Land of Coal and Corn (#1): The Foundation of Ipswich

(This article is reproduced from the Brisbane Courier, 20 October 1891.)

'Writing to Governor Darling on the l6th December 1828, Allan Cunningham, the explorer, made use of the following words – ‘It is therefore highly probable that upon the site of those limestone hills a town will one day be raised’. Some two months before the penning of the despatch which contained this sentence, Cunningham had rested for awhile on the calcareous hummocks called the Limestone Hills, on the right bank of the Bremer River, and almost on the very spot where the Ipswich Girls’ Grammar School now stands What was the sight which then presented itself to him?

Down at his feet he could trace the river Bremer flashing in and out, turning and winding with ever-varying curve, and at every bend presenting a new scene of loveliness. Its banks were fresh with spring growth, and richly tangled with vegetation, while the grass trees reared their heads from the open flats - queer apparitions in a singularly beautiful land. Stretching from the riverbanks in many parts were open flats which lost themselves in the low hills beyond, and those, too, finally merged in the great mountains in the background to which Cunningham’s eyes were directed, and on the other side of which he discovered a land of promise. The country was of a fine undulating nature, open apple tree flats, low hills and forest grounds, well-watered, and every thing looked fair and promising.

Allan Cunningham (John Oxley Library)
Allan Cunningham (John Oxley Library)

There was the blemish of sin upon it, however. On yon hill a party of convicts were at work, guarded by British soldiers armed with the old Brown Bess, and their work consisted of lime burning. From a great kiln built on the slope of a hill the fumes of lime arose in a white, transparent cloud, and near its mouth the broad-arrow branded coat of the convict was in close juxtaposition to the scarlet coat of the soldier of the 20th or 40th Regiment. Away down on the river lay two boats which were manned by convicts and guarded by soldiers, and were being loaded with baskets of lime to be conveyed to Brisbane Town, there to be used to build that old convict barrack which for so long a time disfigured Queen street.

On the flats and undulating grounds lying to the north east a small flock of Government sheep were grazing, and half a mile from the lime kiln was a small patch of country of ‘black colour,’ which, if one might judge from the luxuriant growth of vegetables cultivated in a small patch of golden ground belonging to the soldiers, was of rich quality. Around the lime-burning station the aboriginals were frequently observed prowling through the woods, indeed they had the presumption to threaten the lives of his Majesty’s soldiers guarding his Majesty’s convicts who were burning the aboriginals’ lime, and a corporal and three privates were on guard ready to shoot to the death the first aboriginal who dared to object.

The scene was an interesting one then, it is a particularly interesting one to look back upon now. Cunningham’s keen eyes observed the possibilities of the land he was studying. He noticed chalk among the hills, and coal in the Bremer River and in the steep banks of dry creeks dipping to Brisbane. He also noticed the black soil country, the land clothed with grasses, the navigable nature of the Bremer, and he thereupon draws deductions and writes to his chief, ‘It is therefore highly probable that upon the site of these limestone hills a town will one day be raised’. His prophetic vision has long been realised, and Ipswich is today a flourishing town placed on the limestone hills, in the heart of a vast coal and corn producing district.

One little extract from Cunningham’s despatch is, in the light of recent events, worth quoting. He wrote thus sixty-three years ago: - ‘Bremer’s River, which at its mouth is about forty yards wide, preserves a uniformity of breadth of thirty and thirty-five yards throughout its tortuous course of ten miles to the Limestone Station, which point may be considered the head of navigation, for almost immediately beyond ledges of rock occupy the bed of the river, which at length rises and separates the fresh water from the salt. To this station (up to which the tide flows) the Bremer is of sufficient depth to be navigable for boats or craft of thirty or forty tons, and as it expands and forms a natural basin a short distance below the station of upwards of one hundred yards in width and with a depth of water sufficient to float a large ship, the importance of building a wharf on the right hand bank of this basin, to which the produce of the interior might be conveyed to be embarked, will at some future day be seen. The circumstance, moreover, of this river being thus far navigable for craft of a certain class, and the consequent saving to the farmer of that expense which is necessarily attendant on the wear and tear of a long land carriage of internal produce to the coast, cannot possibly fail when this country becomes settled on to be duly considered.’

Ipswich landing place, Nov 24, 1851 1851, Conrad Martens (Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)
Ipswich landing place, Nov 24, 1851 1851, Conrad Martens
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales)

The earliest glimpse of Ipswich is a scene where a few criminals are expiating their offences against the laws of the mother land, and in so doing are turning to account the natural products of a new country, and in a rough rude way laying the foundations of a great manufacturing town. It is evident that for some years Limestone remained in the possession of the Government and was used as a convict station, but the lime kilns, which may be seen even at the present day, were apparently not used for any great length of time. The flats were cultivated by the soldiers, and vegetables and corn were sent down to the garrison at Brisbane Town, to be used in conjunction with Limestone-bred beef and mutton. When, in consequence of Cunningham’s discovery of the pastoral lands of the Darling Downs, this colony (then part of New South Wales) was declared freed from the convict bond, and the New South Wales squatters began to turn their attention to the rich lands lying out from Brisbane, Limestone at once rose to a place of importance. For one thing it was the head of navigation, and it was from the apple-tree flats on the banks of the Bremer that teams were loaded with rations for the newly laid out stations on the Downs. Nearly all the passengers who came from Sydney in the steamer Sovereign in March of 1843 - the first trading steamer, I believe, which ever came to Brisbane - went to Limestone. Many of them were under engagement to the squatters, and were bound for the Condamine, Cecil Plains, Jimbour, or the big plains beyond Dalby. A blazed track showed the way to these important stations, and the means of climbing the Main Range were as may be supposed, both primitive and dangerous, while the blacks were numerous but shy. Limestone was at this time the depot of the squatters, their meeting place, and in fact the hub of the northern parts of New South Wales. Brisbane with its gaol, its ‘female factory,’ and other undesirable concomitants was looked down upon and despised by the Ipswich people as indeed it was for many a year even after separation had taken place.

