Police Sergeant Eric Sammon was the 'Lord of the Lockup' in the outback Queensland border town of Birdsville in the nineteen sixties.  Sgt Sammon ran a one-man police station and his word was law in the second largest police district in Queensland.

The exploring professor CT Madigan had long spoken of the conquest of the Simpson Desert by any means, as 'the cracking of the nut' and there is no doubt that the coming of the CGG oilmen, their construction of the French Line and its acceptance by everyday travellers proved to be the final 'cracking of the nut', opening up the Channel Country to traffic from the west.  The Birdsville races captured the imagination of adventuring 4WDrivers and the annual September event soon got too much for Sgt Sammon and his need for peace of quiet.



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Lord of the Lockup

Legendary Birdsville Track Lawman Eric Sammon

Thommo Leads in Dashaway

Eric Sammon was in everything that moved in the Channel Country while he held sway.  Anyone with business in Birdsville had to deal with Sgt Sammon at some stage for he held all the State and Federal government agencies like the Post Office and Customs as well as the fuel distributorship and the TAA agency.  In my capacity of administration officer for CGG Party S6507 I had a lot to do with Eric every time I came in to the airstrip to load or offload gear and mail and personnel.

Once our seismic survey party had reached Eyre Creek we were in 'Sammon Territory' and all of our dealings switched from Alice Springs and Oodnadatta to Birdsville exclusively.  Eric's bailiwick became our stamping ground, too.  CGG were to work the area bounded by the four 'B's of Birdsville, Bedourie, Boulia and Betoota for the next twelve months and we joined in with the locals at every opportunity, engaging them in pursuits such as cricket and football challenges, not to mention our enthusiastic rollups at the races.

Thommo and the President's Cup

"I've got nineteen emoluments and I earn more than Bischoff",

was Sammon's boast to me, pointedly demeaning Bischoff, his Police Commissioner in Brisbane.  Though to his credit, Eric took on the honorary community jobs as well, such as office-bearer for both Birdsville and Bedourie Race Clubs.  Bedourie hold their weekend races a week after the Birdsville meeting and Eric Sammon was on hand when CGG's sweepstakes entrant Dashaway, strapped by John Thompson, won the 1964 President's Cup.  Thommo, snapped in his front yard with the cup, still cherishes the win.

The combined Post Office and Police Station was on the opposite side of the airstrip from the Birdsville Pub in the old verandah'd building third along from the corner.  Around the back were the two cells forming the sum total of the Birdsville lockup's capacity.  A most redeeming feature of the cells was the fact that they had no cell doors fitted.  These had been thoughtfully removed to allow for the comings and goings of any occupants (who might have been waiting any time up to six weeks for the next visit of the circuit magistrate).  There seemed to be no escape possible, even without cell doors, for Birdsville offered no easy way out for even the most-determined felon, for whom the frontier town at the apex of the Simpson Desert and the Birdsville Track must have appeared the end of the line in every respect.

The Old Birdsville Post Office and Police Lockup

With the advent of late-night closing of hotels in Queensland allowing drinkers to remain on licensed premises up to 11pm of an evening, Eric felt it was his duty to uphold the law and this he did in spectacular fashion.  A bunch of CGG fellows and myself were in the old bar of the Birdsville Pub one evening around 10pm when only the publican Norm Portch and two guests, his wife Elva and Eric's wife Joan were enjoying a few quiet drinks with us.

Eric arrived and delivered a warning to Elva and Joan alone that the liquor laws of the state required him to clear the bar by 11pm and he added that he would be back to enforce the Act.  This brought much mirth from the gathering which rapidly dissipated when the Sgt came back in uniform at 11pm and arrested both women, stunning my party into silence.  We couldn't imagine such provocative behaviour in a tiny outpost of eight white people and sixty-three native Australians.

Eric charged them both and bailed Elva immediately on her own recognisance but threw his wife Joan into the hoosegow, where she was to stay and await the circuit judge, due, we heard, in six weeks.  This was a serious turn of events, we believed and a grave injustice for poor Joan or so it would appear.  I learned years later from Elva that it was a regular occurrence; Eric developed a habit of locking up his wife and imprisoning her.  It gave him access to an extra income - she was contracted to the State to provide meals for prisoners and in this case she was the prisoner and duly collected the allowance, although she ate all of her meals in the residence and eventually got let off with a bond when judgement day came.

The Hub of the Birdsville Universe

To get a rough idea of how the Birdsville Pub looked in 1963 first imagine a bar only as long as the current one is wide.  The entrance, only one doorway in, back then is in the same spot as the main entrance is today except it was formerly much narrower.  The room to the right as you go in the front door (which now serves as a kind of saloon or foyer if you are coming from the great expanse of the backyard lounge area) was the drunk tank.  Out the back on the airstrip side were the six hotel rooms where now stands the extension to the bar.   The existing western verandah outside the rooms faced the airstrip and from the comfort of the occasional chairs placed there for purposes of a twilight drink, it was possible to see clearly, the Police Station across the way.

