Tag Archives: brisbane

Thanksgiving and the Battle of Brisbane

Growing up in Brisbane as a baby boomer, I always knew something about the Battle of Brisbane.  It was part of the rich soup of stories we grew up in: the impact of the Pacific War, the rationing, the American presence and how this sometimes led to fights between Australian soldiers and the Americans –  ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’.

Aussies in WWII

Some of the stories were funny.  Here’s an American account of one:

Many Australian troops returning home resented the Americans.  Dell Brooks [a submariner from the Seahorse] encountered that resentment in a theater in Brisbane showing Walt Disney’s 1942 animated classic, Bambi.  In one segment, Bambi cries out, “Mommy, mommy, where are you?” From the balcony came a voice, “She’s out with some damn Yank; where do you think she’s at?”

Others were serious.  Continue reading

Open House Day

Next weekend (12-13 October) is Open House, Brisbane when a wide variety of otherwise private buildings are thrown open to the public.

The concept began in England, where there has been an Open House London since 1992, but in the last few years the idea has spread more widely.  Melbourne has been involved since 2008, and Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth now have open days as well, though sadly, our 2 oldest capital cities, Sydney and Hobart, do not.

The aim is to open up interesting buildings that are not normally accessible to the general public.  Private institutions such as clubs and societies, government offices, commercial buildings that are old, or beautiful, or interesting – or all three – are open for us, the curious public, to have an annual snoop around. Continue reading

Treasures of Afghanistan at the Queensland Museum

A special exhibition at the Queensland Museum makes me realise, not for the first time, how much better the Queensland Art Gallery does these things. QAG has just closed Quilts 1700-1945.  I went at the end of June, and wrote about it here.

The Queensland Museum has just opened Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures from the National Museum Kabul.  A few of these items were on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City when I was there in 2010.  Although they belong in Afghanistan, and will eventually return to its National Museum, at present they are touring the world.  They have already been to Melbourne and will go on from Brisbane (until 27 January) to Sydney and Perth during 2014.

Treasures of Afghanistan

Hair pendant in gold and turquoise from Tillya Tepe

The treasures themselves are wonderful.  Continue reading

Governor and Lady Bowen: an odd couple in Queensland

Today is Queensland Day, an inoffensive but slightly daft non-holiday that was dreamed up in 1981, during the mad, bad days of the Bjelke-Petersen administration, with its separatist, anti-Canberra agenda.  It celebrates the splitting off of the northern part of New South Wales into a separate colony, Queensland in 1859.

It’s an odd date.  6 June was the day on which Queen Victoria signed the Letters Patent, which are still held in Britain at the National Archives, but given communications at the time, nobody in the Australian colonies knew what Victoria was doing that day.  If we must celebrate the birth of Queensland – and do we really need to? – then surely 10 December makes more sense. This was the day that Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane, and the new colony was proclaimed. We usually celebrate birthdays, not the date of conception, after all.

Continue reading

Town meets Gown in Toowoomba at the British World Conference

I spent last week at the British World Conference held at the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba from 2 to 5 July.  It was quite a coup for USQ to host this conference, which has been running for a decade and has previously been held in much larger cities, including London, Cape Town and Melbourne.

Toowoomba has fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, and USQ is small, so the vibe was very different, more intimate and a bit provincial.  This wasn’t helped by Qantas, which forgot to add a leap-second to its computer booking system on 30 June.  The following day planes were delayed up to 4 hours, throwing connections into chaos.

Continue reading

One Year On

I began this blog a year ago today.

26 January is a significant date in Australian history.  According to your perspective, it is Australia Day, the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay, or Invasion Day, the date that began the dispossession of Australia’s Aboriginal people.

I didn’t choose 26 January for either of these reasons.  26 January is also the anniversary of the 1974 Australia Day flood, when Brisbane was flooded.  After that, we built a new dam and people said ‘it could never happen again’ – until last January, when it did.

I planned to start writing a blog when I retired, but last year’s flood provoked me into writing my first post – about the Brisbane floods of 1869, 1890, 1893, and 1931.

People forget.  I decided last January that my theme would be telling stories to entertain people who enjoy history, but also to remind people that – usually – things have happened in the past, and are likely to happen again. Possibly quite soon. Continue reading

Occupying Wall Street and Boundary Streets

Wall Street.  The name has been in the news lately – describing a concept, capitalism, rather than a real place.  But the Occupy Wall Street movement has thrown up some interesting historical references – so let’s look again at the place itself.

