Looking back: 'air raid shelter for passengers only'

STANDING in the midst of some of the region's finest architecture from the 1880s, the St Paul's Bell Tower and Maryborough Train Station, there is a short, plain and unadorned concrete structure that is clearly more recent but with few clues to its function except for the fading and flaking message painted on one side: "AIR RAID SHELTER FOR PASSENGERS ONLY”.

While this historic air raid shelter is not as aesthetically pleasing as many other heritage places, it represents a specific and significant moment in our history.

This rare structure associated with the railway station demonstrates the air raid precautions that were implemented as part of the defence of Queensland during the Second World War.

Queensland was the only state to build air raid shelters at railway stations
Queensland was the only state to build air raid shelters at railway stations

It was designed to protect civilian and military travellers at the station in the event of a Japanese air raid.

Queensland was the only state to build air raid shelters at railway stations.

In the week following the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Public Safety Act 1940 became operative and, on December 12, 1941, Maryborough's Civil Defence Committee made a number of urgent and important decisions in readiness for feared air raids.

These included the construction of trench shelters at nominated sites around the CBD.

In the suburbs, residents were urged to construct their own shelters, with advice to be given by the City Engineer.

The leave of City Council workers was cancelled and they were taken off council work to construct shelters and deliver sand to all households for sandbagging.

A survey would be undertaken of all buildings with basements with a view to converting them to shelters.

Precautions were taken for the screening of light at night to reduce the chances of bombers locating the city.

In what might have caused many residents some alarm, the committee also decided to purchase five dozen stretchers, over 200 roller bandages, and 50 sets of St John Ambulance splints and the committee also sought 100 volunteers as stretcher carriers.

People were cautioned against congregating in daytime and particularly at night-time.

While this shelter bears the bold, and seemingly heartless, message that it was only for passengers, the trenches being dug by the council were for everyone, as Mayor McDowell said:

"These shelters are not being constructed for the use of businessmen of the city, but for the benefit of every man, woman and child whose business takes them to the city. The dangers of this war have been brought to our very doors in recent days, and it is our duty to protect our townspeople. With the co-operation of the public, I am quite sure that the various A.R.P. units of Maryborough can be brought to a strength which will compare favourably with any other city in the Commonwealth of similar size.

"We have men fighting for us in various theatres of war in scattered parts of the world, and it behoves every one of us to do our utmost to protect those whom these brave men have left in our care. The Advisory Council of Maryborough, in whose hands these matters have been placed by the Commonwealth Government, will do its best to see that this protection is given.”

Some of the other such shelters constructed in Maryborough included one on the City Hall green, another behind the Court House, which in a modified form still exists, and one in Ellena St near St Paul's Memorial Hall.

The courthouse shelter is now the clubhouse for the Model Engineers and Live Steamers Association which runs miniature trains on the nearby track in Queens Park.

Fortunately, the precautions taken through the trenches dug and shelters built were never truly tested.

There were unannounced practice runs when this shelter would have been used, but the closest to a true emergency occurred at noon on Wednesday, August 26, 1942 when there was a genuine air raid response.

The warnings sounded and A.R.P. personnel promptly went into action, however the unidentified plane proved to be friendly.

Following the cessation of hostilities, it was reported by the Maryborough Chronicle in September 1945 that concrete air raid shelters were being demolished with "...a speed that is a source of wonder...”

This air raid shelter is very rare and it is not known why it escaped the widespread demolition of similar structures across Queensland in peacetime.

It is not the type of heritage structure for which Maryborough is renowned, but it is certainly one that we are very fortunate to have in our CBD.

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