosts of City Hall include] a maintenance man who rides the lifts who is rumoured to have died in a freak accident."
Ultimately though, the most popular & widely disseminated version of the story fingers the Lift Attendant as the ghostly culprit. Rumour has it that the unnamed Liftman either jumped to his death or slipped an fell from the tower in 1932, sparking an ongoing haunting and series of mechanical failures of the lift itself. A recently published book penned by a self-professed local "historian" (who has consistently perpetuated the "true" story of the tragically killed Lift Attendant for many years now), even goes so far as to admit that whilst there is no evidence to verify the death of a Liftman at City Hall, said man's alleged death elsewhere (away from City Hall) is clearly the confused origin of the tale (and in turn the haunting?). That being said, however, no evidence is put forward in the book to either qualify the Lift Attendant's death away from City Hall, or to verify that the unnamed Lift Attendant even died at all.
From historic records, we can unarguably verify that the tower lift experienced mechanical failures entirely of it's own making from the moment of installation - in July 1929 a fire broke out in the lift well as a result of the lift being started suddenly at full power, causing dense smoke to pour from the well giving the impression of a major fire - the situation was quickly contained by workmen without the need for the fire brigade. Again, in April 1930 only 2 days after the City Hall had been formally opened by the Governor, a fire again broke out in the lift well requiring Attendants to jump to the rescue. Apart from these early teething issues, no further failures appear in the records outside what would be considered normal operational problems - & definitely nothing in the ballpark that would indicate that the lift itself had a mind of it's own as a result of a maligned spirit.
So, with the ghost legend & some background history aside, where's the truth behind the rumour, you ask?? The truth, which most likely led to the story of the haunted Tower, occurred on no more an ironic/iconic day as Halloween. On the 31st of October 1935, building contractor George Edward Betts (incorrectly listed as George Edward Botts on Qld BDM's website) left his home in Bardon at about 7am on his way to work. At the time, he was working on a construction project erecting two workers' dwellings, & had appeared in high spirits when he'd bid farewell to his wife for the day. On his departure, he had mentioned to his wife that he planned to visit the doctor on the way to work, & at some stage during the day would need to visit City Hall in order to pay Council for water connection work at a building site in Annerley. George worked throughout the morning on-site, however at lunchtime he changed his clothes and advised the other builders that he needed to go into town on business.
At about 2:15pm at the City Hall, Liftman George Jones accepted two passengers for a trip to the observation landing of the tower - a man (George Betts) & a woman, who on appearance seemed to be strangers to one another. About 5 minutes later, the woman entered the lift once more & was transported back down to the ground floor. A couple of minutes transpired where George Betts was left alone on the observation landing - it can only be assumed as to what took place at the top of the tower during those short few minutes, however a loud crash was heard by those on the lower levels of the Hall soon after. On investigation, a large hole could be seen in the roof of the Hall facing King George Square. A room search was immediately conducted, resulting in the discovery of George's body - he had plummeted over 40 metres from the observation landing, through the galvanised iron roof of City Hall, coming to rest on the concrete floor of a chamber off the record room. Subsequently, his brief bag was located alongside the telescope at the top of the tower.
An inquest was conducted shortly after the accident, at which a number of witnesses were called. At this hearing, the safety of the observation landing was immediately called into question - were the installed safety railings adequate to prevent sightseers from accidentally falling from the tower? Evidence was given that it would not be possible for a sightseer to fall over the rail whilst on the observation landing - "the only way one could fall from the rail would be to climb up to look out at something." Constable Fursman of the Brisbane Police provided testimony that he had thoroughly examined the safety rail, and that, "It would be impossible for anyone to fall over the grill support near the telescope under ordinary conditions unless he climbed upon it." In his opinion, there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. To that end, the Inquest was closed.
We can only postulate the events that led up to the accident that fateful day, but the main question remains - what possessed George Betts to climb over the safety rail leading to his subsequent fatal fall? Perhaps his visit to the doctor earlier that morning had resulted in bad news about his health, convincing him to take his own life later that afternoon? Regardless, it's safe to say that previous tales guessing at the historic origins of the City Hall Tower ghost can now be put to rest - the mystery Lift Attendant, who at no stage came to an untimely end in the City Hall in the dereliction of duty, has been proven beyond reasonable doubt not guilty!