In 1843 Governor Gipps visited Moreton Bay, and in company with Surveyor Warner, Surveyor Wade, Andrew Petrie, George Thorn, and others proceeded to Limestone in an open boat examining and surveying the river Bremer. When the open basin on the Bremer was reached it was suggested by the surveyors to land and lay out the town on that portion of the land now known as North Ipswich. However, the Governor suggested that they should proceed further up the river, which was accordingly done, and the party stepped ashore at the point now known as the old wharves. Limestone was then an apple-tree flat with a pleasant appearance, probably rendered more so by the fact that a flock of sheep and a few cattle were grazing on the land. There were then only one or two houses on the flat, a Government hut, and a stockyard and some cultivated land near what is now known as Bundamba Creek. The Governor was struck with the place, a new township was speedily laid out, and duly and officially christened as Ipswich. The first section of the town was at once marked out, including East-street and Bell-street, the former being the first street laid out and named in Ipswich. It is questionable if Governor Gipps did well in changing the name of the place. Limestone is not an unmusical name, and it was at least suggestive of the formation of the surrounding country, while Ipswich has neither grace nor association nor anything else to recommend it. It may be truly said that the evil which men do lives after them. A portion of the land surveyed was sold the same year, and people steadily flocked into the new township, or pitched their camp on the rich flats reaching out from the banks of the Bremer.

In 1844 much land was taken up on the Brisbane River by the M’Connels, Biggs, and others, and a great many selections were stocked. From 1844 until separation the town and district steadily moved forward. All goods for the squatters in the south-west and western districts went to Ipswich, and trade became so brisk that the squatters combined and sent to Sydney for a steamer, Mr. Pearce, of Helidon, undertaking the delicate commission. This great event occurred either in ‘48 or ‘49. The little steamer purchased was called The Experiment, and for two years it plied between Ipswich and Brisbane. It was afterwards joined by The Hawk, Breadalbane, The Settler, and, if I mistake not, The Bremer. Trade was brisk in those good old days, and Ipswich was in the very plenitude of its prosperity when separation came in 1859.'

The steamer 'Breadalbane'. (John Oxley Library)
The steamer 'Breadalbane'. (John Oxley Library)

Letter to the Editor
(Brisbane Courier, 22 October 1891)

'Sir,-I should like to supplement your travelling reporter’s remarks about Ipswich. It is true, as he says, that Ipswich used to despise Brisbane before ‘separation,’ but not for the reason he assigns; for the convict tarbrush stained both places alike. It was because ‘Limestone’ was rich and Brisbane poor; for in those days the wool teams came no further down than Ipswich, which was the head of punt and steamer navigation, and all the teamsters’ cheques, and shepherds and stockmen’s cheques and cash from Darling Downs and West Moreton were spent in Ipswich. Brisbane never saw a halfpenny of them, and only the Kilcoy and Durundur and Nanango bushmen, with a contingent from the Logan and Albert, supported Brisbane. All the money circulated in Ipswich, and it once, it is said, had thirty flourishing hotels, and it certainly exceeded Brisbane on the electoral roll of voters of the joint Stanley boroughs. But Brisbane generally carried the elections by ‘bundling’ its candidates; while Ipswich candidates, hot headed and energetic (like the people) opposed each other and split the votes. Ipswich, in New South Wales, like Tamworth and other pastoral townships of that colony, revelled in abundance of money in old times, and there was always more life, energy, and enterprise all round in Ipswich than in Brisbane, so much nearer to the enervating sea air.

Still, poor Brisbane held up its head and assumed metropolitan airs. The Government Resident lived there. The Hon. Thomas Holt gave it a £30,000 gaol in 1859, and at the first sales of town lands, Brisbane was put up at the rate of £100 an acre upset for ‘town lots,’ while Ipswich upset was £8 an acre as ‘village lots.’ This showed, at all events, what ‘our stepmother Sydney’ thought of her two Moreton Bay bantlings in the ‘early forties.’ To the names of the steamers mentioned by your correspondent should be added the Swallow, Captain Bousfield. The A.S.N. Company found their cargoes (freight paid from Sydney to Ipswich) blocked for want of river steamers in Brisbane, so they sent up the Brisbane, Captain Patullo, the Samson and the Ipswich, which formed part of our river fleet from 1855 to 1860, and till the railway killed them. Severe jokes were bandied in those days. The sheriff of the period, hearing that Ipswich was jealous of Brisbane getting the gaol, offered to make Ipswich the official residence of the hangman, on the principle, as he said, of ‘bringing justice home to every man’s door,’ and there is a venerable legend of a little foreign storekeeper, who brought up a schooner full of ‘notions’ from Sydney, intending to open business in Brisbane; it is alleged that he climbed the old windmill and counted seven public-houses and nine chapels, and muttered, ‘Dis vill not do; dese peeples vill know too much for me,’ and he sold his cargo by auction; and returned to Port Jackson. Had he gone on to Limestone where the public-houses then far outnumbered the chapels, the district might not have lost him. The Platypus, an ocean steamer of 350 tons, went to Ipswich once. It was regarded as a great feat in navigation but the experiment was not repeated.

I am, sir, &c., N. BARTLEY.'