Thursday, February 23, 2023


Mackay and Whitsunday Life


Flora was the daughter of Danish migrant, James Christian Nielson, who settled in Proserpine in 1896 after working and travelling far and wide in Australia for seventeen years. He took up Springsure Farm, seventy-nine acres of light forest land in Glen Isla, becoming one of the most successful farmers in the district growing sugar cane and tobacco. (In 1921, James sold the farm to H M Clarke).

Flora was one of seven children – three sons and four daughters. When she was about five or six years old, a tragic accident occurred. Her brothers were cutting off bits of fencing wire with a tomahawk, putting the wire on a log as they hit it. Flora was holding one end as the chop was made and a bit of wire flew up into the little girl’s eye. There were no doctors in town at this time so they quickly got a horse into a springcart and set off for Bowen – a trip that would take many valuable hours. Taking such a long time to reach Bowen, an infection had already set in to the damaged eye and then spread to the other eye. Doctors tried to save the sight but it was too late.

To provide his daughter with an opportunity to acquire an education despite her disability, James enrolled her at the blind school in Brisbane.  Flora made the journey to Brisbane by boat and it was there that she learnt braille.

In 1913, Flora was part of a band, unique in North Queensland, which was comprised mostly of members of the Nielson family. Charlie was the original conductor, Jim the E flat base; Edith the euphonium; Percy the tenor horn; Violet the second cornet – and Flora the first cornet. Flora memorised all her music from braille. Other band members were Eileen and Mick McCormack and Wally Greenwood. Percy, one of the sons, was tragically drowned during floods in 1921.

Flora’s musical talent was quite amazing. One old timer of the past recalled the silent movie era and how Flora would play music for the films. Her brother would sit beside her and explain what was on the screen and Flora would play suitable background music. What a talent.

In a letter to the “Proserpine Guardian” in February 1973, Mrs Olive Clarke (nee McCormack) wrote of this amazing blind lady who accomplished what even many sighted people would struggle to manage – “Flora was a wonderful person. She did beautiful fancywork; darned socks and made her own frocks. My brother, Joe, and I would often go across to our neighbours, the Nielsons. She really could make that piano talk.”

While it is not certain when Flora died, it was believed to have been in the early 1980s and she was most likely in her seventies.

Thanks to the foresight of her father, James, who was determined that Flora would achieve an education despite her blindness and who arranged for her to make what was, in the very early twentieth century, a long and arduous journey to Brisbane, Flora was able to live a full and productive life upon her return home. Her musical talent brought great joy to her community.

A remarkable lady indeed.

(Postscript: Flora’s surname has often been incorrectly spelt as “Nielsen” even in the local paper and also on Council’s cemetery register, however, the family headstone records the surname of her father, Charles, and brother, Percy, as “Nielson”. This Nielson is not to be confused with the Nielsen family of pioneers Peter and Christian who migrated from Copenhagen, Denmark.)

Story Proserpine Historical Museum. Photo sourced from “Don’t spare the horses” by Beris Broderick.

Flora Nielson seated third from left and holding her cornet

In other news