Romeo Watkins Lahey may have been a short man but what he lacked in stature he made up for in determination and energy. Residents and visitors to the Scenic Rim can thank Romeo for preserving much of the stunning natural scenery which abounds throughout the region. He was a man with vision ahead of his time, a man who lobbied the state government of the day to create the large Lamington National Park on the border of Queensland and New South Wales.
Not content with his achievements Romeo Lahey went on to establish, with others, Binna Burra Mountain Lodge, a place where day trippers and holidaymakers still enjoy the natural wonders of the area. He was also behind the formation of the National Parks Association of Queensland, which continues to advocate and oversee the protection of parks today.
Romeo’s daughter Ann Neale (nee Lahey) and his niece Shirley Lahey remember this impressive man, Romeo Lahey.
Romeo Watkins Lahey – A Man of Vision
It is ironic that the son of one of south-east Queensland’s most prolific sawmill operators grew up to be a passionate environmentalist, determined to protect our flora and fauna. But anyone who knew Romeo Lahey knows he wasn’t an ordinary man. Ann Neale says her father was a man of vision, a man who could see that his family’s business future relied on reforestation and protection.
“The thing about the Lahey family in my father’s generation is they were very influenced by their parents and their grandparents,” says Ann. “They had a very strong spirit of pioneering, of working hard, of doing things the hard way, of not taking things for granted, of not expecting material goods. Dad’s father David Lahey was a very far-sighted man, he believed in reforestation. He saw quite clearly that timber-getting was going to diminish the countryside so he had a policy of not cutting the young trees.”
Romeo started a hoop pine plantation in the Canungra Valley.
“Certainly, it’s not the usual image of the timber industry of that time, this extraordinarily avant-garde conservationist coming out of a timber family.”
But Ann says it was no surprise that David and his son Romeo felt this way about protecting the natural habitat. They’d worked with enough trees to know how long it took for one to grow.
Family timber mill
David Lahey and his brothers owned a large timber mill at Canungra, later branching out to establish other mills in the region, and a mill and a joinery works in Brisbane. Romeo Lahey trained as a civil engineer at Sydney University, a career which was well-suited to the family business. He returned to Canungra to work for the family company and spent his spare time investigating the forests surrounding his home.
“He was very interested in exploring, he was a keen surveyor, he was very interested in the nature of the country he was surrounded by including the border ranges,” says Shirley. “He sometimes took a friend or a brother to help carry his very, very heavy old camera and the glass plates for it. He lived very simply while he was away… there’s a marvellous photo of him sitting in a forest area with a billy and an axe, writing up his notes, and sitting on a palm frond which would have been his mattress for the night. In the course of his exploring he became convinced of the need for the land to be preserved.”
New National Parks
The concept of National Parks was relatively new to Australia. The first in the world was Yellowstone National Park USA and the second was the Royal National Park south of Sydney. The third was declared in 1908 on Tamborine Mountain, it was called Witches Falls National Park. David Lahey was a councillor with the Tamborine Shire Council which with great foresight had decided to advocate this National Park. His involvement inspired his son Romeo to push for more National Parks protection.
“Dad’s great conviction was that people were responsible for saving land in its original state for the future so people could see what was the natural creation,” says Ann. “National Parks have proved to be the only areas representative of the original vegetation of Australia. He tackled the Lands Minister of the time to persuade him that a large area in the border ranges must become a national park.”
Fortunately there had been earlier submissions from Robert Martin Collins, an influential pastoralist who had floated the idea that these mountains should be preserved as a place where people could go for health and recreation.
“Collins actively campaigned and before he died in 1913, he encouraged Dad to continue his work. He said, ‘Romeo you know this is a wonderful area,’ and Dad was terribly enthusiastic to take up the task.”
He was met by a largely indifferent response.
‘What’s it matter, it’s just a few mountains and some awfully good cattle country,’ critics said.
