I'm standing in the middle of the road at the top of Victoria Street in Hall and like every other country road in our region during lockdown, it's quiet. Eerily so.
On one side of the street, hidden behind a stand of towering pines is the Catholic Church, with late afternoon sun lighting up the stained glass windows. In the other direction, beyond the verdant green patchwork of Wallaroo hobby farms, the Brindabella Range boldly holds up the western horizon. It's as bucolic a scene as you'll find in these parts.
However, 101 years ago today this section of road was far from tranquil when about 20 villagers worked frantically to save the life of one of their favourite sons.
It was one of Canberra's most tragic accidents of that era, one so gruesome in detail that it's still remembered by villagers more than a century later.
On the afternoon of Saturday September 18, 1920, after a hard day's work chaff-cutting on nearby farms, 24-year-old Ernest (Ernie) William Gribble was returning to Hall on the family's Fowler steam engine. With him driving the engine as it chugged past the church was Cedric Southwell. Cedric's son Kingsley remembers the tragic accident as if it happened yesterday.
"While my father didn't talk a lot about it, it's the sort of story that once you're told, you never forget," says Kingsley, 78.
"The engine carried heavy loads so you needed two people to drive it, someone to steer and another to look after the boiler. My father was steering and Ernie, being the experienced operator, was at the boiler."
About 90 metres past the church Ernie decided to make an adjustment to the engine while it was still in motion. It was a decision that ultimately cost him his life.
"In reaching for the toolbox he slipped and fell between the big drive-wheel and the fly-wheel," says Kingsley. "Ernie was hopelessly trapped between the two wheels which were spinning in opposite directions, the poor fella had no chance."
Although Cedric put the brakes on as soon as he could, according to Kingsley "the inertia meant he couldn't pull-up straight away".
Realising the urgency, Cedric jumped on his pony and galloped the short distance into town to raise the alarm.
The Queanbeyan Age and Observer of September 21, 1920, describes the frustration that faced Ernie's rescuers, which included his own father, who raced to the scene. "A number of strong able men had to endure the spectacle of the mangled sufferer there in their presence crushed between two ponderous wheels for a full hour before a method could be devised for his release."
Eventually the 15-tonne engine was jacked-up and using a spanner which according to some reports Ernie somehow managed to throw down to his rescuers, the drive-wheel was loosened. Ernie was then carried to his sister's house which was just across the road and where two doctors, Drs Blackall and Christie, soon arrived.
By now the sun had well and truly set and Leon R Smith in his book Memories of Hall (Roebuck, 1975) recounts he "held a kerosene lamp for the doctors to examine Ernie".
The Queanbeyan Age and Observer pulled no punches in describing the doctors' assessment of their still heavily bleeding patient.
"...they found that from the lower region of the abdomen half-way down the right thigh he was literally crushed to almost a pulp, the organs thereabouts being torn to shreds. The wonder was, so Dr. Blackall said, that he survived his injuries so long as he did; and it was only his wonderful virility and courage that kept him alive, where other men of less fibre would have succumbed as soon as the injuries happened."
After a stiff drink Ernie apparently muttered his last words 'Dear Mum' to his heart-broken mother who was among those trying to console him. Heck. Can you imagine the heartache in that house that night?
The next day the coroner was greeted by "a large number of persons, mostly relatives and friends of the deceased, in and around the house where the deceased's remains lay" and by "a barrowful of earth covering a pool of blood" at the accident site. Told you the journo pulled no punches. The coroner promptly determined that Ernie's death was "from a purely accidental cause", and Ernie was promptly buried at the Hall Cemetery the same afternoon.
Earlier this week, I met Kingsley Southwell at the bush cemetery. "A massive crowd, including those from the many sporting teams which he played for, attended his funeral right here," says Kingsley as we arrive at the foot of his grave.
We stand in silence, each reflecting on the outpouring of emotion that must have flowed here all those years ago, including by Kingsley's own father who'd tried in vain to save his life.
The silence is eventually broken by a lone magpie warbling in one of the gum trees that rings the cemetery. It then flies low in front of us, right over Ernie's headstone. I glance across to Kingsley but he's looking the other way. I go to ask, "did you see that?" and then decide not to. He'd think I was crazy if I suggested a bird was also paying its respects.
On the way back to our cars we stop to read the engravings on several other gravestones. Many mark the final resting place of others, also sadly cut down in their prime, by disease or misadventure. It's a salient reminder of how tough life was in early 20th century Canberra, which was little more than a rural outpost.
I plan to return to Ernie's grave today with some flowers. I wonder if the magpie will perform for a repeat fly-over.
Reminders of fatal accident
Apart from Ernie Gribble's grave in the Hall Cemetery, there are several other tangible reminders of this tragedy.
Steam Engine: The engine eventually broke down in the 1940s. It was salvaged from a Hall paddock in the late 1960s by Victorian steam engine collector Robin Gibb who fully restored it. Today, it remains in his private collection.
Threshing Machine: The threshing machine (second in line in the main photo above) which along with the chaff-cutter (third in line) was often towed by the engine, is now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. "I didn't want it to vanish from history I sold it to the museum about 30 years ago," says Kingsley Southwell.
Sign of the times: On Victoria Street in Hall outside the house where Ernie was taken for medical assistance is a Canberra Tracks sign. In 2008, the current owner of the house wrote about its connection to the tragedy for the Hall community website. "Many years ago, I had a visit from an elderly bloke, an O'Brien, who had been a child when 'Uncle Ernie' had his accident. He showed me the very spot where Ernie died and asked if I had ever lifted the old lino. I told him I had not but had put carpet on top of it. He replied, 'Mum put the lino down because she could never get the blood stains out of the floorboards'. He was watching me with a grin to see if he gets a rise out of me."
WHERE IN CANBERRA?
Clue: What gauge is it?
Degree of difficulty: Medium
Last week: Congratulations to Pratyush Sahay of Amaroo who was first to correctly identify last week's photo as a hedge outside Canberra Milk, in Mildura Street, Fyshwick. The photo was sent in by Kerry Weatherstone of Chapman, who, like me, wonders if there are many other examples of topiary in Canberra that spell a word?
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to firstname.lastname@example.org. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday September 18, 2021, wins bragging rights. Double passes to Dendy, the Home of Quality Cinema will be offered again as prizes once cinemas re-open.
Tent Pegging Champ
It's no surprise that Ernie Gribble was so active in the local sports community - his uncle George Gribble was regarded as our region's first individual international sporting star.
George was talented in a range of sports and in 1897 he was selected as part of a team to represent the colony in competitions in London and Dublin as part of the celebrations for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. George's moment of fame came when he unexpectedly beat the best of the British and colonial armies in 'tent-pegging'. And no, it's not, as my daughter thought, a competition where campers race to put their tents up, rather a serious competition for lancers on horseback.
According to reports in The Queanbeyan Age, Queen Victoria personally presented George with a silver cup as a trophy for his efforts. George also won the buck-jumping contest and top-scored in a cricket match in which the Australians defeated the British Eleven. Talk about an all-rounder!
George and his antipodean mates proved so popular with the London crowds that the following competition, they were asked to act out a series of ''shoot outs'' between bushrangers and police - similar to the Wild West pantomimes performed by the American touring companies of the time.