The Dutch who settled Nieuw-Amsterdam in the early 17th century first occupied the southern tip of Manhattan Island, the area around Battery Point.  Along the northern limit of their settlement, using African slaves, they built a defensive wall or palisade.  The earliest map of the settlement, the Castello Plan, shows this fortification along what is now Wall Street.

Early New York / New Amsterdam

Castello Plan, from Wikimedia Commons. North is on the right, with Wall St running from top to bottom.

The Wall marked the boundary between the Dutch settlement and the local Lenape people of Manahatta, part of the Algonquin language group, who ‘sold’ Manhattan Island to Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch West India Company for 60 guilders worth of trade goods, and who were no doubt startled to discover later that the exchange was meant to take away their land in perpetuity.  (Many people on Wall Street today have the same problem with derivatives.)

It was partly a defensive barrier, but also a place to trade.  The Dutch, after all, had come as fur traders, so wanted good relations with the local tribes.  But a tradition began – so they say – that Native Americans who hung around the settlement were evicted at dusk, with Wall Street marking the boundary between civilized and savage worlds.  (Maybe it still does, though which side are the savages these days?)

While Broadway followed a Lenape pathway, and was sympathetic to the local topography, Wall Street was not, running directly at right angles to the ancient route.

Fast forward from Peter Stuyvesant and his 17th century colonists to 19th century Brisbane.

Boundary St, Brisbane

Brisbane has many streets called Boundary Street, but 2, through Spring Hill to the north of the river, and West End to the south, are critical.  These streets too run in straight lines in defiance of local topography, a good hint that early surveyors were involved.  Using chains and trigonometry, the surveyors marked out straight lines across the landscape, carving out a chunk of land that would be put up for sale for town lots.

According to local tradition, both Boundary Streets also marked the border between the white township and the local Aborigines, who were ordered out of the town at dusk. [see History of the Boundary St Curfew put together by Storyteller Daryll Bellingham]

The evidence is sketchy, and often based on the repetition of the same oral tradition, but it goes back a long way.  In any case, as Brisbane was surveyed and sold, lot-by-lot, the surveyors’ pegs creeping across the landscape marked the alienation of the land from its original inhabitants.  In Australian law today, freehold title extinguishes native title, and introduces the idea of trespass on private land.

Meanwhile in America, the Occupy Wall Street movement has thrown up an interesting irony for today’s Native Americans, who argue that Wall Street is already occupied territory.

Algonquin territory

Guilty can’t be inherited, but property can be.  Forgive us our trespasses.

Thomas Brisbane: the star-gazing governor

Congratulations to our new Nobel Prize winner, Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University – and, of course, to our Ignobel prize winners as well.  We don’t do enough to publicise science in Australia.  Very few scientists enter politics, for instance.  We might have a more sensible debate on issues such as climate change if they did.

Yet in the past, science and scientists were better recognised here.  The cities of Darwin and Brisbane are both named after scientists who never visited the places.  We all know Darwin – but how many people these days would know of Sir Thomas Brisbane if it wasn’t for the city that bears his name?  He probably pronounced that name differently, too – BrisBANE, rather than BRISbane.

Brisbane was Governor of New South Wales for 4 years, 1821 to 1825, covering the period when the Brisbane River was discovered and named after him, and a settlement began here that eventually became Brisbane.  These 4 years, though, meant much less to Thomas Brisbane than they do to Australian historians.  For him, his main achievements were as a soldier – and an astronomer.

Governor Brisbane

Sir Thomas Brisbane, from Wikimedia Commons

Brisbane was born in 1773 into a wealthy Scottish family, and joined the army, as so many Scots did.  In 1798, he was sailing home with his regiment from Jamaica when the ship was almost wrecked when the captain made a navigational miscalculation – not an unusual event in these days.  This triggered his interest in celestial navigation.  He bought books and instruments, and took to carrying a pocket sextant and chronometer with him wherever he went.

In 1808, Brisbane built an observatory in the garden of his estate, Brisbane House, at Largs, Ayrshire.  He ordered the newest chronometers and the first ‘mural circle’, built by the most respected instrument maker of his day, Edward Troughton.  ‘Mural’ in this instance means ‘wall’, and a mural circle consists of a circular frame mounted on a wall aligned north-south.  The circle is marked from 0 to 360 degrees, and a telescope is clamped to the circle, so that both telescope and circle can be pivoted in different planes.  In this way, you can observe and measure the angular height of a star.  Brisbane’s mural circle was two feet wide; in 1810 Troughton built another for the Greenwich Observatory, based on the Largs design, which was six feet in diameter.

