George Holt's Recollections of Brisbane

Reminiscences of the past are always a fascinating topic of conversation, and the early history of Brisbane abounds in picturesque incident. Stories of the time when Queen-street was little more than a grass track, and the Valley was a swamp, will always hold more than usual interest. A delightful and courtly old gentleman called at the "Courier " office, and out of his memories of the past weaved a story of the early days of Brisbane that commanded the absorbed attention of the listener.

Mr. George Holt will be 95 years of ago on January 22 next, but his looks belie his age, for he is as clear-headed us a man of 40, and is wonderfully active. He resides at Blackwall, near Mount Crosby, but is at present stopping with his son in-law, Mr. S. J. Glossop, of Taringa. Mr. Holt thinks nothing of saddling his pony and visiting Ms friends and relatives, who are scattered all over the district, and he celebrated his last birthday, which he spent with his son-in-law at Taringa, by cutting down a big spotted gum tree in an adjoining allotment.

'' I arrived at Brisbane in the ship Fortitude," said Mr. Holt, " and after three weeks' quarantine at Moreton Island through typhoid fever on board, we were landed on January 14, 1849. In those days Queen-street was little more than a grass track. The soldiers' barracks were situated on the site of the present Treasury Buildings, and there were very few houses.

The first house one came to was at the corner of Queen and George streets, on the site of the present Bank of New South Wales, (Westpac)  and was owned by Mr. G. Pickering. Then there was the Sovereign Hotel, which was built after the ship Sovereign was wrecked in 1847. Mr. George Edmonson, who kept a butcher shop in the vicinity, was subsequently elected to the Upper House. A blacksmith's shop, built of ironbark, was conducted by a man named Maclean."


The convicts had secured their emancipation just prior to Mr. Holt's arrival in the colony. The then gaol was on the site of the G.P.O., and along the creek at the rear, rafts of timber were transported. The space from Elizabeth street to the Botanic Gardens was then a maize patch. The convicts grew the maize for the settlement, and it was then ground into meal in a windmill, which was situated where the Observatory now is.

The windmill was fitted with a treadmill, which was, perforce, used by the convicts when, there was no wind to fill the four huge sails ("Of course," Mr. Holt interpolated, twinkling, "the convicts always preferred windy weather.") In those days a training track circled the present business area of the city.

North of where Hunter's boot shop now stands there were no houses, and the first house to be built in that locality was occupied by a man named Skyring.  Mr. A. Petrie, the blind contractor, grandfather of the present well-known family of Petries, had a house almost opposite the present site of the Customs House.

Captain Wickham, of the Royal Navy, was the Government Resident, and he lived on the site of the present house in Newstead Park. The track which was made between there and Brisbane eventually became Wickham street. "Fortitude Valley was then a swamp," added Mr. Holt, "and all around the bottom of James and Ann streets was a swampy marsh."

When Mr. Holt arrived in the colony there was no wharf on the North Brisbane side.  On the South Brisbane side there was a wharf owned by the A.S.N. Company (which amalgamated with the Q.S.S. in the eighties, and became the present A.U.S.N. Company). It was opposite the Melbourne-street Station. There was a small Government wharf on the North side, opposite Russell street.

Shipping communication between Brisbane and the Southern ports in those days was by means of small steamers and schooners. The old A.S.N. Company's ‘Tamar’ was one of the vessels that used to ply along the coast once every fortnight.  Punts were used to lighter from the schooners in mid-stream.

The first wharf on the North Brisbane side was built by Mr. George Raff and Company, and Mr. Holt was a member of the company. The site of it was at the back of the present C.S.R. offices in Eagle street, and until a few years ago it was called Raff's Wharf. The wharf was built by the blind contractor, Mr. Petrie, on sloping rocks. "

Over 100 tons of loose stone were thrown into the river, until the piles of stone reached high water mark.  Stringers were then placed on the stone, and the wharf erected on the top. "Then we came down one morning," said Sir. Holt with a chuckle, "and there was no wharf left. It had disappeared in the fresh." The wharf was subsequently re-erected.


Mr. Holt knows all about the history of the river trade between Brisbane and Ipswich, for he was captain of one of the vessels which plied along the river in those days. The Experiment, an old paddle box wooden steamer, commenced running from Brisbane to Ipswich in 1847. She came to an untimely end, for she sank at the North Brisbane convicts' wharf through her sponsons being caught under the rafters of the wharf.

She was held there, and as the tide rose tilted over and filled with water. She was later salvaged, and sold by auction to Read and Boyland, who were at that time commencing to run a ferry across the river. "She resumed running, but," said Mr. Holt, with another broad smile, "she leaked to such a degree that a man had to be employed pumping her night and day."

