The land occupied by Davies Park was described by an early European settler in Brisbane as part of an “immense jungle” which extended along the length of the riverbank where Montague Road now runs. This area of rainforest was an important hunting ground for its traditional custodians.
After the commencement of free European settlement in 1842, the land was soon surveyed, sold and cleared. Its proximity to the fledgling settlement of Brisbane and its fertile soil made this land important in supporting the growing demand for vegetables, fruit, grain and milk.
For decades the riverbank was lined with market gardens, orchards and dairies. Gradually the farms were sold off and either subdivided for housing or reused for industry.
The birth of the park
Towards the end of the century, community agitation for more areas dedicated to sport and recreation was on the rise. The population of South Brisbane and West End had grown rapidly and with only Musgrave Park available (see my post Musgrave Park – The Early Days), sports matches, community picnics and other events were often held on vacant private land, which was fast disappearing.
By the late 1890s, one of the few large blocks of vacant land available for purchase in the area was a dairy paddock located between the Gas Works and Montague Estate. It was in part low lying land, traversed by a creek that originally ran from Kurilpa Swamp into the river near Musgrave Street (see my post Kurilpa – Water, Water, Everywhere ).
The Montague Estate had been subdivided and sold in 1885.
The South Brisbane Gas Company established their works in the same year.
Over an extended period, the South Brisbane Town Council and the West End Reserve Committee lobbied the Colonial Government for financial assistance in purchasing the land. The Committee also organised various fund raising activities such as concerts.
Finally, in July of 1900, the Government agreed to give the Council a grant of £1,500 along with a loan of £3,000 to be paid back, with interest, over 40 years. It was finally fully repaid in 1966.
Prominent amongst those whose efforts led to this successful outcome was local pharmacist John Davies, who served as an alderman on the Council and as chairman of the Reserve Committee. He had operated his business at the corner of Boundary and Vulture Streets since the late 1880s.
The chemist shop, at what was known as “Davies Corner” up until the 1960s, was later run by a nephew. There’s still a chemist at this location today.
John and his wife Sarah lived in a house in Granville Street, West End, that they called “Orleton ” after their home town in Lancashire.
The park was initially named the West End Reserve, but following the receipt of a petition in 1909 signed by 600 local residents, the Council renamed it Davies Park, in recognition of John’s efforts to secure the land. He died two years later.
Filling a need
After the opening of the reserve at the end of 1901, both cricket and rugby matches began to be held. The park was fenced, shade trees were planted and seating was provided along the river and around the cricket ground.
Both South Brisbane and West End Cricket clubs were based at the West End Reserve. The South Brisbane Cricket Club was formed in 1897 and continues today.
In the image above, John Davies is seated in the middle row, second from the left. In the back row, second from the left is Albert Henry. He was one of the first Aboriginal Australians to play first class cricket and was reputedly the world’s fastest bowler at the time.
Community fund raising continued to pay for improvements. For example, in 1908 a fancy dress cricket match between the “Sons of Rest” and the “Has-beens” attracted over 2,000 spectators.
One problem that persisted for some years was the use of rubbish for fill in the gully that traversed the park near Montague Road. Not only did this give out a foul smell, but it also occasionally spontaneously combusted with smoke blowing across nearby streets for days.
Following on from the break away in 1895 of the “Northern Union” in England, the Queensland Rugby League was founded in 1908. The South Brisbane Rugby League Club, later known as the Carlton Football Club, played in the initial 1909 Brisbane competition. In the following year a West End Club was formed. Both were based at Davies Park.
A grandstand was built in 1914 and opened with the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Alderman Davies.
After the outbreak of World War 1, sporting events dropped off although Rugby League games continued, adding to the code’s popularity. Patriotic Carnivals were held around the country to raise money for sick, wounded and disabled returned soldiers and their dependents. An early one held in September of 1914 started with a long procession from the city to Davies Park where fund raising events took place.
The following year, further fund raising supported by major retailers culminated in another carnival. A crowd of around 6,000 came to watch the Queen of Queens, Grace Perry of T.C. Beirne & Co., crowned and to enjoy the entertainment including foot races and a regatta.
The roaring 20s
After the war, there was competition between the Rugby Union and Rugby League organisations for the limited playing fields available in Brisbane. In 1919, both sought a lease on Davies Park. Rugby League was successful. The touring All Blacks, at that time playing Rugby League, played in the park later that year. Queensland won, 26 to 13.
