Brisbane City Hall, c. 1935 (John Oxley Library)Brisbane City Hall - it almost seems like a lifetime ago when we examined the ghost of Brisbane City Hall's clock tower, in what was to be the very first Haunts of Brisbane article to go to publication! As any Brisbane ghost enthusiast would know, Brisbane City Hall has earned a local reputation for housing at least 4 ghosts - one ghost is said to haunt the City Hall's tower & lift contained within; 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. All of these legends are based & perpetuated on an element of truth - we've already examined one, in our first article linked above, however it's high time that we focus on another and thoroughly pull it apart to get the bottom of the tale!
Some months ago, back in February, a post appeared on a Computer/Gamers Forum of all places...showing a photo that had been taken on the steps of Brisbane City Hall in December 2011. In the photo, an anomaly exists that quite rightfully appears to be a transparent figure, either in a cloak or dress, descending the stairs leading down to the City Hall's ground level. The photo itself was allegedly taken on a mobile phone, & eerily (or very conveniently) mirrored what has become one of the world's most famous & longest enduring ghost photos - the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Needless to say, over the past nearly five months, numerous people have commented on the forum with their opinions regarding the legitimacy of the photo...however, regardless of its authenticity, stories of a phantom female frequenting the staircase have endured within Brisbane City Hall for a number of decades now. Over the past decade, there has been some speculation as to the exact identity of this spectre in the print media...however, the aspects of the haunting and the visual appearance of the spirit seems to fluctuate quite broadly every few years...
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, taken in 1936.
In an article entitled, "Brisbane's ghostly past revisited," published in The Queensland Independent in June 1998, it was claimed, "On numerous occasions over the 50 years at the City Hall...a ghost has been seen ascending the [City Hall] staircase. Although no actual outline of her has been seen, those who have seen it have said it has a real feminine feeling to it. "Elegant," was the word the gentleman I interviewed said. He said there were no distinguishing features to it and he associated the ghost with the ballroom here and he felt it had something to do with that, but he wasn't really clear on further detail." On the 13th of October 2002, in a Courier Mail article entitled, "Ghost Town!", the City Hall ghost in question was now recognisable as, "a woman dressed in old-fashioned clothing." By the 3rd of February 2009, another Courier Mail article entitled, "Brisbane claims 'spooky city' title," claimed the ghost was that of, "an elderly lady." And to top it off, The Courier Mail had yet another bash at the City Hall ghost on the 8th of October 2009 - this time, the ghost was said to be that of, "a young girl." Amazingly, all of these articles, ranging from "female presence," to "woman in old-fashioned clothing," to "elderly lady," to "young girl," all have one thing in common - "Jack" Sim's input. Yet, when "Jack" Sim's book, Haunted Brisbane: Ghosts of the River City, was released in 2005, the four-page chapter dealing with the ghosts of Brisbane City Hall lacked even the slightest mention of a female ghost within the building!
However, "Jack" Sim hasn't been the only contender in the ongoing debate about Brisbane City Hall's female phantom...another amateur "ghost-hunter," Lianna Turner, waded into the debate on the 9th of October 2007. Via the Brisbane Times, in an extended article, Lianna made the ludicrous claim that the female ghost of Brisbane City Hall was likely, "a little girl who fell to her death near the entrance to the elevator that takes current visitors to the top of the bell tower." Just for the record...NO little girl EVER fell to her death near the elevator at Brisbane City Hall during the first 30 years of the building's life, during which time the female phantom was already well & truly active. Lianna, a self-professed psychic & "ghost whisperer," clearly pulled this detail from her imagination after visiting City Hall...& unfortunately failed to corroborate it with the historic record before embarrassing herself in print. Brian Randall, a librarian from the State Library of Queensland, also waded into the debate on the 24th of November 2008, via a Courier Mail article entitled, "Is our City Hall haunted?" In the article, which again amusingly focused on "Jack" Sim, who now had no answers about City Hall's female spectre, Brian stated, "the story of a female ghost was the most persistent of the three ghosts said to haunt the building. The woman seems to be consistently coming up. One possible theory about her identity [from] research was a story about a woman who drowned in a waterway on the site during early settlement, long before City Hall was built."
So...where do we stand?? Who is this Phantom Female who graces the stairs of Brisbane City Hall??
