The year was 1963***. A Townsville campus of the University of Queensland had just opened. This was a big benefit to the town as prior to the opening of this campus students from all over the far north were obliged to go to Brisbane if they wanted an education beyond high school level. My mother and my eldest aunty did just that, living in Brisbane for several years to get their tertiary qualifications during the 1950s.
The first intake of students at the Townsville campus wasn’t terribly large, say about 200. Most were drawn from country Qld. About 25 local kids attend and were encouraged to welcome those who were new to town and show them the ropes.
Among the Townsville kids was my Aunty. Youngest of my mothers siblings and evidently following in her Dad’s footsteps. My grandfather was something of a larrikin.
The academic year was divided into 3 terms. At the end of first term was an institution known as Commem Week. Commem Week was a traditional time of highjinks for the university students. My mother recalls a stunt that the uni students pulled for Commem week in Brisbane when she was there in training college. A group of students walked bold as brass into one of the court rooms carrying a long ladder while court was in session. They erected the ladder behind the judge and proceeded to remove the clock from the courtroom wall. They walked out without a murmur of protest from anyone! So you can see the students on the Townsville campus in its inaugural year had something of a challenge to live up to the standards set by their southern brethren if they were not to be labelled as pretty tame country bumpkins come commem week.
As you can imagine, in the early days of the campus there were many questions and uncertainties hanging in the air. Directions to be decided and pursued in all sorts of areas as the character and spirit of the campus was established. There was an air of questions and possibilities abroad including how the establishment of the local university campus would impact the town.
For those unfamiliar with Townsville, it is important to know that it lies on a fairly low lying flood plain surrounded by mountains. Dominating the town itself, solitary Castle hill rises above the town and shows a prominent face of pink granite to the sea and over the Strand which runs along the ocean frontage. Castle Hill was not a subtle landmark for small 1960s Townsville, as indeed it is not today. It has always provided a popular lookout with expansive views that locals are rather proud of. Castle Hill
It was a collective burst of brilliance by a group of students that had them decide that the perfect commem week stunt would be to paint a huge question mark in whitewash on the side of Castle Hill. The stunt was to be carried out prior to the Commem week ball.
First of course they needed transport and for this purpose three students were able to provide vehicles. An oldsmobile, a morris oxford and my aunty brought along my grandfathers Vanguard. Next of course you need a volunteer to go over the side with the paint brush. A mature age student (who will remain nameless in this publication) put his hand up. This plucky fellow also supplied a very long rope. To be sure the rope was strong enough, the students tested it prior to going up to the hill by tying it securely and having a large group of students grab it and run like mad give the rope a hefty tug. Satisfied that it would not send their trusty volunteer plummeting to his death the students with their whitewash and gear assembled at the top of Castle Hill in the dead of night to do the deed.
One end of the rope was tied securely to a very large rock . The other end was tied to the volunteer artist around his waist and through his legs and he was lowered over the side of the hill. In the midst of the proceedings a car came up the hill and a flutter of alarm ran through the students who were up to no good. However it turned out it was just a couple who had come to go parking.
In my aunty’s recollection the question mark must have been something in the order of 15 – 16 feet high. She recalls quite a bit of rope went over the side during the course of the work..
As my mother recalls it when the citizens of Townsville awoke to find their beloved Castle Hill so shamelessly vandalised there was a public outcry. The citizenry was outraged. Feeling ran very high and the activity was a criminal offence to boot. It is only in recent years that we youngsters of the family even became aware of the scandal let alone the deep dark family secret of my Auntys suspected involvement. It was the evil that dare not speak its name… But of course this is only part of the story we are still left with a whitewashed question mark ….patience dear reader.
Of course the hillside artwork was only an element of the artistic hyjinks, another touch was to paint little footsteps coming out of the sewer grate along the footpath and up to the nightsafe of the bank and then back to the sewer…
Now one night of large scale public vandalism does not a commem week celebration make. There was also a parade where the students pushed the boundaries of decency to an extent that went somewhat above the heads of the local police officers…parade highlights that went ahead after police vetting included three guys dressed up in sheets with a placard saying – “Did you see the three huns walking - down the vue de mond with Ginger Rogers*?” and another group with a placard reading “Is there life on Uranus? If not check on Mars.”
There was also a wheelbarrow full of horse manure entitled “passed by the censors”. .. actually that one is quite subtle - I only just got the additional level of meaning now..LOL
A third rather clever placard requires more explaining. The local mayor was named Angus Smith. Among to other council dignitaries were a Mr Thrust and a Mr Parry. The students managed to acquire a black Angus calf and lead it along with a sign saying “Aberdeen Angus: it’s the bull that gets you there. Politics is full of Thrust and Parry.”
Unfortunately there was a price to pay for all the efforts of preparation. My aunty had a date for the commem week ball, but having been out all night decorating Castle Hill and preparing the floats for the parade etc she went home to bed the morning of the ball and slept through until the next day. Her date arrived to pick her up and my grandmother was obliged to report that aunty was still asleep. He decided he’d go home to bed too… so both missed the ball.
About 8 days later was Anzac Day. It was decided that the students would march in the annual parade. As they started out they softly repeated the question “who put the question mark on Castle Hill?” creating a low hum. As they went along the chant became progressively louder.
….so you can see the students of the Townsville Campus of the University of Queensland were doing what they must to fulfil their obligation to needle the older generations..
As is the way with whitewash, after a few months the rains came and the question mark was fading away. By this time the students had become rather fond of it however so later in 1963, flushed with their earlier success the same group repainted the question mark in durable paint. The deed was done in broad daylight this time.
Clearly things were getting beyond the pale from the point of view of the local community in general and the Air Force (who have a substantial base in Townsville) who went in and painted out the question mark with a large green square of paint.
The following year, not to be beaten, and no doubt keen to make the stunt their own, a group of students, whom my Aunty believes were from Mackay, painted the first saint on the side of Castle Hill over the green paint. This group of students has come forward now and there names are a matter of public record. Clearly the student body collectively considered this to be something of an enhancement to the statement of student rebellion. It became a tradition that the students would repaint and maintain the saint. Over time the green square faded away. We don’t know if the students at what is now James Cook University (JCU) maintain this tradition today. Certainly the saint is still there, so someone is maintaining it.
The saint took on a life of its own over the years. At JCU all the sporting trophies had the saint on them. My grandfather was active in the community and a stalwart of the local football club and was presented with a plaque of appreciation which was also adorned with the saint. Unfortunately we don’t know what became of that plaque. I imagine one of my northern cousins may have been given it as a momento of him.
..so that dear reader is the story of the beatification of Castle Hill as told to me by my Aunty and with input from my mum who was also resident in Townsville at that time …
Further information on the saint of castle hill may be found here