Brisbane spent his spare time developing this private observatory in Ayrshire, but his day job was as a soldier.  Britain was in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, and he served in Spain and southern France, as the British army gradually fought its way north.  Wellington’s army needed all the mathematical and engineering skills it could get, and Brisbane’s hobby was a valuable asset.  Throughout the Peninsular War, Brisbane kept daily observations with his pocket sextant, and according to the Duke of Wellington, it was Thomas Brisbane who ‘kept the time of the army’.

In occupied France after the defeat of Napoleon, Wellington asked Brisbane to work out a table so that soldiers could tell the time easily from observations of the stars and planets.  He also drew up a table comparing English weights and measures with those of France, to help the British commissaries when they were buying supplies in French measurements.  This means he was one of the first Britons to get his head around metric weights and measures.

In 1816 Brisbane was unanimously elected a corresponding member of France’s premier scientific institution, the Institut de France, not because of his scientific reputation, but because he stopped allied soldiers from sacking the premises – what a pity he never got to Baghdad!

In 1821, Brisbane replaced Lachlan Macquarie as Governor of New South Wales, on Wellington’s recommendation.  It seems that he took the job largely because it would give him a chance to observe the stars in the southern hemisphere.  He brought out with him many of the instruments he had set up at Brisbane House, including the mural circle and a transit telescope, also built by Edward Troughton, which is now in the Powerhouse Museum.  He also brought out at his own expense two assistant astronomers, James Dunlop and Christian Rümker.

Brisbane set up an observatory at Government House, Parramatta.  At the time, the most important study of the southern sky was the work of the Abbé Nicolas Louis de Lacaille, who in 1763 had published a catalogue of nearly 10,000 stars called the Coelum Australe Stelliferum, based on his observations at the French island of Reunion.  Brisbane and his assistants reviewed Lacaille’s work, a matter of checking the location of many thousands of stars.  They also recorded the return of Encke’s comet on 2 June 1822.  After Halley’s comet, which returned as predicted in 1759, this was the first time a comet’s predicted return could be verified, so Brisbane’s work in Australia was really very important.  He also observed the transit of Mercury on 3 November 1822.  Despite the claims of his many critics that the Governor spent too much time on ‘star-gazing’, in fact Brisbane was far too busy with administration to do much astronomical work himself, though he personally observed the winter solstice of 1822.

In 1825, Sir Thomas Brisbane was recalled to Britain after just four years as Governor.  He left behind his astronomical instruments and 349 volumes of his scientific library as a gift to the colony, saying that he wanted his name to be associated with ‘the furtherance of Science’; the government took over his Observatory at Parramatta, and appointed his assistant Christian Rümker as the first Government Astronomer.  After Rümker left, Dunlop became Government Astronomer in 1831.

Meanwhile Brisbane returned home to Scotland.  In 1826 he built another observatory, this time at Makerstoun, near Kelso.  He was a member of the Royal Society of London from 1810, a member of the Astronomical Society, an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, and presided over the 1834 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Edinburgh.  In 1832 he was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.  He died in 1860.

Governor Brisbane was undoubtedly the father of astronomy in Australia.  Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium in Brisbane was named after him, and several of his instruments, including a portable telescope, are held there, on loan from the Museum of Brisbane.  The remnants of the mural circle he brought to New South Wales are in the Powerhouse Museum.  Otherwise few would now remember Sir Thomas’s important scientific work, though there’s information about him on the Sydney Observatory’s website.

Except that in 2006 the curator of the planetarium, Mark Rigby, asked the Scottish-Australian astronomer, Robert H. McNaught, if he would name a newly discovered asteroid after Sir Thomas Brisbane.  McNaught was delighted to do so, particularly as he was born just 20 km from Sir Thomas Brisbane’s place of birth and death in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland, on the 96th anniversary of Sir Thomas’s death.  So Brisbane – the man and the city – have just been recognized with the naming of a mountain sized lump of rock, ‘a new namesake that is literally out of this world’.

Floods and memory

My mother told me only last week of a memory that came back to her during the recent flood in Brisbane.  She says she clearly remembers sitting on a table, eating bread and golden syrup, and looking out at floodwaters spreading across the valley between her house and the railway line.  My grandparents lived in a wooden Queenslander, low at the front, high at the back, on a ridge in Taringa.  Mum was born in 1926, so this memory must come from 1931, when she was 5.  That valley – the large block of land bordered by Burns Rd and Moggill Rd – is now densely packed with units.

