Oxley’s Brisbane

John Oxley’s name is scattered all over Brisbane: suburb, station and school, a creek, roads, streets, avenues, crescents and lanes; parks, businesses and the State Library of Queensland’s historical research collection, the John Oxley Library.

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Rare portrait of John Oxley Archive, State Library of New South Wales

As Surveyor General of New South Wales, which extended to the tip of Cape York, John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in 1823 to find a site for a new penal settlement. It was on this trip that he explored and named the Brisbane River. The local Turrbal people called it Maiwar.

I’ve visited some of the sites where Oxley came ashore.

Where Mount Ommaney Creek flows into the Brisbane River there is a fruit bat colony. The bats shriek and squabble, even in the middle of the day, when they’re supposed to be sleeping. A walking track follows the curves of the hill through bushland above the river. Feral deer live here, and the trees wear knitted jumpers to protect their bark.

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Trees wearing jumpers on Mount Ommaney

John Oxley and his crew rowed upstream in a whaleboat to Mount Ommaney and beyond. By the entrance to the walking track, a plaque has been placed to mark the spot where he came ashore and climbed to the top of the hill to take bearings.

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Plaque at Mount Ommaney

Just fourteen kilometres as the crow flies from the CBD, Mount Ommaney is fifty kilometres by river, and further still from where Oxley had moored his cutter Mermaid, at the southern end of Pumicestone Passage at Bribie Island: “within 150 yards of the shore, in the very place where Captain Flinders had anchored twenty-two years before…”[1]

Oxley also named the Bremer River, Mermaid Reach, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Breakfast Creek, and Canoe Creek, now known as Oxley Creek.

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Where Oxley Creek meets the river, at Graceville

The following year he was back again, coming up-river with botanist Alan Cunningham and others to find a site for the convict settlement that would be more suitable than Redcliffe, where it had first been established. They camped at Mount Ommaney for the night, probably down by the creek which these days flows through the plush fairways of the McLeod Country Golf Club.

On their way back down river, Oxley and his group landed along the Toowong/Milton Reach looking for a good water source, a necessity for settlement. Coming ashore near the mouth of Western Creek and following it upstream, they found water “in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley.”[2]

Matthew Condon, in his book “Brisbane”, has awakened my interest in Oxley’s chain of ponds, and following his path I go looking for it.[3]

Western Creek, in Oxley’s time a beautiful place, forested and rich in resources, now empties into the river through a concrete drain near the remains of the floating restaurant once known as “Oxley’s on the River”, which was ruined in the 2011 floods. On the river walkway, a display panel describes Oxley and his exploration of the creek; and further along Coronation Drive is a large granite boulder with a plaque that reads,

On 28 September 1824, Lieutenant John Oxley, Surveyor-General of New South Wales, landed hereabouts to obtain fresh water from a nearby stream declaring it to be “by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river”.

I cross under Coronation Avenue beside the concrete drain, which flows out from under the John Oxley Centre office complex. Beyond the building I find it again, before it disappears under the road and the railway bridge to emerge again in Milton Park, then vanish under Frew Park. This was once the home of Milton Tennis Courts.  Now it has shady trees, a playground and barbecues. A nostalgic bronze sculpture of children catching yabbies shows where the creek used to flow.

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“Yabbies”, Milton. Flood warning sign in the background

Across the road, in front of Milton State School, is low-lying Gregory Park, once known as Red Jacket Swamp. The creeks and swamps when Oxley came this way were rich with mud crabs, fish, wild ducks, waterlilies and reeds, used by the large and settled Indigenous population[4].

The creek still flows under these lowlands, and the river seeks it out every flood time. Brown water surges up through the parks and into the shops and homes of Baroona Road and Nash Street, Rosalie, and the television news shows people carrying furniture and possessions through the flood waters to higher ground.

