The Origins of Orleigh Park

With its huge spreading shade trees and pleasant breezy riverside location, Orleigh Park is understandably a great favourite with many residents and visitors. However, this beautiful park had its origins in tragedy.

Early days

At the time of the arrival of Europeans in the Brisbane area, the river bank at South Brisbane was covered with thick rainforest. This stretched from near where the Victoria


Fawn-footed Melomys : Melomys cervinipes ( John Gould – “Mammals of Australia”, Vol. III Plate 14)

Bridge now stands around to Hill End, where the park is located. The riverbank was described  as being a “tangled mass of trees, vines, flowering creepers, staghorns, elkhorns, towering scrub palms, giant ferns and hundreds of other members of the fern family, beautiful and rare orchids and the wild passion flower”.

Much of the area was swampy and a fertile hunting ground for Aboriginal people. The Fawn-footed Melomy  called the “corril” or “kuril” in various South Eastern Queensland languages was found here in abundance, giving rise to the name “Kurilpa” or “place of the Kuril” for the peninsula.

Unusual neighbours

Land encompassing the future Orleigh Park was spread across two adjoining properties sold by the colonial government in the 1850s. It’s an interesting comment on Australian society at the time to compare the corresponding two neighbors, Wilkie and Coombe.

John Perril Wilke

John Perril Wilkie (

John Perril Wilkie arrived in Australia in 1833. Working on the schooner “Active” as a supercargo in 1836, he was shipwrecked in Fiji. Seven months later the surviving crew, including Wilkie, were picked up by a  whaling ship, only to be shipwrecked again six months later off the Queensland coast. After a period of inn keeping, in 1844 he purchased the lease to the 80,000 acre Daandine property near Dalby, where he ran some 8,000 cattle and 400 horses.

He moved to Brisbane in around 1853 to further the education of his sons at the Grammar School recently established by Thomas Mowbray, whilst retaining Daandine. On his 55 acre Brisbane property he constructed a substantial homestead with 3 sitting rooms and 7 bedrooms that he named “Hill End”. This would give its name to the district, now part of West End.

Wilkie returned to England in 1856 and he leased  the house and farm at “Hill End”, having failed to sell it.  In England, the family lived in Bath while Wilkie’s sons attended school. On his return some 7 years later, he found that Daandine had not prospered during his long absence and he fell into financial difficulties. The property was put up for sale by the mortgagee late in 1866 followed by “Hill End”  the following year.

Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 - 1933), Saturday 14 September 1867

Brisbane Courier Saturday 14 September 1867 (TROVE)

The house in the centre of this unfortunately indistinct 1890 image, located near the corner of Montague and Gray Roads, is possibly “Hill End”.

hill end house possibly 1890 slq

This house located near the corner of Montague and Gray Roads is possibly “Hill End”. (State Library of Queensland)

William (Billy) Mortimer Coombe  arrived in Australia in 1836 aboard

elizabeth coombe blog

Elizabeth Coombe, born in 1853. Next to her is possibly her father Billy Coombe. (

the convict ship “John Barry” having been convicted, along with several friends, of stealing 2 fat sheep He  obtained a ticket of leave in 1844 whilst at Muswellbrook.  Coombe had a wife and 3 children at home, but he had been transported for life and reunion was impossible. He remarried in 1849 to Joannah Murphy and they had 6 children together. 

As well as his 11 acre farm near today’s ferry terminal, Coombe also owned some 33 acres just around the river bend that he had purchased in 1848. This included “Coombe’s Swamp”, part of what was also known as “Kurilpa Swamp”, a long marsh that extended up to near Vulture Street. For more on this, see my post Kurilpa – Water, Water, Everywhere .

Here he had a productive market garden. He won a prize of £2 for the best cabbage at the 1853 Horticultural Show! The family later sold out and moved to 17 Mile Rocks.

The swamp became badly polluted and was drained in 1917 amid health concerns, including a local outbreak of typhoid fever.

google earth orleigh annotated

Wilkie’s and Coombe’s properties in the 1850s. (GoogleEarth)

Crops such as vegetables, bananas, pineapples, strawberries, fruit trees and grapes thrived in the rich alluvial soil along the river. Coombe’s farm was on slightly higher ground and he grew hay, maize and potatoes.

view from toowong to hill end 1885 slq

A view of  Hill End from Toowong in 1885 before the construction of houses along the river bank. (State Library of Queensland).

