06 May 2016

Scenes by the 1840s Brisbane River

The following vivid description of life by the Brisbane River in the 1840s was written by William Clark in 1917. Clark arrived at Moreton Bay in 1849 with his parents when he was 12 years old.

In his early years he assisted his father in felling pine timber and splitting shingles in the dense scrubland of the Boggo district, from the present Fairfield to Oxley Creek. From the 1860s he was occupied in various industries around Queensland, including sheep, cattle and mining. In his later years he wrote regular articles for the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander reminiscing about his early life and adventures:


‘Further upstream from the creek, after which Creek-street is named, near the bamboos in the Botanic Gardens, stood a cottage, painted green, with a fine orchard attached. This was the residence of an old-time military officer. Opposite on the south bank stood primitive Kangaroo Point, with a few scattered houses. At the end of the Point was John Rankin's pineapple garden, with John - or, as he was called, Tinker - Campbell's boiling down works, the first in Moreton Bay. In 1848 the Point was the scene of a tragic murder, for which a cook at Sutton's Hotel named Fife was executed. The affair was the outcome of a drunken melee, in which the boiling down butchers were said to have been implicated, as the testimony of a friend of the writer's, who was actually an eye witness of the disposal of part of the body fully corroborates. The upset price of the Kangaroo Point land at the local sale in 1843 was £1 per acre. Just above the present Dry Dock, on the bank of the river, was John Slack's paddock. John Slack afterwards formed a cattle station on Slack's Creek, Logan River. Walmsley Point, on the opposite bank, in the old Domain, was named after John Walmsley, who had a sawpit there.

Early panoramic view of Brisbane, 1862. (John Oxley Library)

Following the river bank upwards, the Commissary buildings (now Colonial Stores) was reached, built in 1829, as the date stone of the building indicates, although Mr. Neimiah Bartley, in his book ‘Agates and Opals,’ gives the date as 1822, in a chapter headed ‘Brisbane in 1822,’ when, in fact, Brisbane was ‘non-et-iventus.’ The old place, with the rubble stone wall nearby, is one of the few remaining relics of penal times. Visitors to the old building may now see in the floors the old-fashioned wrought iron nails of the period. On the opposite bank was primitive South Brisbane. Tom Archer tells us that when he arrived there in 1841 with his wool teams from Durundur, by way of Kilcoy and Cressbrook stations, via Ipswich, not a single house or habitation then existed in the place. The Stanley-street frontage 70 years ago was occupied by Messrs. Orr Bros., butchers - James and William. It is now Baynes Bros., also butchers. Daniel Peterson's wharf and store was next. In the store big Dick Allcock, his father, and George, his brother, printed and published the first issue of the Moreton Bay ‘Free Press,’ that afterwards merged into the ‘Guardian’ newspaper. Adjoining was John M'Cabe's Freemasons' Hotel and wharf, afterwards Christie's. Peter Gablen's residence and wharf followed. Then came the old Hunter River Steam Co.'s premises, with two large receiving stores. One of the old gate posts is still standing in Stanley-street. The managers of the company in succession were William Connoley, George Salt Tucker, and Henry Buckley, our first Auditor-General.

Adjoining the old Russell-street ferry was Sandy MacIntyre's property, on which the company's steamers made fast their head lines to a tree. The company wished to purchase the property, and made an offer, which was not accepted. One morning the head lines were cut. The steamer's head lay down stream. The company then said good-bye to South Brisbane. So we lost the steamers. The earliest of those steamers was known as The William, the fourth colonial built boat. Afterwards came the Eagle, Captain Allen, Sovereign, Captain Cape, and the Tamar, Captain Murphy. The ferry approaches of old Russell-Street were by a cutting through a high grassy bank. For some distance above the ferry, the riverbank was occupied by sawpits. Adjoining the sawpits were two cottage residences, one the early home of the M'Naught family, the other the residence of Mr William Wilkes, editor of the ‘Moreton Bay Courier.’ The land on which they stood now forms the approaches to Victoria Bridge.

Moreton Bay Settlement from South Brisbane, c. 1835,
attributed to H Boucher Bowerman. (John Oxley Library)

At North Quay, on the present ice works, stood M'Cormack the builder's cottage. In a right angle line near the present alignment of George-street was ‘God's acre’ - the convict burial ground; where many of the victims of the relentlessly cruel penal administration slept their last sleep. The spot was not reserved in early surveys. The graves had fallen in below the surface when the writer last visited it. There were no head marks to the graves. Recently, when a building foundation was put in, some human remains were dug up, when I informed the Lands Department of the exact locale of the old cemetery. On the river bank above M'Cormack's was the military burial ground, where an officer was buried in a bricked-in vault, with a solid stone block, oblong in shape on top of the ground, with an inscription. A few steps led down to the entrance door, painted blue. On the south bank the next point of interest was the site of the present municipal baths, known as the Sandy Beach, where boats were beached for repairs. It was a favourite place with the blacks for swimming the river.

