The active development of the port of Brisbane began after the Moreton Bay District was officially opened to free settlement on 4th May 1842. Brisbane's first commercial activity commenced when John Williams, an enterprising Sydney settler received special permission in December 1841 from the Colonial Secretary of New South Wales as was quaintly put to squat i.e. to settle without title, on the banks of the Brisbane River at South Brisbane, which at that time was new public land.
Williams opened a store for the sale of provisions (excepting spirituous liquors and wines) chiefly to the squatters on the Darling Downs. After the land sales held in the years 1842 and 1843, the development of the town had been indicated by the ready sale of sixteen allotments on the eastern side of Queen Street from George Street to Edward Street.
Progress continued and the year 1846 in which the Bay (Moreton Bay) was surveyed by Captain J. C. Wickham R.N. the representative of Government Authority in the District, also saw the first newspaper (the Moreton Bay Courier) established and the gazettal that Brisbane was declared a Port of Entry and Clearance and thus facilities were to be provided for inter colonial and overseas trade by vessels.
The following notification had appeared in the N.S.W. Government Gazette of 12th May 1846 and the despatch from Governor Sir George Gipps to William Ewart Gladstone (Secretary of State for the Colonies) reporting these developments is reproduced hereunder:
“Sir, I have the honour to report that on the application of the Collector of Customs and on the recommendation of Mr. Barnes, Inspector of Colonial Customs who is now at Sydney on a special mission from the Commissioners of Customs England, I have established a Branch of the Customs Department at Moreton Bay and that I have appointed, subject to approval of the Lords of the Treasury, the two gentlemen named in the margin (W. A. Duncan and W. R. Thornton) to the positions of Sub Collector and Landing Waiter.
I beg to express my hope that as your representative, these gentlemen may be confirmed in the offices to which I have appointed them. In addition to these appointments, I have equally on the recommendation of the Collector and Mr. Barnes sanctioned the employment of a Coxswain and a boat's crew.”
Mr. Duncan, his wife and two children arrived in Brisbane by the S.S. Tamar (130 tons) on 13 June 1846. The port of Moreton Bay Brisbane was officially established on 24 June 1846, and the next visit of the Tamar on 29 June 1846 brought W. R. Thornton (the Landing Waiter i.e. Examining Officer), the Coxswain and the boat's crew of four.
Accommodation was found for Mr. Duncan and his family in a small cottage belonging to Andrew Petrie, the Clerk of Works in the settlement, in Queen St. on the later site of Empire House at the corner of Wharf Street. It was here that the first Customs transactions were carried out but as the total collections for that year totaled only £20 (and the expenditure £846) it can be readily assumed that the task of Customs administration at that time was not very onerous, except the initial work of establishing the tiny office in Mr. Duncan's residence.
As the Port progressed the Customs House Brisbane was established in the Commissariat Store, the lower storey of the building used by the State Government Stores in William Street, now heritage restored and heritage listed.
The selection of the site for a new Customs House Brisbane, either at Cleveland or Brisbane was the cause of much anxiety to the citizens of Brisbane. Their fears sprang from the opinions expressed by the Colonial Treasurer in a speech in the New South Wales Parliament indicating the possibility of the Customs House Brisbane (and chief commercial port) being built at Cleveland, instead of at Brisbane.
The apprehension of the leading citizens of Brisbane was such that twenty four of them as well as many others attended a public meeting held at the Court House on 19 November 1846. W. A. Duncan and W. R. Thornton were also there.
At the meeting it was decided to petition the New South Wales Governor on the matter. Briefly, the petition was based on the fact that the residents of Brisbane had bought land and had made improvements thereon in the form of buildings to the total extent of £30,000 on the understanding that Brisbane was to be the commercial port. It was pointed out that Cleveland was exposed to north-easterly winds in the shipping season and to build a port there would entail a huge capital outlay.
In 1848, a sum of £1000 had been voted by the New South Wales Government for the establishment of Customs facilities at Brisbane. Captain Owen Stanley of the H.M.S. Rattlesnake was requested to select a suitable plot of land for a Customs House at Brisbane. He chose on 24 February 1849, the site which was an area of 2 roods and 17 perches and it is on this the present (but now decommissioned), Customs House Brisbane and grounds now are at Petrie's Bight.
Tenders were called in Sydney on 19 June 1849 and that of James Atkinson was accepted “to furnish the material for and to erect and build a one-storeyed Customs House at Brisbane" for the amount of tender £407.15.0. This original Customs House Brisbane was opened on 26 March 1850, but by a tragic coincidence Captain Owen Stanley never saw the building as the announcement of his death in Sydney was published on that day.
