Interview with Kathy Duncombe, President of the Friends of Bruny Island Quarantine Station
She is an author of many publications about the history of Tasmania especially Bruny Island. She is also a dedicated historian and president of the Friends of Bruny Island Quarantine Station (FOBQS). Her latest book Bruny Island’s Quarantine Station In War and Peace includes a chapter about the internment of Germans, among them also the crew of the SS Oberhausen, during the First World War.
GeschiMag: Mrs Duncombe, in the context of your research concerning the Bruny Island Quarantine Station you also found information about the crew of the SS Oberhausen being interned there between 1915 and 1916. What can you tell us about their time there, what legacy did they leave?
K. Duncombe: In February 1915 the prisoners of war were moved to the Quarantine Station on Bruny Island, and were put to work felling timber and clearing land. They appear to have been given quite a bit of freedom as oral history states they also cleared land outside the quarantine station boundaries.Although new buildings were commissioned by the government during the World War I period, the internees themselves appear to have erected some of their own. These included at least two woodcutting camps on the southern end of the peninsula well away from the main base.
A German named Hugo Fernolz was allowed by the military authorities to construct a small wooden building just outside the fence and to run a store in it.
Archeological interpretation of one the chimney remains, indicate the unusual use of clay pise construction which might imply its construction by German inmates. There is also a hand dug water hole nearby which may have supplied their water needs for a temporary stay. And they had the use of a boat for fishing, a necessity when supplies were low.
GeschiMag: The number of the German internees on Bruny Island varies between 55 and more than 70. Quite a manageable number, compared with other camps. How many members of the Oberhausen crew were among them and where did the others come from?
K. Duncombe: We have the names of 32 seamen from the Oberhausen being interned at the quarantine station on Bruny Island. A few days after the outbreak of war, a proclamation was issued under the ‘War Precautions Act 1914’, which called on all Austrian and German (enemy) subjects to report themselves to police stations, and register to be placed on parole. Some of the other german internees had lived in Tasmania for many years, one for 35 years as fishermen, farmers, miners etc.
GeschiMag: Due to inadequate treatment there were massive complaints until in 1915 most of the Australian internments camps were closed and the prisoners were concentrated in the Holsworthy camp. It’s said, that at the same time the internees of Bruny Island went on strike. Can you tell us a bit more about the circumstances of that strike?
K. Duncombe: It was july 1915 – payment for work had still not come through and the German and Austrian prisoners revolted. Soldier Ray Searles’ in letters to his mother 1915:
‘They pelted the guard inside and refused to go to work. The telephone was laid on to the Captain’s house so he rang up Claremont. When we got near Bruny we were ordered to load and fix bayonets. We landed and drove the Germans down on to the beach. They were pretty troublesome but we managed to arrest 6 of them and drove the rest of them inside. Then the guard was liberated and the Captain ventured out. There was only two shots fired. One when they landed and one at a big German who started to run through the bush. The six we arrested were taken to Hobart gaol.’ [ref: Soldier Ray Searles’ letters to his mother 1915 – courtesy of Craig Searle]
GeschiMag: In the chronology of the FOBQS homepage a certain Hugo Fernholz is mentioned, who “still ran a shop” whilst in April 1916 the Germans were interned in Bruny Island, when most of the other camps were closed and absorbed in Holsworthy. Can you provide us with any background information on that?
K. Duncombe: On March 13th 1915 the Australian Military Force informed the O. C. guard (Officer in Charge) that it would be necessary to open a dry canteen managed by a committee, consisting of members of the guard, price list fixed, at which interned prisoners will be permitted to purchase articles at the canteen. No ales or spirituous liquors to be kept or sold. Hugo Fernolz was allowed by the military authorities to to run the store.
I don’t know why he was not transported to other camps when the Bruny Island camp was closed. Perhaps he had a good businees going and wished to stay. A resident of Bruny at the time remembered Hugo Fernolz carrying on his trade. One half of his shop opened on Quarantine ground and the other half opened to the general public of Bruny. On Juny 14th Fernholz died at the age of 56 years.
GeschiMag: This year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WW1 and you are looking for contacts to German relatives of the internees of Bruny Island. Would you please tell our readers some more about the reasons for this search?
K. Duncombe: We would love to know more about the seamen who were ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time’ and felt their families may wish to know that although their payment for timber cutting was delayed, in general they appear to have been treated with respect, and had a certain amount of freedom. I think the answers above and the arrest note following verifies this:
Russell Young was a naval reservist that led the boarding party that went to Port Huon and arrested the German crew. He was a Hobart lawyer and reserve Lieutenant in the navy as well as the inaugural Commodore of the Derwent Sailing Squadron in Hobart.
When war was declared 5 August 1914, Russell Young was dispatched in his capacity as sub-lieutenant in the Naval Reserve, with an armed party of 11 men, to travel to Port Huon to seize the Oberhausen and its crew.
It was reported on arrival that evening, Russell Young drew his naval issue dress sword and used it to secure the warrant to the mast of the Oberhausen. He arrested the captain and crew and sailed the vessel back to Hobart overnight. On the way the German crew broached the ship’s liquor stores and by the time they arrived in Hobart everyone including the reservists was quite drunk.
We have a list of the names of the 32 men and their description and would love to learn about their lives and families after the war. We would welcome the opportunity to communicate with these families and to tell their ancestors’ story. Perhaps they may care to join our group and receive newsletter updates. Maybe they would send us a photo of their ancestor, or have oral history about their stay on Bruny during the war.
GeschiMag: Apart from preserving the history of the quarantine station, there are other issues the Friends of Bruny Island Quarantine Station are concerned with. Could you give us an outline of the work and aims of your initiative?
K. Duncombe: Since the Plant Quarantine Station closed in 1986 the 128 hectare site was neglected and no-one was allowed on the premises. In 2003 it was handed back to the State government and in 2004 I wrote a book about its fascinating history. Many people were not aware of the different eras and uses of the site. In 2011 the book became the catalyst for the formation of the ‘Friends of Bruny Island Quarantine Station’ which work closely with Parks & Wildlife and our aim has been to open the site to the public to enjoy the history and its natural values as this site has a very diverse flora and fauna.
The new Heritage Interpretive Walk will keep visitors enthralled for about two hours as they travel around the site visiting the first European settlers’ cottage, the quarantine buildings where saloon and steerage passengers were lodged, to the hospital area, to the campsites where soldiers were quarantined on their return from World War 1.
We now have volunteer caretakers living on site for four week periods and the site is open to the public every weekend. We have already had German tourists visit the site since we opened in October 2013, and to make contact with descendants of the Oberhausen crew would allow us to pay tribute to their contribution at the quarantine station.
GeschiMag: Mrs. Duncombe, thank you very much for this conversation.
Further Informations about Bruny Island: FOBIQS-Homepage
View of chimney showing stone base interior and clay capping (photo taken 2000) attached