Round the point was the residence of Corporal M'Cann, an officer of penal times. Adjoining was the market garden of James Kirkwood, who wheeled his vegetables round South Brisbane in a barrow. Then came, at present site of South Brisbane Cricket Ground, Pendergrast's farm. The place was fenced in, a slab hut and small milking yard erected, and in 1848 abandoned by the owner, who never returned. Both banks of the river were without habitation until Oven's Head was reached, where a convict gang, who was cutting long saplings murdered their ganger, throwing his head into Clark's Creek, close by, and his body into the river. The spot is now enclosed in the South Brisbane Cemetery. The surrounding scrubs were full of pine trees. There the writer, when a lad of thirteen years, began work with his father splitting laths and shingles for old Andrew Petrie.

At Fairfield was the farm of Samuel Scarlet Bailey. The place had previously been fixed on for a sugar plantation by the Brisbane Sugar Company, a proposition that never eventuated, owing to the dictum of a St. Domingo planter, who considered the degree of frost against the growth of sugar in Moreton Bay. This was the first move in sugar growing. Further up towards Canoe or Oxley Creek, was the Government freestone quarry, with a ‘floor’ put in at the river level, whence stone was punted to the settlement. The north bank was still without settlement until Moggil Creek was reached, where the bulk of the Lima's immigrants settled to farm in 1849; and where John - or, as he was commonly called, ‘Butte’ - Williams opened, about 1846, the Moggil coal pits. On the head of the creek was an ancient sheep station, owned by Jack and Darby M'Grath. No more settlement on that bank for a long distance past the confluence of the Bremer.

On the south bank, at Wolston, now Goodna, was the home of Dr. Stephen Simpson, a Crown Lands Commissioner. It was here that the escapee Bracefield, brought in by Petrie in 1842, met his death while felling scrub. Redbank was the site of the Government dairy, where a large stockyard stood on the edge of Redbank Swamp. The river then was without settlement until John Uhr's Wivenhoe station was reached, the Cressbrook frontage, Colinton station following. Then the river bed became a precipitous mountain stream, boulder strewn to its source in the Bunya Mountains at Simon Scott's Toromeo station. With the establishment of steam traffic by the Hunter River Steam Co., the necessity for utilising the waterway of the river for conveyance of wool and stores between Brisbane and Ipswich became urgent. The steamers to Sydney plied monthly. Wool teams often got to town a day or so after the steamer had left. They then camped until she returned. The camping place was at the old Wheat Sheaf Inn, which stood at the edge of a large swamp near the site of Brigg's drapery store, in Melbourne street, South Brisbane. Messrs. James Reid and Thomas Boyland met the difficulty by contracting to build the necessary receiving stores for the steam company. They then built a large punt, and took delivery of wool from Darling Downs and the Upper Brisbane at Ipswich from the teams. The huge Noah's ark was moved down slowly on the tide way by long sweeps to South Brisbane.

Steamers soon began to ply on the up-river waters. The first, the Experiment, was brought from Sydney by James Canning Pearce. She soon came to grief by being short tied at a Brisbane wharf. In the night the tide rose over her. The steward, who was sleeping on board, awoke to find the water pouring down below, and rushed on deck. It was supposed his money was below; he made a fatal rush down the ladder, and was engulfed in the flood waters pouring down the stairway. Messrs. Reid and Boyland bought the old wreck, took her boilers and engines out, and put them into a steamer they built on a slip on Montague-road frontage named the Hawk. I remember when she was towed by a boat to South Brisbane. The men on her called to people on the river bank ‘The Hawk is coming; look out for your chickens.’ Meanwhile Mr. Thomas Coutts had arrived with the steamer Raven from Sydney. She was too large for the trade. The scrub trees overhung the narrow river. The old skipper would come on deck from below and shout to the man at the wheel, ‘Helm a lee! Keep her head out of the bush.’

Steamers on the Brisbane River, 1855. (Conrad Martens)

Sometime afterward a still larger steamer was placed on the river, named the Bredalbane, by Messrs. Robert Towns and Co., in connection with their South Brisbane business. Although a Sydney merchant, be was truly a pioneer of Queensland, being the first chairman of the Hunter River Steam Co. He subsequently embarked in cotton growing at Towns Vale, on the Logan. He was practically the founder of Townsville. He financed the development of the Redbank Collieries, and in conjunction with Mr. John Graham M'Donald, he explored and pioneered Burketown and the Gulf country. Meanwhile Mr. James Reid, the veteran river man, was a squatter at Camboon, on the Lower Dawson, with Towns and Co. as his station agents. Mr. Reid, when visiting Sydney, promised Mr. Towns that he would take the wheel of the Bredalbane on her trial trip. The steamer grounded for the night at the Seventeen-Mile Rocks. From the dense scrubs on the bank the mosquitoes came down on their prey. The party retreated below, when for the first and last time in his life, so it was said, Bobbie Towns sung a song, his subject being ‘That dark girl dressed in blue.’ A journalist on board sought the deck for fresh air, and sat down on a dry cask. The head fell in, and when discovered ‘Theo’ was quite comfortable, his legs hanging over the edge of the cask. The Bredalbane was subsequently returned to Sydney, being too large for the trade. Eventually the Swallow and other steamers were built, drawing less water.

The advent of the railway from Brisbane to Ipswich caused a considerable decrease in river traffic. The pioneers of the Brisbane River and its traffic, or settlement on the banks, were men of firm and steady step, men of indomitable energy, worthy to rank with Fenimore Cooper's ‘Pathfinders,’ whose memory their few remaining compeers still hold in kindly remembrance.’

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