IN SEARCH OF PRU
By Warren & Nelly Berg
Mary Russellís autobiography has always been some of my favorite reading material. One of the most interesting things that she relates is the story of Prudence and George Bannister and their odyssey to Australia. While Pru and George were in Australia three of their children died. Pru then faced the fact that her own church taught that children who die before baptism must go to Hell. I am sure that the Holy Ghost must have been holding Pruís hand through those terrible times, because she knew without a doubt that those innocent little children could not possibly be condemned to Hell. Iím sure that this traumatic experience caused her to search the scriptures with a fervent desire to understand the fate of little children who die before the age of accountability. Her study aided by the Holy Ghost prepared her well, because when she heard the restored gospel of Jesus Christ from the Mormon Elders, she knew in an instant that it was the truth. Out of the tragedy of her loss of three sons, many hundreds of us now have a testimony of the restored gospel and eventually many millions of souls will return to their Father in Heaven because of the faith of this one fantastic lady.
I desperately wanted to get to know this giant of a woman better, but now that Mary is gone, how? Over the years I have read and re-read Maryís story looking for additional insight into Pruís character. In October of 1997, we finally went to Australia on the trip of a lifetime.
Australia is large, almost the same size as the United States. When we traveled from Brisbane to Townsville on the airplane the trip took three hours. Then I started thinking about the magnitude of the journey that Pru had made while she was pregnant with Kate. She and George had traveled half way around the world on a ship just to get to Brisbane. But that was the easy part. From Brisbane they traveled 905 miles to Townsville, probably by wagon. From Townsville the narrow dirt road into the outback wound 83 miles to Charters Towers and 181 miles to Torrens Creek, and probably another 100 to 150 miles to the sheep ranch where they worked for six months. This difficult journey made the trip of the early Mormon pioneers across the plains seem like a walk around the block. Who was this incredible woman? I had to find out. In Townsville we searched the library for clues. We studied old maps and birth registers. Two of Pruís sons were born in a town called Black Jack but we couldnít even find the name of the town listed in any of the reference material. On a visit to a historical museum in Townsville I found an entire book about Charters Towers during the 1880ís and 1890ís. Charters Towers is the place where Pru and George lived at the time when the boys died. I had to know more, so we rented a car and went to Charters Towers.
Little did I know about Australia! Those crazy people drive on the wrong side of the road. As soon as we were out of town, we were in a wilderness with few towns and few paved roads. It was beautiful. There were rolling hills near the coast with vast expanses of plains as we traveled westward. Everywhere we looked the land was covered with eucalyptus and gum trees. The thicket was so dense
that it was hard to imagine that there was any more than a trail through the trees in 1895 when Pru arrived. Even more amazing were the termites. Yes I said "the termites". The termites build dirt mounds to live in. There are termite mounds everywhere you look. For hundreds of miles, we saw millions of mounds in every direction. They were from three feet to about twelve feet high and as much as eight feet in diameter. I canít imagine how you could build a home in Australia without the termites eating it.
Charters Towers was established during the gold rush in Australia. The gold rush in Australia lasted from the early 1880ís through the 1890ís. This is amazing considering that the gold rush in California only lasted 4 years from 1848 to 1852. When Pru and George arrived in Australia people were coming from the four corners of the world to find gold. There was gold everywhere. In one museum we saw a display
about one miner who had a claim on the Palmer river. The claim was only three feet by six feet in size. The first day he panned 600 ounces of gold from that claim, and when he abandoned the claim, he had taken over 2000 ounces of gold from that little piece of river bank. No wonder George wanted to try gold mining, I am sure gold fever infected everyone within reach of the gold fields. This is probably the reason that there was such a shortage of labor in Australia. The labor shortage is why the sheep rancher was searching the hospitals in Brisbane for any possible workers to help him at his ranch. There was so much gold around Charters Towers that it became the second largest city in Australia by 1890. Only Brisbane was larger.
While we were in Charters Towers, we visited a historical museum. As we entered, Nelly pointed to a display near the entrance and exclaimed "look, it says Black Jack mine". We went to the receptionist, and explained that we were looking for information on a town that was called Black Jack in 1885, and we asked her if she knew where it was located. She almost died laughing, itís here! she said. Actually Black Jack was a mining town about 3 miles south west of the center of Charters Towers, but it hasnít existed since the 1890ís. The historian in the museum told us that Black Jack was a miner who owned the claims around the town. She said Black Jack, in his late forties, married a thirteen year old girl. Then after 2 children he took her to Sydney and abandoned her there. But she was a very tough lady, so she followed him back to Black Jack, and after he died she owned and managed all of his mining interests. Nelly and I drove to the location of the town and there is now a new mine there that is re-mining the old claims and getting a lot of gold with new mining methods.