“The Land’s Minister wasn’t keen on ‘alienating land from selection’. He and the local member issued Romeo a challenge: Show us that the people of the district support the idea of a national park and the government will consider your proposal. It was a delaying tactic but Dad was very strong minded and full of persistence,” says Ann. “He got around this very large district, possibly on foot, or in a very early vehicle and he held slide shows in local towns. He got people to sign a petition to save the places shown in his photographs – waterfalls, beautiful trees and dramatic landscapes. The reaction was immediate and very soon Romeo had proof of the community support for his idea and presented an extensive petition to the Lands Minister.”
National Parks status
After five years of Romeo’s campaigning the Government agreed to designate National Parks status to the land. Content that this would happen, Romeo enlisted for war, joining his brothers who were already fighting in France. He stayed in touch with home via mail, continuing to push for the legislation to be passed using his artist sister Vida as a go between. Lamington National Park was proclaimed in 1915. Come the end of WW1 Australian troops posted overseas were offered the chance to study abroad while they waited for a passage back home. Romeo enrolled in a town planning course at London University. Within the year he had won the Lever Prize for redesigning a section of London that had suffered severe damage at the hands of the Germans.
Finally in 1919 he returned home and quickly took up with Sybil Delpratt, a young girl he had been keen on prior to war. She was the youngest daughter of HJ Delpratt and lived at Tamborine House, which is now part of the Albert River Winery.
Sybil and Romeo married soon after his return and went onto have three children – David, Alison and Ann. It was only after both her parents had died that Ann discovered Romeo had carried a lock of Sybil’s hair over his heart throughout the war. They were married in St John’s Cathedral in Brisbane and drove a Cadillac owned by his brother on their honeymoon.
“The Laheys are great persuaders but Mother just didn’t have any doubts in her mind because he was this wonderful man,” says Ann. “He used to go the nine miles from Canungra to Tamborine House to court her. Her father thought, ‘Isn’t it good of this young man to come and call on me so often.’”
Romeo continued to work for Lahey family firm, designing and supervising the building of roads up Beechmont and Mt Cainbable to allow for the transportation of freshly-cut timber. In his spare time he invested his energies in conservation and preservation of the natural habitat. Just as he was passionate about preservation of the land, Romeo was also aware of the need to educate the public about the importance of preservation.
“He realised that this new concept of National Parks and the fight to save them was going to require huge vigilance and commitment,” says Ann.“He knew he must start up a body of people who would carry the torch and look out for the interests of the parks. In 1930 Dad and others whom he had co-opted in his belief and commitment formed the National Parks Association of Queensland. This organisation has been remarkably successful and is still going today. It’s very active, they have been a watchdog against infringements of national parks, and they have been educators.”
Romeo was president of the NPAQ and his friend and fellow conservationist Arthur Groom became the secretary. Together, these men and a group of supporters founded Queensland Holiday Resorts Limited and established Binna Burra Mountain Lodge. It was located next to Lamington National Park and became a base for people keen to explore the region’s natural habitat in its original form. Arthur took on the role of resident manager and activities co-ordinator and Romeo oversaw construction of the buildings. He also drew on his engineering and surveying background to design a series of guided tracks through the National Park which would be easy to negotiate for walkers of all levels, and more importantly would have little impact on the bush. His low-gradient track design continues to be used as a standard for track construction in parks throughout Queensland. In the years to come Romeo remained involved in the running of Binna Burra Lodge, while continuing his conservation work throughout Queensland.
A lookout honouring him within Lamington National Park was named Kamurun by the State Government, using the traditional owners’ word for a white man much respected by the tribe. Romeo also donated hundreds of acres of his own land as additions to Lamington National Park. Even when he was off-duty, Romeo was thinking, living, breathing conservation.
“If you came within a mile of someone who was going into the national park and looked as though they were holding an axe, or starting a fire, dad would stop the car and shoot off like a rocket,” recalls Ann. “He had a temper, no one would forget the tongue lashing they received from him. He was roused by injustice.”