Quirky Mysteries of the Northern Rivers

Explore the Northern Rivers and you will find so much on offer – delicious food, unique shops, natural wonders, and a rich history.  As you sample the region’s best, perhaps you could pull out your Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and try to solve some of the past’s quirky mysteries!

The mystery of Lismore’s glowing cross captured the interest of the nation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when William Steenson’s headstone, which had been in situ in the North Lismore Pioneer Cemetery since 1907, began to glow brightly on its own accord. Read the Australian Geographic blog post about it here.

But that’s not the only mystery that has puzzled locals over time. Here are just a few more that can be found within the Trove newspaper database online.

The Casino Mosquito Mystery[i]

This isn’t a small story regarding little blood-sucking insects. The de Havilland Mosquito was a versatile bomber aeroplane credited as being one of Britain’s most important tools in World War Two. It was made of wood, but don’t let its humble materials fool you – this was a serious aircraft. More powerful than a Spitfire, it was the fastest aircraft in British Bomber Command until 1951.

Headline of an article in the Northern Star, September 10, 1947. Image from Trove

So, it must have come as a surprise when one turned up unannounced in the skies over Casino in September 1947. Arriving over the town at speeds approaching 400 miles per hour, it performed a ten-minute aeronautical display of victory rolls, sending people running outside to watch and effectively shutting down business, before disappearing over the horizon to the south west.

And it did so again the next day, and the next, and the shows continued daily for at least a week.

Australian Mosquitoes were manufactured during WW2 in Bankstown, Queensland. After the War, the planes were kept in Ipswich, Archerfield and Evan’s Head to name a few places, but all aerodromes denied any knowledge of their planes used by the mystery acrobat.

On the 13th of September, 1947, an anonymous article was published in the Telegraph, claiming that ‘those in the know’ could identify the playful pilot as one of the half-dozen test pilots attached to the Royal Australian Air Force aircraft depot at Archerfield. Exactly who he was and why he felt the need to fly the straight 150 kilometres from Archerfield to Casino in order to perform tricks was not disclosed, and the RAAF does not seem to have responded to the claim.

The matter was never fully resolved and sixteen months later a Mosquito returned to Casino for two encore performances of rolls and dives before finally disappearing from the town and the newspaper archives on February 8, 1949.


The Strange Lights Mystery[ii]

The Casino Mosquito Mystery was not the first time the residents of the Northern Rivers turned their perplexed attention to the skies.

Snippet of an article in the Daily Telegraph, 13 October 1914. Image from Trove

In October 1914, at a time when a smattering of planes may have existed in private hands and the Australian Flying Corps (the precursor to the RAAF) held a grand total of around just eight aircraft in Victoria for training purposes – two of which were no more than glorified box kites – something strange started to appear in the skies. Mysterious floating lights were reported to have been seen across coastal hinterland areas of New South Wales from the south coast to the north. They caused quite a stir in the Northern Rivers as witnesses reported sightings in Cudgen, Mullumbimby, Lismore, Naughton’s Gap and Casino. The author of one excited newspaper article in the Casino and Kyogle Courier promised that “the people who saw them hadn’t been to even a smoke concert.”

You can probably picture what a smoke concert was – an informal event where men sat around listening to live music while smoking and drinking, which presumably made them unreliable as witnesses.

Speculation was rife as to the source of the lights, which differed in nature across the State. One witness with a telescope in Bulli said they were from a passing aeroplane, while another in Lismore said he saw a fire balloon floating up a gully, which were sold at a nearby shop. Others decried these theories, claiming that they had seen the lights so brightly that they shone through the overhead clouds. In Lismore, the lights were seen moving slowly up and down over considerable distances and giving off flashes of light that resembled search lights as they passed over the Lismore showground and west of town.

Another local mystery emerged two months later which further complicated matters. One and a half acres at the very top of the Nightcap Mountain Range had been completely cut down and cleared, despite its inaccessibility to all but enthusiastic climbers. A large tree stump, 30 feet high, had been left in the centre with iron pegs serving as a staircase to the top. Some thought it was a secret wireless station, others connected it to the mystery lights for possible evidence of extra-terrestrial activity.

If the causes of the lights or the clearing were determined, they were not subsequently reported.


The Mullumbimby Message in a Bottle[iii]

Snippet of article from the Daily Examiner, 28 September 1935. Image from Trove.

To the finder of this bottle: I, James Edward Martins, of Redfern, Sydney, am shipwrecked on an island which I judge to be about 200 miles from Sydney in the Pacific Ocean. Please come and rescue me.

This was the message found by three boys while walking along the Brunswick River on September 25, 1935. Written on greaseproof paper and stashed inside a beer bottle sealed with a cork, the message drew the attention of the Mullumbimby Police and was soon reported in newspapers around Australia from Sydney to Perth and Kalgoorlie.