In addition to the football lease, the Council sought further income in 1919 by calling for tenders for the right to graze stock in the park!
Cricket competition matches took a bit longer to restart than football, with the first post-war senior match between South Brisbane and Woolloongabba taking place in October, 1922.
The swimming pool
A further parcel of land, adjacent to the river where the Commercial Rowing Cub shed is now located, was purchased by the South Brisbane Council and a swimming pool was opened there at the end of 1921 with a carnival involving five district primary schools. Unusually, the pool bottom sloped downward from side to side rather than from end to end.
The City Pastime Swimming Club was formed in 1924 and was active in the Davies Park pool until at least the 1950s. The pool was closed in 1967 when the Musgrave Park pool was opened.
Below : The Davies Park pool on the opening day in 1921, prize winners from a BSHS swimming carnival, 1926 and Salisbury SHS students at the pool in 1965.
While the main use of the park was for sport, the riverside developed into a popular and attractive place of recreation and bands occasionally performed on weekends. Special events also were held.
In 1922, despite the protestations of those who opposed boxing as pandering to the baser instincts for profit and a threatened injunction by the Progress Association, the Council granted a licence for the first and possibly the only prize fight to be held at Davies Park. Under a hot January sun, unusually for the time, men took their coats off. A big turnup was expected, as the organisers had announced that “women’s presence would be acceptable”. Only 2 women were spotted by a journalist covering the event. Archie Bradley, the “Idol of Gympie”, narrowly defeated Harvey Stone, the “Wizard of the Ring”, on points.
In 1918, the Seventh Day Adventist Church held a national conference and camp in the park. This was repeated in 1926 when six marquees and 112 accommodation tents catered for the 700 attendees.
Encouraged by good attendance at equestrian events in the park, the Progress Association inaugurated a South Brisbane Show in April of 1923. Some 8,000 people attended.
As well as ring events, there was the usual judging of entries of cooking, dogs, poultry, bees, flowers, vegetables, needlework and schoolwork. By the time of the 3rd annual show held in 1925, there were 300 dogs, and 200 entries in both the cooking and poultry categories. This seems to have been the last time the event was held.
In the 1920s, a motorcycle craze led to the beginning of speedway racing. The entrepreneur A. J. Hunting established a speedway at the Brisbane Exhibition Grounds in 1926, but problems there led him to seek Council permission to build a track at Davies Park. The major lessee of the park, the Rugby League, agreed and the track was built circling the football field.
The speedway opened on a chilly August evening in 1927, with a crowd of 6,000 in attendance. As well as motorcycles, there were car and bicycle races. One rider lost control of his motorbike and it jumped the safety fence, knocking out a boy. One woman fainted and another received a blow to the hip. All recovered after ambulance attention.
With crowds of up to 13,000 attending on Wednesday and Saturday nights, a tram loop line was built in 1927, dropping patrons off at the gate. A ferry service also ran at times, calling at various points down the river.
Whilst the speedway brought money and jobs to West End, not all residents were happy. There were complaints about the noise that one correspondent to the Brisbane Courier described as “an inferno of diabolical sounds, interspersed with the shrieks and yells of admirers of the contestants, which completely beggar description. “
In 1929, Irish born Fay Taylour, known as “Flying Fay”, made a series of appearances at Davies Park during an Australian tour in which she won many races.
By 1931, attendance was dropping and the speedway closed in 1932. This was probably due to a combination of the loss of many top riders who were pursuing opportunities overseas and the depression enveloping the country.
Tony Webb1 describes the Davies Park speedway as “one of the first purpose built speedways in the world that truly combined all of the basic themes of spectacle, crowd participation, sponsorship, noise and excitement in a two hour package.”
As the decade drew to an end, the worsening economic conditions led to a rapid rise in unemployment. A camp grew on the fringes of Davies Park, a location which allowed the men living there to pick up day work in nearby South Brisbane and in the city. Despite attempts to evict them after local residents’ complaints, the camp remained until the early 1940s.
More sport and another war
After the closure of the speedway, all sorts of ideas surfaced for use of the park, including tin-hare coursing and night trotting. None came to fruition. The depression continued and the numbers of paying spectators dropped off. The Brisbane Rugby League successfully sought a reduction in rent.
