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Brisbane History

When most people think of Australia’s colonial past, they think of Sydney and the stories of Captain Cook sailing up the east coast in 1770 and Captain Arthur Phillip and the first fleet arriving in Sydney Harbour in 1788.

Less has been said about Brisbane and its colonial past, but it too has an interesting story to tell, and when Captain James Cook sailed up the coast in 1770 he also named Cape Moreton, Point Lookout and the Glass House Mountains just north of Brisbane too.

In the ‘What to see’ and ‘Architectural’ pages on this website, you will have read about the Commissariat Store, the Old Windmill, Customs House and some of the other early buildings in Brisbane. Hopefully you will visit these buildings too, or will visit soon.

The Brisbane River and Moreton Bay Islands and surrounding areas were the home of the Ngugi, Koobenpul, Nooghies, Noonuckles, Jagera, Turrbul and other Aboriginal clans who all lived here prior to the arrival of the English explorers and the colony they set up. The clans continued to live in and around the river and bay, and to the north and south of today’s Brisbane, moving their camps from place to place for fishing, food, and in keeping with changes in the seasons and ceremonial occasions, just as they had for thousands of years.

Following on from Captain James Cook’s voyage in 1770 up the east coast, Captain Arthur Phillip sailed into Botany Bay with the First Fleet, and then re-located soon after to Sydney Harbour to establish the first colony in New South Wales in 1788.

As the Sydney town colony grew, exploration expeditions were made from Sydney to seek out new places for possible settlement and sources for food. One of these expeditions was carried out by Matthew Flinders sailing the sloop “Norfolk” with 10 crew, an aboriginal interpreter/guide – ‘Bongaree’(c1775-1830), and Flinders’ famous cat, ‘Trim’ into what was called Glass House Bay, renamed as Moreton Bay. Matthew Flinders (1771-1803) spent 15 days here exploring the islands and area around Moreton Bay in 1799, including travelling across the land to the Glass House Mountains. He even found an aboriginal fishing net, taking it with him back to the Sydney colony, leaving behind a hatchet (axe) as an exchange for it. Bongaree or Bungaree also travelled with Flinders when he circumnavigated Australia. The suburb of Bongaree on Bribie Island is named in his honour.

In October 1823, the surveyor, John Oxley sailed from Sydney to Moreton Bay, making contact with the aboriginals and to his surprize meeting with two shipwrecked ‘ticket of leave’ former convicts – Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan who had in April that year sailed from Sydney to the Five Islands off today’s Port Kembla, south of Sydney, in search of cedar wood only to be blown by storms far northwards and ending up in shipwrecked on Moreton Island. A third man, Richard Parsons would be found a year later, while the fourth man in their party, John Thompson had died at sea in the days before the shipwreck.

With the help of the aboriginal tribesmen and the two ship wrecked survivors, Oxley was able to find the mouth of the Brisbane River and explore up the river upstream, naming on their way, ‘Breakfast Creek’, ‘Oxley Creek’ and ‘Seventeen Mile Rocks’.

Oxley then returned to Sydney taking both Thomas Pamphlett and John Finnegan on board the cutter ‘Mermaid’, to report back to Governor Thomas Brisbane on the river he had found, which he had named ‘Brisbane River’. No doubt the Governor was well pleased with this name too, and the name ‘Brisbane’ subsequently became the name of the city to come, although for a short time the name Edenglassie – a combination of Edinburgh and Glasgow was used too.

In 1824 a new convict Moreton Bay settlement was established at Redcliffe, and then in 1825 relocated to North Quay, where today’s Brisbane city centre is still located – with convicts being sent from Sydney and Port Macquarie. At the time convicts considered to be the very worst by Governor Brisbane could be sent to Port Arthur in Van Diemans Land, Norfolk Island or to Moreton Bay convict settlements, all of which developed reputations for their harsh treatment, a living hell.

Many of the convicts sent to Moreton Bay attempted to escape and head into the bush, only to return starving a few days later, while others managed to head south only to be captured in Port Macquarie, and then either returned to be flogged in Moreton Bay, or even worse to be sent to Norfolk Island. The Port Macquarie Convict settlement first opened in 1821 but closed down by 1830, as free settlers were permitted to settle there.

