Past & Present
Of the capital cities in Australia, Brisbane was, in its infancy, the settlement least likely to amount to anything let alone the third largest city in the country.
Then - A Brief History
From its beginnings as a twinkle in Sir Thomas Brisbane, the Governor of New South Wales's eye - when he decreed that a site as far away from Sydney as possible should be found in order to dump the colony's worst murderers, rapists and repeat offenders – the path to today's thriving modern metropolis of some two million residents has been long and winding.
Even its location came about by accident, after a first short-lived penal settlement at Redcliffe was devastated by mosquito-borne disease. Surveyor/explorer John Oxley, at the behest of Brisbane, led the charge in 1823 to find a new site and by chance he stumbled across a couple of disorientated ex-convicts (Pamphlett and Finnegan) whose boat had been blown off course and who were under the impression they were still somewhere in the vicinity of Sydney. They showed John Oxley the Brisbane River, he was mightily impressed, and the fledgling penal settlement (Australia's worst), was borne in 1824 on the river in the vicinity of Queen and William St.
After the penal colony was officially closed in 1842, the area was thrown open to free settlers, an odd mix of ex-convicts and staunch religious types from the British Isles and Germany, who arrived in dribs and drabs. They farmed, traded, built churches and pubs and became increasingly keen to cut ties with their 'mother' state New South Wales whose bureaucrats were less than interested in the welfare or planning of Brisbane. In 1859 their dream came true when Queen Victoria declared a separate state – Queensland, named after herself - and Brisbane became its capital.
Despite acquiring capital status, a Governor and an impressive Government House, Brisbane remained essentially a wild shanty town until the mining boom of the 1880s, when it acquired wealth and grand civic buildings, a smattering of which still grace the CBD's streets. During this time the Queenslander, the distinctive pyramid-roofed timber house on stilts became the residence de jour and thus began its takeover of the ridges and valleys of the inner suburbs.
In 1893 the first (and worst) of the settlement's catastrophic floods struck, wiping out the only bridge (Victoria) that connected the south and north side of the town and killing the prospects of a burgeoning South Brisbane as the alternative commercial centre.
The early 1900s saw a city of working wharves, a rapidly expanding network of trams creating new hubs and suburbs, a bevy of Catholic churches built in high places by the Donald Trump of archbishops and the first 'high rise' commercial buildings and the arrival of flats as a fashionable new mode of residence.
In 1942, during the outbreak of World War II in the Asia Pacific, Brisbane was unwittingly thrust into the frontline when it was chosen as the headquarters of the Western Pacific war effort and General Douglas MacArthur moved in. Overnight its population more than doubled as US troops descended upon the city and the landscape changed dramatically with air raid shelters galore littering the streets, parks and public places, soldiers outnumbering citizens, tanks rumbling through suburban streets and prisoner of war camps in the suburbs, while the city's prominent historical houses and buildings were occupied by the US army.
Brisbane survived World War II with its citizens and buildings intact only to have many of the latter demolished by the State Government during a demolition blitz between the 1960s and 1980s. During that time the city lost more than its share of significant architecture and buildings of historical significance, the most renowned of which – Cloudland and the Bellevue Hotel – were demolished without warning in the middle of the night to local outcry and nationwide disbelief.
Brisbane in its short 190 years though, has been no stranger to destruction, whether by Premiers or floodwaters. In 1974 another flood almost of the magnitude of 1893 devastated Brisbane, with a third of the city submerged and leaving a far greater trail of destruction in its wake than the 1893 flood. Then in 2011 the unthinkable occurred when once again, thanks to a summer of unseasonably heavy rain and a full dam, the river burst its banks and once again businesses and houses were submerged.
Today – A Brief Overview
Having survived all of the above, today Brisbane has morphed into a laid back subtropical city whose character is defined by its snaking river, lush vegetation, clusters of urban villages and the tin-roofed timber Queenslanders clinging to its many hills and valleys. Rimmed by the bush-covered mountains of Brisbane Forest Park reserve to the west and extending east to the historical bayside villages with their English style beaches, it is also a gateway to the unspoilt picturesque Moreton Bay Islands and, an hour away, Australia's holiday playgrounds the Sunshine and Gold Coasts.
Although in recent decades its residents have discovered big city attributes such as the omnipresent traffic snarl, the disappearing car park and the overcrowded public place they have retained a reputation for friendliness and being up for a chat.
Known as a lifestyle city rather than a tourist destination Brisbane is not a hotbed of iconic buildings and man-made attractions but if it has a showpiece it is South Bank, the unique riverfront sprawl of tropical parklands with sandy beach, swimming lagoons, playgrounds, barbecues, eateries and bars that faces off cross river with the CBD and that extends to the cultural centre incorporating the Queensland Performing Arts Complex, Museum, State Library, QAG and Australia's premier contemporary art gallery GOMA.
And as a value-add, despite periods of rampant development and ever-marching suburban sprawl, decent tracts of native bush close to Brisbane's CBD have been preserved, all with walking tracks for a cool urban escape, while the northern suburbs are traversed by a protected Mountains to Mangroves wildlife corridor. Meanwhile the CBD itself is bookended by two major public gardens – the heritage-laden City Botanic Gardens and the Roma St Parklands, the largest subtropical garden in the southern hemisphere.
A tangle of riverfront bike paths have sprung up around the inner city in recent decades, making for a welcome alternative to the traffic jams that plague the city's roads as well as a scenic leisure pursuit. And the many creeks threaded through town provide natural green belts which have been paved with shady walking and bike tracks linking suburbs and parks.
With a climate that is best described as lacking in wild variation or season and very predictable (the winter temperature hovers persistently around twenty while summer temperature hovers around thirty), Brisbane life is largely confined to two seasons, wet (summer) and dry (winter). The former is characterised by hot to sweltering humid days and sultry nights interspersed with thunderstorms while the latter is a long stretch of mostly glorious blue-skied days and chilly nights.
By the height of summer in January a kind of torpor descends and everyone heads for the beach or a pool or disappears into GOMA, an air-conditioned mall or cinema, only to re-emerge sometime in early March. The smell of back yard barbecues permeates the suburbs and beer, wine and seafood consumption climbs, while in the heat of the day only mad dogs and non-locals can be found tramping the streets.
Interestingly it is the summer factor rather than access to transport or city proximity that laid the blueprint for the socio-economic demographics of Brisbane in its early days. In the older suburbs of Brisbane it is the cool ridges and hilltops that contain the grand villas, with the smaller worker's cottages relegated to the airless and hot valleys.