Unlike most of Brisbane’s major early thoroughfares, Vulture Street has its origins not as an ancient Aboriginal pathway or settler’s bush track but as a line on a map, drawn without regard to terrain.
Vulture Street’s origin
The Brisbane Town Boundary description was published in the NSW Government Gazette on the 5th May, 1846. The southern boundary is described as “a line bearing east 140 chains”, or approximately 2.8km, from the western boundary, now Boundary Street, West End to the eastern boundary, now Wellington Road, Kangaroo Point. The surveying work was based on magnetic north, which at that time was about 10 degrees east of true north. As a result, Vulture Street runs almost 10 degrees south of true east.
The “NSW Police in Town Act (Sydney)” of 1833 created the position of Police Magistrate. Their major role was to suppress “all tumults, riots, affrays or breaches of the peace all public nuisances vagrancies and offences against the law”. They were able to appoint Police Constables. Policing of a wide range of activities was envisaged, from hygiene issues such as the keeping of swine and fouling of waterways and streets, to observance of the Sabbath. Their jurisdiction was defined by the town boundary of Sydney.
This was extended to other towns in NSW through the 1838 “Act for regulating the Police in the Towns of Parramatta Windsor Maitland Bathurst and other Towns respectively”. Brisbane was included in 1846, requiring the gazetting of the town boundary described above.
In 1847, in accordance with the Act, the new Police Magistrate with various hangers-on perambulated the Town Boundary in Easter week. Perambulation of a town or parish boundary is an ancient English tradition that was originally religious in nature. It’s interesting that perambulation was brought into civil law in British colonies around the world to ensure boundary markers were intact and not interfered with. It has been regularly performed in parts of the USA for 360 years.
The Act required markers to be placed at corners and intersections of streets, as well as along the town boundaries. Earlier markers were replaced in the 1850s by a set of ironwood posts. The image below shows one of these outside the original “Cumbooquepa” whose fence was on the south side of Vulture Street.
In Brisbane in the 1850s, police forced Aboriginal people to move outside the town boundaries during the hours of darkness and on Sundays. However, this does not appear to be one of the original purposes of the boundary. It was also probably illegal as for example stated by a magistrate in 1853.
What’s in a name?
The southern boundary seems to have remained unnamed until around 1855. At this time, growth in the town out to the boundary and development of a track following it, led to the need for a name.
A 1932 newspaper article claimed that Vulture Street was named after a visiting Royal Navy ship and mentions Sidon Street as another example. The author of a 1934 letter to the editor said that he had an original letter from Governor Bowen suggesting “the naming of streets in South Brisbane after ships of war that have been on this station, e.g. Vulture (and others)”.
Neither of these seem to indicate the source of the Vulture Street name. The first mentions of Vulture Street and alternatively Vulture Boundary, appear in land sales in 1854. This was some five years before Governor Bowen arrived in Brisbane at the time of the separation of Queensland from NSW.
Further, whilst HMS Vulture was in Hong Kong performing some gunboat diplomacy in the 1840s, the ship’s log indicates that she sailed directly from Singapore to South Africa on her way home and did not visit Brisbane, or return later to the East.
However, it would seem to be too much of a coincidence that at about the same time, five closely located South Brisbane Streets were all given the names of Royal Navy vessels that served in the Crimean War.
This war was fought between Great Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia on one side and the Russian Empire and Greece on the other over the years 1853-1856. Whilst best known for the incompetence of the various forces and loss of life in the Crimea, there were naval actions in the Black Sea and also in the Baltic Sea.
The paddle frigates Leopard, Sidon, Vulture and Odin were involved at various times as was the screw corvette HMS Tribune. Just who named the streets remains for now unknown to me. Perhaps the answer lies buried in Council minutes.
All of these street names occur in gazetted land sales from 1854 and on maps from the mid 1850s. There is no evidence that I have found indicating that any of the ships were assigned to the Australian Station or visited an Australian colony.
Odin Street was cut down and re-aligned as part of work relating to the extension of the graving dock and the wharf railway. It’s now known as Dock Street.
Vulture Street extends east and west
Vulture Street was extended west to Montague Road, with a bit of a bend around the West End School, the only one in its entire length. This is because the school reserve, originally a cemetery reserve, was set aside before there was any thought of the southern boundary becoming a street extending into what would become known as West End.
Brisbane was having problems with its cemeteries. In a 1868 letter to the editor regarding the Paddington Brisbane Cemetery, one correspondent commented: “At times the stench from the whole combined is so bad that the wonder is that half the city has not, ere this, been swept off with disease.”
The following year a new site was selected for the South Brisbane Cemetery at what is now known as Dutton Park. In 1865, the Queensland Government decided to sell the West End Cemetery Reserve, as it appeared that only one person had been buried there and the area was fast becoming urbanized.
There was a change of heart and the school, or rather schools as boys and girls were separated in different buildings, opened on the site in 1875.
Vulture Street East continues on straight from Wellington Road until it reaches Norman Creek.