The Moreton Bay Convict settlement lasted until 1838, at which time, free settlers and ‘ticket-of-leave’ convicts were able to start living here too. The commissariat Store built in 1828 and the Old Windmill on Wickham Terrace, also built in 1828 are all that is visible today from the convict days.

In a strange twist, Thomas Pamphlett, was re-arrested in Sydney and charged with larceny (stealing) in 1826, and as a punishment sentenced to seven years imprisonment in the Moreton Bay penal settlement.

In all some 2280 convicts were transported to the Moreton Bay Prison over the years of its existence.

In 1828 the renowned Botanist, Alan Cunningham, who had accompanied Sir Joseph Banks and also Oxley on many of his exploration trips, collecting 1000’s of specimens of new plants in Australia, and on one of his many exploration trips crossed overland from Sydney to the Darling Downs, declaring its suitability for farming and grazing. He also found a way to travel from the Darling Downs to the Moreton Bay settlement down the side of the Great Dividing Range – and this gap was named in his honour as ‘Cunningham’s Gap’ – and is still used today to travel from Brisbane to the town of Warwick. In 1829 he also explored the Brisbane Valley too.

Britain, as a Colonial power had proclaimed New South Wales as a British colony when Captain Arthur Phillip hoisted the British flag in Farm Cove in Sydney on 26th January 1788 (today’s Australia Day), and as much as the British wanted to establish prison settlements, they also wanted to derive wealth from their new colonies, just as they had in India and elsewhere.

The Brisbane Colony was also set up on this basis, and as free settlers arrived after the closure of the Convict Prison in 1838 with the promise of land for sale, the settlement grew rapidly and in 1859 the Municipality of Brisbane was proclaimed as a Free Settlement. It would officially become a city in 1902. A number of small towns had also developed too, including Cleveland – proclaimed as a town in 1850, with the timber lighthouse (still standing) built on the point in 1864.

The British colonial empire had enabled great wealth to flow to England, and protecting that wealth was the mighty British Royal Navy ships and fortifications built in key locations as a means of protecting the colonies that were established.

The Crimean War in 1854 between Russia and Turkey led to both British and French armies coming to the defence of Turkey, and the ultimate defeat of Russia. The British however remained on alert believing that it might be possible for the Russian Pacific Fleet to mount an attack on parts of its colonial empire – including its colonies in Australia.

While Sydney Harbour had built some defences around the Harbour, at Dawes Point in 1790 and 1801 on Middle Head, and construction of Fort Denison in the Harbour had started in 1841(completed in 1857), the greatest defence was seen to be the British Royal Navy located in Sydney Harbour.

As news of the Crimean War reached Sydney, the NSW Colonial Government called for tenders to construct a gunship as a means of protecting Sydney from possible attack, and the 65 ton HMCS Spitfire was built and launched in 1855 from Cuthbert’s Shipyard in Sydney Harbour – Australia’s first naval ship – HMCS standing for Her Majesty’s Colonial Ship. In 1859 the HMCS Spitfire was sold to Queensland, and this became Queensland’s first navy ship.

Sir Peter Henry Scratchley (1835-1885) had served in the Crimean war and also India in the Royal Engineers, and he was given the task of developing a defence plan for Melbourne in 1859-60, and later in 1878 he became the Commissioner of defences for all six Australian Colonies, drawing up plan reports (The Jervois-Scratchley Reports) for defending each colony from attack including the Moreton Bay and Brisbane settlement. Jervois refers to Sir William Jervois, who was the Governor of South Australia at the time.

In 1881 Fort Lytton was built in Moreton Bay based on the Jervois-Scratchley Reports at the entrance to the Brisbane River, and in 1883 the Queensland Maritime Defence Force was set up with its headquarters at Kangaroo Point, with two new gunboats HMQS Paluma and HMQS Gayundah, built for it by Armstrong Mitchell and Co, in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England. This company built many ships and armaments, and later went on to build aircraft and even cars (Armstrong Siddeley cars).

The two gunboats were also joined by a Torpedo boat, HMQS Mosquito, and within a few years the Queensland Maritime Defence Force had a total of eleven ships.
In 1893 the HMQS Paluma broke its moorings in a flood and ended up in the Botanical Gardens, and then a new flood two weeks later saw it return to the river.

