Paul Budde's History Archives

Brisbane Town

On 11 February 1842, Moreton Bay was officially declared open for free settlement.

While transportation to NSW was officially stopped in 1840,  it continued to other parts of the colonies. The majority of British convicts were now increasingly put on hulks on the Thames,. Interestingly however, during the 1840s, convict ships from Britain continued to be diverted from Sydney. In 1849 a change in government in Britain led to yet another overturn in policy. As a result, a convict transport was sent directly from Britain to Moreton Bay, but the change in policy proved to be short lived. With transportation to all of the eastern colonies drawing to a close, the last direct shipment for Moreton Bay left Britain in April, 1850.

After the 1853 penal servitude act, only long-term transportation was retained and it was finally abolished after the penal servitude act of 1857. Some convicts were still transported for a while after the 1857 act. The last transportations took place in 1868. However, there are no records indicating that convicts still arrived in Brisbane after 1850.

In 1839, in preparation for the opening of the settlement, surveyors were sent from Sydney to draw maps of the district and prepare town plans so the land could be put up for sale. The proposed street plan was for square blocks of 10 chains( 200 m). It also included a range of gardens: the military gardens and Dixon’s garden behind the Military Barracks; Whyte’s garden to the northwest of the Prisoners Barracks, through which Burnett Lane now runs; Reverend Handt’s garden and Kent’s garden to the rear of the Chaplain’s house and Commandant’s house; the Commandant’s garden; and Paget’s garden and Dr Ballard’s garden adjacent to the Hospital.

There was some initial trouble as the Governor of that time George Gipps wanted to visit as there was still opposition to the free settlement being built at the riverside. Others suggested Cleveland Point.  As on arrival in March 1842 he got totally bogged down in the mud at Cleveland Point that issue was quickly settled. However in Brisbane he was not happy with plans of the surveyors.  He thought that the roads were to wide, that he thought the reserves to be a waste of land and that the allotments were too small. He wanted the plans to be changed but he received opposition from the Superintendent of Works Andrew Petrie. Gipps wanted the streets to be not wider than sixty feet however, Petrie didn’t want to give in and in the end he agreed to 80 feet. In July the first land auctions were advertised and  comprised of the block bounded by Queen, George, Elizabeth, and Albert streets – and a section in South Brisbane. There was significant interest from people in Sydney and the land was sold well above the reserve price.

On the 14th  January 1841, the settlement was largely flooded as the river reached a maximum level of 8.43m at the gauge, it is the highest flood level recorded to date. This reminded of a description  from historian Margaret Cook: A River with a City Problem.

The first settlers that arrived came on their own, either attracted by business and land opportunities or  as squatters. These are people who occupied a large tract of Crown land in order to graze livestock. Initially often having no legal rights to the land, they gained its usage by being the first settlers in the area. They in particular went into the fertile area of the Darling Downs.

The first sponsored immigrants from England arrived in two batches. In late 1848 the British Government  brought in 240 settlers and looked after them on their arrival. A month later more than a 1,000 Presbyterians sponsored by the Scottish Revered Dr John Dunmore arrived.  His abrasive personality and high-handed approach was not well received by the authorities. Furthermore he was actively lobbying for a separate state and NSW was not interested to make that happen. On arrival of the three ships the Fortitude, Chasely and Lima the (NSW) government officials in Brisbane  refused any assistance and now Lang had to scramble to provide accommodation and food for the newcomers. They basically had to live in tents and and slab huts that they had to build themselves. They spread out  over the town, concentrating in Bulimba, Petrie’s Bight and Bell Valley. The current name of the latter is Fortitude Valley, renamed after the ship these immigrants arrived on.

The new settlers did want to forget the origin of the settlement as soon as possible and rapidly the name Moreton Bay was replaced by Brisbane Town, for a while however, both names continued but eventual Moreton Bay started to refer to the district. This lingered on till independence in 1859, when Queen Victoria personally insisted that the name for thew new colony had to be Queensland.

