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Thursday Island, QLD

Torres Strait island north of Cape York

Visitors to Thursday Island are usually hardy souls who have driven up Cape York in a 4WD and who, looking around Bamaga, decide that a ferry trip to Thursday Island would be a useful activity. They are rewarded by a charming tropical island with a number of interesting and unusual historic buildings. An old fort built at the end of the 19th century when Russia was seen as a threat. The smallest cathedral in the world ... reputedly. And a Japanese cemetery with over 700 graves which is a sad reminder that once Thursday Island had a booming, but hugely dangerous, pearl fishing industry.


Thursday Island is located 39 km north of Cape York Peninsula which is 2,686 km north of Brisbane.


Origin of Name

It is widely accepted that Captain William Bligh, when he made his historic journey from Tahiti to Batavia after the mutiny on the Bounty, passed Thursday Island and named it after the day he passed it. There is an alternative theory that it was named by Owen Stanley. Certainly, whoever named it, also named Wednesday and Friday Islands in the Prince of Wales group.


Things to See and Do

Thursday Island or Waiben
There are a number of ferries that ply the waters between Cape York and Thursday Island. The most popular is Peddells Ferry (http://peddellsferry.com.au) which has been operating since 1979, takes 70 minutes to make the crossing, and operates every day leaving Seisia at 8.00 am and 4.00 pm and returning from Thursday Island at 6.30 am and 2.30 pm (these times vary - check http://peddellsferry.com.au/ferry-timetable.) 
There are a number of walks on the island - it is only 4 square kilometres - and visitors are encouraged to walk along the beaches, enjoy the tropical flora, take in the view from Green Hill Fort and learn about the island's role in the defence of Australia during World War II.
Peddells offer a very reasonably priced tour of the island which, at http://peddellsferry.com.au/thursday-island-historic-scenic-bus-tours, they describe as: "This award winning tour will provide you with a glimpse into another culture and bring the island’s history to life through your guides easy storytelling style, driven by pure passion for their island home. Peddell’s Thursday Island Tour is also a great way to take in the stunning panoramic island views and enjoy the vivid and interesting displays of Thursday Island’s hilltop museum. Housed in the refurbished underground tunnels and rooms of Green Hill Fort, the Museum features three main local historical industry themes; Pearling, Shipping and Military.  This magnificent example of pre-federation coastal military architecture was built in response to a Russian warscare. The Fort’s now silent 6″ breach loading guns jut out menacingly over the islands’ main approaches. You will learn of the extraordinary impact the pearling industry had on this little community when you make a stop by the striking Japanese Pearl Divers Memorial located at T.I. cemetery on the northern side of the island. It is here that over 700 pearl shell divers were laid to rest and later a memorial was placed to remember all those that lost their lives in pursuit of the highly prized mother of pearl shell. A memorial to the designer of the Torres Strait flag is found here as well. Peddells Thursday Island Tour offers all this plus a scenic drive around the island complimented by your guide’s signature lively and informative commentary."

Japanese Cemetery
Located on Summers Street is the town's main cemetery of which the most interesting section is the Japanese cemetery (second only to the one in Broome) where hundreds of Japanese pearl divers are buried. Some of the graves are marked with stone and others with timber. Many of the graves are characterised by small receptacles to hold food for the spirits of the dead. It was established, as part of the island's main cemetery, in 1887. It is estimated that there are 600-700 Japanese graves, most of which are of pearl divers. By 1884 it was estimated that around 100 Japanese pearl divers were living on the island.
There is a special monument to the Japanese who died in the waters around the island. It is located in the cemetery and reads: "This monument has been erected in memory of the centenary of the Japanese people who worked, lived and died here in the Torres Strait area. From 1878 till 1941 thousands of Japanese were employed in the gathering of pearl shells and this constituted the principal enterprise of Northern Australia. They worked hard together with islanders contributing to the development of the fishing industry. During this period approximatley 700 of the Japanese people died in the Torres Strait area. May the Japanese rest in peace here."
The Queensland Heritage Register notes of the Japanese on the island: "Japanese divers made a significant contribution to the development of the pearl-shell industry in the Torres Strait. Europeans who established the industry in the Strait in the late 1860s and early 1870s relied initially on South Sea Islander labour, who tended to dominate (often violently) the Torres Strait Islanders. In the 1870s boats equipped with helmeted apparatus for divers appeared, and in the 1880s the pearl-shellers turned to a more skilled, often more daring, and less confronting labour supply - Japanese divers (often ex-sailors) recruited principally from Hong Kong and Singapore. In the 1880s the proportion of Japanese divers in the Strait was no greater than any other ethnic group, but from 1891, when the Japanese Government removed its ban on emigration, numbers increased significantly. By 1893 the Japanese were the largest ethnic group in the Torres Strait pearl-shell industry, and completely dominated the industry between 1900 and 1940. By 1900 all the luggers built at Thursday Island were crafted by Japanese, and a "Japanese town", with boarding houses, a public bath, stores and a brothel, had been established at the eastern end of Port Kennedy. This was destroyed during the Second World War by American troops, who reputedly utilised the building materials for barracks." For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=600875.

