A History by Design

Brisbane at Work


Central Railway Station, Brisbane, 1924

Fryer Library, DU278.3 B7 1924

The economic and imperial considerations that influenced the decision to found the colony of New South Wales appear to have played no role in the founding of Brisbane. The settlement was established in 1824 with one goal in mind: to create a secondary punishment centre for recalcitrant convicts. As Governor Brisbane reported, Moreton Bay was the "fittest depot" for repeat offenders "on account of its distance and impossibility of escape." [1]

This narrowness of purpose, the brutality that came to be associated with it, and the settlement's administrative and economic subservience to Sydney, combined to discourage the emergence of an urban entrepreneurial class capable of shaping Brisbane into a strong centre for independent commerce and manufacturing. After the penal era, the development of manufacturing was also hamstrung by Brisbane's inability to attract free labour from the larger and more established population centres in the south.

Loading wool from Brisbane wharves, c1931

State Library of Queensland, Heritage Collections, Image 102745

When significant economic development did occur, in the 1840s, it was led, not by Brisbane capitalists, but by pastoralists pushing their flocks overland from New England to the Darling Downs.

Whereas Sydney and Melbourne produced an urban bourgeoisie with distinct interests and the political will to contest the dominance of the "squattocracy", in Queensland, rural capital (initially pastoral, later mining and sugar) had no equivalent rivals.

Once Brisbane shook off its penal origins, it was dominated by interests west and north and grew principally as a port and service centre for the rural economy. In the 1890s the pastoral establishment united to defeat the threat of industrial labour. In the early 1920s it mobilised again to thwart political labour's plans for social reform and economic diversification. Lobbying by local conservatives led British financiers to refuse loan funds to the Labor Government of T.J Ryan, precipitating an economic crisis that ensured, as Evans puts it, "the state's bumpy ride on the cattle and sheep’s backs continued." [2]

Throughout the interwar period, Brisbane's development remained tied to rural commodity production in two fundamental ways. Firstly, it was a processing centre and port for southern Queensland's primary produce. "The Brisbane river is the greatest commercial highway in the Commonwealth... the outlet for the wool and beef, wheat and butter that pours in from the south–east, south and south–west of Queensland," noted Kathleen Ussher in 1928. [3]

"Brisbane," wrote Mayor Jolly, "is destined to become a much greater city in the future, for it is the natural port for a large area of rich agricultural, dairying, and pastoral country."[4] Wool, in particular, passed through Brisbane in vast quantities. In 1939, a record 538,087 bales with a value of over £7.5 million were sold at the Brisbane Market, 98 per cent of which were then manhandled onto ships for the export trade. [5] The movement of such a vast volume of goods provided employment for thousands of metropolitan transport workers, storemen and packers, and wharfies.

Brisbane was a major transit point for rural exports and manufactured imports throughout the interwar years.
Mary Street, site of Webster & Co., was an historic warehouse and light industry precinct.

Webster & Co, Merchants, Shipping & Insurance Agents, 146 Mary St, Brisbane, c1929

Architects: A.B. & R.M. Wilson

Fryer Library, Wilson Collection, UQFL112, H80

Brisbane was also the commercial and administrative hub of rural industry for the entire state. Many Brisbane workers supported pastoralism, agriculture and mining in white collar roles. In 1933, 21,500 Brisbanites were employed in commerce and finance, and 8222 in public administration and the professions. Other workers, in turn, kept the city functioning and livable. Some 5399 workers were employed in construction. Another 1381 worked in the entertainment industry. [6] While all of these groups contributed to the State’s economic output, their roles, like the city's as a whole, were subordinate to the operation of the rural economy.

Brisbane's Commercial Heart 1
Country Press Building, Cnr Edward & Elizabeth St, Brisbane, 1929

Erected for the Country Press Cooperative in 1924–25, the building was designed by E.P. Trewern in "stripped classical" style. It was described at the time as "being of modern fireproof construction, with every modern convenience, including automatic electric passenger and goods lifts."

(BHG, Brisbane's Commercial Heritage 1900–1940 p55)

E.P. Trewern Collection, UQFL239, Folder G


Brisbane's Commercial Heart 2
National Bank of Australasia, 180–2 Queen St, Brisbane, 1927-28

Designed in the classical revival style, the NAB building was constructed of brick with sandstone facings on a steel frame and reinforced concrete floors and roof.

(BHG, Brisbane's Commercial Heritage 1900–1940 p7)

Architects: A. & K. Henderson

Lange Powell, Dods & Thorpe, UQFL226, Job 19

Brisbane's Commercial Heart 3
Heindorff House, 171–3 Queen St, Brisbane, 1927

Wedged between the Regent Theatre and the Majestic Pictures, Heindorff House sported a stripped classical façade on its narrow street frontage. It provided office accommodation to a diverse range of organisations, including the building's own architect, E.P. Trewern.

E.P. Trewern Collection, UQFL239, Folder G

Brisbane manufacturing, meanwhile, remained small by national standards. In 1919 manufacturing employed 122,600 workers in New South Wales and 118,100 in Victoria, but only 39,900 in Queensland. [7] The value of Queensland's factory output was half that of Victoria and just over one-third that of New South Wales. [8] The larger factories, moreover, were simply processing sites for primary commodities such as meat, sugar and timber. Manufacturing proper was limited to light industry producing consumer goods for the local market, especially clothes, processed foods, beverages and furniture. [9]

All the same, the industrial sector affected the geography and social character of the city. By 1937 Brisbane hosted 1206 industrial establishments, including a large rubber works (in Melbourne Street, West End), a sugar refinery (at New Farm), three meatworks, five bacon factories, a cotton ginnery and eight plywood and veneer mills. These enterprises, scattered across the inner city and the outer suburbs, employed some 25,698 workers and paid over £4.4 million in wages. [10] They may not have rivalled Sydney's and Melbourne's factories in size and output, but they did push Brisbane outwards to the north and south, and the workforce they brought into existence added new layers of complexity to the social and political fabric of the city.

Tristram's Drink Factory, 79 Boundary St, West End, 1928. Architects: Atkinson, Powell & Conrad

Fryer Library, Conrad & Gargett Collection, UQFL228, Job 379    Click to view zoomable image

Though manufacturing in Brisbane remained less developed than in Sydney or Melbourne, it employed over 25,000 workers by 1937. The manufacture of beverages and foodstuffs for local consumption was a particularly important source of employment. Tristram's factory at West End was a relatively large enterprise by Brisbane standards. The building itself was a rare example of an industrial structure influenced by the Spanish mission style of architecture. It is also one of the few interwar Brisbane factories to survive into the twenty-first century.