The HMQS Gayundah continued in service and ended its days in 1958 and was left to rust at Woody Point in Redcliffe, while three of the other ships HMQS Dolphin, HMQS Stingaree and HMQS Bream became Dive wrecks off Tangalooma. HMQS Miner became part of the breakwater at Bishop Island. With Federation in 1901, all the colony’s Marine Defence Forces and Naval Brigades were joined into the Commonwealth Naval Forces, which in turn become the Royal Australian Navy in 1911.

Fort Lytton’s 1881 fortifications were built on the southern side of the Brisbane River, downstream from the main Brisbane settlement. The fort, built in the shape of a pentagon, was hidden from view from the river by grassy embankments (Parapets), with a moat built around it as further protection, with four fixed guns – two pointing directly at the river, and two to the opposite bank. In 1890 a secret tunnel was built under the fort to the river – to enable a minefield to be laid out across the river, if they came under attack. Fort Lytton was also a training camp with hundreds of tents set up over the years near the parade ground, and thousands of troops trained here over the years, right up to around 1946. It played a key defence role in both world wars in the defence of Brisbane. Today it is possible to visit the Fort and see a museum there too, all in the Fort Lytton National Park, off Lytton Road near Wynnum.

As Brisbane developed with free settlers arriving in larger numbers after the closure of the Penal settlement, more and more ships would arrive in Brisbane carrying their passengers and cargo, and leave carrying timber, wool, coal and by 1888, frozen beef too. This trade grew from around 8 thousand tons to over 690 tons by the 1880’s, by which time the population of Brisbane had grown from around 8000 people in 1850 to more than a 100 thousand.

Although the penal settlement had closed, life in Brisbane could also be harsh, as settlers and ticket-of-leave former convicts sought to make a living. There were a number of conflicts between settlers and aboriginals, as well as crimes of all types including murders and robberies. Servants who had broken their agreements, and people unable to pay their debts, could be imprisoned, as well as seamen charged with desertion or mutiny from the various ships that arrived in port.

Floggings, solitary confinement and even hangings were regularly carried out, and the first “official” Gaol was built in Queen Street around 1850, where today’s main GPO Post office is located. A new gaol was then built in 1860 on Petrie Terrace with 36 tiny cells just over 2 metres wide by 2.6 metres long, but it wasn’t long before this too was overcrowded.

People with a mental problem, could also be imprisoned too, and in 1864 the “Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum” in Goodna was set up too. It was renamed in 1880 as the Goodna Mental Hospital and in 1959 to the ‘Wolston Park Mental Health Asylum’. The original building still stands today, but has been abandoned and vandalised. Other gaols were also built in Toowoomba largely for women prisoners and in Rockhampton too.
The Petrie Terrace gaol had prisoners as young as 10 years old, but also older ones too, including a 96 year old, charged with vagrancy, but it existed for over 20 years, only closing in 1883, when the Boggo Road Gaol was built, and prisoners transferred to this new gaol.

With Petrie Terrace becoming overcrowded, the authorities decided to use an old ship ‘hulk’, the brig ‘Julia Percy’ to house seamen who had disserted their ships or been involved in mutiny on board their ships. This was then replaced in 1864 by a refitted American cattle ship , the ‘Margaret Eliza’ renamed as the ‘Proserpine’, into a ship to hold prisoners with 10 cells and 104 prisoners, and the water police as guards. They then moored the ship off St Helena Island, and in 1867 a Penal Settlement was built on the island, and the prisoners moved there. The prisoners were used to clear the land, quarry the stone, make the bricks and build their own gaol, and also raise cattle and grow crops too, including sugarcane and if they died in the process, they could be buried in the Island’s cemetery. A number of the old buildings, a museum, warder’s house, the cemetery and quarry survive, and it is possible to take tours to the island, which is now a National Park from Manly, and also Newfarm – see www.catoninetails.com.au Tel: 1300 438 787 or www.brisbanecruises.com.au

The Proserpine’ however continued in usage, and in 1871 it became the “Reformatory School for Boys” until 1881, with over 100 juvenile offenders, “boys of the criminal class” on board. The authorities deemed this necessary to separate these neglected and convicted juveniles from the bad influence of adult prisoners, but their parents were also expected to also pay for their education and rehabilitation! In 1881 a “reformatory School for Boys” was set up at Signal Hill on Lytton Island, and boys from the ‘Proserpine’ transferred there.

