In a previous post, Musgrave Park – The Early Days , I looked at the history of Musgrave Park from before the arrival of Europeans until around 1920. The last hundred years have seen further changes to the park’s usage and its image in the public mind. The park land continued to shrink and other threats to its existence were narrowly avoided.
Brisbane State High School
The Brisbane State High School was located until the 1920s in the old Normal School building at the corner of Edward and Adelaide Streets. The State Government proposed in 1917 to build a new school building in the southern end of Musgrave Park. There was strenuous objection from various quarters with numerous public meetings.
The Queensland Town Planning Association, for example, referred to the partial or total
loss of Woolloongabba, Victoria and Albert Parks to railway use. The Park Trustees, at that time Frank O’Dwyer and Andrew Thynne, refused permission, citing the precedent of rejection in the past of plans for both a railway station and a primary school extension in Musgrave Park.
The State Government overrode these objections and work started in 1923. The amount of park land resumed was reduced by the narrowing of Ernest Street. No fencing was built to allow continued public access to the former park areas.
The building was provided with an eastern wing for boys and a western wing for girls with two separate entrances and accommodation for up to 600 students. Crowding at the old location was so bad that rather than wait for the official opening in the new year, classes started in the building in November of 1924.
Further land was resumed from the park for expansion of the school on a number of occasions. In 1984, a Queensland cabinet proposal to convert the remaining park into playing fields for the school was abandoned after widespread strident community objection.
Before World War 2
A newspaper article in 1929 gives us a good description of the park in the mid 20th century.
At this point, the High School grounds were still quite minimal. The 19th century surrounding fence had been replaced by a 3 metre deep line of shrubs. There were rows of regal palms and large shade trees. Colour was provided by masses of roses and other flowers including cannas, hybiscus, acalyphas and poinsettia.
On weekends, the bowling green, three croquet lawns, eight tennis courts, a cricket pitch, football and basket ball grounds were all busy.
Another new feature was added in 1925 in the form of a giant draughts board. The game was popular at the time and the board was installed at the behest of the South Brisbane Draughts Club. This occurred in a number of parks around Brisbane and matches between the various clubs continued into the 1940s.
Sport, Sport, Sport
In the middle of the 20th century, the number of different sports based in Musgrave Park increased to the point at which it must have been a complex task to coordinate the many groups vying for space. There were regular games of men’s and women’s cricket, baseball, basketball and hockey. In addition there were men’s rugby matches. Both vigoro and cricko were played by women. Previous tight social restrictions on women’s sport had largely disappeared after World War 1.
In addition, there were school sports days and community gatherings such as rallies, fetes and religious events. Some of these groups were quite large. In 1937, 1,500 young members of the Ancient Order of Foresters marched from the city to the park for their picnic and sports day, which had been a yearly event for at least 40 years. In 1950, thousands flocked to the park for the Centaur Mardi Gras held every night for over a week to raise money for wartime nurses. On one day, 600 children danced around May Poles and 1,000 pigeons were released. The organisation still exists today.
The park was less than ideal. There were problems with lost balls during cricket games as there were extensive areas of unkempt long grass. Facilities were lacking.
In 1942, a 1,000 foot trench was dug to accommodate up to 250 people in the event of an air raid. However, unlike many other city parks, Musgrave Park wasn’t taken over by the military. As a result, sports and other activities were not interrupted. A sample backyard bomb shelter was also constructed in the park for people to inspect before starting work at home (see my post Brisbane Prepares for Air Raids ).
The park was also used for amorous liaisons, sometimes with unexpected results. One digger returned from service in New Guinea in 1944 to find find his wife regularly meeting American soldiers in the park. A year later, a woman tracked her errant husband down in similar circumstances.
The raunchy “Truth” newspaper reported on both divorce cases.
Below :Left – the park in 1948, Right – cricket in 1950. ( Brisbane City Council).
In 1953, the South Brisbane Federal Band constructed a new bandstand in the park which survives though since modified to be a storage building only.
Changes and Challenges
The shortage of sporting fields in Brisbane continued into the 1960s. In 1965, a furore was triggered when Lord Mayor Clem Jones strongly supported the Queensland Rugby Union leasing part of the park for their headquarters, with construction of a football field and other facilities. Jones instigated preparatory work, removing a children’s playground and two tennis courts, on the eve of a large protest meeting.
A local resident, Dr. D. G. Neill, became chairman of the “Musgrave Park Protection Committee”. He led an attempt to obtain a Supreme Court injunction stopping the work, based on it contravening the purpose of the park as contained in the Deed of Trust from 1884. By this time, the Brisbane City Council was the only trustee.
This request for an injunction was rejected on the grounds that Dr. Neill was not legally entitled to bring the action to court. However, two days later the National Party State Government intervened. Growing community opposition led them to quash the plan and seek another home for the Queensland Rugby Union. Dr Neill’s house remains on Russell Street facing the park, a suburban oasis in a developing high rise jungle.
As far back as 1938, the City Council recognised that there was a shortage of swimming pools in Brisbane and one was planned for Musgrave Park. However the war intervened and it wasn’t to be built until 1967, close to the location originally proposed in 1938.
It was built to comply with the international competition standards for water polo. The highly successful Barracuda Water Polo Club was based here and contributed 12 members to the national team over 8 Olympic Games.
