Matthew Condon, in his wonderfully intimate and poetic portrayal of Brisbane, has a great investigative story of the John Oxley obelisk at North Quay.
“I have known it all my life,” Condon begins, “the large dull rectangular granite obelisk that marks the exact location where explorer and New South Wales Surveyor-General of Lands, John Oxley, set foot on the northern bank of the Brisbane River in 1824 and proclaimed a settlement site”. Except, as Condon would find out, this was not the place. The white birthplace of Brisbane, “the Caucasian holy ground” as Condon calls it, was actually further upstream at Milton.
The 2.5m-high obelisk is, as Condon noted, unprepossessing and difficult to locate. I was unaware of its existence though I had often cycled past the area. Situated near North Quay and Makerston Street, the obelisk is indistinct, hidden and almost apologetic. To get to it a pedestrian must cross busy lanes of traffic heading to the Riverside Expressway. The pedestrian path is a dead end and does not get much foot traffic. Bikers whizz past to the riverside paths directly below the steep cliff, oblivious to the featureless “grey lump” under pollution-ridden trees.
The monument was conceived in 1924 as part of the Brisbane centenary celebrations and purchased with money from a state government fund set up for the Oxley commemoration. It was installed a couple of years later. Photographer Frank Hurley’s photo of the monument after World War II shows a well-dressed young couple standing stiffly reading the plaque in the early afternoon. This was before the Expressway stranded it. As Condon says, it is an eerie city corner that “feels to have died.” Condon also notes the peculiar wording of the text on the obelisk. “Here John Oxley Landing to Look for Water Discovered the Site of this City.” Something doesn’t seem right about it. The unpunctuated wording and unnecessary capitals seem clumsy and uncertain, and makes the discovery of the city seem accidental.
The idea for Brisbane emerged in 1817 when Secretary of State for War and the Colonies the Third Earl Bathurst held a commission of inquiry into transportation to NSW. Bathurst was worried NSW was no longer seen as a deterrent and authorised lawyer John Thomas Bigge to investigate options. Bigge recommended new settlements including Moreton Bay for hardened criminals. In 1822 Bathurst ordered Oxley to survey the site. Aboard the Mermaid, Oxley discovered the mouth of a river on November 29, which he named for NSW Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. He returned in 1824 on board the Amity with a founding party of 54 souls and explored the river with botanist Allan Cunningham.
Brisbane historian John Steele quotes Oxley’s Field Books for September 28, 1824 (the date on the obelisk) in his 1972 book The Explorers of the Moreton Bay District 1770-1830. “We proceeded down the river, landing about three-quarters of a mile from our sleeping place, to look for water, which we found in abundance and of excellent quality, being at this season a chain of ponds watering a fine valley. The soil good, with timber and a few pines, by no means an ineligible station for a first settlement up the river.” Steele has a footnote for the word ‘landing’ which reads “probably at Frew Park, Milton. See Truman op.cit.”
Frew Park is named for “Daddy” Frew long-time head of the Queensland Lawn Tennis Association and former home of the Milton Tennis Centre. It has long been a derelict site though there are plans to develop it. Tom Truman, history teacher at the University of Queensland, wrote a series of articles in the Courier-Mail in 1950 arguing the site of the “chain of ponds watering a fine valley” was in Milton. Truman also quotes Oxley’s Field Notes from the day before the landing to prove the location of Oxley’s sleeping place. Oxley said his party encountered a large group of Aborigines on the riverbank in Toowong and pitched camp “about half a mile below this encampment on the same side of the river there being a small creek between us, which I hoped would prevent them visiting us.” Condon believes this puts the campsite at Patrick Lane, Toowong near the Wesley Hospital. They moved downriver the next morning in search of fresh water. Truman says that day’s landing spot was where the old Western Creek entered the river below Coronation Drive in Milton – over 2.5km from the obelisk site. Truman said those who fixed the obelisk at North Quay had different information. “I should very much like to know what that extra information was,” he wrote.
Condon made it his task to find out that extra information. In 1988 a memorial to Oxley was unveiled at the Milton site in the atrium of the Oxley Centre consisting of three glass and steel posts “that look like the ragged remnants of a ship’s sail”. Opposite the centre across Coronation Drive is another plaque commemorating Oxley’s landing “hereabouts”. In three visits, Oxley never set foot on the part of the river now occupied by Brisbane’s CBD. The first commander at Redcliffe, Lieutenant Henry Miller, decided the beach was unsuitable and with Port Jackson pilot John Grey, moved the settlement to North Quay. It was Grey and Miller who climbed the embankment near the obelisk not Oxley.
Condon went to Frew Park looking for the “chain of ponds”. Truman told him there used to be waterholes connected to the Western Creek which rose in Red Jacket Swamp (now Gregory Park), flowed through Frew and Milton Parks and joined the river at Dunmore Bridge. He also traced the history of the obelisk. Condon said the Brisbane City treasurer’s department wrote to Mayor William Jolly in 1926 to make arrangement for the supply of granite blocks for a monument to Oxley at North Quay “under the supervision of the town planner and Dr Cumbrae-Stewart”. Dr FWS Cumbrae-Stewart was co-founder of Brisbane’s Historical Society and a law professor at Queensland University. The site and inscription was his idea.
Condon tracked down his 85-year-old daughter June Cumbrae-Stewart who told him her father was born in New Zealand before the family moved to Melbourne. Frank Stewart studied in Oxford and was called to the bar at London’s Inner Temple in 1887. He practiced in Melbourne before moving to Brisbane in 1898. In 1910 he was the first registrar and librarian of Queensland University. This moved him into more elevated circles and he added Cumbrae to his name from Scottish ancestry. He helped found the Queensland Historical Society in 1913 and became president. In 1924 he addressed the society about what he called Oxley’s landing site at North Quay a 100 years earlier.
Cumbrae-Stewart said “it would appear” Oxley first landed near the upper end of North Quay to look for water for which Oxley said, “we found in abundance..for a first settlement up the river”. Cumbrae-Stewart was likely confusing Oxley’s chain of ponds in Milton with Miller’s swampy land at the bottom of Roma Street and then worked backwards to shore up his argument. By September 1924 he was more certain of his opinion telling an audience including Queensland Governor Matthew Nathan North Quay was definitely the landing spot. Seven months earlier Nathan had called for an obelisk to commemorate Oxley. Within a year Cumbrae-Stewart became a permanent trustee of the Oxley Centenary Fund. As Condon concluded, “he had the facts as he saw them, he had the backing, and then he had the money and the power to put his historical error into granite.”