A common sight along the park riverbank was of hundreds of people lined up shoulder to shoulder fishing for perch. Mick Crocker, who was one of Brisbane Rugby League’s finest lock forwards and grew up in West End , recalled ” You’d catch a sugar bag full and take ’em home to put through the mincer because they were full of bones. Those fish kept food on the table for a lot of families during the hard years”.3
In the 1930s, baseball became popular in Australia and women’s teams started to use the park for their games from around 1937.
The Brisbane State High School was leased a small portion of land next to the swimming pool in 1935 and a rowing shed was built there.
The old grandstand was demolished in 1934 and the oval reconstructed in 1938 with the financial support of Queensland Cricket. Competition recommenced at Davies Park in 1939 only to be interrupted by war.
During World War 2, only the swimming pool remained in operation and the rest of the park became a military site. Sport continued at nearby Musgrave Park which was not used by the military (see my post More Tales from Musgrave Park ).
The Australian Army 3rd Base Post Office and a United States Navy receiving barracks were based in the park. There were also drills for air raid readiness with large numbers of volunteers as well as professionals practising bomb disposal, rescue and demolition, first aid and fire fighting. These attracted curious spectators. For more on this topic, see my post Brisbane Prepares for Air Raids .
Below: Scenes from air raid response drills at Davies Park in 1942 and 1943.
The first public sporting event held after the war seems to have been a cricket match between Combined Services and Brisbane City towards the end of 1945 when the park was still under military control.
It wasn’t until 1953 that the ex-army igloos visible in the image above were removed, allowing the reuse of oval number 2.
After the war, Davies Park continued as a sporting venue. The Souths Rugby League team went through a highly successful period, winning 4 premierships over a period of 9 years. In 1978, the main oval was named after Bill Tyquin who was the team captain in 1949 and also captained the Australian team on three occasions. Souths became known as the Magpies in the 1960s, triggered by the number of the birds commonly seen in the park.
In 2013, the oval saw the Badu Island Argun Warriers defeat the Newcastle Yowies in what some called an Indigenous State of Origin equivalent.
The South Brisbane Cricket Club continued to use the park until 1960, when they moved to Fehlberg Park in Yeronga.
As always the park was used for other activities from time to time.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Council’s long term plan for a river side drive came to fruition. This cut the park off from the river, but with the closing of the through road and construction of bike and walking paths in recent years, the connection has returned. In 1979, the stripping tower from the Gas Works was relocated to the park as an historical display and the remnants of the works were demolished in 2003.
Below : The riverbank at Davies Park at left and the view looking towards the park from the William Jolly Bridge at right ca. 1950.
Sports remains the major land use of Davies Park as it has been for 120 years. Number 1 oval is the home of the Souths Logan Magpies Rugby League Club. Number 2 oval is used by several soccer clubs. There was also a beach volley ball court, now replaced by a basketball court. A mini skate board plaza is popular.
Occasionally, the football ground is used for other purposes such as the Livid Music Festival in from 1991 to 1996.
The Brisbane Grammar School boat shed was built in 1974. The Council built a rowing complex on the site of the swimming pool and old BSHS shed in 2002, currently occupied by the Commercial Rowing Club and a number of schools.
A well tended community garden recalls the land usage of the mid 19th century. A popular market takes place every Saturday, bringing crowds back to enjoy the riverbank. At the time of writing there were more changes to the park planned as it continues to evolve to meet community needs.
There are two plaques remembering sportsmen in the park.
A plaque and fountain near Montague Road commemorate Jim Montgomery. Jim, who lived in Granville Street, West End, was a strong supporter of both the Souths Rugby League and City Pastime Swimming Clubs at Davies Park. He served in committee positions for both for many years. His daughter Lyra Lister ran the Souths canteen for decades.
Located near the river and the Commercial Rowing Club shed, the cairn mounted plaque commemorating Alfred Baynes was originally located at North Quay near the previous rowing shed. Baynes, a member of Commercial, was undefeated Queensland Sculls champion over 6 years and Australian champion in 1920 and 1928. He competed with good results at Henley. Baynes died from blood poisoning at just 33 years of age, leaving a widow and baby daughter.
1. Webb, Anthony Brian (2009). Speedway tonight : Davies Park Speedway 1927-1932. Boolarong Press, Brisbane
3. “Glory, Glory to the Magpies” by Roger Waite
4. South Brisbane District Cricket Club History Compiled By Clayton Bradford (Based on the 100 Year Book by Athol Fulwood)
© P. Granville 2021