At its height the penal colony had a population of around 1200 people, around 90% being male. In 1846 the population stood at close to 1500 people, now approx a third were women. At independence there were 7000 people and 5 years later the population stood at approx. 12,500. By this time there were three village, North Brisbane (around the original settlement), South Brisbane and Kangaroo Point Village (together these last two village had a population of approx 350 people at that time). Further north Ipswich had been growing significantly challenging North Brisbane as the most important settlement in the most northern part what still was NSW and also the Darling Downs (Drayton, now part of Toowoomba) had become a prominent settlement. During the convict era river transport took place by row boats. Such a trip would take around 12 hours from Brisbane to Ipswich. Punts flowing with the tide would take several days.  In 1846 the first paddle steamer steamer service started to operate from Brisbane to Ipswich along the Brisbane and Bremer rivers. The trip could take four to seven hours.  The railway that arrived in 1875 was great transport improvement.

The river was a big divide and South Brisbane had in that respect much better access for ships coming from Ipswich and rapidly developed itself as a frontiers town (with all the relevant ‘entertainment’ and crime attached to it) and by 1850 had five ship wharves. The first ship built in Brisbane,  the cargo schooner Selina, was at the wharf in Kangaroo Point in 1847. It was launched at Petrie’s s Bight where the Howard Smith Wharf is now. It first trip was to deliver timber to Sydney. However, the ship never reached its destination. A year later it was found at what is called Wreck Point near Rockhampton, without crew, waterlogged and the mast cut out, but with its cargo intact, a total mystery.


South Brisbane was basically a service centre with stores, pubs, brothels and workshops used by  the people coming and going to Ipswich and the Darling Downs. There was a big social device between South Brisbane and North Brisbane, the South being the poorer part, house prices here were a fraction of those on the other side of the river. The same applied to Kangaroo Point. It was not until a bridge was built that this situation started to change, but also this was not as simple as it should have been as we will see below. 

The latter area, well known for its good agriculture land saw the arrival of squatters already from around 1840 and the land grab could hardly be managed by the NSW Government. So already in the early 1840s agriculture products started to arrive in Brisbane before this town was declared open for free settlers. This further added to the frontiers atmosphere of those early years.

Apart from the buildings from the convict era the new buildings from the settlers and immigrants were not more than slab huts. The convict buildings were used for many decades for public activities (courts, police, government clerks, land office, etc, even to house the first parliament). The roads were not much more than tracks, nearly impassable after rain. Flooding was a reoccurring event especially of the low laying parts of the settlement. Overcrowding and lack of hygiene were major issues in the first few decades of the period of free-settlement. The healthcare system remained appalling as it was in convict times.  Most newcomers had little resilience against the tropical diseases. Infant mortality stood at 50%. Fresh water supply remained a problem, again as it had been in convict times. The reservoir was now known as ‘the hole of death’.

A special mentioning here is needed for Frog’s Hollow. This was the area directly linked to the centre of the old settlement and the emerging CBD. It basically was the precinct enclosed by Elizabeth, Alice, George and Edward Street. In the centre was a tidal swampy depression and a creak running through the area. The area already flooded at a high spring tide, so imagine the situation at the regular real floods. No wonder that the site was well known for the nightly loud concerts of frogs.

It was the most disreputable area of Brisbane. Over the decades following the convict era it became occupied by legal and illegal pubs, brothels and  gambling places. One of the most notorious gambling dens was on the corner of Elizabeth and Albert Street. Frog’s Hollow also housed a range of workshops and stores as well as the  Red Light District. The majority of police arrests took place in this part of the town.

Perhaps the most infamous part within this already seedy part of the town was a row of nine shops, known as ‘Nine Holes’ situated between Charlotte and Margaret Street. These narrow dwellings had a shop room in the front and a sort of cellar room behind it and were occupied by Chinese immigrants. They were the most run down and unsanitary lodgings in town. While this area was also known as the Chinese Quarter there were only a relative very few Chinese living in this part of town.

