Historical Perspective

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Bell Park: The People’s Park.

In April 1892, the Emu Park Pensioners and Ratepayers Association applied to Livingstone Shire Council to gazette around 40 acres (16ha) of land lying between Hill and Pybus Streets, as a Botanical Gardens for recreational use by townspeople and visitors. Livingstone Council granted EPPRA members these land deeds on December 9th1899 but asked to retain them. Therefore, Emu Park residents and visitors got access to virgin land, maintained by volunteer labour, without Council’s financial support. Thus, the first developers of this green space were women, led by Mrs Emilie Bell of the Emu Park Improvement League.

The Botanic Gardens started as a 20acre (8ha) block running north from Hill Street beside Emu Park’s railway reserve,extending parallel to the Fisherman’s Beach foreshore. Early obstacles to Bell Park’s growth included water shortages, lack of shade, soil erosion, noogoora burr, prickly pear, lack of industry and small population, plus the 1930’s Depression and World War Two.

Initially, campers were restricted to the northern end of the Botanic Gardens, which was mostly kept fenced off from visitors and opened occasionally. Between 1910 and 1940 camping holidays swelled in popularity with QCWA and EPPRA members working together to make Bell Park’s Phillip Street camping services as comfortable as possible. During the seventies, Livingstone Council did significant drainage work from nearby swampland to Fisherman’s Beach, so that Bell Park Caravan Park could be built on the original camp site. The Phillip Street Footway stretched from Phillip Street campsite to Fisherman’s Beach then extended towards Pattison Street and the western side of the Botanic Gardens. This last section became the current entrance road to Bell Park Caravan Park.

By the 1930’s, a pathway and footbridge also extended over Bell Park creek, which drains sand dunes near the Flying Fox habitat and water soakage from Emu Park lagoon. In 1949 Livingstone Council officially gazetted camping reserve land between Emu Park railway station and the rail line extending north and east. A total area of 8 acres (3.2ha), was reserved for camping and recreation with Livingstone Council as Trustee. QCWA members asked Council to build a well on this reserve for the convenience of campers and a fresh bore was finally sited for them in northern parkland where the bowling green now stands.

In the early days hotelier Mr J. Wakefield persuaded local fishermen to use a defined area of the Botanic Gardens to be known as Fishermen’s Reserve, for their trade of fish and oysters. This land was zoned not for residential use. Wakefield also planted protective She-oak trees along the foreshore between Phillip Street and Tanby Point to prevent soil erosion and his staff eradicated noxious weeds in this parkland’s vicinity.Station Master, Baxter Davidson replaced Tea Trees with Moreton Bay Fig trees or Hoop Pines.He also planted new grasslands and plants and watered them with lagoon water carted in kerosene tins.

Before town water was connected, the Emu Park and Sanctuary Lagoons were vital water sources for Bell Park’s new plant and tree growth. In 1947, there was a serious water shortage. Town rain- water tanks dried up and residents relied solely upon Archer Street well water. By May 1951, EPPRA president Mr H. Woodward observed that EPPRA, with membership of 100 had, ‘erected a fireplace and laid water right into the heart of Bell Park.’ Still, Bell Park tap water was only safe to drink from November 24th 1993.

During the 1920’s and 30’s, there were shade problems. Hoop pines needed growing time,so tarpaulins or tents were erected to provide shade for visiting families. Many park benefactors joined forces to combat noxious weeds, soil erosion and monitor park litter and plant growth. In 1949, the litter issue prevented visitors from staying long in Bell Park. It was seen as the main reason for declining visitor numbers and volunteers. This park problem gradually resolved itself once rubbish bins were attached to posts there.

During the 1930’s, Mrs Emilie Bell co-ordinated real progress for the Botanic Gardens by fundraising for trees and park structures and fostering co-operation and friendship between the Improvement League, EPPRA, QCWA and individual volunteers alike. Livingstone Council honoured her dedication by renaming the land “Bell Park”. A memorial gateway arch designed by Council engineer, Percy Paxton was erected in 1936 at Bell Park’s entrance gate. There was once a wishing well just inside this gate, also built by Mr Tom Griffiths at a cost of 118 pounds.

The 1930’s brought Mrs Bell’s favourite Bell Park fundraiser to Capricorn Coast residents and visitors.The Fisherman’s Beach Gold Rush had people scurrying about on the beachfront, trying their luck as ‘miners,’ by gouging the sand for gold coin prizes buried there.The jetty’s first stage was successfully completed in 1924, following the Improvement League’s successful fundraising. Visitors could view boat races from this vantage point. However, the second and third jetty stages were cancelled once the planned construction of Rosslyn Bay Boat Harbour was announced.

