Paul Budde's History Archives

Moreton Bay Convict Settlement moved to Brisbane River

In May 1825 Miller relocated the increased population of 75 convicts along with officials and military to the Brisbane River site. While now on the river the site was still called the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement and Penal Colony.

The Ngundari, Jagura aboriginal groups lived around this part of the river but were removed from the North side but continued to inhabit the South Brisbane area.  The area that is now Roma Street Parkland was a popular camping, pullen pullen and corroboree ground, not just for the local tribes but also a place where many tribes from further away gatherings. Pullen-Pullen, is used by several sources in the 1840s and 1850s to mean a large gathering of Aboriginals from different tribes for fighting.  

Aboriginal camps around Roma Street

Map and text Museum of Brisbane. Roma Street railway station was, prior to development, an Aboriginal procurement zone and camping site due to the year-round abundance of water and wildlife. Roma Street is a culturally and spiritually significant site for the Turrbal People, as it was a gathering and dispute-resolution place, and an important pathway between Mt Coot-tha and Roma Street. Camps were recorded at Green Hill, above Roma Street, and burial trees were noted along Wheat Creek.


Layout of the convict settlement -  1838

Map Queensland State Archives. The long row of buildings indicates the convict barracks. Closest to the river is the Commissariat.  Further along the river are the military barracks and the hospital. On the left towards the bottom the windmill. Further out Goal Hill (female prison). Government House all the way to the right.

The area was the boarder between the build-up settlement and became known as Green Hills. The slopes towards the settlement were used to graze sheep for the slaughter.

With the defence the settlement in mind. The design of Miller’s new settlement was based on a set of walled military style compounds.  All according to plans and instructions from London. However, Miller was unable to fully put his plan into action. As mentioned, he was called back to Sydney by the governor and replaced by Captain Peter Bishop who also only stayed a few months in the new settlement.

Apart from the strategic position of the triangle site, Miller also noted that part of the land was elevated, and that good building stone could be obtained from the cliffs across the river (Kangaroo Point). Furthermore, he located fresh water at the lagoons in the area now known as the Roma Street precinct. The area here was rather flat and swampy with a creek running through it. This creek became known as Wheat Creek – Creek Street in the City reminds us of this creek.  It joined the Brisbane River in the vicinity of the intersection of Alice Street and Edward Street a low laying area known as Frog’s Hollow.

Water supply map 1839

Wheat Creek  top blue cross Roma Street source and reservoir,  bottom cross  outlet at Alice Street. Map Queensland State Archives.

The name Wheat Creek indicates the area that now occupies Roma Street, the station and the Parklands was used for agriculture. The swampy area was changed into ponds, which supplied water for the settlement. The area was flanked by the escarpment. Bordering Frog’s Hollow what is now the Botanical Garden was another farming area. There was also running a creek through this area (Little Creek).  It was here that the first ‘bridge’ was built, several planks across the creek (near the Port Office in Edward Street) provided convicts access from the settlement to the farm. 


Wheat Creek Culvert = Adelaide Street - 1861

Culvert under Adelaide Street built in 1861. This short section was preserved as a feature in the King George Square busway station.

The old Wheat Creek runs from Roma Street to the River. It is still traceable thanks to gutter markers. The first marker I could find was in Upper Roma Street (near the backpackers places) from here: Mc Cormack Place (close to the old burial ground), Roma Street (at the top only on the northern side), at the station on both sides of the road, George Street – than under the Supreme Court back into Roma Street, into Albert Street, here it goes under King George Sq, than a sharp turn to the left into Adelaide Street and a similar turn to the right into Creek Street (last two markers that I could find here), from here I know it goes under Riverside Centre and flows into the River.

Wheat Creek - Gutter Markers

Wheat Creek – Gutter Markers

1827 a treadmill was built, followed by a stone windmill the following year. However, its the milling mechanism was so poor that the mill most of the time was under re;pair and thus didn’t work. The city’s first builder Andrew Petrie was recruited in Sydney and his first job was to see if he could fix the mill. His conclusion was that the mill was unsuitable. The treadmill did most of the milling  and convicts were used – for punishment – to operate it.         

Moreton Bay Penal Colony 1830

The windmill on the left – in the context of the settlement – 1835 – The Commissariat Store Museum.