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Western Creek floods, Rosalie, January 2011

 

At North Quay, several hundred metres down-river from the mouth of Western Creek, is another stone memorial, dating from the 1920s, claiming to mark the spot where Oxley came ashore looking for water, and, according to the wording of the plaque, “discovered the site of this city.”

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North Quay plaque

To look at the memorial, I walk up from the river path to the busy road leading to the CBD and Riverside Expressway. In 1825 the penal colony was permanently established on this high ground, along what became William Street, down towards the convict-tended food gardens that were to become the City Botanic Gardens.

Soon the local Indigenous population’s hunting and ceremonial grounds would be lost and ruined. The creeks and lagoons would disappear under the developing city.

Now, the massive Queens Wharf development is rising next to 1 William Street, the Queensland Government’s hulking “Tower of Power”, where the old settlement sprawled with its barracks, commandant’s house, cottages and church.

At Redcliffe there’s a handsome monument, above the low red cliffs, commemorating both Oxley and Matthew Flinders; and at Bribie Island, on the shore of Pumicestone Passage, looking out to where both Flinders and Oxley moored their ships, the Bribie Island Seaside Museum gives details of their journeys.

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Pumicestone Passage, Bribie Island, near where Oxley and Flinders both moored their ships. Glasshouse Mountains in the background

His arduous journeys of exploration damaged John Oxley’s health. He was so ill after the second Brisbane River trip he could hardly walk, and four years later, aged forty-two, he died, in financial hardship, at his property outside Sydney.

Often these “explorers” were motivated by grants of money and land, and Oxley was eager for both; but ever since primary school, when we traced their expeditions on maps of Australia using coloured dots and dashes, I’ve wondered at their fortitude.

As an adult, I’ve also pondered on the disasters that followed for the locals in these lands, whose people had lived in and managed them for millennia.

[1] From the account of J. Uniacke, who came with Oxley’s first expedition to the area, on the Mermaid. Uniacke’s full account is printed in “Discovery of the Brisbane River, 1823 – Oxley, Uniacke and Pamphlet – 175 Years in Retrospect”, Marc Serge Rivière (1998) Royal Historical Society of Queensland, Brisbane. Page 70

[2] Angus Veitch has posted details of Western Creek, John Oxley and the chain of ponds, including quotes from Oxley’s journal, on his interesting 2018 web page,  http://www.oncewasacreek.org/

[3] “Brisbane”, Matthew Condon (2010) University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney.

[4] “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane”, Dr Ray Kerkhove. Boolarong Press, Salisbury: 2015. Pages 129-131

Major Mitchelling

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Wisteria arbour, Mitchell

St George to Mitchell is 210 kilometres. My cousin Nadine is driving, and she stays close to the 110kph speed limit, eating up the distance.

It’s a lonely road. At the service station in St George they’d warned us to keep an eye out for animals: kangaroos and cattle, emus and wild pigs. A big kangaroo leaps across the road ahead of us, but Nadine is alert, and feathers her foot on the brake. They say you should never swerve to miss a kangaroo, or brake violently, because you’ll lose control of the car and roll or hit a tree. Hitting a kangaroo is less likely to injure you than swerving, although it won’t be much good for the kangaroo.

“Dad used to call this kind of trip Major Mitchelling,” I tell Nadine. My family spent a lot of time on country roads, and Dad especially loved travelling through unknown territory.

I remember Major-General Sir Thomas Mitchell from primary school social studies lessons. In the 1840s, he led an exploration party up this way – hence the name of the town we’re heading for. At school we used to trace maps of Australia, marking with dotted lines the journeys of the European explorers. Major Mitchell was one of the big ones. He was a rugged and determined traveller, notoriously bad-tempered, and a great mapmaker.

A soldier and draughtsman, Thomas Mitchell was involved in fighting in Spain, fought at the battle of Waterloo, then after the defeat of Napoleon worked at doing sketches of the European battlefields. In 1827 he came to Australia to succeed John Oxley as Surveyor-General.

