The tragic story behind Ipswich Showgrounds’ gates

If you have driven past or visited the Ipswich Showgrounds on Warwick Road chances are you have seen the distinct old gates.

What you may not know is the gates commemorate one of the most tragic events in the city’s history.

They mark the Nerita disaster, a tragedy that claimed the lives of some of Ipswich’s most prominent identities and captured the attention of the nation in 1939.

A fateful voyage

At 2pm on Saturday, 10 June 1939 the 45ft motor boat Nerita left Breakfast Creek in Brisbane.

Skippered by renowned Brisbane fisherman Edwin Carey, it was headed for Cape Moreton and Caloundra as part of a three-day fishing trip for Snapper.

Several Ipswich identities were among the dozen people on board.

They included Harry Biltoft who owned the Palais Royal Hotel, grocer and Ipswich Vice Regal Band member John Reddan, boardinghouse keeper Jack Laister and dental mechanic Roy Palmer, among others.

The evening of its launch the Nerita was reportedly seen in Moreton Bay.

Neither it or the 12 people on board would be seen again.

The Nerita. Source: National Library Australia.

Consultation after completing an aerial search of nearly 2,000 square miles of ocean on June 15, 1939. Pictured is the Commodore of the Royal Queensland Yacht Club J R Figgis checking reports with officers of the RAAF search planes at Archerfield. Source: National Library Australia.

Massive search effort

The Nerita’s disappearance was national news and sparked what Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper reported at the time as “one of the most intensive (searches) ever conducted on the eastern Australian coast”.

At its height it included six planes, two of which were chartered by family members. The Civil Aviation Department and Royal Australian Air Force also provided planes and manpower.

In the sea, local fisherman helped and Water Police vessels searched from Gladstone to Coffs Harbour.

Extensive land searches were also carried out to try and determine if the boat had been seen anywhere along the Queensland coastline.

Sadly, the searches proved fruitless.

Theories abound

The Nerita’s disappearance prompted much speculation about the fate of the vessel and its crew.

One fisherman renowned for his knowledge of Brisbane’s fishing areas suggested the boat may have struck a large whale and was wrecked.

Another theory suggested the boat never actually left Moreton Bay, but this is unlikely as it was spotted shortly after launch heading up the coast.

Some claimed a gust of wind forced it out to sea while engine trouble was also floated as a possible scenario.

Breakthrough of sorts

On Sunday, June 18 a breakthrough of sorts came when a dinghy from the Nerita was spotted submerged and bottom up between Cape Moreton and Caloundra.

The dinghy was empty, but its condition led experts at the time to say they believed the men were forced into it after a fire or explosion on the Nerita.

“I think it happened so suddenly that the party had no chance of escape,” Captain W Ladlay told The Courier-Mail at the time.

“It seems to me that when the whole launch was threatened they hurriedly decided to make a desperate bid to escape in the dinghy.

“There has been no bad weather off Cape Moreton since Saturday night and the fact that the dinghy was found bottom up indicates to me that she was overcrowded for the sea off the Cape and capsized, throwing the victims into the water.”

Community honours those lost

Following the completion of the search, the Ipswich community held a memorial service for the 12 lost at sea.

In March of the following year a Nerita Memorial Fund was established with more than 100 pounds donated by April 1940.

The money was used to build and erect the Nerita gates at Ipswich Showgrounds.

The gates, which are no longer used as the showground’s main entrance, were officially unveiled on 11 May 1940 by Mayor J C Minnis.

They carry two plaques, one noting the disaster and the other listing the names of the 12 men who lost their lives.

Read more about the events that shaped Ipswich

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