Whilst both Wilkie and Coombe moved on, the large blocks of land remained intact, with various owners over the years. By the 1880s, Brisbane was growing rapidly, and along with other Australian cities was in the midst of a property boom fueled by overseas capital. Subdivision reached Hill End. Today’s Orleigh Park is located on the riverside sections of Hill End Estate and Orleigh Estate from this period.

Hill End Estate

The western part of “Hill End”  passed through the hands of various speculators and fell

Edward Drury

Edward Drury in military uniform. (State Library of Queensland)

into neglect before coming into the ownership of Edward Drury in 1875. He was the manager of the Queensland National Bank and a senior officer in the largely volunteer Queensland Defence Force.

His cavalier lending practices, including an unsecured sum of £328,000 to Premier McIlwraith and £67,000 to himself, contributed to the bank’s suspension in 1893. For more on this controversial character, please see my post The Battle of Highgate Hill .

hill end estate blog

Sales brochure from 1884. (State Library of Queensland)

Approximately 200 lots were put up for sale in 1884 under the name “Hill End Estate”. Drury and Forbes Streets were created. On the day of the sale some 74 lots were sold at prices ranging up to £84.



Queensland Country Life, 17 December 1900 (TROVE).

Coombe’s Farm and part of Wilkie’s “Hill End”, comprising some 34 acres in total, were purchased by Robert John Gray a few years after his marriage in 1870 to Mary Dorsey. The couple established their family home there, naming it “Orleigh”.

The street later built adjacent to their house became known as Gray Road. Also, the bottom part of Hoogley Street was originally called Gray Street.

Gray spent most of his working life in the public service performing roles such as Immigration Agent, Inspector of Distilleries, Under Colonial Secretary and eventually Commissioner for Railways.

Orleigh House Brisbane City Council Detail Plan

Orleigh House – detail from Brisbane City Council Detail Plan 626, 1925. The angle of the house indicates that it was built before the surrounding roads were surveyed.

In  1885, the Gray family moved on, and some 30 acres of the land was subdivided. Just over 3 acres remained with the house. It passed through various hands and with ample gardens, was often the scene of social events.

Qld Figaro 10_3_1904 orleigh

Queensland Figaro, March 10, 1904. (TROVE)

Prominent Barrister Edward Real KC and his wife Eva were long term occupants of the house from the 1920s to the 1940s. Mrs. Real was very active in charities, and garden fetes and other fund raising events were held in the house and gardens. The property was gradually sold off and subdivided. The house was demolished around 1981.

Orleigh Estate

steamer pearl detail

The steam ferry “Pearl”. (State Library of Queensland)

“Orleigh Estate” went on sale in February of 1885. As was common at the time, the estate took its name from the original house and property.  For other examples, see my posts  The Hazelwood Estate, Highgate Hill 1885 and The Blakeneys of Highgate Hill .

The steamer “Pearl” was made available to bring buyers to the estate by river.  The Pearl was to sink during a flood in 1896 with the loss of as many as 57 lives.

The sale was a great success, with some 600 attending. Prices ranged as high as £160 for riverside allotments, although the average over the 71 allotments sold was £85. Follow up auctions were held in subsequent months.

orleigh estate plan 1885 blog

Orleigh Estate plan 1885. (State Library of Queensland)

One common feature of auction sales of estates at this time was the provision of lunch with accompanying liquid refreshment beforehand. One can’t help speculating how this may have encouraged bidding enthusiasm in what was a boom period for land sales. The sales brochure predicted a doubling of land values in 12 months.

orleigh park aerial 1936 annotated

Aerial Photo from 1936 showing Orleigh House still retaining substantial surrounding land, Orleigh Estate and Hill End Estate . (QImagery)

Houses are built

Many houses were built along the river in subsequent years. Some, utilising double or even triple allotments, were substantial and expensive dwellings. Whilst residents enjoyed river views and breezes, one complaint was the smell from the nearby tannery in Montague Road operated by Thomas Dixon.

drawing riverside house hill end ca 1890 slq

A drawing of riverside houses at Hill End, ca. 1890. (State Library of Queensland)

Something much worse than a bad smell was coming.

1890 flood close up

A Hill End house near the location of today’s Sailing Club during the 1890 flood. (State Library of Queensland)

There were portents of the future in both 1887 and 1890, when Brisbane experienced floods. Water entered some of the riverside houses at Hill End on both occasions.

