Sunday, September 21, 2014


QUEEN ST 1880’S & 1890’S.
Brisbane marches to the tune of the 80’s and 90’s: Ahead looms the threat of war.   Public transport makes the transition from horse drawn trams to electricity, women join the work force and work begins on an ambitious Government project that won’t, unbelievably, be finished for another 42 years.

 This street scene shows the curve from Petrie Bight on past the Customs House and from there into Queen Street proper. A cart and dray delivers kegs of beer, in the background boats at anchor, electric trams, a workman clearing the tracks of mud and debris, and a horse and rider trotting by.

Just another sunny day in a much earlier Brisbane town.


At the top end of Queen Street, work has begun on an ambitious building that will in time be exclusively contained within the boundary of four Brisbane streets… but who could have imagined the project taking 42 years to complete?

The Treasury building is shown here in an early stage of construction: Original planning began in 1883 with the first section completed in 1889. It will take a good 42 years from go to whoa before the entire complex is finished; by the projects end the  Brisbane’s Treasury will cover an entire city block bounded by Queen, George, Elizabeth and William Streets.
Brisbane’s current buzz word is Electricity and in this photo a newly erected pole on the corner of Edward and Queen is being duly admired and photographed. 
This photo shows a relatively quiet Queen St, horse and buggy the only apparent mode of transport. In fact the electricity poles will usher in electric trams and farewell the horse drawn ones, making I assume for a far more hygienic roadway.
 Beside the pole is a penny farthing bicycle and rider. Across the road on the Edward Street intersection you can see that Finney Isles has spilled out into an adjacent two storey building.  A street light has been installed on the corner with several more lining the right hand side of the footpath.
Women’s vote and slightly shorter skirts may have been just around the corner but it was still deemed necessary to instruct Brisbane’s young women in the finer points of ironing.

But no sign of cords and plugs, electricity hasn’t yet reached the laundry nor for that matter the kitchen.
By now more attention is being shown to fashion and store bought clothing. Ladies still favour long sweeping skirts; the girls demurely seated in the next photo are Brisbane’s first telephonists looking rather seriously at the photographer. Though on second thoughts maybe the snap was taken midsummer and the girls were wishing they could ditch those heavy skirts: Had to be more comfortable though than a crinoline.

What became of these forerunners of women’s lib? Did they become the great grandmothers of today’s pert young misses running around in short skirts and revealing tops? Would the ladies above approve their modern day offspring many, many generations removed as they window shop in today’s Queen Street Mall.  Would they be horrified by shop windows flaunting the gaudy colours and patterns of the day, the daringly immodest mini-skirts, brief shorts and tank tops…not to mention, horror of horrors! Bikinis? 
Do these teenagers living now in a sexually explicit world hesitate a moment as a sudden soft breath murmurs in their ear, a faint distant whisper from the past aghast at the sight of bare flesh on a humid summers day… or are these ghostly whisperers perhaps merely envious?

If the fine ladies of the day were guided in their dress and behaviour by the reigning Queen of England, Victoria, then so too were the menfolk aping their role model Prince Albert.  The time warp of these far away times was essentially guided by all things British:  By a way of life totally unsuited to the climate and Australia’s own unique brand of colonialism.

Queensland’s Governor, Lord Lamington has brought a touch of elegance to Government House, shown here with his wife, family and favourite pooch. Don’t you just love the ladies top heavy chapeaux?
I count no less than six moustaches proudly on show; young Fauntleroy by his mother’s side far too young to realise the splendid facial decor in store one day for him.

1893 Sees Brisbane awash as, on three separate occasions, cyclones bear down on the township. Flood waters at one stage reached 8.35 metres or 27 feet 5 inches above the low tide mark. Both bridges then spanning the river, the Victoria Bridge and the Indooroopilly Bridge, were destroyed.
This image above shows the river from South Brisbane, where South Bank is now:  That’s the Ship Inn Hotel bottom centre with the remaining portion of the bridge faintly evident at the top of the photo.

A street living up to its name: at the height of the flood the view from Creek St.
And below, onlookers gaze forlornly at their lost contact with the southern side of the flooded river.

The next two photos illustrate the height of flood water in Brisbane’s main street during that 1893 flood: and the same part of Queen Street five years later. Imagine the massive cleanup.
 Compare exactly the same spot with Queen Street, below, 100 years later.

Footnote: By 1901 city fathers decided drastic action was needed  to lessen the effects of future floods and the river was promptly deepened at the Gardens Point of the river cutting back a good ten acres of Botanic parkland.

It’s almost impossible now to imagine the Brisbane of old, the long sweeping skirts, the formality and difficulty of dress especially when boarding a tram, the polite doffing of hats, horses trotting and carriages passing by, the absence of fast food outlets, of stop and go signs, of escalators and elevators, of all the baggage of a modern city.

Yet for us these people from the past aren’t entirely strangers, they too called Brisbane home, they too were familiar with the favoured haunts of a town centre:  They were the us of an earlier generation, and the whispers we hear now are replays of their thoughts and dreams reverberating back and forth through the years.
When next we meet a new century would have emerged and with it the trials and tribulations of the 1900’s..

CONTINUING NEXT:  4 & FINAL: GHOSTS OF QUEEN ST PAST.  A new century ushers in the tragedy of war, rats spread bubonic plague, the fervour of Commonwealth celebrations, the struggle for the female vote and an emerging transport strike that will cripple and divide the town.

Robyn Mortimer.  The story concept is mine, the precious photographs are the ongoing gift of photographers past, all carefully and lovingly preserved in our State Libraries and archives.