Queen St Brisbane flood 1893

Queen St, Brisbane, January 1893

Floods are not new in Brisbane.  Discussion of natural disasters in Australia tends to swing between two extremes.  On the one hand, there is a lot of Dorothea Mackellar-influenced rhetoric, about the droughts and flooding rains of this sunburnt country.  This may be linked to some twaddle about national character, pioneering spirit, stoicism, yada yada yada, and associated blah.

On the other hand, there’s also a point of view that these natural disasters – bushfires in Victoria and Canberra, the recent Queensland floods, whatever – are exceptional, a consequence of environmental catastrophe and climate change.  Both perspectives come with too much baggage, too many hidden agendas.  It’s time for historians to join the debate.

We know quite a lot about floods in the Brisbane River, even if our written sources only go back so far.

On 17 May 1770, as Cook sailed the Endeavour up the east coast of Australia, naming Cape Moreton along the way, Joseph Banks noted in his diary that the sea was a ‘dirty clay colour, appearing much as if charged with freshes’.  Banks guessed that there must be a large river mouth nearby.  The colour of the water suggests the river was running strongly, perhaps in flood.  This would fit in with current theories that 1770 was a La Nina year in Australia.  Both Cook and Banks wrote glowing accounts of the verdant land they saw, whereas when Governor Phillip and the First Fleet arrived in 1788, 18 years later, they found a much drier and more difficult land, typical of an El Nino pattern.

In late 1823, the NSW Government Surveyor, John Oxley, explored the river (which he named after the Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane) as far upstream as Goodna, and the following year the first European settlement was established, first on Moreton Bay at Redcliffe, then upstream in what is now Brisbane’s Central Business District, in 1825.

When Europeans first arrived, the river was a slow moving, shallow, meandering river, with wide mangrove banks. The first post-colonial flood occurred in 1841.  Some people think this was as high as later, more famous floods, but the river has changed so much since then that comparison with later floods is impossible.

In the 1850s, the river bar was less than 2 metres at low tide, and needed dredging if ocean going ships were to enter the river.  In 1866, the first major reshaping of the river took place when a 5m. deep channel was dredged across the river mouth, the Francis Channel.  This allowed deep keeled sailing ships to come upstream as far as Petrie Bight.  Further channelling took place during the late 19th century, and in 1896, they used gelignite to blast a 6 m. channel near Lytton.

As the river was pummelled into shape, the current became faster, and the river more turbid.  Early visitors, including Oxley, describe the river as transparent, with the sand and shale bottom clearly visible; by the end of the 19th century, it was fast moving and opaque, full of silt from grazing, logging, and degraded riverbanks.

There have been many floods since European settlement began in 1824 – in 1869, 1890, 1893, 1931, 1974, 2011 – and there will be more.

The 1974 flood was caused by Cyclone Wanda, which crossed the coast on 24 January, and became a heavy rain depression.  Brisbane had 317 mm. of rain on 26 January, the wettest day since 1887.  Off the coast, the low pressure system caused a storm surge and unnaturally high tides.

There was no cyclone in 2011.  The pattern of the recent flood seems close to that of the floods of 1893, when three floods occurred – on 5, 12, and 19 February.  The 1893 flood, like our recent one, began with a cloudburst in the catchment area behind Brisbane, in this case the Conondale Ranges.  36 inches (900mm.) of rain fell in 24 hours, and led to flash flooding.  Henry Somerset of Caboonbah described it:

‘…I heard a roaring sound, and looking west towards Mt. Beppo … I heard a louder noise quite different, so looking eastward I saw a WALL OF WATER fully fifty feet high coming round the bend.  Astonished, I watched it pass the gum tree, and saw it submerge (i.e. exceed) the 1890 flood mark knob, and, while observing the tree, I felt the verandah floor lifting me, as the wall of water struck the cliff nearly two hundred yards away; the doors and windows rattled, the house shook as by an earthquake…. ‘

Shades of Grantham.

Somerset was concerned enough to send his servant to Esk with a telegram for the postmaster general in Brisbane: ‘Please warn inhabitants Brisbane, Goodna, Ipswich, Lowood, other centres, of tremendous flood, 1890 level already exceeded several feet.  Stanley River only, Brisbane to follow.’  Nobody did a thing, except to paste the telegram to a blackboard outside the GPO.  That was about it for flood warnings in 1893.


Peter Davie, Errol Stock, Darryl Low Choy (eds.), The Brisbane River: A Source-Book for the Future (1990)

J. G. Steele, The Brisbane River (1976)