Within our collection is this striking photograph of the opening of the Blackall train line taken in 1908. The photographer, along with gathered dignitaries, a brass band, and hardy spectators braved an onslaught of treacherous mud and cantankerous rain. As reported in The Queenslander on the 23 May 1908:
“The special train left Rockhampton last night for Blackall with the Ministerial party to officially open the railway reached here at 11 o’clock this morning to the accompaniment of steady rain. The rain had set in early in the evening, and the black soil was of the consistency of gruel to a depth of 8in or 9in, and the result was that even the most modest member of the party left his impression on the streets of Blackall, and several almost left their boots also.”
A fantastic description of this event over a hundred years ago, and the photograph captures the scene perfectly, with the majority seeking refuge under the cover of the railway station.
But it was later in the article that the question of this blog title emerged, to return back to The Queenslander:
“Today, despite the rain and mud, there was a crowd of several hundred persons at the railway station, which was festooned with flags. Engine 345, with Driver Roden on the cab, broke a ribbon stretched across the line, and exploded a detonator on the rails. The band struck up and the Mayor escorted the Minister for Railways and party to the town platform and called on him to declare the line open.”
So far your standard welcome dignitary to your town event. But then after the speeches were given:
“At this stage Mr A. D. Murphy, president of the “Midnight Runners”, called on his men to give a silent cheer, which was done in the weird and mysterious manner characteristic of that order.”
What’s this? A weird and mysterious order!
A bit further on in the article Mr Murphy and his order feature again at a wine party held later that day to welcome the Ministerial party:
“The toast of ‘Our Visitors’ was proposed by A. D. Murphy, who remarked that the hospitality of which the visitors had spoken so highly was not nearly so warm as that which they would receive later at the hands of the ‘Midnight Runners’. (Laughter)”
Our curiosity was piqued, who were the Midnight Runners?
Further details presented themselves in the Brisbane Courier’s coverage of the event! Dated 27 May 1908 the article entitled ‘Blackall’s Carnival’, has a subtitle including ‘The Midnight Runners’:
“The weird and mysterious brotherhood known as the Midnight Runners originated in Blackall about two years ago, and has since spread through the bloods of the West, while branches had been established even so far away as London. Strangers hear of it in various ways and the election is willy-nilly so far as the individual is concerned.”
Election? It seems that for someone to become a Midnight Runner required an initiation process as the Brisbane Courier’s reporter continues:
A name is mentioned of someone worthy of the distinction of being admitted to the order. “Scouts, do your duty.” Is the instruction. In a minute a number of men drop their cards, put down their glasses, even cease their love-making to find the victim for the sacrifice. Perhaps he is in bed dreaming of Paradise, or having a nightmare that he is in purgatory. Possibly, but improbably, he is talking to a lady fair; or may be, with wrinkled brow and anxious eye he is wrestling with correspondence which his soul abhors. It does not matter a jot to the scouts. He is hailed to the meeting house, initiated in a manner which will remind him of his childhood’s happy days, presented with the badge of the order, and himself becomes a Midnight Runner.
The ambition of a lifetime, worthy of interrupting a gentleman’s ‘love making’ …. But what of this childhood memory … thankfully our writer offers an example of the Midnight Runner’s initiation:
“A peaceful and modest stranger was having a quiet game of bridge
Hearts were trumps and he was making four tricks, with sixty four for honours. It was his first decent hand, and he was absorbed in the game. The cry from an adjoining room, “Scouts, do your duty,” had no meaning to him.
A second later, hands grasped his ankles, his arms, his waist and naturally he rebelled.
Down went one or two, but it was no use. There were ten more to take their place.
He was carried to the altar and inducted with all ceremony – and some pain both to the spirit and the flesh.”
So we have a renegade bunch of scout appreciative gentlemen, kidnapping reluctant bridge players, with the intention of breaking both mind and body!
But that isn’t the last mention of our Midnight Runners we have so far uncovered ….
The Queenslander article The Traveller: Through Queensland by Motor Car (13 Jun 1908) had the reporter setting off from Blackall one morning wherein:
“The send-off was enthusiastic. At the hotel there was a crowd of friends of the Attorney General and onlookers as the car started off. At the Blackall Club the Midnight Runners had assembled to bid bon voyage in champagne, and at 10.30, that ceremony being over, away the car started.”
But here is where our trail runs cold.
So we’re hoping that you might be able to help us discover more about the Midnight Runners? Was one of your relatives ever kidnapped during a bridge game? Is there a photo somewhere of men bidding farewell with champagne and silence? Any stories of roguish behaviour and secret initiation ceremonies?
Please let us know in the comments below or on our facebook page.
Till then here’s a silent cheer to all those Midnight Runners out there.