It would seem that the lessons of frequent flooding of the Brisbane River over the previous 20 years had been ignored or forgotten.

hill end houses 1890 flood

Hill End Estate river side houses during the 1890 flood, viewed from Toowong. (State Library of Queensland)

Tragedy Strikes

In 1893, two separate cyclones led to periods of extremely heavy rain. Brisbane endured three floods separated by just a few weeks. The first of these occurred early in February, when the flood waters reached a height some 3 metres above the 1890 levels.

view from emma st now glenn rd toowong 1893 orleigh UQ

Looking down at flooded Emma Street, now Glenn Road, Toowong during the 1893 flood. Across the river in the distance are Hill End and Orleigh Estates. (Fryer Library, University of Queensland)

The impact on Hill End was dramatic.  An estimated 30 houses were completely washed away on Saturday 4th February, complete with all their contents. Many were described as being “particularly beautiful and costly residences”. In many cases not even the stumps remained. Only one house was left on Orleigh Parade, now Orleigh Street.

orleigh after flood 1 crop fryer

Orleigh Estate after the 1893 flood. These houses were never rebuilt. (Fryer Library, University of Queensland)

Many of these houses, along with others being carried down the river, smashed against the pylons of Victoria Bridge which eventually gave way with the northern half of the bridge collapsing. Many other buildings impacted against the bows of ships moored along the river with the constant crunching noise of impacts audible across town.

There was one casualty. Fifteen year old  Alexander Freese drowned while showing his father how well he could swim near their house in Ryan Street .

Just two weeks later, a further flood carried away more houses.

The Aftermath

Whilst the rebuilding of houses in Hill End took place, it seems that few, if any, were rebuilt on riverside blocks. From 1894, there are newspaper reports of cricket matches and football games being held at Orleigh Estate on the vacant land.

orleigh after flood 3 fryer

Orleigh Estate after the 1893 flood showing the scant scattered remains of a row of houses.. (Fryer Library, University of Queensland)

In 1903, the South Brisbane Town Council held a sale of allotments that had been resumed due to the non-payment of rates.  One newspaper article commented that “over about one-third of the allotments there hover ghosts of departed joys”. These were vacant Hill End riverside lots abandoned since 1893.

orleigh 2020 3

A 1,115 sqm block sold here in 1908 for £8.

Typical was one triple block of 1 rood 4 perches (approx. 1,115 sq metres) that sold for £8. This is at the end of the park, adjacent to the ferry terminal at the end of Hoogley Street. It would have been purchased for at least £300 in the original 1885 sale. The Council bought it back for £80 in 1915 when the park was established.

A park is born

The idea for the creation of a river-side park originated with the Hill End Progress Association that presented the South Brisbane Town Council with a petition in 1914, signed by 292 local residents. This was instigated by Major C. A. H. Watson, who never lived to see the park created. After a long career as a teacher and defence force volunteer, he passed away in 1914 whilst still working as the headmaster of the West End Boys School.

With the ongoing urging of the Association, by 1916 all but a few of the properties had been purchased by the Council. A few land owners were holding out for higher prices and their blocks were resumed.

allotments in orleigh park 1919 BCC

Allotments purchased to create Orleigh Park, plan from 1919. (BCC Archives)

Orleigh Park, or Hill End Park as it was also known, was opened by the Mayor of South Brisbane, Alderman Long, in August 1917. The total cost of purchasing a total of 85 allotments from 27 owners had been £1,200 against an original Council valuation of £1,440.

Orleigh Park in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the Progress Association had wasted no time in organising working bees on Saturdays to start beautifying the rough condition of the park. It was suggested that those who had lost loved ones in the Great War that was still raging could plant a memorial tree.

In June of 1917 they planted 24 weeping fig trees, many of which have survived to provide the park with much of its character and beauty. It was, however, left in a very basic state for many years due to lack of Council funds.

orleigh fig trees planted 1917

Some of Orleigh Park’s 100 year old Weeping Fig trees. (P. Granville)

A brief look at the Park’s later history

saling boats orleigh

Sailing boats off Orleigh Park (State Library of Queensland)

Unlike many of Brisbane’s other older parks, Orleigh has retained is original footprint and character. There were a few tennis courts for a period of time and a bowls club was proposed but never eventuated.

The South Brisbane Sailing Club moved into discrete premises next to the river in 1956. Please see my posts Musgrave Park – The Early Days  and South Brisbane War Memorial Park and the Disappearing Ridge for very different examples of disappearing parks.

The tramway was extended from the previous terminus at the corner of Dornoch Terrace and Ganges Street down to the park in 1925, improving accessibility for the public. The tram tracks remained hidden under the road after the 1969 closure of the tram service until work for a new bus roundabout uncovered them in 2011.