We asked the lady if she had any ideas how we might find where Pru and George had lived while they were in Charters Towers. When we explained that three of their children had died while they lived there, she said she might be able to help us. She had a copy of an old death register that listed the deaths of
Thomas Codoza Bannister, George Miller Banister and William Banister. The register said that they were buried in section 5 of the old pioneer cemetery in grave numbers 3434, 3410 and 3672. Wow, now we were getting some really good information. The register said that Thomas died of Diphtheria on July 17, 1892; George died of Diphtheria croup on June 18, 1892 and William died of Meningitis on March 26, 1893 at 16 days old. In Maryís life story she said that William was born on March 9, 1893. In spite of the fact that the death record said he died at 16 days and Mary said that he died at 20 days, the dates indicate that he actually died when he was 17 days old.
Armed with our new found information, Nelly and I went to the City Hall in Charters Towers to see if any of their records would help us find the actual location of the unmarked graves, or if there was any indication on their records about where Pru and George had lived within Charters Towers. Now Nelly and I struck gold of our own. Not only did we find out the location of both of their houses in Charters Towers, but he furnished us with a copy of an old photo of the town of Black Jack from 1889 (Pru and George lived there then). A copy of this photo is included at the end of this article. The man at the City Hall also gave us a copy of a survey of Charters Towers from that time which showed all of the streets, streams and creeks. As we were driving to the location of their little home with a verandah over a creek, we passed a sign with a telephone number of the local family history society. When we called, the man in charge said he would meet us at the cemetery and he would show us where the children were buried. More on that later, we were still on our way to Charlotte street where the little house had been. I said "had been"
because the little house has not been there for some time. Now there is a small park there, and it is a very pretty and peaceful place. At the edge of the park, there is another small home that is from the same time period and is probably very similar (a photo is at the end of this article). We decided to knock to see if anyone was home. A very nice old man was there who explained that when the mines were running out of gold and there were new gold fields to the north, that they took thousands of the old homes apart and moved them to the new gold fields. They did that because the only lumber that could be used for building had to be imported and thus was very costly. He also said that George probably worked in the mine which was only about a quarter of a mile away. This old man had also worked at that mine, and as we left he thanked us for talking with him and he went over to his book case and brought us a piece of gold ore from that mine. What a wonderful old man. I will cherish that rock with the little flakes of gold as long as I live.
It was time to go to the Cemetery. We arrived before the historian, so we looked around. What we found was astounding: The mansion house that Pru and George moved into after the little home, had been located just across the street from the cemetery where the boys were buried. Oh how Pruís heart must have broken, day after day, as she looked out the window at the graves of her boys. After a short while Mr. Heath Sabadina of the Family History Association arrived and he showed us where the boys were buried. There is a photo of the entrance to the cemetery and a photo of their graves at the end of this article. One thing we noticed in the cemetery was that the vast majority of graves were the graves of small children. As I stood there looking at the little graves my heart was full and I believe I could feel Pru prompting me not to be sad, because she now knows that those days of sorrow only opened the doors to eternal happiness for her and for all of us that followed her. Mr. Sabadina explained that the entire region was devastated by diphtheria at the turn of the century, and that the doctors could do nothing for the swelling of the throat that caused the children to die from lack of oxygen. It must have been a nightmare for Pru to watch her children struggle for breath and finally die. No wonder she described Australia as "the scorching sunburned land of hell".
Later that day, we visited the LDS branch building in Charters Towers. It is a nicely restored old residence which even has itís own baptismal font. It sure would have been nice if the branch had been there 105 years ago. Also attached below is a photo of the branch building and copies of old photos of Gill St. and Mossman St. in Charters Towers at the time Pru and George lived there.
There are a million other stories that will have to be told at some other time, but for now I must end by saying that in Australia I finally found Pru.
I am so grateful that this great lady had the courage to recognize the truth of the gospel and to embrace it. I am so grateful that her daughter Mary taught my mother the lessons of the gospel. I am so grateful for parents that gave to me a love of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray that the Lord will help me teach my children to love the gospel.