If we talk about the floods of Brisbane than this part was always the centre of the disaster. The area attracted the poorest of the poorest  and as their numbers grew, the area became more and more densely populated and over the years the floods caused more and more misery and damage.

There was hardly any money for public works or public buildings anywhere in Brisbane, let alone in these poorer areas. It was often left  to the early settlers to get money together for fixing the roads as well as for looking after the social needs of new immigrants.

The handful of better to do settlers became the defacto rulers of the settlement. The divide between them and the ordinary people was great. They looked after their own interest and had little regard for the rest of the population.  Furthermore, there was a lot of infighting between the rulers as they foremost wanted to secure their individual interest.

This hampered the development of a more civil society. There was no regard for the rights of the Aboriginal people and many were killed by the settlers. Crime was high as poverty stricken people roamed – often drunk – the street. With an unbalanced gender population prostitution was high, there were many brothels and  it were often Aboriginal women who where abused, often for the lure of alcohol (rum).

In 1827, the first Chief Constable appointed to – the at that stage still convict settlements – was ex convict John McIntosh. His task was basically to try and capture escaped convicts, often tracking on foot along the Queensland Coast.  In late 1833 he was followed by another ex convict, Richard Bottington. The first non-convict police officer, William Whyte, was appointed Chief Constable in 1836. The Police Act of 1838 provided for appointment of police magistrates and justices to suppress riots, tumults, and affrays in towns. In 1840, the police force of Brisbane Town consisted of one Chief Constable William Whyte;  a bush constable and four convicts employed as assistant constables. Most of the early policemen were ex soldiers. There was at the time no police training or police manual so trained soldiers was the next best option.

A name very much linked to the period between 1842 (end of the convict settlement) and 1859 (independence of Queensland) is Captain John Clements Wickham. In 1843, after his retirement from the Royal Navy, Wickham was made Police Magistrate. Wickham was first officer on HMS Beagle during its second survey mission, 1831–1836. The young naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin travelled as an ‘extra’ on the ship.

After the last Commander of the penal settlement Owen Gorman had left, Andrew Petrie became some sort of a caretaker of the place. On his arrival  Wickham was charged with looking after the general government interest and was the Representative of the Governor. He had a handful of conscripted men as his assisting force. Wickham was generally  well liked by the emerging free settlers community. By 1850 his team consisted of a district constable (the 2nd highest in command in the colony), a watch house keeper and nine constables.

Under his leadership – between the 1840s and 1850s – the free settlement of Moreton Bay saw further reforms, legal, governmental, social and policing . A Police Magistrate, Court of Petty Sessions opened in 1846, a new Police Force was organised in 1850. While changes to the act were made, the structure and the work of the police force in Brisbane remained more or less the same over the next few decades.  However, law and order depended to a great extend on the military stationed after the opening up of the settlement,the 12th Regiment of Foot.  Pay was extremely low, they had ‘free’ accommodation and food and not more than pocket money on top of that. Many had little businesses on the side, some questionably legal. No wonder that many soldiers deserted in the early years and others were send to New Zealand to fight in the Maori Wars. In the end the regiment was halved in size, a force of around 25 soldiers.

In 1853 Wickham was officially appointed Government Resident of the Moreton Bay District in the Colony of New South Wales.  He had taken office in the old convict barracks and it was here that he also preceded over minor crimes, major ones had to be referred to Sydney. On Sundays the courtroom acted as a church. He resided at Newstead House, Brisbane.

Wickham Street was named after him as this was the bridle track he rode to the courtroom, and rode back at night along this route. Wickham Street is an extension of Queen Street all the way to Breakfast Creek in Newstead.  Since that time four more streets have been named after him, as well as Wickham Terrace.

Wickham retired in 1859, when the Moreton Bay District was separated from NSW, forming basis of the Colony of Queensland. He left as the Queensland and NSW governments disagreed over who was responsible for his pension, Wickham moved to France, where he died.

Brisbane capital of Queensland

Convict History of Brisbane TOC