The North Queensland pub named after the tragic death of Aboriginal woman, Kowaha

Leap Hotel near Mackay. Picture: Julie R Roughan

I SUPPOSE a pub named after a tragic event in Australian history, should share a few stories of misery alongside its tales of cheer.

The Leap Hotel, located on the Bruce Highway, about 20 kilometres north-west of Mackay in north Queensland, was named after a nearby geographical feature with a dark past. The pub stands in the shadow of the 360 metre rock face of Mount Mandarana, better known to the locals as ‘The Leap’.

The cliff gained its name from a shameful event in Australia’s colonial past.

In July 1867, the local police decided, with the aid of the farmers, to mount an offensive against the Aborigines who were reportedly spearing cattle.

The Aborigines retreated through the difficult terrain and onto what they thought was the safety of the summit of Mount Mandarana, which was almost inaccessible to the white settlers. The troopers succeeded in reaching the top of the mountain, causing the Aborigines to flee in all directions – with the exception of a woman, known as Kowaha. She was cornered with her baby in her arms and rather than surrender she reportedly threw herself and her baby over the cliff.

The statue of Kowaha outside the Leap Hotel. Picture: Leap Hotel Facebook Page

Kowaha died on the rocks below but, miraculously, the baby survived and reportedly was brought-up by a local farmer. More on Kowaha, further into the story.

The Leap Hotel was licensed by Francis George Fooks on May 16 1882.

The pub was a single storey timber building, with the typical north Queensland exoskeleton architecture.

Francis ‘Frank’ Fooks hosted the pub with his wife, Henrietta until the pair sold the business to operate a selection at The Leap. The fate of the couple is somewhat of a mystery, although we know that Henrietta died in 1888 in a bedroom of the Sovereign Hotel, Warwick in 1888 after suffering a stroke.

Frank’s fate though is a little more mysterious.

The pioneering publican either returned to England in 1896 after the death of his wife, or, according to one report, remained in Queensland where he died at the age of 80 in 1935. The Northern Miner reported on November 18, 1935: 

OLD MAN’S BODY POUND

BRISBANE, November 16.

After having been searched for two days, the body of Frank Fook, aged 80, an old identity of Quilpie, was found in a brigalow scrub six miles from his camp. He had died an agonising death from thirst. He had discarded most of his clothing, and finally crawled around on his hands and knees.

When the Hunter family took over the running of the Leap Hotel in 1891, they would go on to host the pub for a record half a century.

Born in Sydney, Charles Hunter arrived in the Mackay district about the same time as the tragedy occurred that killed the Aboriginal woman, Kowaha, who gave his pub its name.

Hunter arrived in about 1867 working on the Greenmount and Balnagowan Stations before taking-up the carrying trade. He was engaged for many years in carting sugar from the North Side mills to the wharves, after which he went on to a selection.

Charles Hunter was 47 years of age when he gained the license of the Leap Hotel from outgoing publican, George Francis in March 1891. Charles and wife Amy and their two teenage boys, Arthur and William, in turn, moved into the pub.

The Hunters’ customers would have included the big drinking kanakas employed to work on the surrounding fruit plantations and rural stations. The pub was remote, and probably not the place for a city girl as reported in this newspaper story published in the Mackay Mercury on March 14 1891:

In the Court yesterday a case of dispute between master and servant was heard. Maria Cain sued Mrs. Charles Hunter. Evidence was taken showing that the plaintiff was engaged by defendant from Brisbane, but after staying at the Leap Hotel a fortnight left. She alleged that the place was not a suitable one for her to stay at, and said that the first night a man had tried the door of her room. Mrs. Hunter asserted that the house was properly conducted. Eventually the bench decided that the agreement between the parties should be cancelled upon the payment by the plaintiff to defendant of £2 12 shillings 6 pence.

Just two years later an inquiry into a bloody murder was had in the pub by the Mackay police magistrate. The killing of a woman took place in 1893 about a mile from the hotel near the foot of the northern spur of ‘The Leap’.

John McLean, 79, was later charged with murdering his 55-year-old wife, Isabella with an axe on their secluded bushland property.

The couple lived in a small humpy made of split palms and galvanised iron where they grew sweet potatoes, bananas and pineapples. The woman was found with a number of axe wounds to her head.

The charges against McLean were later dismissed when the grand jury could not find enough evidence to convict him of the gruesome murder. It is not known whether any person was ever brought to justice for Isabella’s death.