Captain Bishop in turn was replaced by the 3rd commandant Captain Patrick Logan who ruled the colony from 1825-1830. A new Governor, Ralph Darling , arrived and had ‘new plans’. He visited the colony in 1827, unfortunately Logan was on an expedition and that will not have helped, as a result of his visit he had developed a different vision for penal colony. He suggested to move the colony to Dunwich on Stradbroke Island. However, activities in Brisbane had advanced to such a stage that this was not feasible and so the colony stayed where it was. 

Visiting botanist Allan Cunningham reported in June 1828 that there were 500 convicts , 73 military and 3 clerks. In 1831, convict numbers peaked at 947. Another 250 military and administrative staff, made the total population in 1831 around 1200. In that year there were 40 convict  women with 43 children incarcerated in the Female Factory. When sentences expired very few new convicts arrived at the settlement and the convict population fell away to 374 in 1835 and to 374 in 1835.  In 1839, transportation to Moreton Bay had totally ceased. By that time 2200 convicts had passed through the convict settlement. In all 220 convicts died in the penal settlement (10%), a comparative high number of deaths within the British penal system, especially when taking into account that the majority of prisoners was under the age of 40.

Moreton Bay  had become notorious for the harshness of its punishment regime – especial under the regime of Logan. However, his successors, James Clunie (1830-1835) surpassed him in brutality and his successor Foster Fyans (1835-1837) nicknamed ‘Flogger’ Fyans’ was not much better. They were all military men and they all had served in colonies with large number of slaves and were used to issue harsh punishment without much respect for human life. Logan in particular was hated by the convicts forcing them to work by hand from sunrise to sunset. The convicts had to sleep on board on the floor and were not provided with bedding. At its peak between 1830 and 1832 the barracks were overcrowd and rapidly became filthy. Without access to clean water dysentery and other deceases followed. 

Logan was highly criticised by his superiors of ordering punishment of up to 500 lashes.  Between February and October in 1828, 11,000 lashes were inflicted on 200 convicts.  Each lash with the dreaded ‘cat o”nine’ left nine swollen marks on the back of the victim. According to the records from the convict settlement, the Book of Trial, 128 men received 50 or more lashes. In comparison the average in the rest of NSW was 41 lashes. One of them – a 23 year old convict who received 200 lashes died  a few days later in the hospital. He certainly was not the only one. At occasions lashed were continued after the victim lost consciousness. These records also mention one convict who received 300 lashes (he apparently survived this). Records from between 1835 and 1842 indicate that 70% of the prisoners received at least once a flogging, in comparison in the rest of NSW that average was 25%. What these records don’t list are the floggings that were handed out in the field, there were several trees were prisoners were tied too when being flogged for problems caused while outside the barracks.

Death was often the only escape from this regime of terror and several convicts committed crimes in the hope they would be hanged for that. Hangings were conducted within the compound but also occurred on the front of the convict barracks and on the wind mill. 

It is therefor no wonder that many convicts tried to escape. In all there are some 700 recorded escapes (of which 98 were never captured). It is remarkably that escapes were made with those heavy  chains around their legs. Most of them returned back to the settlement because there was no way they could survive in the bush. Some received shelter from the Aboriginals, others were killed by them. As rewards were given to Aboriginals who capture escaped convicts they became actively involved in capturing them. Amazingly some made it all the way to Sydney, where they often were captured and send back to Moreton Bay. Some never showed up anywhere and were assumed to have been perished in the bush.

Logan was equally hated by the Aboriginals, who ultimately killed him when he forcefully tried to enter their lands. The song Moreton Bay Song may have been composed soon after Logan’s death on 18 October 1830.

Ironically, the Scottish clan name Brisbane is derived from the anglo-french ‘brise bane’ meaning ‘break bone’ or ‘bonebreaker’.

At the same time however, it was under Logan’s regime that most of the early stone building were erected. He also administered the cultivation of crops of wheat and maize at the lagoon area and elsewhere in the new settlement.

Running this penal colony had become a financial burden to the British Government. As early as 1832 they were considering plans to abandon the penal colony, this finally happened in 1839. By that time sentiment had also changed in favour of free settlers. Most prisoners went to Sydney. A small group of 39 prisoners stayed behind to look after government property. On 11 February 1842, Moreton Bay was officially declared open for free settlement.

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.

The building of Brisbane

Convict History of Brisbane TOC