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.

oxley slnsw archive
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.

cof
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.

cof
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.

86EBCA2B-D9CC-49D5-928C-F71D2B5811D7
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.

4740858D-606C-4D9B-9E66-90D27CA34A7A_1_201_a
“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.

oxley baroona bayswater jan 2011_01
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.”

oxley memorial north quay
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.

61A2EF58-7AA4-4372-B611-6FB4F86EDD47
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

German Station

Daily reports of the sick from the emigrant Ship Minerva

January 24th1838

Mrs Szillmann, 21, Native of Germany, fell ill with typhus on 13 January. In extreme danger.

February 9th1838

Blew a hurricane all night accompanied with torrents of rain & occasional showers of hail – wind still high, temperature of the atmosphere very low. The rain penetrated all the tents except those which were lined.

Last night was most unfavourable to those poor women in the Lazaretto, some of whom had their beds wet thro’. They are however still slowly gaining strength. Mrs Szillmann, who is very weak, complains today of a cough.

Just inside Sydney Harbour, behind North Head, is Quarantine Cove. I went there as a child in my father’s cousin’s boat. “We’re not allowed ashore,” said cousin Cedric. “It’s a quarantine station.”

zillman quarantine c
Quarantine Cove, Sydney Harbour

None of us knew then that Cedric’s and my Dad’s great-grandparents (my great-great-grandparents) had spent two months at Quarantine Cove, one hundred and twenty years earlier: Clara Louise and Johann Leopold Zillman.

The Australian government has always taken quarantine seriously, even in the early years. Ships with sick crew or passengers – cholera, smallpox, typhus or typhoid fever – were required to “perform quarantine” until health authorities declared them no longer a threat.

Spring Cove, inside North Head, was first selected to isolate diseased convicts, and in 1837 the whole of North Head was marked off as a quarantine area. It stayed that way until 1986.

It was called Quarantine Cove, and ships carrying disease would be moored there, yellow warning flags flying. Tents and crude buildings were erected to provide a hospital and housing.

Until the late 1850s, so-called Fever Ships were a horror of the transportation of convicts and immigrants to Australia. One of the most common and feared fevers was typhus. Typhus is spread by lice, and the crowded, cramped conditions below decks on long voyages provided ideal conditions.

On 23 January 1838, the immigrant ship Minerva arrived at The Heads, after a non-stop, nineteen-week voyage from Scotland. It was a fever ship. The first typhus victim had died just two weeks into the voyage, and a total of twenty-eight passengers, out of two hundred and five, died either on the voyage or after arrival. The Minerva was placed into quarantine.

It was a tragic situation. Children were orphaned. The ship’s doctor and all of his family caught the fever, he alone recovering.

Clara and Johann were members of a group of German nationals on their way to start a Protestant Christian mission to the Aborigines of Moreton Bay. It would be the first free European settlement in what would become Queensland.

The missionaries had been selected for their religious devotion and their useful trades: farmers, bricklayers, gardeners, a cabinetmaker. Johann, twenty-five years old, was a blacksmith, and his twenty-one-year-old wife Clara was listed as a schoolmistress. Clara and Johann had been among six couples married just two days before leaving Berlin to make the voyage to Australia.

Clara survived the typhus. On 7 April the last of the survivors were released from Spring Cove, and in June she and her husband travelled north to begin work at the mission in Brisbane. By then she was pregnant with the first of her eleven children.

The government granted the mission six hundred and forty acres of land in what is now Nundah, about eight kilometres from the Convict Station on the Brisbane River.  Known as German Station, the mission was well situated for the missionaries’ objectives of teaching and converting the local Turrbal people. The area was rich in bush produce and was at a crossroads for travelling Indigenous groups.

l6k8YFJsROWm3eciHeAtKg
German Station Park, Nundah, on part of the old German Station, next to Nundah Historical Cemetery

Running through it was a creek lined with majestic eucalypts and tea-trees and teeming with fish. The missionaries named it Kedron Brook. Some of those huge gum trees and paperbarks are still standing. Turrbal people camped here in large numbers, as well as on the present site of Nundah Cemetery.

