Have you ever wished you could foresee the future? I’ve decided I don’t want to know what lies ahead. Fear can be a powerful force and even if I knew about the happy events, perhaps the over-riding desire to avoid pain from other happenings would leave me mentally paralysed – unable to act? I wonder if the young Welshman, Lewis Thomas, would still have ventured to Australia if he’d known what the future would bring.
The story of Lewis and Ann Thomas has many aspects of a fairy-tale – a long sea journey, love and separation, the rise from rags to riches, a castle, tragedy and even a formidable fire-breathing underground dragon.
I would never have known about their story had I not been interested in hiking at Blackstone Hill, better known as Castle Hill, in Ipswich, near Brisbane. The area has been a popular destination for mountain bikers but until recently I had no idea of the reason behind its name. A grand castle once stood on the hill. A castle in Australia? How did this come about?
Once upon a time a poor boy in Wales had a dream to make his fortune. Lewis Thomas started working in a wool factory at the grand old age of nine and then worked in coal, lead and iron mines until 1859, when he married Ann Morris. Two weeks later, he left her to seek his fortune in the gold fields of Australia. It was to be 17 years before Ann joined him and they had their only child, Mary.
(Pictures of Ann and Mary Thomas – Cooneana Historical Centre, Ipswich)
Seventeen years in today’s world seems a long time but at least we have phones, the Internet, fast mail service and cheap aeroplane travel. Back then mail went by boat and often took six months. During this time, Lewis made provisions for Ann to come to Australia on a number of occasions. However, she feared the long and perilous trip by herself to a colony which must have seemed quite alien and brutal to her.
The goldfields did not bring riches but after working in coal mines in the Ipswich area, near Brisbane, Lewis Thomas went into business with another man and after years of hard work eventually became a wealthy coal king.
To house the king’s family, Brynhyfryd, a castle containing 49 rooms, three stories, a tower and 15 acres of terraced gardens was built on Blackstone Hill in 1891.
(Aerial shot of Brynhyfryd that appeared in a newspaper advertisement – Cooneana Historical Centre.)
Hot houses filled with exotic plants, fruit trees from all over the world, magnificent vegetable gardens, and a dairy and poultry kept the castle’s inhabitants well-fed. The rocky hill was unsuitable for gardens so drayloads of rich soil were dragged up the hill to construct them. The extensive gardens meant that fresh flowers adorned the rooms of Brynhyfryd throughout the year.
Expensive imported materials including Welsh slate, South African teak and marble were used as well as 600 000 locally hand-crafted bricks. The castle even boasted a hydraulic passenger lift, electric lighting from its own generators and a tower from which distant Moreton Bay could be viewed.
(Brynhyfryd – Cooneana Historical Centre)
So what happened to the castle and its inhabitants? Lewis Thomas died in 1913, after having been a member of parliament, a supporter of the local community and father of the Queensland eisteddfod. Sadly, Lewis and Ann’s only child, Mary, died in her early 40s after giving birth to her 5th child. Wealth could not save her from a fate which befell many women in those days. The Blackstone residents were shocked by the sudden death of this highly regarded community member. Ann Thomas eventually died in 1930.
After Ann’s death, the wealth that constructed Brynhyfryd contributed to its downfall. During the depression years no-one could afford the upkeep of such a grand residence and it was passed up at auction. It was eventually sold to a company which planned to exploit the rich coal reserves underneath.
That’s when Lewis’ secret was discovered. He had earlier excavated mining tunnels in the hill to extract some of its riches. This activity had already led to instability of the land with cracks appearing in the driveways. Further mining increased this and as the land subsided and explosions from burning underground coal seams occurred, the castle continued to deteriorate rapidly. I read reports of a jersey cow suddenly disappearing down an opening in the ground and that smoke and steam continually rose out of the ground in places from underground burning coal seam fires. The black coal dragon lurking in the depths of the hill expressed its displeasure at its belly being removed and enacted its final revenge. Eventually, the crumbling castle was sold for demolition and removal. Within 80 years, Brynhyfryd was no more.
There are still buildings in Ipswich which contain some of its remnants though, such as the Welsh United Church, which contains the engraved glass front doors. Brynhyfryd Park lies on part of Blackstone Hill and the names Thomas and Mary appear on a street corner.
I’ve been back to Castle Hill to check out the trails and also to find remnants of Brynhyfryd. Most of it is now bushland teeming with life but as for evidence of previous human habitation and a magnificent residence, this is all I could find.
However, there was evidence of ongoing excavation and building of a different kind…
The discovery of flora and fauna taking over the hill was a reminder that while human-built stone kingdoms may rise and fall, the natural living world lingers and in some cases thrives.
It was strange to stand in quiet bushland and ponder the changes that had taken place in this location. It is ironic that the coal mines which brought the wealth to build Brynhyfryd were also in part responsible for its demise
The hill is still unstable and contains open mine shafts, sinkholes and cracks seeping steam and smoke from underground coal seam fires. Warning signs in some areas describe the dangers. Leaving trails is not advised!
I spent most of my walk sweating, not from exertion but from apprehension. By the end though, I was criticising myself for being needlessly careful, that is until I noticed this small sinkhole which had steam/smoke seeping out of it.
The surrounding land was hard dry rock but this hole was dark and damp inside and I could feel the heat rising from it. It indicates a deep crack or shaft below the surface where a coal seam fire burns. I see this in other areas of Ipswich sometimes. Here’s a map showing 70 underground mines in the area. I’m not sure what ‘aspro” stands for but someone suggested to me that the mines caused headaches from noise and explosions.
The site was purchased by the Ipswich City Council last year for $1 with the intention of creating a recreation and heritage site for the community. Much work will need to be done to stabilise the area though. An elderly local man who has memories of visiting the ruins of the castle suggested to me that they should just put down explosives underground to settle it. I asked him what the surrounding residents who live lower down the hill would think of this idea. “They don’t have to know,” he answered with a wink.
The success of Lewis Thomas encouraged Welsh Immigration and the Blackstone area still has strong Welsh ties. The United Welsh Church was partly funded and built on land donated by Thomas. At the time the Welsh community decided that their Welsh heritage was more important than small sectarian differences and so the denominations united. It is the only Welsh Church in Queensland and one of only four in Australia. The Welsh Soccer Club is situated next to the Church.
I visited the Cooneana Historical Centre recently looking for information about this Australian Castle. What I found there was memorabilia of coal mining in days gone by. There were also poignant stories of those killed in mining disasters in Ipswich, particularly the Box Flat Explosions. It’s a reminder that the beauty and luxury of Brynhyfryd was built partly on the backs of men who worked in what were often extremely dirty and dangerous conditions. The mines gave them an income to feed their families while at the same time the pollution contributed to their health problems and those of the community.
In a world now conscious of the depletion of natural resources and the environmental impacts of burning fossil fuels, it will be interesting to see when coal mining eventually ceases in Australia. It has a strong tradition here. Back in Lewis Thomas’ day the technology for large scale solar and wind energy production didn’t exist. Coal was the answer to the energy needs of the masses. Now, however, we have the technology to provide much cleaner energy sources.