Around this time, the image of the park began to change. One newspaper report referred to it as a “garden of evil”, due to “the presence of bodgies, hoboes and thugs”.
The surrounding area also underwent change, as new generations moved to suburbs farther from the city. Immigrants took advantage of attractive prices and moved into the area. Many grand old houses were converted into flats.
‘The embassy in my own land’
From around the 1940s, Aboriginal people started to return to Brisbane as exemptions were made to the requirements of the oppressive ‘Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897’ and subsequent Acts that had resulted in the forced removal of people to reserves.
With an increasing Aboriginal population in the surrounding area, Musgrave Park became an important meeting place. Nearby, support organisations were formed.
This, combined with a growing movement demanding self determination and land rights as well as memories of times past, led to growing importance of the park to Aboriginal people.
During the Commonwealth Games held in Brisbane in 1982, the opportunity was taken to bring attention to the absence of Queensland legislation supporting the Commonwealth Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Protection Act, as well as land rights issues. Hundreds occupied the park.
Legislation to establish an authority to run the Expo introduced in State Parliament in 1983 included Musgrave Park in the proposed Expo site and gave the authority power to resume it for Expo purposes. Following further protests, the Brisbane City Council established the Jagera Community Arts Resource Centre in the then vacant South Brisbane Bowls Club House. A section of the park including the old Bowls Club and adjacent tennis courts were set aside for Aboriginal use.
The idea for an Aboriginal Cultural Centre in the park seems to have emerged around 1985. In the intervening 35 years, there have been objections from various community groups, City Council approval, State Government rejection of the project, allocation of part of the park for Aboriginal purposes, a Federal Court action, and Arts Queensland funding for consulting work. As recently as 2019, the City Council and State Government both made supportive remarks about the idea but nothing has yet eventuated.
A lack of effective welfare programs led the park to develop as a hub for the homeless and alcoholic, often addicted to methylated spirits watered down with cordial. One 1984 newspaper article states that there had been 41 deaths in the park over the previous two years. A welfare worker talked of “walking amongst the dead and the living dead”. At the same time, the surrounding suburbs entered a period of renewal and investment, widening the gap between park dwellers and those living in neighbouring areas.
With the establishment of large new playing fields in outer suburbs by the Brisbane City Council, Musgrave Park’s sporting role gradually faded away. With declining interest in the sport, the Bowls Club shut down in 1987. The Croquet Club passed 100 years in operation but also eventually succumbed to a lack of membership. The club house was leased to Community Plus+ and refurbished with grants, donations and pro-bono work. It’s now available for community use and hire.
The main sporting activities that continued were water polo matches in the swimming pool, and Brisbane State High School training. Bicycle polo games were held for some years on a disused tennis court. Informal community group football and cricket matches continue to be held from time to time.
The significance of the park to Aboriginal people continued to increase and it served as a centre for protest over injustice. In 1993, for example, dancer Daniel Yock died in police custody after being arrested near Musgrave Park. Four thousand demonstrators marched from the park to the City and back again.
In 2012, local Jagera and Turrabal people established a tent embassy in the park, inspired by the Canberra Tent Embassy that had been in place for 40 years. In May, the occupants were evicted as major events such as the Greek community’s Paniyiri and Naidoc Week activities were coming up. A march to Parliament House ensued.
Community use of the park
Community events in the park continue in the tradition of the last 140 years. Prominent now are the Greek community’s Paniyiri and NAIDOC Family Fun Day.
Following decades of growth of the Greek community in surrounding suburbs, in 1960 St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church was completed across the road from the park in Edmondstone Street. The Greek Club followed in 1975. The Paniyiri festival began as a small event in 1976 and has grown to be very large indeed with over 60,000 attending.
NAIDOC (National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee) Week celebrates the culture of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples during the first full week of July. The Musgrave Park Family Fun Day is the largest of the Brisbane celebrations.
A perusal of the Park Facebook Page will reveal a constant stream of community activities continuing today. Prominent was the public funeral service for Sam Watson, indigenous author, teacher and activist held in the park in late 2019 and attended by thousands of people.
Despite various forms of community objections to loss of parkland beginning in 1875, the park is now less than half the size of the original reserve. It has come close to be being completely resumed for other purposes on more than one occasion. The 1884 trust deed, which states that the land is to be for “the recreation, convenience, health and amusement of the inhabitants of Brisbane and for no other purpose whatsoever” has counted for little.
It’s gone from undulating bushland and Aboriginal camping ground through being a temporary home for immigrants to becoming for some decades a high status place of recreation and leisure.The physical appearance of the park has also significantly changed as low areas have been filled in and high points levelled out. Flower gardens, promenades and groves of trees have given way to open fields.
Its position as an important sports ground has faded away but its significance to various community groups has increased for other reasons. It became a show place for our failure to deal with the health and welfare for those most in need and at the same time a symbol of indigenous protest and identity.
The history of this small piece of land encapsulates many aspects of the wider history of our city and country.
1. St Andrew’s Anglican Church
2. Aboriginal habitual camping site, now Brisbane State High School
3. Bowling Club, now Jagera Hall
4. Swimming Pool
5. Location of 1901 Band Stand
6. Disused Tennis Courts
7. Croquet Club
8. Centre of former radiating avenues
9. Cricket Pitch
10. Approximate location of water hole