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Mosby, Harry Walter (1945–1993)

by Gary Osmond

This article was published:

 Harry Walter Mosby (1945–1993), railway worker and Paralympian, was born Harry Walter Alau on 3 May 1945 on Masig (Yorke Island), Torres Strait, Queensland, son of Ulag Alau (also known as Mabel) (1929–1986) from Masig. He was later legitimated as the son of Ulag’s husband, Jack Johnson Mosby (1910–2001), also from Masig, and bore the surname Mosby from childhood. Harry was the oldest of seven children: his siblings were Felisha (1949–2014), Christina, Marjorey, Maino Kebisu (1956–1983), Frank, and Willie.

Mosby moved to north Queensland in 1963 to work on the Mount Isa to Townsville rail line reconstruction project as an employee of the Hornibrook group. He was one of around six hundred Torres Strait Islander men who worked at various sites on the Australian mainland from the late 1950s to the early 1970s constructing railways for the growing mining industry. After decades of restrictions placed on Islander mobility by the Queensland government, Islanders remember this period as ‘railway time’ (Konishi and Lui-Chivizhe 2014, 450), as many escaped the surveillance of the Queensland Department of Native Affairs and travelled interstate.

In late 1965 the multinational company Morrison-Knudsen-Mannix-McDonald recruited labourers in north Queensland centres to lay 180 miles (290 km) of railway between Dampier (King Bay) and iron ore deposits at Mount Tom Price in the Pilbara region of north-west Western Australia as part of the Hamersley Railway Project. Mosby applied for the job in Cairns and went to Western Australia with a team of Torres Strait Islander workers, including others who had worked on the Mount Isa to Townsville project. He was one of approximately three hundred Torres Strait Islander men employed on the MKMM project as part of a total workforce of twelve hundred.

The work was physically demanding and could also be dangerous. Without buildings or trees for shelter from the blazing sun, rail workers often slept in the shade of a stationary train during their lunch break. Warning whistles would be sounded to alert sleeping men and a guard would check beneath each carriage before giving the all-clear for the train to restart. On 14 May 1966, twenty-one-year-old Mosby was asleep under a train near Dampier. He claimed that the guard did not check under his carriage before giving the all-clear for the train to move after lunch. As a result, the train rode over his left leg and, after Mosby shouted to the brakeman to stop, came to rest on his right one. His supervisor took him to the hospital at Dampier, but the company did not report the accident to the police, complicating Mosby’s later application for compensation. Incensed by the accident, his fellow workers staged a strike.

Mosby spent time at hospitals at Dampier and Port Hedland before arriving at Royal Perth Hospital on 17 May 1966. Surgeons amputated his left leg at the knee. His right leg, which was badly fractured, did not heal and was amputated the following year. Mosby chose to remain in Western Australia for treatment rather than return to Queensland, in part because of the excellent rehabilitation facilities available at RPH’s Shenton Park Annexe. He had friends in the area and his cousin, Francis Mosby, took a job in Perth to be close by. Another cousin, Dan Mosby, visited annually. Harry began receiving workers compensation payments in November 1966. He took up sport and upholstery training as part of his of rehabilitation and had special brown leg prostheses made to better match his skin colour; these were often visible as he liked to wear shorts.

The Australian Paralympic movement was born at Shenton Park, driven largely by the surgeon (Sir) George Bedbrook and physiotherapist John Johnson, who had initiated wheelchair sport in Australia in 1954. Victor Salvemini, a patient at Shenton Park, had taken up sport at the urging of other patients and he ‘paid this back’ (Salvemini 2018) by encouraging Mosby to do the same. Within months of his accident, Mosby, who had never before played organised sport, won the ‘dartchery’ (combination of darts and archery) doubles championships (with J. Pearson) at the hospital’s annual sports day in 1966. He won the same championship again in 1967 (with D. Haddon) and in 1969 (with T. Neville).

After four years of physiotherapy and occupational therapy, initially at Shenton Park and later at Melville Rehabilitation Centre, Perth, Mosby was discharged in 1969. He moved to a men’s hostel in Scarborough and found work as a welder in a firm making tubular steel furniture. While at Shenton Park, he had watched other patients play wheelchair basketball; after leaving hospital, he began playing as a member of the Blue Jays in Perth. In 1973 he was awarded the J. M. Saunders trophy for best and fairest in the wheelchair basketball grand final with the Blue Jays. He often joined in country fund-raising trips for disability sport, especially wheelchair basketball.

In 1975, encouraged by his friends and teammates, some of whom had been Paralympians, Mosby began training for the 1976 Summer Paralympics, to be held in Toronto, Canada. These would be the first games to include amputees and sportspeople with visual impairment; until then, participation had been limited to wheelchair athletes. Wheelchair basketball was not an option for Mosby, as amputees did not play wheelchair sport in the Paralympics at that time. Mosby recalled that he was ‘really happy’ (Torres News 1993, 14) to be selected to represent Australia in several track and field events, despite his short time training. One of forty-eight Australian athletes, he won a silver medal in the men’s discus C1 event, finished fourth in the men’s javelin C1, fifth in the men’s shot-put C1, and twelfth in the men’s precision javelin C1. (The ‘C’ classification categorised amputee athletes.) Mosby remembered the winner of the discus event, Finland’s Tauno Mannila, congratulating him and expressing surprise that he had placed second after only three months of training.

Mosby returned to the Torres Strait in May 1977. A ‘quiet and modest’ (Torres News 1993, 14) man, he rarely talked about his sporting achievements. With money awarded after a protracted legal battle for accident compensation, he registered a crayfish business, D & H Mosby Traders, with his cousin, Dan Mosby, and John Anderson. Harry managed operations on Waiben (Thursday Island) and drove a taxi. He never married and had no children. After suffering a heart attack, he died on 17 November 1993 at Waiben and was buried in the Thursday Island cemetery. His status as the first and only Torres Strait Islander Paralympian was recognised by Paralympics Australia in 2021.

 

Gary Osmond consulted with Harry Mosby’s family in researching and writing this article. He is of European descent.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Konishi, Shino, and Leah Lui-Chivizhe. ‘Working for the Railways: Torres Strait Islander Labour and Mobility in the 1960s.’ Journal of Australian Studies 38, no. 4 (2014): 445–56
  • Mosby, Dan. Interview by the author, 20 November 2018
  • Queensland State Archives. Item ID ITM852063, Harry Walter Mosby
  • Salvemini, Victor. Interview by the author, 13 November 2018
  • State Records Office of Western Australia. Item 1967/0164, Legal Aid – Accident to Harry Mosby – Thursday Islander
  • Torres News (Thursday Island). ‘A Quiet Achiever.’ 6 August 1993, 14

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Gary Osmond, 'Mosby, Harry Walter (1945–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mosby-harry-walter-31847/text39316, published online 2022, accessed online 6 December 2022.

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