In 1951, the State Government announced a plan to extend southside river parks from the South Brisbane dry dock around to Orleigh Park. This took many years but is today a reality. Orleigh Park now encompasses the land where the house “Cranbrook” stood. This was used from 1899-1906 as an Aboriginal Girls Home where any single girl or woman passing through Brisbane was forced to stay.  A plaque containing the Federal Government’s Apology was erected in the park in 2012.

The park has been inundated numerous times in floods, most recently in 2011.

Orleigh Park flooded playground 2011

Flood waters recede from one of Orleigh Park’s playgrounds, January 2011. (P. Granville)

Erosion at the bend of the river has probably been happening for thousands of years. There was significant loss of land during the 1893 flood.  The river wall has seen ongoing development over the years.

orleigh river wall

The wall at the river bend, Orleigh Park. (P. Granville)

With its playgrounds, BBQs and shade, Orleigh Park remains a firm community favourite for gatherings of all types, thanks to the forces of nature and the foresightedness of a group of local residents over a hundred years ago.

West End Wanderlust in Orleigh Park. (

Thanks to Nicholas Feros for assistance with the research of this post.

© P. Granville 2020

12 thoughts on “The Origins of Orleigh Park

  1. Goodonyer, Paul!
    Love your blogs. Could we meet? I’m hoping you can help me. I’m writing a five book fictional family epic, Queensland Saga, that also tells a story of Queensland from the 1860’s to 1988 (Fitzgerald). Three have been written, revised endlessly and beta-read. Book four covers from the early 20’s to 1943 and includes the formation of the Greater Brisbane City Council. South Brisbane’s municipal government would fall within your gaze and this is where I seek your help. I’m at Toorbul but with family members living in Brisbane, meeting at a time and place to suit you is no problem. Look forward to seeing you. Regs…………John Besley.


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  4. Re the photograph sourced from the Fryer Library looking across the flooded Brisbane River: some further clarification of the wording accompanying the photo.
    The family featured in the photograph is the Sapsford family of Emma Street, now Glen Rd, Toowong. The Sapsfords moved here to Emma Street in the mid-1880s and family still live here. They are looking down at their house in Emma Street from above on the higher land of Glenny Street. Their house is one of the flooded houses in the foreground of the photo. They are checking how far , if any, the floodwaters had dropped as they were anxious to return home and see what the damage was. So those houses in the foreground are in Emma Street.
    So the caption is alluding to the flooded houses in Emma Street. The floodwaters rose over the riverbank and covered today’s Benson Street and flowed up nearby Macdonnell Street, Toowong. This scenario was repeated in 1930, 1974 and 2011. The only high part here long the riverbank was Kayes Rocks. Toowong Creek, south of Kayes Rocks, flooded right up across today’s Perrin Park, and to as far as Taringa and across into today’s Oakman Park, then the Union Sports Ground, becoming a huge inland lake. The Brisbane River lies behind the flooded houses, and Orleigh is in the distance.


      • Thanks Paul. I am glad you thought my feedback was of use. At the next meeting of the Toowong and District Historical Society I will tell members about your blog, and particularly the above article.
        I am currently looking at the other photo taken from Toowong which I find very interesting.
        It is captioned A view of Hill’s End from Toowong in 1885.
        Where was it taken from is the question, and by whom?
        Two options as far as I can figure out by checking the angle of the viewpoint against a map. The first option is from above on the ridge from the same spot as the other photo was taken, but with the viewpoint slightly angled more southeast along the bend of the river. The fence looks like it is the same fence.
        Otherwise it could have been taken at Kayes Rocks, off Benson Street ( then called Roberts Street), outside the home of Mr Samuel Kaye. If it was snapped from here, I thought the mouth of Toowong Creek would be more obvious, and also the wharf along the riverbank.
        I favour the first option–at the end of Glenny Street overlooking Roberts Street. The first photo shows the fence, but that photo also features the gate on the left which opens onto a public walkway with steps down to Benson Street. The spot seems to have been a popular spot to snap photos from as several over the years have popped up, showing how the vicinity has changed over time. Possibly even that photo of Hill End in flood was taken from here too (or from Kayes Rocks).


      • Thanks Leigh. Interpretation of old photos certainly is an interesting task. I have one from SLQ from around 1884 that looks like it could have been taken from our back verandah but I didn’t realise this for quite a while. There’s been enormous change to the urban landscape.


  5. Hi Paul,
    I was wondering why Cranbrook house/the mission Aboriginal women and girls who were stolen from their families were sent to is missing as part of this historical write up.
    Is that not important?


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