Day 137: Medicos, murder and misdeeds

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At the lower end of Wickham Terrace, Ballow Chambers is a relatively unassuming, though elegant, three-storey brick building. Its story is anything but ordinary, as I discovered when I detoured through its doors enroute to Central Station.

Both murderers and art thieves have passed under its Georgian arches.

Ballow Chambers
The ground floor corridor of Ballow Chambers

Wickham Terrace is Brisbane’s answer to London’s Harley St or Sydney’s Macquarie St, having also established itself in the 19thcentury as the address of choice for private doctors, specialists and surgeons.

Ballow Chambers was among the first purpose-built medical buildings in Brisbane when it went up in 1924, (the top two floors were added in 1926) to house medical practitioners of all persuasions, as it still does.

The site was previously that of Bunya Bunya Cottage, so it has been home to a medical practice of some kind since the late 1880s.

Others of the Ballow Chambers era are Wickham House, Craigston, Inchcolm and Lister House, all of which cemented Wickham Terrace as a medical precinct between the two world wars.

Ballow Chambers
Ballow Chambers before the extra two floors were added in 1926

Built by Lange Powell, who also designed the Masonic Temple in Ann St, Ballow Chambers is now heritage listed.

It has three arches under a balcony, cornerstones, and is topped with a parapet and balustrading to match the balcony.

The feel of the 1920s has not been lost, so it’s worth taking a few steps into another time when public buildings were more decorative.

Inside are long corridors on each level, with doctor’s rooms opening from both sides of the corridor. There is still a quaint, tiny lift with timbered panelling, and the stairways also speak of another era with dado tiles, wrought iron balustrades and silky oak handrails.

The stairwell to the first floor has an impressive arched window with panes of leadlight and the long corridor has a sequence of arches.

The building was named after the colonial surgeon and coroner David Keith Ballow who was the first doctor to establish a private practice in Brisbane.

Ballow Chambers
Ballow Chambers with its elegant old balustrades, in lower Wickham Terrace

He was born in Scotland in 1804, and arrived in Brisbane in 1838.

Dr Ballow died of typhus on Stradbroke Island in September 1850. At the time Dunwich was a quarantine station so when a shipload of immigrants arrived suffering the fever, he went to attend them. He stayed over to help nurse them and contracted typhus himself.

A brass plate noting his story is attached to the front of the building and there is also a plaque in nearby St John’s Cathedral acknowledging his “martyrdom” to his profession.

But none of this led me to Ballow Chambers while enroute to the rear entrance of Central Station.

Despite its genteel appearance and purpose, this was the unlikely setting for one of Brisbane’s first acts of terrorism.

On December 1, 1955, 39-year-old former German national (Siegfried) Karl Kast set off to Wickham Terrace armed with a revolver and 12 home-made pipe bombs to extract his revenge on the medical profession.

Ballow Chambers
Karl Last who entered Ballow Chambers armed with a revolver and pipe bombs.

A ship’s fireman, he had deserted in July 1939, was interned at Gaythorne during World War II, and on release moved to Cairns, where he gained Australian citizenship.

He had been seeking State Government insurance for a back injury he claimed he suffered when he fell into a trench while working as a pipelayer for Cairns council in August 1954.

Tests turned up nothing. Not even a Wickham Tce specialist could find anything to support his claims for a life pension.

Police later described him as a malingerer who imagined his injuries.

Kast believed he was being discriminated against, and determined to get his revenge.

The rampage began at Wickham House where he shot a doctor and set three bombs in the foyer (a quick-thinking patient fortunately threw them into the street which saved the building but cost him three fingers) before making his way down Wickham Tce to Ballow Chambers.

Ballow Chambers
The remnants of one of Karl Kast’s pipe bombs is held at the Police Museum

Here he shot two doctors in cold blood and a third escaped. He then locked himself in the rooms, shot himself and set off his remaining bombs. The explosion was heard around the city.

It was reported as a horrible crime that “sent a shock of horror through the city and all Queensland”.

The other infamous aspect of Ballow Chambers history I discovered while wandering its corridors of historic photos.

On the ground floor opposite the staircase is a bare wall with a small bronze plaque on each side, one saying Bonnie Prince Charlie and the other, Henry Cardinal of York (his brother).

Ballow Chambers
Reproductions of the paintings stolen in 2007.

A larger brass plaque explains that two paintings were the bequest of Miss Elizabeth E. Moreton, who wanted the paintings to go to “the Ballow Chambers in Brisbane” which were named after her great uncle, Keith Ballow “a descendent of George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal of Scotland who supported James Stuart the Old Pretender in the Jacobite rising in 1715.

“Keith had a price placed on his head and all his lands and Dunnottar Castle were seized by the Crown. The paintings were painted for and given to him by the Old Pretender in recognition of his devotion to the Stuarts”.

Alas, it would seem the paintings are now hanging in a private collection somewhere, as they were stolen in September 2007 and never recovered.

Reproductions on canvas now sit on a shelf above where the art treasures should be.

The building is a short diversion, but an interesting one with big historic and international connections.

Ballow Chambers
The stairwell and oval window