Green Hill Fort
The Green Hill Fort was built between 1891-1893 to protect Australia against a possible Russian invasion. It remained as an active station until it was decommissioned in 1927. The excellent site, Australia @ War (https://www.ozatwar.com/bunkers/greenhillfort.htm) explains: "There are five rooms with 600 mm thick concrete walls used for ammunition storage. The initial buildings on site were the general storeroom, shell store, cordite room, lamp room and artillery store. A timber and corrugated iron guardhouse was also built over a 20,000 gallon underground well. A cooling plant machine room and a powder room were added in 1912. Air conditioning ducts were installed from the cooling plant machine room to the cordite store. The guns that were part of the pre-federation fort were as follows:- four rifle muzzle-loading (RML) 7" guns; four sixteen-pounders; two Mark VI 6" breech loading guns; and two Mark IV 6" breech loading gun." During World War II it was used as a Signals and Wireless Station and from 1954-1993 it was used as a weather station. It can be accessed of Aubrey Parade at the western end of the town.

Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church
Located at 120 Douglas Street, the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church, was built between 1885-1905. The Queensland Heritage Register notes of the building that it "remains substantially intact and is a good example of a late 19th century timber church with decorative Gothic elements and [less commonly] side verandahs. It retains many early fittings and fixtures, including the choir loft, pews, altar, decorative fretwork, the 1930s painted trompe l'oeil murals on the sanctuary wall and altar, and statuary which integrates with the wall mural to re-inforce the three-dimensional effect." For more detail check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=601287.

Thursday Island Customs House
Located at 2 Victoria Parade, the Customs House is a handsome two storey masonry and stucco building which was constructed on Thursday Island for the Customs Department in 1938. It was designed by the head architect of the Commonwealth Department of Works, Harold Barker, and replaced an earlier Customs House built in 1885. It was only briefly used as a Customs House because, when war broke out the island was evacuated, and by 1942 the building had been taken over by the military and used as the residence for the Commander of the Torres Strait forces. It returned to being a Customs House in 1946 when the military left the island. For more detailed information check out https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=601527.

Quetta Memorial Precinct
Located in Douglas Street, the Quetta Memorial Precinct, which is listed in the Queensland Heritage Register, combines the All Souls and St Bartholomew's Cathedral Church, St Bartholomew's Old Cathedral, the Bishop's House and the Quetta Memorial. It was all built between 1891-1904 with the Bishop's House dating from 1891, the church from 1893, the Hall from 1902 and the Rectory from 1904. The Register notes: "The Cathedral is an excellent illustration of the imposition in an exotic location of the late 19th century colonial fashion for erecting Gothic Revival style church buildings, but adapted to local conditions [including climate, lack of local raw resources, the cost of importing materials, and the fledgling nature of the local parish] - as illustrated by the use of concrete rather than stone or brick, the provision of timber ventilation friezes along the top of the side walls of both nave and sanctuary/chancel, the modification of the architect's original design to include doors along the length of the aisles, and the construction in stages. The interior of the cathedral is highly intact, and contains many memorials. The late 19th/early 20th century sections of the cathedral are important in illustrating the range of the ecclesiastical work of architect John Hingeston Buckeridge, who was the Brisbane Anglican Diocesan architect from 1887 to 1902 ... The interior of the cathedral produces a strong aesthetic experience, engendered by the high spaces, the arcaded aisles, the fine timber ceiling and exposed roof trusses, the stained glass memorial windows, the dark-stained timber pews and other church furnishings, and the number and variety of memorials." For more details check https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602168.