The missionaries were devout and hard-working: clearing the scrub, building slab houses, a church and school on what they called Zion Hill, a pine-covered rise next to the present-day Toombul Shopping Centre. They established gardens and orchards and a dairy.

zillman sketch mission
Sketch of the Zion Hill settlement, gardens, stock and people by C.F. Gerler, a missionary. John Oxley Library

The plan was to learn the local language and customs and teach reading, writing and the Bible, as well as practical skills. In return the Aboriginal people would help with building and gardening.

The local people were open to the benefits of what the missionaries were offering but clashes soon developed over the produce of the gardens, established as they were on traditional lands. By 1840, shots were being fired and there were raids on the mission.

According to his son’s memoirs, Johann Zillman and other irate missionaries would sit up all night guarding the sweet potato fields. Johann even wrote to his father-in-law in Germany asking him to send him a gun. Clara’s father sent him a Bible instead, with the inscription, “My son, I cannot send you a gun, but instead I am sending you a Sword of the Spirit wherewith you shall be able to quench the fiery darts of the wicked.”

It became obvious that the local Aboriginal people were not interested in Christianity, and financial support for the mission dried up. By 1850 its role was abandoned. When the convict era ended, land became available for sale at German Station. Johann bought some, and leased further blocks for cattle raising. Zillmere and Zillman Waterholes are named after the family.

fullsizeoutput_45a5
Zillman Waterholes, Zillmere

In the mission years my great-great-grandmother Clara would have suffered the nervous tensions of living in the midst of a people utterly foreign to her and potentially threatening. Her many children grew up playing with the local children, falling in the creek, getting lost in the bush and no doubt being bitten, stung and scratched by all manner of things frightening to a woman from Berlin, no matter how devout she was.

fullsizeoutput_4592
Sketch of Clara Zillman

Clara Zillman died at the age of sixty and is buried along with Johann Leopold in leafy Nundah Cemetery. Pictures that survive from the time don’t do justice to the young, adventurous pair who married in Berlin, almost died on the long voyage to Australia, took on a brave enterprise, and lived on to become part of a new state.

TB4CnlBDReCqIqh4mvTelg
Grave of Clara Louise and Johann Leopold Zillman, Nundah Cemetery

Several years ago, my daughter Lizzie asked me to drive to Sydney with her. A friend was getting married.

“It’s at a hotel in Manly”, she said. “It’s called Q Station”.

I looked up Google Earth and found North Head, Quarantine Cove, and Q Station, a hotel occupying century-old heritage listed Quarantine Station buildings – no longer the tents and huts of Minerva’s time.

A month later we checked into Q Station. There were harbour views from the verandahs, with the tall buildings of the city centre in the distance. We walked down to the sweet little beach, with penguin footprints in the sand.

IMG_0295
Footprints of little penguins, Quarantine Cove

Lizzie swam round the old wharf, braving Sydney Harbour sharks and cutting herself on oyster shells.

On the rock face lining the road leading up from the wharf, the names and crests of ships that were quarantined here are carved into the soft sandstone. Over a thousand such inscriptions have been discovered. Perhaps they include the Minerva, and the names of my sick, frightened, determined ancestors who lived here for a time, over one hundred and eighty years ago.

IMG_0287
Inscriptions at Quarantine Cove

 

This information comes from:

  • “Minerva in Quarantine”, George and Shelagh Champion, historical articles from the History of Manly, manly.nsw.gov.au
  • “Aboriginal Campsites of Greater Brisbane – An Historical Guide”, Dr Ray Kerklove
  • “150 Years 1838 – 1988, Nundah Families”, Nundah Historic Cemetery Preservation Assoc. Inc.
  • Writings of J.H.L. Zillman

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