Loss of Innocence on the Picnic Train

Remembering New Year's Day 1915

When Alma Cowie awoke on the morning of 1 January 1915 she planned to spend a relaxed day picnicking. What unfolded instead was an unexplained act of armed violence that left four people dead and seven wounded. On the edge of the Broken Hill township, a gun-battle unfolded in efforts to arrest the perpetrators. These shocking New Year’s day events remain etched in the local community’s memory. Ticket stubs, the record of the refunds given to picnic goers, clothing and souvenir postcards, are material reminders of the day.

In the days before the violence, the Silverton Tramway Company (STC) had installed enough seating in their open ore trucks to transport 1200 people to the Annual Manchester Unity Lodge Picnic. The excited picnickers boarded the train at Broken Hill’s Sulphide Street Station and the train left at 10 am.

In the hours preceding the train’s departure Gool Mahomed, the local ice-cream hawker, and his fellow ‘Afghan’ cameleer Mullah Abdullah drove through the town in Mahomed’s ice-cream cart. They had stowed two rifles and a Turkish flag in the cart and were on their way to a spot beside the Umberumberka pipeline, which offered a good line of sight of the train tracks. Turkey had recently entered World War I on the side of the Germans and as Turkish sympathisers the two men wanted to make their allegiances known.

Gool and Mullah parked beside the railway line, raised the flag and took up their positions. At 10.10 am the train approached, and the men opened fire on the unsuspecting picnickers. Alma died instantly, also killed were William Shaw, James Craig and Alf Millard, and seven others were wounded.

In response the police, local militia and members of the rifle club armed themselves and eventually overpowered the two men at around 1 pm that afternoon. The gunmen’s motives became clear when three notes were found under a rock near where they were killed. Both claimed that they harboured no enmity against anyone specifically.

The families of the unsuspecting picnickers held funerals for those who were murdered on the 3rd of January. The residents of the cameleer encampment at the edge of town told the police that the men had acted alone and that their bodies were not welcome in the Mohammedan (Muslim) area of the cemetery.