I've heard the theory of the drowned woman put forward a couple of times over the past few years, & whilst I've never come across the details of this death myself, that's not at all to say that the event didn't take place. From an historic perspective, the site on which Brisbane City Hall was built had indeed contained a water hole through the early decades of Brisbane's existence as a free settlement - a large reservoir existed where Roma Street Station now lies, fed by a creek that ran from around the current Normanby Fiveways. The overflow resulting from this reservoir formed a stream that flowed into a water hole on which the future City Hall would be constructed, & was utilised for many years as a source of water for building purposes & to water horses...hence, there is every possibility that an unlucky early Brisbane resident may have come to grief within the lagoon's depths. However, to suggest that the female phantom of City Hall finds her origin in this tragic event raises far more questions than it does answers - Why did this woman's spirit, after her body was recovered at the time of drowning, lay dormant for many decades until taking up residence in a building eventually constructed on the site?? Of the multiple rooms & thoroughfares within City Hall, why is she only seen on the staircase above the front foyer & what led her to choose this specific location, given that at the time of her death no one could have even imagined a City Hall on the site?? And most importantly, if our female phantom doesn't originate from this tragic death, are we left with any other viable possibilities??
Given that the stories of a female ghost seem to originate around the 1930's to 1940's (within the first 20 years of the City Hall's life), what do we know of the building's history that may yield another origin for the haunting? Well...quite a bit, actually! Whilst a number of men have died under tragic circumstances within the building since its opening in 1930, we can easily rule these souls out as possibilities...however, we do know that two women came to grief within Brisbane City Hall in the first 15 years of its operation. Whilst neither woman died within the building itself, they both perished within a very short time frame after having been removed for the frantic dash to the Brisbane General Hospital. The least likely of these two deaths to provide an origin for our female phantom, took place on the 15th of September 1944. On that day, 55 year old spinster Miriam Mary Alexander decided to pay a visit to City Hall from her home at Thornside, to the south of Brisbane near Cleveland. She had been in ill-health for some time, & decided to visit the rest room - whether she was feeling faint at the time & was attempting to refresh herself we will never know...Miriam collapsed on the floor of the rest room & was subsequently rushed to the General Hospital two kilometres away. Tragically, she was pronounced dead before she could be admitted, & was buried three days later at Toowong Cemetery.
However, the other tragic death could very possibly pinpoint the origin of our haunting...
On the 21st of December 1937, the streets of Brisbane were alive with people making their way between stores in the final days before Christmas. Amongst the flurry of shoppers on Adelaide Street, Policewoman Eileen O'Donnell went about her daily routine as she walked along the footpath towards the corner of Albert Street...however, it became instantly clear that something was amiss. Scanning ahead, she noticed the stream of pedestrians coming to a standstill, as more & more began to gasp & point as they craned their heads towards the sky. Following the gaze of the shoppers towards the City Hall's clock tower, she was horrified to see a young lady outside the safety netting, edging her way around the narrow ledge beyond the observation platform. Spying another Officer nearby on point duty, Policewoman O'Donnell dashed forward, however her attempt to raise the alarm was in vain - before her eyes, & those of the crowd milling in Adelaide & Albert Streets, the woman fell from the top of the tower, striking the roof of City Hall with a sickening crash. In league with other Officers & Ambulance bearers, Policewoman O'Donnell rushed into the foyer of the building and made her way towards the lift. The broken body of 31 year old Hilda Angus Boardman, whom Eileen had spied on the clock tower only minutes earlier, was found sprawled on the concrete floor of a small room in the vicinity of the entrance to what is now King George Square.
It was discovered that after plummeting from the tower, Hilda had crashed through the galvanised iron roof, striking and breaking a heavy beam in the process. Horribly, the roofing iron & beam slowed her descent just enough to ensure that the impact on the concrete floor did not kill her instantly. However, Hilda had still sustained massive injuries from the 45 metre fall, & was immediately treated on-site for a depressed fracture of the skull, & puncture wound to the left side, in the hope she could be stabilised for the dash to the General Hospital. Within hours of admission, however, Hilda passed away due to massive internal injuries that defied the best efforts of the hospital's surgeons. In the days that followed, Hilda would be laid to rest in Toowong Cemetery & it would be revealed that she had recently been an inmate of a private hospital - a sign that she had likely been suffering from an ongoing mental illness at the time she had climbed out past the safety netting on the City Hall's tower. Tragically, after taking her own life, she left her husband to care for their two young children, & to this day Hilda rests on her own, alone, in a single grave plot in the back corner of Toowong Cemetery alongside Mt Coot-tha Road.
So...does the female phantom of Brisbane City Hall date back to the days of early Brisbane Town, resulting from a tragic drowning death many decades before the construction of the building? Does the staircase spectre belong to that of Hilda Boardman, who's life ebbed away on the concrete floor of a small room just off the foyer? Or, alternatively, could it be possible that both of these possibilities are incorrect? Could the spirit simply be that of a long-departed Brisbane socialite, who spent many happy nights attending the luxurious balls & functions held within City Hall's spectacular auditorium, returning to relive past memories?? My bet is, we will never truly know...