Mr. Holt floated the Bremer Steam Navigation Company in about 1852 or 1853, and was appointed captain of the steamer ‘Hawk’. The two other ships to be built were the 'Bremer' and the ‘Swallow’. The Bremer and the Swallow were captained by Messrs Boyland and Shaw respectively.

Mr. Taylor Winship was the builder of the three boats "It was not a commercial success," said Mr. Holt. "My vessel was a paddle boat of about 50 tons, about 100ft. long, with a 15ft. beam, and she drew about 4ft. 6in."

Mr. Holt recalled a collision he had with the 'Breadalbane', an opposition boat, while he was in command of the Bremer, off the Domain Point. The Bremer was proceeding to where Brown's Wharf now is, and the Breadalbane was steaming in the opposite direction. "We collided, and mv ship knocked the cook's galley out of her," said Mr. Holt, with a reminiscent smile, "and the worst of it was that I had to pay the damage. That little collision cost me over £100."


Mr. Holt remembers the attempt that was made to make Cleveland a deep sea port, and humorously recalls some of the incidents connected therewith.  In those days there were, of course, no dredging facilities, and there was only 3ft, of water on the bar, whereas now there is 30ft. In the 'fifties’, it was possible at low water to practically walk across the river at the Eagle Farm flats.

An agitation then arose to make Cleveland a port.  Some of the Darling Downs squatters were the prime movers.  As previously, all the wool had to come down to Ipswich, they thought that if the wool could go direct to Cleveland by bullock dray it would save double handling by the boats.

The outcome of the movement was that a jetty was built at Cleveland, but the disadvantage was that at low tide there was no water at the jetty. The first vessel that came in to load at the Cleveland jetty was the barque Countess of Derby from Sydney.

She ran ashore at South Beach, and the stern was knocked out of her. The next arrival was the brig Courier, and Mr. Holt was one who helped to load her. Delay arose in loading the Courier owing to the breaking of the wool press. The Courier was loaded by lightering the wool out into it by punts.

"The manner in which this boat was loaded," said Mr. Holt, "led me to suspect that all was not as it should be. Next morning the Courier caught fire, and was burnt to the water's edge. The then Customs officer, Sheridan, towed her to Raby Bay and scuttled her.

Prior to the burning of the Courier, the Himalaya, an English boat, arrived. Her manifest and bills of lading were made out "For the Port of Cleveland Direct," thus ignoring Brisbane altogether. The Himalaya cargo could not be unloaded at Cleveland and she had to be brought to Brisbane. "That," said Mr. Holt, "was the beginning of the end for Cleveland as a port."


Before the advent of the steamers, Mr. Holt was engaged punting in the Bay bringing cargoes of oyster shells, which Mr. Petrie, the contractor, used for lime for building purposes. One day, when off St. Helena, he picked up a ship-wrecked crew of six men in a ship's dingy. They were starving, and when they sighted Mr. Holt were on the point of making a meal of a dog they had on board.

The shipwrecked men belonged to the crew of the barque 'Jenny Lind', which was lost on Kent's Group, off the Barrier. The remainder of the crew, with the captain and two or three women, were eventually discovered off Peel Island in a boat made out of the bulwarks of the wrecked vessel.

Had it not been for the doctor on board, who condensed the salt water, the whole party would have died of thirst. Mr. Holt reported the matter to the Customs officer, William Thornton, and the shipwrecked mariners were safely landed in Brisbane.

Mr. Holt interestingly recalled that the only navigation marks. in the river at that time were basket beacons. Bribie was an escaped convict, a basket maker by trade, and he made basket beacons for the pilot. Bribie Island was named after this man.


A thrilling encounter with a tribe of blacks, who had their headquarters at Sandgate, was told by Mr. Holt. While he was gathering oyster shell just inside Luggage Point, about 14 aboriginals, uttering savage cries and brandishing  tomahawks, drove the party towards their boat, but the party were allowed to depart unharmed after the blacks had confiscated their clothes.

Mr. Holt made the journey back to town in a blues serge shirt only. "It was touch and go, all right," said Mr. Holt. "I have witnessed tribal fights in the Valley," he went on, "and on one occasion saw  nearly 1000 blacks having a battle at York's Hollow, on the site of the Exhibition Grounds. Hideously arrayed, and uttering blood-curdling war cries, they were fully occupied in spearing and braining each other. The fight was all over a young gin. One might call her another Helen of Troy. She did not live long, as a jealous rival almost cut her in two with a stone tomahawk.

- George Holt