For a year after the boys were taken off the Proserpine, the ship served for a time as a quarantine ship when a smallpox outbreak occurred, but the old boat was then towed to St Helena Island where it came to its final resting point and was broken up for firewood and scrap metal.

Protecting the city from disease such as smallpox, and also rabies – possibly carried by ship dogs arriving in Port, led to a number of quarantine stations to be set up on the islands including Lytton, Peel, St Helena and Stradbroke islands – with the main one being on Lytton Island, which only closed in 1982. Many of the buildings including the disinfecting block, blacksmith shed, doctor’s quarters, and even the quarantine jetty and tramline from the early years still exist, and can be seen today.

The Brisbane River played a key role in the development of Brisbane, forming the first transport link between the town and the outside world, and as a consequence the main city centre was built beside the River. As the town developed, roads or more correctly tracks connected some of the outlying farms and settlements to the town centre, and horses and bullocks were used to carry people or pull wagons, drays and buggies with farm produce to the town centre.

By 1865 Cobb & Co coaches connected Brisbane to Ipswich and to Toowoomba the following year. Gold had been discovered by James Nash in Nashville in 1867(re-named Gympie) and in 1868 a track was cut through the scrub and bush for Cobb & Co coaches to link Gympie to Brisbane too, and with more tracks and road building, the network of Cobb & Co coaches expanded.

The Queensland sugar industry also began in 1862, and while the first sugar cane had been brought to Australia with the first fleet, there had been little success in growing it. Captain, the Honourable Louis Hope (1817-1894), a former captain in the Coldstream Guards built up a sugar plantation in Ormiston, in the Redlands area, and this became the largest sugar plantation at the time. He also set up a sugar mill too. He had several properties, and ‘Ormiston House’, his house is still standing today in Wellington Street, Ormiston. It is now a museum open to the public on Sundays and special occasions (Tel: (07) 3286 1425).

There is also another Sugar Museum – ‘The Australian Sugar Heritage Centre’ off the Bruce Highway, near Innisfail in North Queensland, at Mourilyan (Tel: (07) 4063 2477)

Cutting cane is extremely hard work, and in those days, it was all done by hand. This led to another chapter in the history of Brisbane and Queensland, when between 1863 and 1904 over 62,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Queensland to work as cane cutters – with some coming voluntarily, while others were simply taken by force and kidnapped – what was called “blackbirding”. A large number of the South Sea Islanders were later sent back to the islands under the ‘Pacific Island Labourers Act’ of Parliament in 1901, but many remained too in Queensland, where their descendants still live today.

Between 1865 and 1868 the first Railway line was built from Ipswich to Toowoomba and Dalby on the Darling Downs largely for transporting produce and goods, which in turn could be loaded on barges to travel down the Bremer and Brisbane River to the Brisbane Port itself. The rail line from Ipswich to Brisbane was only constructed in 1872. Today it is possible to visit the Workshops Rail Museum in North Street, Ipswich (Tel: (07) 3432 5100

It took until 1875 for Roma Street Station to be built in Brisbane and again this was for goods more than passengers. The first train designed for passengers was the Roma Street to Sandgate line built in 1882, and a year later to the Doomben Horse racing track.

In 1885 the first horse drawn trams began operation in Brisbane, and in 1897 new electric trams were running, becoming a central part of Brisbane’s transport system. By 1922 181 tramcars were in operation, and in 1932 they carried 68.5 million passengers, while at the height of their operation in 1944-45 the trams carried 160 million passengers. Electric trolley buses also came into operation between 1949 and 1969, but as rail developed and roads became busier with cars completely replacing horses, Brisbane’s vast network of tram lines and trams were abandoned and in 1969 the trams ceased operation, and the 190 kilometres of tracks were removed. To see some of these trams visit the tramway museum at Tramway Street, Sanford (www.tramwaymuseum.org Tel: (07) 3351 1776.)

