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.
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
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.
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 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.
The house in the centre of this unfortunately indistinct 1890 image, located near the corner of Montague and Gray Roads, is possibly “Hill End”.
William (Billy) Mortimer Coombe arrived in Australia in 1836 aboard
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.
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.
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
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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” 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.
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.
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.
Something much worse than a bad smell was coming.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A brief look at the Park’s later history
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Nicholas Feros for assistance with the research of this post.
© P. Granville 2020