Businesses in Bell Park were actively discouraged after 1912. Mr Edwards of Mt Morgan conducted a week-end kiosk business there for a year, but after protests by local business owners, a Council by-law was passed to prohibit further trade. Between 1910 and 1919, the Emu Park Improvement League resisted efforts by Rockhampton Women’s Hospital Committee to build a convalescent home on one acre of this parkland and Council supported their request, despite pressure by State and Federal governments.  Bobby Lewellyn’s plan for a porpoise pool on Fisherman’s Reserve was also refused in 1970. However, in October 1971, Livingstone Council approved a motel and minibike business, for Fisherman’s Reserve. Again, it was EPPRA members who organized the powerful surge of “No” votes and the building approval was eventually withdrawn by Livingstone Council.  

Bell Park’s growth always depended upon Emu Park’s economic fortunes, with shearers from towns like Longreach and Blackall bringing the first economic boost. Bell Park picnics also brought many visitors. Picnics in the 1920’s began with holiday rituals e.g. ‘boiling the billy,’ or people took their spouted billy cans to Large’s or Mill’s stores for hot water. From 1935 onwards, a standard protocol began for large picnics.  Council permission was obtained and EPPRA members provided a host or hostess to boil water for tea drinking and keep the coppers stoked with firewood.

Picnic barbecues became the new eating style between 1949 and 1958. From November 1973, gas coppers with mesh protection and safety gates gradually replaced wood burning coppers. After World War Two, monster picnic crowds grew swiftly into the thousands. The Mt Morgan Mines“Linde Picnic” was always the biggest event, followed by the Railway Workers, Lakes Creek Meat Workers, Waterside Workers, Qld Athletic League and Amateur Swim Clubs. At meat worker picnics, families loved seeing flurries of ping pong balls dropping from the sky, with a plane’s engine roaring overhead. People raced about scooping up as many balls as they could to win a prize.

In 1951 the Long Shed was built by the Mt Morgan Miner’s Picnic Committee. It had hollows shaped into bench tops to hold wooden soft drink kegs ready for streams of thirsty customers. QCWA members were on hand to offer the workers refreshments and they helped fund raise for the building materials. In 1958, the Mt Morgan Miner’s Picnic Committee brought machinery down from Mt Morgan to clear a lot of undergrowth and they donated money to construct the Judges Stand and First Aid room along with the Racetrack. This Committee was also permitted by Council to fund and make an awning for the Long Shed.

Rodeo picnics were organized by EPPRA in 1952, as trustees for all funds raised for Emu Park projects. Rodeo Chairman, Dan Daley, erected a 15 by 15 foot timber stage in Bell Park and funds were also raised for construction of the Singing Ship and Don Ireland swimming pool beside Bell Park. In 1977 EPPRA membership declined sharply, they could no longer provide hosts and hostesses nor accept responsibility for client safety at large picnics. Council then took over all large picnic bookings from March 1st 1979.

Chris Maple, Secretary of the Fisherman’s Beach Foreshore Group declared that a 120m erosion prone area ran along the length of Fisherman’s Beach. He stressed the need to prevent further rock walls being built there or in Bell Park. Two resident surveys about a proposed boat ramp in the area were given a “No” majority in 2014 and 2016. MP Brittany Lauga observed that there are ‘Many legitimate concerns a Fisherman’s Beach boat ramp would have, with the increased traffic, impact on visual amenity and silting up of Fisherman’s Beach for this site.’ Another boat ramp site is yet to be chosen.

In 1990, Councilor Maurie Webb initiated a drive to develop a master plan for Bell Park and its caravan park. He stated that Council hoped to acquire more land and get park boundaries changed, through the Lands Dept. to enlarge the park. This concern for Bell Park’s future, resulted in a Save Bell Park Group Committee forming in 2001 to preserve the park for future generations. In October 2002, the Livingstone Shire Open Space and Recreation Plan identified Bell Park as the most popular park on the Capricorn Coast. Consequently, the Save Bell Park Committee applied to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Heritage Council to begin the process of heritage listing Bell Park.

On December 2nd 2002, there was a public meeting in the Cultural Hall with an Environmental Protection Agency representative, to discuss questions about a proposed heritage listing. There were already concerns about structures encroaching upon Bell Park land e.g. the Council Library, Cultural Hall, Tennis Court, Swimming Pool, Keppel Community Care, Bus Interchange, Lions Shack and Skate Park.

On 29th April 2003, Bell Park was permanently listed on the Queensland Heritage Register with its greatly reduced 11.2 hectares of land space, based on three criteria: its aesthetic, historical and social significance. Following the demise of the Improvement League and EPPRA, The Emu Park Lions Club became principal guardians of Bell Park from 1974. The Club has continued the ‘monster picnic’ tradition by managing Bell Park’s large events and monthly picnic markets, while working with Livingstone Council to maintain this well-loved ‘people’s park.’ Shaped for the whole Capricorn Coast populace well over a century ago, Bell Park’s socially inclusive and supportive culture still propels it forward with confidence, towards a bright future.

Bell Park Voices
C. Ryan 2020