In 1925 a road was built from Brisbane to Southport and by 1929 there were 30,000 cars registered in Brisbane, where the first traffic lights were installed in 1937. More were to come!

Brisbane had officially been declared a city in 1902, one year after Federation, creating the Federal Government of Australia, to be based in Canberra, midway between the two big cities, Sydney and Melbourne. Political power, manufacturing and business would continue to be centred on the two southern cities, with Brisbane, being hot and flood prone seen as just as the capital city of Queensland, and not much more. Queensland was more decentralised than the other states, and bigger regional towns and cities based on local agriculture including wool, wheat, sugar, bananas, cattle, pineapples and dairy farming meant that Brisbane retained its more rural country feel than the southern capital cities.

World War I saw young men from all states recruited to fight in the war, including 57,705 men from Queensland, and a number of nurses who headed to the battlefields to help the wounded.

The Great Depression which started in 1929 also affected Brisbane too, with large numbers of men heading from the south on the ‘Sunshine Track’ to Brisbane in the hope of finding a job, and they along with locals ending up living in camps and hostels set up around Brisbane to house them. This however led to a number of large public infrastructure projects being undertaken, including building of the William Jolly Bridge, Somerset Dam, Hornibrook Bridge to Redcliffe, the University buildings at St Lucia, sewerage works and extending the road network with Bitumen in many cases.

World War II again saw troops leave Australia it to fight in the war, but this time Brisbane played a more significant role as the Japanese advanced through The Philippines,Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, to New Guinea, heading south. A line was even drawn up, the so called ‘Brisbane Line’ just north of Brisbane by the Menzies Government in Canberra – which was to be concede all areas north of the line to the Japanese as the line of surrender!

When the Americans joined the war, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Brisbane became a base for the Pacific in 1942, with U.S General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander in Chief of the Allied Forces in the South West Pacific area being stationed in Brisbane. His office still exists on Level 8 of the MacArthur Chambers, 201 Edward Street in the city (see www.mmb.org.au Tel: (07) 3211 7052).

Between 1941 and 1945, more than a million USA marines, airmen, soldiers and other service personnel passed through Brisbane with 8 US Submarines based at Teneriffe on the Brisbane River, and other US ships also here. Eagle Farm airport was also upgraded by the Americans too.

The Americans brought new wealth to Brisbane, but also looked for local girls, and more than 12,000 Australian girls became ‘war brides’ leaving the country to live after the war in the USA. There was also considerable resentment too, and this built up to a clash on the November 26, 1942 between the Australians and US Servicemen in what was publicised as the “Battle of Brisbane”. One person died and many were injured.

Post war Brisbane saw the troops returning and the ‘post-war baby boom’ families emerge. The idea of a local corner shop, milk bars, and a house with a big backyard, Hills Hoist, radiogram, washing machine and room to play cricket, saw new suburbs rapidly being developed. Lifestyle changes and new found wealth, saw weekends to play sport and the idea of a drive to the beach for a day out soon took hold. The beaches at Southport and further south developed with beach houses, hotels, motels and rental properties growing in number, with the coast becoming known as ‘The Gold Coast’ – a name first coined in 1959.

Radio stations, and Brisbane’s first TV stations, QTQ Channel 9 and BTQ Channel 7 began broadcasting in 1959. The age of rock and roll and juke boxes was followed by the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with at first new transistor radios enabling the latest Top 40 music to be played wherever people were, and later record album shops becoming the mecca for young people to buy the latest albums to play on their hi-fi stereo set ups, with the bigger the speakers the better.

In 1974 a massive flood also saw large sections of Brisbane under water, and this happened again in 2011.

Perhaps the most significant change to Brisbane occurred when the 1988 World Expo came to Brisbane, with 18.5 million people visiting the Expo to see pavilions from countries around the world. The Expo was located in South Brisbane between the River and South Brisbane Railway station, and was a huge success, and once the Expo had closed, the area was re-developed into today’s Southbank – with the beach, restaurants, cafes, art and museums bringing a new level of sophistication to the city.

Brisbane is still the third biggest city in Australia, and its development now stretches south to the Gold Coast and north to the Sunshine coast, making the city a world class city.

We hope that learning about Brisbane’s history makes your time in Brisbane more interesting.

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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