A track becomes a street
Vulture Street slowly developed into a usable through road as Brisbane grew beyond its old boundaries. It’s hard for us to imagine now how it would have appeared in the 1850s. Many stumps of trees felled for fuel remained along the path of the bush track. There were numerous steep climbs over ridges. After rain, various little streams ran down gullies from Highgate Hill across Vulture Street to the swampy parts of South Brisbane and West End.
In the 1860s, complaints were made by residents that the street was dangerous to travel along at night due to the presence of many tree stumps. At that time there was no street lighting. Contracts were issued to remove remaining tree stumps in 1866, and the road was laid with gravel. In the 1870s, log bridges were built across some of the gullies.
An idea of just how much our urban environment has changed can be had from a 1932 newspaper article which describes the discovery of some of these wooden culverts, which were already by then some 4 metres below the road surface. They would be significantly deeper today.
The gullies could be quite dangerous. In 1883, for example, a horse-drawn omnibus travelling to the city overturned down a steep gully that ran along the side of Vulture Street near the corner of Hampstead Road.
From the 1870s, various cuttings were made to flatten the path of the street. The material removed was used to fill in low sections. Some cuttings go easily unnoticed today. For example, one in front of Sussex
Street caused some angst when the work was underway in 1886 due to a drop at the end of Sussex Street that remained for some time. The former height of Vulture and Sussex Streets is at the base of the church, some 2 metres above the current street level. The church was built a year before the cutting occurred.
In 1882, a large amount of rock and soil was removed from Hardgrave Road to level its path. The material removed was used to level out the slope that then existed across Vulture Street. As a result, houses on the north side of Vulture Street between Hardgrave and Montague Roads are all today around 2 metres below street level.
The largest cutting in Vulture Street was made between Sidon and Stanley Streets in front of the Stephens house “Cumbooquepa”, and was completed in 1889. The original path of Vulture Street involved a difficult climb for horse-drawn vehicles, inhibiting through traffic. Most vehicles detoured around the hill via Sidon and Stanley Streets. A large part of the material removed was used to raise the level of O’Connell Street which ran along the path of a low lying watercourse leading to the Melbourne Street swamp. (see my post Kurilpa – Water, Water, Everywhere ).
A contemporary description of the work underlined its impact at the time with the comment “when this work is finished, Stanley Street will be relieved of an immense amount of traffic, as the grade (of Vulture Street) will be easier than that of the dock hill. “
In 1952, the cutting was widened to what is seen today, with the loss of a large part of the South Brisbane War Memorial Park. (see my post: South Brisbane War Memorial Park and the Disappearing Ridge ).
The surface of Vulture Street went through the usual development of urban streets in Brisbane. Initially a dirt track, it was laid with white gravel made from porphyry in the 1860s. This material wore down quickly creating a dust problem.
The South Brisbane City Council’s chronic shortage of funds resulted in a deterioration of street surfaces over some decades. In 1896, they commenced the use of the more durable blue metal or basalt that had been in use for some time north of the river. Finally in 1924, Vulture Street was sealed with bituminous concrete.
In 1885 the South Brisbane Gas Works commenced operation. This led to the progressive installation of gas street lights. Vulture Street was lit by 1889. Whilst certainly a great step forward at the time, the lamps were of just 16 candle power, roughly equivalent to around 200 lumens. This is less than a 25W incandescent bulb. The lamps weren’t lit around the time of the full moon as they added no advantage.
During the 1890s, Queensland went through a severe depression and the South Brisbane Council was close to bankruptcy. In 1898, things had recovered to the extent that an upgrade was undertaken.
The old 16 candle power lights were upgraded to 70 candle power. This is still only around 900 lumens or similar to a 60W bulb. In busy locations such as adjacent to the South Brisbane Railway Station, the lamps were even lit during periods of full moon! These days, a light on a main road typically emits around 10,000 lumens
Whilst it seems that some experimentation with electric street lights occurred as early as in 1893, it wasn’t until 1918 that Vulture Street lighting was changed from gas to electric.
Traffic lights and widening
Traffic lights were introduced to Brisbane in 1936 with the first installation at the junction of Ann, Upper Albert, and Roma Streets. The first traffic lights on Vulture Street were at the corner of Stanley Street and were switched on at a ceremony in 1938.
There were problems with cyclists continuing straight ahead on the left of the street at the same time that motorists were turning left. Complaints were made that traffic was much slower than previously when a policeman controlled the traffic at peak hours.
This intersection remained a problem for many years, complicated by the tram line running in the opposite direction to other road traffic.
Further work has been undertaken over the years and Vulture Street is now 7 lanes wide approaching Stanley Street. On walk along the length of Vulture Street whilst preparing this post, I counted 14 sets of traffic lights between Montague Road and Wellington Road.
Buildings along Vulture Street
With the ongoing improvements described above, Vulture Street became a major thoroughfare. Many significant buildings were erected along the street. Below is a pastiche of images of some of these. Most are heritage listed. For information on each image, hover over it with your mouse.
Although a walk along Vulture Street can be a bit noisy with the heavy traffic, it’s worthwhile to admire the remaining buildings and to pick out all the cuttings. Try to imagine the undulating bush track of the 1850s!
© P. Granville 2020