The building was of cottage-like design consisting of two rooms with a passage running between and was situated on a much lower level than the present building. Stables occupied the north eastern corner beside the main vehicular gateway.
The selection of the site for the Customs House Brisbane at this spot by Captain Owen Stanley was the subject of many protests from the captains of early day schooners and sailing ships, the majority of which then berthed in the South Brisbane area. Their complaints arose chiefly because of the long walk there from of approximately a mile “through the bush to the lower end of Queen Street where there were no other business premises" to report and clear their vessels.
Population of the Settlement in the year 1846 was: Brisbane 829 and Ipswich 103, while in the remainder of the district were 1,325, thus totaling 2,257 and this grew to 67,151 in the year 1866. The Customs House Brisbane staff increased from 7 in 1846 to 70 in the year 1886.
Accommodation for the transaction of Customs business was inadequate for the greatly increased staff. In 1872, a new wing 30 ft by 25 ft had been added to the original building and a verandah on two sides also a new flight of stone stairs was built in 1873.
The cellar of the old Town Hall at the top of Queen Street was rented as a Queen's Warehouse (Customs Bond) but as the floor was in a bad state of repair, it did not long serve the purpose. These and other temporary makeshifts were not sufficient nor suitable for the rapidly growing port of Brisbane and although the sum of £2,610 had been spent on additions, alterations and improvements from 1861 to 1874 the opinion of the mercantile community was that a new and larger Customs House Brisbane would have been more prudent economy.
In November 1884, the Colonial Treasurer instructed the Colonial Architect to prepare plans for a new Customs House Brisbane which would combine convenient facilities together with a beautiful appearance both from Queen Street and the River. On the late Charles McLay of the Colonial Architect's staff is bestowed the principal credit of ably fulfilling a the task of the architectural design and superintendence of construction. He designed a building 150 ft long, by 75 ft in width of handsome and imposing appearance and which the Queen Street and river frontages were flanked by two pedimental gables, with a space between filled in by massive
colonnades comprising a balcony on the first floor carried upon trusses of carved wood and stone. The balustrade of curved ironwork which was imported from England has the initials of the then reigning sovereign V.R. (Victoria Regina) cast into it on both balconies.
White marble and black marble for the fireplaces and mantelpieces was from Italy. Interior fittings were of solid red polished cedar for desks, counters, cabinets and tables. From the ground floor to the first floor ran a massive and elegant red cedar staircase. At the Petrie's Bight end well proportioned copper sheathed dome 82 ft in height from the Queen Street level formed with other adornments a distinctive feature in the external appearance.
The Long Room 75 ft long and the same distance when measured from the ends of the cross of this stately looking room is of cruciform shape. Support for the dome was by four clusters of pilasters of the Corinthian order at each of the four internal angles of the cross. John Petrie and Son were the contractors and the total cost was £38,836.
During the building operations, the Customs occupied the early premises of the Queensland National Bank in Queen Street two doors from Foundry (Isles) Lane until the new and present Customs House Brisbane was opened on 2 September 1889.
Many changes in internal fittings have occurred and the major one began in September 1947 when the entire interior was remodeled and modernized. Plans had been made to extend the building on the space of the lawn but the high cost and the lack of uniformity in design precluded the adoption of the scheme.
The pedimental facades on both the Queen Street and river sides bear probably the most unconventional and unique heraldic shields. Queensland or any of the Australian Colonies been granted a Coat of Arms when the Customs House Brisbane was completed in 1889.
It is worthy of note that Queensland was the first Australian Colony to have this honour on 29 April 1893, thirteen years prior to the next Colony to be likewise bestowed in 1906. The Minister for Works who had his own ideas on symbols of British imperialism chose an adaptation of the reverse side of the medal struck in 1853 to commemorate the cessation of transportation of convicts to Tasmania and the consequent beginning of free government to that Colony.
It is now over a century since Charles McLay, in conformity with the Colonial Treasurer's instructions, designed and superintended the construction of building, “which would have a beautiful appearance both from the Queen Street and the river". The heraldic shields on the facades may be unconventional (and the head of the kangaroo turned the opposite way), the red cedar furnishings changed to maple, glass, plywood and chromium with modernisation as the hallmark and by world standards, the Brisbane Customs House Brisbane may be a comparatively small building.
Still, in the opinion of a legion of seafarers it retained nevertheless the distinction externally and internally of being ranked among the most ornate and prettily situated Customs Houses of the world.