Brisbane River History

Aboriginal History

The Turrbal Nation of Aboriginal people have inhabited the shores of the Brisbane River for up to 40,000 years. The Turrbal were friendly and accommodating people who were great fishermen, using the river as a resource for food which included many varieties of fish, shellfish, crabs and shrimps. It was also an important location for spiritual and recreational purposes, as the people had gatherings at the best fishing locations.

The Aboriginal people here were left to enjoy their river for a long time as several famous European navigators, like Captain Cook and Matthew Flinders, who travelled through Moreton Bay failed to discover the river mouth.

Discovery by Settlers

Oxley Memorial by mikecogh, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  mikecogh 

On March 21st 1823 ticket of leave convicts, Thomas Pamphlett, John Finnegan, Richard Parsons and John Thompson set sail south of Sydney for Illawarra on a timber finding expedition. However, the convicts were struck by a storm and were blown far north. They went 21 days without water resulting in the death of Thompson before landing on Moreton Island on April 16th of that same year.

The three remaining convict's sense of direction had been turned around by the storm and they believed that they were positioned south of Jervis Bay. They began to make the trek north back to Sydney when they discovered the mouth of the Brisbane River. The three survivors walked along by the river for a month before they stole an Aboriginal canoe at the Oxley Creek junction and made their first crossing of the river. The Turrbal people were known for being kind and forgiving and allowed Pamphlett and Finnegan to live with them for several months. Parsons had decided to make his way back to Sydney, however, he was never heard from again.

Settlement of the Brisbane River

The Surveyor General of New South Wales, John Oxley, was under orders from the New South Wales Governor, Sir Thomas Brisbane, was sent to Moreton Bay on a mission to find a new convict settlement. Oxley anchored the cutter ‘Mermaid’ off the shores of Bribie Island in November 1823 when he saw a group of Aborigines on the shore. On November 19 he entered in his diary:

"We rounded the Point Skirmish about 5 o'clock and observed a number of natives running along the beach towards the vessel, the foremost much lighter in colour than the rest. We were to the last degree astonished when he came abreast the vessel to hear him hail us in good English."

It was on December 2nd 1823 that the convict, Finnegan, unwillingly guided Oxley through the mouth of the river and upstream. Oxley noticed the plentiful fish and flourishing pine trees on the river shore and was also convinced by the red cliffs north of the river (Redcliffe) of its attractiveness as a penal settlement. It was then that he named the river after Sir Brisbane, the Governor of NSW.

Ships in dry dock Brisbane 1910The penal colony was settled in 1825 and was thoroughly successful as it was incredibly hard to escape from. During the 17 years that the gaol was in operation it only accepted the toughest and most dangerous prisoners from Sydney. By 1842 England had stopped sending convicts to Australia and the district was opened to free settlers. From then on the population around the Brisbane River flourished and by 1859 when Brisbane was decreed the capital of the colony of Queensland, the population had risen to around 6,000. When Queensland became part of the Federation in 1901 it was the fastest growing state with Brisbane its industrial hub, much of this to do with the booming maritime industry. 

The Continuing Evolution of the Brisbane River

Since then the Brisbane River has continued to change and evolve with the times and it is now used as one of Brisbane’s major public transport systems. The birth of Brisbane City as we know it today came about by three lost convicts searching for Sydney. Who knows where the capital of Queensland would be today if those convicts had not come upon the mouth of the Brisbane River and the kind hearted Turrbal people.

Timeline of the Brisbane River

Brisbane River flood 18931823 – In April, convicts became the first Europeans to discover the Brisbane River

1823 – In December, John Oxley is led upstream by reluctant convict guide and named after the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Thomas Brisbane   

1824 – Establishment of local settlement

1825 – 1825 Moreton Bay penal colony is established and convicts are sent

1841 – The river records the highest flood levels to date

1842 – Convicts deportation from England ceases and the region is opened up to free settlers

1843 – The beginning of river crossings made by small ferries

1848 – The first small private wharves are built on the river

Indooroopilly Railway Bridge 18951857 – Shark proof river baths are built at Kangaroo Point

1859 – Brisbane becomes the capital of the colony of Queensland

1862 – The river is dredged for navigation purposes

1865 – The first Victoria Bridge is built across the river

1866 – Breakwater built at the Bremer and Brisbane river junction

1882 – The first kerosene pile light is built serving as a port signal station

1890 – The Brisbane River floods again

1893 – The Brisbane River floods over a period of three weeks with the CBD severely affected

1901 – The colony of Queensland is incorporated into the Federation

1930 Story Bridge, Brisbane 1939Brisbane River water starts to deteriorate due to open sewers, introduction of animals and a changing ecology

1931 – The Brisbane River floods

1932 – The William Jolly Bridge is built

1940 – The Story Bridge is opened

1941 – USA flotilla docks in the wharves

1969 – The Victoria Bridge is built

1972 – The Captain Cook Bridge is built

1974 – The Brisbane River sees the most devastating flood of the 20th century

1986 – The Gateway Bridge is built, this would become named the Sir Leo Hielscher Bridge

1987 – The Lord Mayor of Brisbane proclaims it the “Year of the River”

2001 – The Goodwill Bridge is Built

2010 – The first underground crossing for road transport is built under the Brisbane River, The Clem Jones Tunnel

2010 – Duplicate of the Sir Leo Hielscher Bridge (Gateway Bridge) is built

2011 – Devastating floods hit the Brisbane River again with several lives lost

Visit this link to learn more about Brisbane's rich and varied history.