The tale of Don Bradman’s nemesis, Eddie Gilbert
On the hunt for the home town of tragic Indigenous cricketer Eddie Gilbert.
Call it curiosity about what exists away from the alluring coast. Call it wanting to sort fact from fable in a tragi-comic tale from long ago. Maybe it’s misplaced faith in the ability of great cartographer Vasco da Google.
Whatever it is, I’m standing by an empty road 200 kilometres north-west of Brisbane and thinking: “Well, it isn’t here.”
‘It’ is Barambah, a place which until a few weeks earlier I thought existed only in the mind of a writer who wove two real people – cricketing great Don Bradman, and one of the few opponents to unsettle him, tearaway bowler Eddie Gilbert – into a story dosed with just enough bull to put it in the ‘yarn’ category.
Written by David Forrest, That Barambah Mob appears in a compendium called Six And Out: The Legend of Australian and NZ cricket that hadn’t come off my bookshelf for 30 years. The laconic nature of the narrative, centred around Henry Stulpnagel, a dairy farmer and weekend cricketer who, when facing bowlers as fast as Eddie, “took to parting his hair in the middle so he didn’t have to duck so far” and who favoured a drink called Green Death, meant Barambah had to be made up.
But the writing and the humour also meant the name stayed with me, and when I open an atlas looking for somewhere to spend a few days after a week of the good life on the Sunshine Coast, Barambah leaps out of page seven.
And Google Maps confirms it, placing Barambah at -26.310290, 152.112274, which my iPhone now tells me is where I am, 100 metres from where the Kilcoy-Murgon Road crosses Barambah Creek.
Everything else from the story has checked out. I’ve been through Kilkivan, whose bowlers Stulpnagel had “flogged”. There’s a remnant of a cricket ground, not in as good shape as the site I find by following a sign on the Gympie road that simply says “Chimney”. Fourteen kilometres and 23 (dry) creek crossings later, a clearing reveals a stunning stone edifice, 15 metres tall with pointing as sharp as the call of the whipbirds above me. It’s the remnant of the Mount Clara Copper Smelter, which only operated for two years (1873-1875) but was built to last.
Eddie bowled so fast that when the ball hit the pitch “she’d smoke”.
Next is Goomeri, whose team would, according to Henry, “bellyache about the way I was slowin’ up the game” because of the time it took to retrieve his six-hits from Barambah Creek. I don’t, however, develop any bellyache from the namesake dish with cream and ice-cream from The Pumpkin Pie Cafe in Boonara Street.
Fine towns both of them, giving me hope Barambah is a place of substance, well enough to support a cricket team.
Yet here I stand, with paddocks rising all around. A farmhouse sits on a hill, and an old iron shed basks in the afternoon sun. There’s certainly nowhere to play cricket. So where is it?
Henry Stulpnagel played for Murgon, 23 kilometres west of “Barambah”, and he spoke of facing Eddie, who bowled so fast that when the ball hit the pitch “she’d smoke”. He spoke while sitting on the post office steps at Murgon, “staring down the Cherbourg Road”.
The Wooroolin wetlands near Kingaroy.
Otherwise Cherbourg doesn’t get a mention in That Barambah Mob, but Eddie’s entry on the Australian Dictionary of Biography website unravels the mystery. Born at an Aboriginal reserve near Woodford in 1905, he was separated from his parents as an infant and “incarcerated in the children’s dormitory on Barambah (later Cherbourg) reserve near Murgon”.
So that “mob” from Barambah were the Stolen Generation. And the name change? It was to avoid confusion with nearby pastoral property Barambah Station, the Barambah that Mr Magoogle had drawn me to.
With little education, Eddie worked as a labourer, but his cricketing prowess saw him go to Brisbane in 1930 for a state trial – after he received permission from the Aboriginal Protector. His day in the sun was at the ’Gabba in November 1931.
Eddie’s second ball plonked Bradman on his backside, the fourth knocked the bat from his hands and the fifth got him out for a duck. Just what sort of delivery that last ball was is the thread that weaves through That Barambah Mob, but the story doesn’t reveal the tragedy.
He was perhaps the only hero detribalised Aboriginals had in the 1930s.
There were doubts about the legality of Eddie’s action – later proved unfounded – and he missed a season due to a leprosy outbreak at Cherbourg. He spent his last 30 years in a psychiatric hospital, dying in 1978. The Australian Dictionary of Biography says: “He was perhaps the only hero detribalised Aboriginals had in the 1930s.”
Cherbourg is 10 kilometres from Murgon and is a self-managed community. It only takes a few minutes to find the cricket ground, flat and still somewhat green in a typical dry winter in this region called the South Burnett.
It’s lovely country to drive in. The towns sport art deco touches, the hills roll like a rumpled bedspread and every field has something to look at: cattle, horses, goats. Many crops abound in the red soil here, but mainly peanuts.
It’s daunting to think every peanut grown commercially from northern NSW to Cape York ends up in the silos at Kingaroy. The museum across the road in Haly Street explains the process. Alas, mechanisation robbed the industry of such ingenious devices as the Little Wonder (a combination thresher/winnower), while the art of stooking – the piling of peanut bushes to dry in the sun – is dead.
So I’ll never meet a stooker or a Stulpnagel. But I’ve found Barambah, and while tempted to celebrate, I daren’t ask for a glass of Green Death at the pub in Murgon, just in case they have some.
Six And Out (Pollard Publishing Company), which contains That Barambah Mob, is out of print but is available on secondhand sites such as Abe Books.
The South Burnett region is only a few hours by road from the Sunshine Coast, so why not combine a trip with a stay at the award-winning RACV Noosa Resort, where members get 25 per cent off accommodation when booking direct. VISIT: racv.com.au/resorts or call 07 5341 6300.