Despite the imagination it captured, it was quickly decided that the message was a hoax after inquiries in Redfern failed to discover any potential relatives of the man or any mention of a Martins on the electoral rolls.

Interestingly, however, a quick Trove search reveals two mentions of people called ‘James Edward Martin’ in and around the Redfern area at the time. In 1904, James Edward Martin the ‘aged bricklayer…old gaol-bird and professional criminal’ pleaded guilty to charges of forging in a Darlinghurst court and sentenced to hard labour. Another, an Imperial Army pensioner living in Redfern in 1938 at the age of 83 successfully sued the Commissioner for Road Transport and Tramways after injuring himself falling from a tram.

Could either of these people have been the cheeky message-writer, and would they really have used their own name in the hoax?


The Lismore Banknotes Mystery[iv]

What list of mysteries would be complete without an unsolved bank heist?

Headline from the Daily Examiner, 26 September 1930. Image from Trove

On July 31st, 1930, £500 in cancelled £1 notes was dispatched from the National Bank of Australasia in Lismore (in what is now the Ray White office on Woodlark St) to Sydney. By the time the package arrived at the Sydney office, it contained nothing but cut up sheets of brown paper.

That’s about $42,000 today adjusted for inflation.

Detectives were sent from Sydney to investigate and soon charged Thomas Jackson, an accountant who worked for the Lismore branch, with the theft. They believed that Jackson had helped a teller prepare the package of banknotes for dispatch and swapped the package out for a dummy one filled with brown paper when the teller’s back was turned. Jackson could then have used his position at the bank to swap out the cancelled notes out for good notes to spend later on.

But the case proved not that straight forward. In his defence, Jackson’s lawyers pointed out that Jackson himself had safely sent £500 of good notes to Sydney only the day before, which would have been a far more enticing target. It was further revealed that the package that arrived in Sydney did not bear the same seals upon it as the ones used by the Lismore branch, implying that the package had been swapped somewhere en route.

The verdict of ‘not guilty’ was read out to applause in the court, and the Lismore Banknotes Mystery remained a mystery.


Do you know of any other quirky local mysteries? Or is there somewhere in the Northern Rivers that you would like to learn more about? If so, I’d love to hear from you for future local history posts!]

For full sources used in this article, head to the bottom of the page.


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[i]Casino Mosquito Mystery sources:

RAAF Museum, accessed 18 June 2020 https://www.airforce.gov.au/sites/default/files/minisite/static/7522/RAAFmuseum/exhibitions/restoration/dh_98.htm

MYSTERY PLANE OVER CASINO (1947, September 9). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article225532594

CASINO MOSQUITO MYSTERY DEEPENS (1947, September 10). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article225527131

“Mystery” Plane Over Casino Again (1947, September 13). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article225528410

MYSTERY OF DARE-DEVIL R.A.A.F. PILOT CLEARED UP (1947, September 13). The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld. : 1872 – 1947), p. 1. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article201314661

Mystery Plane Over Casino (1949, February 9). Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876 – 1954), p. 4. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article99043405

[ii] Strange Lights Mystery sources:

List of aircraft in the Royal Australian Air Force, Wikipedia, accessed 18 June 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aircraft_of_the_Royal_Australian_Air_Force#Australian_Flying_Corps_1913%E2%80%931920

MYSTERIOUS LIGHTS. (1914, October 13). The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), p. 6. Retrieved June 19, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article239609617

STRANGE MOVING LIGHTS. (1914, October 24). The Tamworth Daily Observer (NSW : 1910 – 1916), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article107462408

Those Lights Again. (1914, October 14). Casino and Kyogle Courier and North Coast Advertiser (NSW : 1904 – 1932), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article234320157

A Strange Discovery. (1914, December 11). The Horsham Times (Vic. : 1882 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article72967732

[iii] The Mullumbimby Message in a Bottle sources

MAN MAROONED IN PACIFIC. (1935, September 28). Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article194295389

RESCUE PLEA IN BOTTLE (1935, September 26). News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 – 1954), p. 1. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article129299336

SENTENCES AT THE SESSIONS. (1904, May 9). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 – 1909), p. 6. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article229289601

DISTRICT COURT. (1938, February 12). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 8. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article17423923

[iv] Lismore Bank Notes Mystery sources:

LISMORE BANK NOTES MYSTERY (1930, August 6). Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW : 1914 – 1949), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article192686899

ACCOUNTANT TO BE TRIED ON £500 THEFT CHARGE (1930, August 29). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. : 1861 – 1954), p. 2. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article242758470

NOT GUILTY (1930, September 26). Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1915 – 1954), p. 5. Retrieved June 18, 2020, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article195421078

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