The Sunday Mail, 30 May 2004
BRISBANE —How we’ve grown

A dozen or so stone buildings stand grouped around maize fields which spread down to a river bank fringed with leafy banana trees. It’s almost impossible to imagine today as we crawl along traffic-choked roads from sprawling suburbs past vast shopping centres and industrial estates towards the towering office and apartment blocks of the city centre, but that’s how the heart of Brisbane looked less than 200 years ago.

The buildings — the Moreton Bay Convict Settlement — were constructed around what is now the bottom end of Queen St — and the maize and banana plantations are now the City Botanic Gardens.

The scene is captured in the first known picture of Brisbane, a pencil sketch drawn between 1833 and 1835 of the view across the river from Kangaroo Point.

The drawing, attributed to Henry Boucher Bowerman, an officer in the Commissariat Store, is one of dozens of early pictures in Historic Brisbane: Convict Settlement to River City by art historian Susanna de Vries and her husband Jake, Brisbane’s former city architect.

The triangle of land in what is now Brisbane’s CBD was selected as the site for a convict settlement by Commandant Henry Miller in May 1825, when he moved his troops and prisoners from the original location at Redcliffe to escape swarms of mosquitoes breeding in the swamps.

Bowerman’s sketch shows a chain gang of convicts working with picks and shovels to break the sun-baked, stony ground above the Brisbane River flood line.

They had cleared the native bush leaving a solitary hoop pine, according to the first Superintendent of Work, Andrew Petrie, so prisoners could be tied to it and beaten by Gilligan “the flogger”.

Brisbane’s first non-Aboriginal inhabitants were a tough bunch — and it was a tough and often short life.

“Only hardened criminals, known as ‘old lags’, and prisoners re-convicted of further crimes were sent to Moreton Bay which acquired an evil reputation for violence and a high death rate from imported tropical diseases,” Susanna de Vries writes.

Convicts wore rough grey jackets with the word “felon” painted on the back and trousers which buttoned down the sides so they could be removed at night over leg irons held together by chains. The leg irons weighed up to eight kilograms.

On a ridge above the convict barracks, Bowerman’s sketch shows the windmill, which still stands on Wickham Terrace.

This archaic windmill was usually powered not by the wind, but by the toil of prisoners on a treadmill.

The convicts held a rail with both hands and followed the revolving steps as if constantly walking upstairs. If they didn’t step quickly, they would be hit in the shins by the next tread.

Gangs of 25 men did this for 14 hours at a time. Under-nourished, still in heavy leg irons and sweltering in an unfamiliar subtropical climate, many collapsed, or even died, from exhaustion. As one convict wrote: “Men on the treadmill endured an existence which robbed even death of its terrors.”

From the 1840s, Brisbane began to develop as a series of villages, although it remained a remote outpost of New South Wales. North Brisbane (later to become the city centre) was linked to the settlement of Fortitude Valley.

Across the river were the villages of South Brisbane and Kangaroo Point — a tough area of taverns, sly grog shops, brothels, gambling dens and wharves.

“The settlement had a Wild West frontier flavour with drunken men brawling in the streets,” the book says. Many desperadoes or convicts-turned-bush-rangers would lie in wait to rob drovers heading in from the Darling Downs.

The 1860s and 1870s saw the construction of some of Brisbane’s most imposing buildings including Parliament House, the Royal Brisbane Hospital and the city’s GPO.

The 1880s brought a building boom to the rapidly growing town. Landmarks built during this decade included Brisbane boys’ and girls’ Grammar schools, the Queensland Club, the Treasury Building (now the casino), the former Queensland Museum on Gregory Terrace, The Mansions on the corner of George and Margaret streets and the imposing Belle Vue Hotel which was reduced to rubble on the orders of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen in 1979.

Historic Brisbane: Convict Settlement To River City by Susanna and Jake de Vries.