The publican of the Leap Hotel, Charles Hunter himself faced the law courts in 1895 when he was entrapped for selling liquor on a Sunday by a couple of police constables.

The constables went to the Leap Hotel with a kanaka, named Tom in September 1895. Tom was sent into the bar, while the constables waited outside at a short distance. After about a quarter of an hour Tom came out carrying a bottle of whiskey.

Tom gave evidence, which showed that he had paid six shillings for the bottle, which the publican told him to conceal under his shirt. Hunter had been caught red handed, and no choice but to plead guilty. He was fined a total of £8 and one shilling.

Charles Hunter fell ill during the latter part of 1902 and transferred the license of the pub to his wife, Amy in December.

The year 1903 would be a traumatic year for the Hunts. Firstly, in February one of their servants committed suicide on the verandah of the pub.

At midday on February 18, Christina Gaskin reportedly took a razor from the pub kitchen, stood on the veranda and yelled “Good-bye, Eric”, to a man in the yard. She then drew the razor across her throat, and fell on the floor. She then made a second gash across her throat, and died within a few minutes.

If that wasn’t distressing enough for the publican, within a few months Amy Hunter’s husband was also dead. He died at the pub at the age of 59 after suffering a stroke. 

His widow, Amy continued hosting the Leap Hotel before she transferred the license to her 32-year-old son Arthur in March 1908. Amy died in 1916.

In his youth, Arthur was a splendid all round athlete, excelling in running, football, cricket, and weight-throwing. He became a popular host of the Leap Hotel.

Arthur and his wife, Mary hosted the pub for the following 28 years. The Leap Hotel was described by the Mackay Daily Mercury on October 17 1911:

Quite a number of travellers have been agreeably surprised to find such a large and well appointed house as The Leap Hotel, considering that it is 16 miles from Mackay. In the hotel itself— which was built some years ago to meet the growing needs of the district — ample accommodation is provided for fully 30 people. Attached to the hotel is a fine large hall 76 feet by 36 feet, with dressing rooms, supper room and stage complete. Both the hotel and hall are fitted throughout with acetylene gas jets. In the hotel there is a fine Heiron and Smith billiard table, which is always in much demand. The licensee, Mr. A. E. Hunter, of pedestrian fame, stocks the leading liquors and aerated waters, so one can always rest assured of getting what one asks for. A general store is attached to the hotel, thus it will be readily admitted that the enterprising licensee caters for all classes in the immediate vicinity.

Arthur died while still host of the Leap aged 58 on May 2 1934. His widow took-over as host until her death in 1942 at the age of 65. As the couple had no children, the Hunter dynasty would finish there, and the pub was sold, ending the family’s 51 years behind its bar.

In the early 1970s, writer, John Larkins and photographer, Bruce Howard chronicled an amazing snap shot of hotels with the book, “Australian Pubs”. This is an excerpt from the now out of print book describing their visit to the Leap Hotel.

The Leap Hotel, Mount Mandarana. Picture, Bruce Howard, part of the Australian pubs collection, 1971-1973, National Library of Australia

THE Little pub stands at the foot of a 1,180-foot rock face, just north of Mackay, Queensland. The mountain’s correct name is Mount Mandarana, but the local people call it The Gin’s Leap. And that is how the pub came to be named The Leap.

Back in 1866-67, the local tribes were making life difficult for the early settlers by spearing cattle and stealing farm implements. After a destructive raid in July 1867, the police decided, with the aid of the farmers, to mount an offensive against the Aborigines. As usual, the Aborigines retreated to the fortress on the summit of Mount Manadarana, thitherto inaccessible to the police. But the troopers were determined this time and eventually succeeded in gaining the top.

The Aborigines fled, with the exception of a woman, Kowaha, of the Lindeman Island tribe. She was cornered with her baby in her arms and rather than surrender she hurled herself and her baby over the cliff. Kowaha died on the rocks below but, miraculously, the baby became ensnared in the brushes during the fall and survived. A farmer rode through a hail of spears to rescue the child, and his family later adopted her. She became known as Judith Johannesburg and lived in the district until her death in 1923.

John Larkins

The statue in memory of Kowaha outside the Leap Hotel. Picture: Leap Hotel Facebook Page

The Leap Hotel continues to trade today (2021) in the original 1882 building, within a half-hours drive from Mackay.


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Categories: Queensland hotels

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1 reply

  1. Always gives me a shudder when passing this one. Sadly this wasn’t the only mountain where people were forced to leap to their deaths.

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