All Souls and St Bartholomew's Cathedral Church
Reputedly the world's smallest cathedral, the All Souls and St Bartholomew's Cathedral Church was "an 1893 Gothic Revival style church in mass concrete, rendered to resemble stonework, with a 1960s front extension of concrete and fibrous cement sheeting. The whole rests on concrete foundations." It is important to Thursday Island because it "has been, and still is, a focus for worship for generations of Thursday Islanders, and is considered the 'mother church' and focus for Anglican religious activity in the Torres Strait. The Cathedral contains many relics and memorials associated with shipwrecks and with the sea, not just with the Quetta, and is intimately associated with Torres Strait culture and its identification with the sea. Many Torres Strait Islanders consider the Anglican precinct to be a sacred place, in the same sense as the original Kaurareg people would have regarded places as 'sacred'. The Cathedral has a special association also with the people of Queensland, as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the Quetta shipwreck of 28 February 1890, one of Queensland's [and Australia's] worst maritime disasters. From its inception, the Quetta Memorial has functioned as a place of pilgrimage and as a tourist attraction, has been visited by many prominent people, and is well known in Queensland. The Cathedral has acquired a mystique engendered by its dramatic origins, its memorial status, its longevity, and its tropical location." For more details check out the Queensland Heritage Register at https://environment.ehp.qld.gov.au/heritage-register/detail/?id=602168.

Gab Titui Cultural Centre
Located on the corner of Blackall Street and Victoria Parade, the Gab Titui Cultural Centre is a contemporary art gallery and keeping place for cultural artefacts. The website (check out http://www.gabtitui.gov.au/gab-titui) explains: "The Gab Titui Cultural Centre provides visitors with a unique insight into the vibrant art and culture of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area. The Wabunaw Geth gallery – our main gallery space – has a changing program of exhibitions displaying artworks that include sculptures, headdresses, intricate lino-cut prints, wood carvings and paintings, as well as jewellery made from local materials such as pearl and sea shells.  Artworks on display represent the unique Indigenous cultures of the surrounding communities and illustrate Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal myths, legends, and connection to the sea and land.  Experience the spirit of the Torres Strait during our exhibition openings as traditional dancers relay stories from the different islands through dynamic performances, distinctive music, and songs in our outdoor performance area." It is open from 9.00 am - 4.30 pm Monday to Friday and 10.00 am - 3.00 pm on Saturday. Entry is free. Tel: (07) 4069 0888.


Other Attractions in the Area

Horn Island
The Horn Island tour (see http://www.torresstraitheritage.com/blog/?page_id=28 for specific details and costs) is conducted in an air conditioned bus and includes a visit to the Torres Strait Heritage Museum and provides details of the role of Horn Island in the Second World War including gun emplacements, trenches, an aircraft wreck, the local airstrip and an underground command post. The Heritage Museum also features a display of pearl diving memorabilia and Torres Strait art. There is a very detailed history of the Torres Strait at http://www.torresstraitheritage.com/blog/?page_id=49.



* Prior to the settlement of the island by Europeans it was home to the Muralag Torres Strait Island people. There is some evidence they arrived on the island around 2,500 years ago.

* In May, 1606 the Dutch Ship, Duyfken, passed by the island.

* In 1789 Captain William Bligh sighted the island on his journey from Tahiti to Batavia. He may have named it at this time.

* In 1872 Queensland unlawfully annexed the island for defence purposes.

* In 1875 the Queensland and British governments decided to establish a deep anchorage port on the island.

* A government outpost was established on the island in 1877.

* By 1883 over 200 pearling vessels were based around the island.

* The Town Hall was built in 1885. 

* In 1887 Thursday Island was connected to the mainland via a telegraph cable. That year saw Burns Philp establish an office on the island.

* In 1890 the RMS Quetta was wrecked on an unchartered reef near the island with a loss of 134 lives.

* An Anglican church, All Souls and St Bartholomew's Cathedral Church, was constructed as a memorial to the RMS Quetta in 1892-1893.

* A fort on Battery Point which was built in 1892 to protect the island from Russian invasion.

* The island was hit by Cyclone Mahina in 1899.

* By 1903 the island was home to 736 Australians, British and Europeans; 334 Japanese and 445 Aborigines, Melanesians, Chinese and Malays. Many Aborigines were not counted.

* A hospital was completed in 1910.

* The local customs house was opened in 1938.

* In 1942 all civilians on the island were evacuated with the threat of Japanese invasion.

* In the 1950s the CSIRO attempted to establish a cultured pearl industry.

* A High School was opened in 1966.

* In the 1970s there was an attempt to farm green turtles. 

* The Gab Titui Cultural Centre was opened in 2004.

* A new Court House was opened in 2005.

* Today the island is the administrative centre for the Torres Strait Islands and has a significant population of Torres Strait Islanders. 

* The census in 2011 recorded an island population of 2,610 of which 64.6% were either Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

* By 2017 Thursday Island had become a popular stopover for cruises around the north coast of Australia


Visitor Information

Thursday Island Visitor Information Centre, Engineers Jetty, tel: (07) 4069 1336.


Useful Websites

The local shire has a useful site with information about tours, eating on the island, accommodation and ferry services. Check it out at http://www.torres.qld.gov.au/tourism.

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