One fine day a group of CGG men sat soaking up the scenery from their spot on the verandah and were amused to see Eric Sammon waving to them from his verandah, where he'd moments before pulled up his truck and trailer, loaded with mail and goods off the fortnightly TAA plane.  They bought another round and still he waved on.  One more drink and they were surprised to find him still waving.  Finally, curiosity overcame them and they roused and hopped in four or five Lannies to roar around and find Eric was indeed in a bind.

The Indefatigable Side of Sgt Sammon

No one person who ever met Eric Sammon would fail to agree he was one tough cookie.  The CGG boys found him pinned to his verandah post by two fingers - the open truck door had jammed them to the post as it rolled back suddenly when the handbrake lost its hold.  They pushed the truck and trailer up the slight incline on the verandah so that Eric could wrench his hand out.  Due to their dithering, he had been trapped for twenty minutes and, freed at last and without a hint of the pain he must have been suffering as he headed for his office door in between sucks of his mangled fingers, Eric coolly muttered "Come on you lot, get this mail inside and sorted for me."

Visitors to Birdsville will know there is a dusty laneway providing access for these buildings all in a row.  At Christmas 1963 I had a special request for Sgt Sammon.  Our Party Chief wanted all of the migrants in our crew lacking Australian driving licences to be given driving tests before they departed on leave for the Gold Coast (and their rented holiday cars).  There is maybe thirteen panels of fencing in that laneway shown in the photo.

Eric's solution was to have them one at a time drive our five ton supply truck the length of the laneway and back, whereupon the driver would change places with the next applicant who would emerge from among his fellows on the back, and so on.  It was my job to type up the licences.  As Eric gave their efforts the nod, I identified them and typed in their details and he signed them.  In this way, twenty free 10 year licences were granted and I got one that I became very attached to, for the address was endorsed C/- Birdsville Post Office.

The Warning Sign at Birdsville

This was the sign on the way in to Birdsville that the Page Family didn't get to see.  Due entirely to their tragic demise over Christmas 1963, it was erected in the hope that it would deter careless travellers along the Birdsville Track.  Ian Mackie, CGG driller, snapped the new sign before he boarded his Airlines of South Australia charter flight for Adelaide on two weeks' leave following CGG's next three months' stint in the Simpson.  Some twenty-three CGG vehicles including thirteen Lannies, supply trucks, water trucks and drilling rigs, were left by our party in the laneway outside the police station on the verge of the airstrip and the keys left with Eric Sammon for safekeeping while we were away.

Back in Sydney on New Years Day I read of the alarm being raised when a note was found in the missing Page family sedan car.  It was reported that they had lost their way when confused by tracks left by oil survey crews.  I was apprehensive that the tracks might have been my own, as I had done a couple of round trips during the last mission from deep within the Simpson to Birdsville before we broke through and past Eyre Creek and on those occasions I had circled south via Old Alton Downs and on across the Birdsville Track to Pandie and then to Birdsville.  The main party of CGG workers had never been within a bull's roar of Goyders Lagoon and I was steadily convincing myself that I might have been the culprit.  The reports were sketchy and inconclusive and even right up to my return on the first Saturday of the New Year, the metropolitan press were none the wiser about the fate of the Pages'.

Sergeant Sammon Inspects the Page Family Vehicle

Eric Sammon was forthright and definitely up-to-date with the latest news for me on my return to Birdsville.  We learned sadly that the family had perished and it had been our old mate from Kamaran Downs, pilot and station owner Jack Clanchy, who had come across the bodies from the air.  It turned out that Eric had commandeered one of our Lannies and used it to reach the abandoned vehicle and from there he mustered the searching aircraft by radio.  Forever the pragmatist, once he'd recovered the bodies Eric scrambled back to Birdsville and returned with the CGG Scoopmobile and buried them by the coolibah they'd been found under.

Outback Australian policemen have for a long time enjoyed a reputation as quiet, laconic and resourceful bushmen and Eric Sammon was certainly on par with the best of them and no shrinking violet when it came to action.   There had been trouble in our camp in the Simpson at times with weapons abuse, fuelled by grog and, while we were outside his area of jurisdiction being in the desert, Eric put it to me to pass on to the men that as far as he was concerned his area of influence was what counted and that was wide enough for him to look after anything officially that we wanted him to cover.

Up to that point our few recalcitrants had been smugly reckoning that they were out of the law's way and were popping off any amount of wildlife and in one nasty incident one drunken stalwart had to be rushed by aghast onlookers and disarmed when he was threatening to shoot first his pet dog and then anyone trying to stop him.   All weapons from then on were housed in the cabins of the locked trucks in the motor pool and not allowed within the precincts of the camp, lest Eric be called in.  Thanks to Sgt Sammon's reputation, it worked a treat.


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