Old brisbane city hall recollections by Archibald Meston

Archibald Meston recalls Brisbane Creeks and Victoria Bridge

Portrait of Archibald Meston


First Brisbane Settlement

When the settlement was transferred from “Humpy Bong,” the name given by the blacks to the deserted, or “dead houses” left behind, the landing was on the spot where the Customs House stands today. All the site of Brisbane was covered by thick timber and heavy undergrowth, with patches of scrub, and all over the site of the Botanic Gardens, right round the river, was thick, heavy scrub, with magnificent pines, beautiful bean trees, splendid tulip woods, and red cedars, also a fair share of the stinging tree. There the scrub turkey built her mounded nest, the wonga cooed in the tree tops, and a hundred other birds warbled their melodious madrigals from morn to dewy eve.

What a thousand pities that splendid jungle was ever sacrificed, for it would have made the grandest natural botanic garden in the world. There was very thick scrub on both sides of Breakfast Creek, down to the edge of the river, and back for some distance.

All South Brisbane frontage was also covered by dense scrub, the ridges at the back, away up to Highgate Hill and Dornoch Terrace being timbered by light forest, with thick undergrowth, and it was thus when I shot two small grey wallabies in 1870, on what is now Dornoch Terrace, and they were cooked at Johnny Graham’s Hotel. The original site of Brisbane, even as seen by me in 1870, was not attractive.

Brisbane Creeks

There were a number of Brisbane Creeks in existence during the early settlement. A dirty, muddy mangrove creek started from where the new Town Hall is being built, or even from the old Grammar School, ran down along Adelaide Street, past where the Gresham is, turned away eastward across Queen Street, and thence down into the river, where the punt stands today at the foot of Creek Street.

That was the creek in which young Petrie drowned. Where it crossed Queen Street there was a little overhead bridge for only foot passengers, and the vehicle traffic went round by Eagle Street, so named from an eagle’s nest in a grey gum tree there in the penal days.

Click for Brisbane Map 1863

Another dirty muddy mangrove creek started up near Queen Street, joined by one small branch from where the Commissioner of Police is today, then ran down the present Albert Street to the river at the end of Alice Street. Albert Street was a most unlovely spectacle, the whole area being a muddy mangrove swamp swarming with frogs, whence the name of Frog’s Hollow was derived.

It became in after years one of the most disreputable parts of Brisbane, but those days have gone, and large warehouses stand on the site of “Fairy Maggie’s” establishment and the one storied abodes of many young ladies’ seminaries, whose revelries would have rivaled those of “the Menads round the cup, which Agave yielded up, in the weird Cadmean forest.”

Brisbaneites today are familiar with the famous fig tree at the junction of Creek and Elizabeth Streets. That tree grows from the site of a waterhole where the boys of the 1860s bathed. It was their favourite “bogie hole.”

In South Brisbane, another mangrove creek started from one end of the present bridge, continued right along Melbourne Street to Vulture Street, finally heading where the West End tram terminus is today. An “old hand” named Barrett took me up there to show where gold was got in 1854, about 10oz. There is gold there still, and will yet be found.

Along from Melbourne Street, between Grey and Stanley Streets, and up to near where our friend Gaffney dispenses the potent potheen of his valiant ancestors to wild Hibernians and fiery Scots with heather in their hair, was an almost continuous swamp from which three small creeks ran into the river, spanned by culverts at Hope, Peel, and Russell Streets.

Victoria Bridge and Early Hotels

At the corner of Stanley and Russell Streets, the Royal Mail Hotel was kept by the genial Johnnie Graham, whose two little girls of that time became in after years the wives of William and the late James O’Connor, brothers of the well known Denis O’Connor. Opposite Graham’s hotel, a man named Paulovitch kept a store, a tall, dark man of distinguished appearance.

On the bank of the river, at the foot of Russell Street, was a big stone house, kept by a Mrs. Phillips, who was Mrs. Paulovitch, but was usually called by the name of her first husband. She had two handsome daughters, Kate and Lydia Phillips. In after years Lydia married Gore Jones, the present day barrister, whose father was the famous Gore Jones, a barrister of Brisbane’s early days. He will remember a little episode in which he and I were engaged when staying together in that year 1870. The butcher next morning asked Mrs. Phillips if two of her boarders had gone insane! It was supposed that he referred to Jones and myself!

A punt, drawn by one man with a rope, came across to Russell Street, from where the sanitary wharf is today, and that one solitary punt carried all the traffic between North and South Brisbane in 1870! Where the Victoria bridge stands today were a number of broken wooden piles of the first bridge which one day suddenly collapsed, a few minutes after Cobb’s coach, full of passengers, passed over, on the way to Ipswich.

The wooden piles had either been rotten, or destroyed by cobra. It was a close call for Cobb’s coach and the passengers. You could stand in those days in Queen Street, at the top end, at certain hours, and not see a dozen people between you and Wharf Street.

The Australia Hotel was kept by J. A. Phillips, who specialized daily in turtle soup, and there I tasted my first, and gave it first prize. Tom Cowell kept the Victoria Hotel, where the Carlton is today, and George McAdam kept the Sovereign Hotel. Jerry Scanlan’s Hotel was away down Edward Street, opposite Menzies boarding house. Duncan kept the hotel on the corner.

Early Associations

My chief companion was a youth of my own age, named Scott, whose father was Under Secretary in the Post Office, and was afterwards knighted. I had the pleasure of meeting two of his daughters in Sydney six months ago.

Scott and myself had a swim in Charles Le Brocq’s baths, went to see Bird and Taylor’s “Great American Circus,” opposite the Victoria Hotel, in Elizabeth Street, on land vacant today, where McLean afterwards had a blacksmith’s shop.

At night we went to Hussy and Holly’s Excelsior Minstrels in the Victoria Hall, where the present hotel stands. We have not improved on those minstrels today. We went to a theatre in Edward Street in Edward Street, on the left side, not far from Elizabeth Street, and next to an hotel kept by Lenneberg senior.

One day I was introduced to Arthur Macalister, the Premier in two Ministries, and as I was a nephew of Robert Meston, who was a great friend of Macalister, he invited me to a run down the bay with a Parliamentary party on the following day. It would be a real pleasure to describe that trip and the people I met, but that is another story.

We went in the Government steamer, Kate, Captain Page, across to near Peel Island and back round St. Helena. Very clear is my recollection of three ships in the Bay, the Flying Cloud, La Hogue and Corinth. I even remember the tonnage of the Flying Cloud, as given to me by her Captain, L. Owen, who was on board the Kate. If I am wrong with 1100 tons, there is room for correction.

A man who was here in 1870, and only came back today, would not recognize any part of Brisbane. He could hardly be persuaded it is the same place. Such is the rapid evolution of the Australian city. This article is written entirely from memory, which has so far never failed or misled me, so the reader can accept it with confidence.

- Archibald Meston