History of Brisbane

Mother Earth Travel > Australia > Brisbane > History

Contrary to common perception, Brisbane is very much a river city, where life developed, and still pivots, on the Brisbane River. Today, Brisbane can lay claim to being 'beautiful one day, perfect the next', however, life was not always so heavenly for the first settlers...

The cat-o-nine-tails ruled and mosquitoes plagued the very first settlers in the Brisbane area. In 1824, the Moreton Bay penal settlement was established on the coast at Redcliffe. But after three months, a new site 20 kilometres up the Brisbane River (now called North Quay) was chosen. It was chosen because of its reliable water supply, the security of being surrounded by a bend in the river and, being upstream, it was ideal to prevent prisoners escaping by sea.

In 1828, with only ten cottages in the settlement, hundreds of convicts started to build the first stone buildings: the Colonial Stores building and a windmill (now known as the Wickham Terrace Observatory Tower).

This convict time ended in 1839 and in 1841 Brisbane began again in three separate settlements - North Brisbane, Kangaroo Point and South Brisbane. Then followed a long battle for funds from the then Governor in Sydney, Sir George Gipps. In 1846, there were less than a thousand people in the three areas.

Eventually a separate colony, Queensland, was declared in 1859 and named in honour of Queen Victoria. The Moreton Bay settlement was made the capital, as it was now a thriving port and commercial centre of six thousand people. There were still financial problems: when the first Governor of the new colony, Sir George Ferguson Bowen, began office he found seven and a halfpence in the Treasury!

Brisbane began to flourish and, by 1888, the main thoroughfare, Queen Street, had large well-designed buildings, many still here today, or the fa├žade kept at least. George Street boasts Parliament House and the Queensland Club, still used by country politicians and public servants as a city base. The City Botanic Gardens is the site of the original gardens that provided food for the convict settlement. Today, many rare native and exotic plants thrive here beside the river in the sub-tropical climate.

In the 1890s, a series of disastrous floods and more financial worries beset the city, but the city fought back and again prospered.

During World War 11, General Douglas MacArthur directed the Pacific campaign from the AMP building (now MacArthur Chambers) in Queen Street. Hundreds of thousands of American servicemen and women poured through Brisbane, enhancing development in many ways - in came the 'Swing' and the 'Jitterbug' dance craze - as well as giving the city a welcomed financial injection. For a small city that was still fairly staid, this was a great catalyst to 'move on'.
Migrants, refugees and displaced persons added greatly to the population in the 1950s, with many British migrants receiving assisted passages. Despite less than 25 percent of those from other parts of Europe being financially assisted, migrants from all parts of Europe became central to the cultural, academic and business life of Brisbane very quickly.

Consumer culture started in May 1957 with the opening of Australia's first drive-in shopping centre at Chermside. In August 1959, commercial television began. However, the story of television in Australia really began in Brisbane 25 years earlier with the first experimental television broadcast from the windmill in Wickham Terrace.

Brisbane's wide river was utilised well for the subsequent increase in trade, with produce coming down the river from Ipswich as well as from the islands of Moreton Bay and nearby areas. The fruit and vegetable markets were near the river between Mary and Charlotte Streets, close to the wharves. With a successful shipbuilding industry also in place by this time, Brisbane was thriving.

In 1967, the city saw an important cultural progression, when Australian Aborigines achieved the same democratic rights as all other Australians. Brisbane was also maturing.

However, more troubles were to come. Cyclone Wanda, (cyclones are called male and female names alternatively) wreaked havoc in 1974, when 14,000 houses were flooded and 14 people died. Dams were increased to prevent any more major floods, the upside of which was a steady population increase in the now-safer southeast corner of Queensland. People from both overseas and interstate came from the 'cold' south wanting to live in the sun!

Hosting the Commonwealth Games in 1982 heralded Brisbane's true coming of age. Expo 88 followed on the same site six years later and, a few years after that, the site became South Bank Parklands - a wonderful area for visitors - right across the river from Brisbane's central business district.

Today, you can walk along from South Bank to see the Queensland Performing Arts Complex, opened in 1985, with its three theatres, a concert hall and a conservatorium next door. Although these buildings are all of modern architecture, Brisbane still has many distinctive 19th century buildings, sited to take in prime river views and parkland. Heritage Walks and River trips allow the tourist see all this in beautiful weather (usually!) in all seasons.

Icons of today's Brisbane are the older-style houses on 'stilts', designed for cool breezes to flow underneath in warmer weather. These are called Queenslanders, and the even more grand ones are called 'Grand Colonials'.

Brisbane's lifestyle is still centred on the wide, meandering Brisbane River. Walk along her banks, imagine her in days gone by, and see the smiles of pleasure on the faces of people pleased to be alive and living in this great city today!