The colonial government was keen to discover grazing lands and rivers, and to “open up” the country. Between 1831 and 1835 Major Mitchell and the men who went with him, including convicts and Aboriginal guides, ranged from the Barwon River in what is now northern New South Wales to the southern Victorian coast.

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Mitchell’s expeditions (Wikipedia)

Mitchell’s exploration parties were resented by the Aboriginal people whose land he was intent on opening up. They knew what happened once white people came to stay: streams polluted by cattle hooves and wool washing; sacred places destroyed; women raped and abused; disease and alcohol, and mass shooting if anyone fought back.

It wasn’t until recent times that such events were even mentioned; but Mitchell wrote in his journal about “treacherous savages”. Treachery depends on who writes the history. The resistance fighters of Nazi-occupied Europe, who did whatever they could to trick, ambush and destroy the invader, are not described in our histories as treacherous.

Mitchell was exploring for the government, to map and survey the land and make it available for grazing and white settlement. Wealthy and powerful pastoral companies were keen to exploit the vast inland plains; and strong in the colonial mind was Captain Cook’s declaration that Australia was a land that belonged to no one. Terra Nulius.

They were tough, those explorers. Nadine and I are driving this mildly-lonely stretch in a modern, air-conditioned car, on a sealed road, in spring. Those men were travelling through dry, hostile territory, in extremes of weather and distance, eating miserable food and drinking dodgy water, dependent on the health of their horses if they were to return to civilization, and always watched and often harried by angry locals. No wonder Mitchell was bad-tempered.

In late 1846, Mitchell led an expedition into what is now Queensland, looking for rivers. He named the Balonne River after a local indigenous word, and followed it northwards, naming the site of St George. The Balonne meets the Maranoa River, and Mitchell’s party followed it further north.

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Maranoa River at Mitchell

We’re following the Maranoa today, over to our right, not far away. All we see, though, is flat, monotonous eucalypt bushland along the road verges, with cleared, grassy paddocks beyond. The grass is mainly what became known as Mitchell grass, astrebla pectinate, one of the premier grazing grasses of inland Australia.

 Occasionally a dirt track, flanked by a mailbox and a station name, leads off through the trees.

“Look!” says Nadine, pointing off to the right. “I don’t believe it!”

There, alongside a track leading off into the trees, is a sign saying “Coffee Shop”.

There is a story to be found there. But it’s getting late.

By five o’clock, we’ve checked in to a motel. The receptionist suggests the Mitchell Hotel for dinner.

“We thought we’d go across the road to the Courthouse Hotel. I liked it last time I was here.”

“You’d be better off at the Mitchell. I’ve had bad reports of the Courthouse.”

One of the features of Mitchell is the Great Artesian Spa, and that’s where I go, for a swim before dark. Sheltered from the road by coloured glass and greenery are two pools. I dip into the cold pool and soak in the hot one, where warm bore water gushes from a pipe and steam rises from the water.

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Family enjoying the Great Artesian Spa, Mitchell

“Where do you suggest we go to eat?” I ask the ladies in the spa shop. “I thought we might go to the Mitchell Hotel.”

“Go to the Courthouse. Better atmosphere there.”

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Courthouse Hotel, morning, Mitchell

Dinner, at the Courthouse, is a friendly, cosy affair, and afterwards we cross the Main Street to the Mitchell Hotel for a drink. Nadine orders Kahlua and milk, which causes a bit of a stir, with milk having to be fetched from the kitchen. We strike up a conversation with a couple of blokes in the bar, and before we leave, we each put ten dollars through the pokies.

Mitchell is a quaint country town, with attractive old timber buildings, art works, bottle trees and a wisteria arbour.

Major Mitchell camped by the river near here, then continued far to the north, eventually turning back only when he reached the Belyando River, a tributary of the Burdekin.

Tomorrow Nadine and I will head west, across the Mitchell grass plains.

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West of Mitchell

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