Paul Budde's History Archives

It was convicts who ‘discovered’ Brisbane River

On November 29, 1823  to his surprise – at what is now called Bribie Island, Oxley came across  stranded ticket of leave Thomas Pamphlett and a day later full convict John Finnegan, among a large group of Aboriginals.

They both were members of an original party of 4 convicts from Sydney who in March that year were shipwrecked and ended up on Moreton Island.  They began to make the trek north, where they thought Sydney was situated. They tracked for 7 months staying on and off with Aboriginals, who saw them as dead ancestors. The local Turrbal people allowed Pamphlett and Finnegan to live with them and provided them with food. During this period, they also travelled into a river that some Aboriginals called Maiwar and later became known as the Brisbane River. They walked along the river for a month before they stole an Aboriginal canoe at what is now called the Oxley Creek (Graceville) and here they made their first crossing of the river. They used the canoe to return to the mouth of the river and continued north. They reached Bribie Island sometime between July and October 1823.

Pamphlett Bridge and Oxley Creek

Pamphlett Bridge and Oxley Creek

Finnegan under pressure, showed Oxley and his party the river. The next day together with Lieutenant Stirling they took the whaleboat and provisions for four days to explore the river. They sailed about fifty miles (80 km) up the river and reached, what he named, Termination Hill (now Wolston Park Golf Club at Wacol). He mentioned the rich soil and the good timber along the river. They reported fresh river water at around 18 miles (29km) from the mouth of the river. At 30 miles (48km) the river meandered through ‘magnificent flat country’. Afterwards Oxley named it, Brisbane River, in honour of the Governor of NSW Thomas Brisbane.

Already as this stage Oxley saw the potential of the river being an excellent opportunity for settlement. This is what reported:

“The Brisbane River presents so many superior situations that, although a port at Red Cliff Point may in the first instance be indispensable, yet the country on the west side of the river at the termination of the Sea Reach, appears to me a much better site for a permanent establishment. The river is not fresh there, but there is plenty of fresh water; the country is open and no obstacles exist from swamps or hills to prevent a ready communication with the interior, either by the banks of the river, or at a distance from it. The water is deeper closer to the shore and vessels of considerable burthen could load or unload close to the bank. From a hill near this last station, the entrance of the bay can be seen; and by clearing a few trees, communication by signal may be held with Red Cliff Point”.

Brisbane River Map by John Oxley

NSW Surveyor General John Oxley surveyed the river in 1823 and in 1824 – State Library of Queensland

In the end he did not suggest a settlement along the river but reported  that the best place for the penal settlement was ‘Red Cliff Point’, at the cliffs off Scarborough point, the latter was named by Matthew Flinders during his 1799 voyage.

On Saturday the 6th of December, the party left Moreton Bay and went back to Sydney. Pamphlett and Flannagan were also on board. Back in Sydney 18 months later Pamphlett committed another crime (stealing two bags of flower) and was send for 7 years to the new penal colony of Moreton Bay. His name lives on in Brisbane in the Pamphlett Bridge in Graceville, over the Oxley Creek.

The start of the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement and Penal Colony at Red Cliff

Convict History of Brisbane TOC