The American manager of Brisbane’s electric tram system, Joseph Stillman Badger, brought the concept of the “trolley park”, or recreation area at the end of a tram line, to Dutton Park in Brisbane with spectacular success. However, the success was to be short lived.
Joseph “Boss” Badger and electric trams
In 1895, the Brisbane Tramways Company was formed with the intention of building an electric system to replace the unprofitable horse drawn trams established ten years earlier.
A contract was let to the General Electric Company for the controllers, motors and integration. In 1886 the company sent out electrical engineer John Stillman Badger to oversee the installation.
Progress was rapid with the first service along Logan Road coming into operation in 1897. By 1898, Badger had left General Electric to become Manager and Chief Engineer of the Tramways.
The origins of Dutton Park
Dutton Park is located on land which slopes steeply from Gladstone Road down to the river. There was an Aboriginal camp site nearby, around the location of the Boggo Road Gaol1and close to the intersection of two pathways. The route of one is now followed by Gladstone Road and the other by Annerley Road. Aboriginal people met and fished at the park location into the 1950s. The area would also have served as a hunting ground, and there were still kangaroos here in living memory. (see my post The Lang Family of Rosecliffe Street )
From 1879, much of the 77 hectares of “bridge land” which had been mortgaged in 1864 to finance the first Victoria Bridge was subdivided and sold (see my post The Fascinating Story of the First Victoria Bridge ). However, with Charles Dutton as Lands Minister, most of the bridge land more distant from the city was gazetted for various public purposes. This included a recreation reserve created in 1884, and granted to the then local authority, the Woolloongabba Divisional Board in the following year.
By 1886, the recreation reserve was known as “Dutton Park” honouring the minister. Over time, the name was used increasingly for the surrounding area, and from around 1917 it became a formal suburb name.
Apart from fencing and some tree planting, there was little development of the park in the following years. By 1904, there were complaints of vandalism, theft of plants and of
“gangs of hoodlums, who swarm the river bank gambling, bathing and belching out obscenities on Sundays”.
A “Trolley Park” for Brisbane
Joseph Badger bought with him not only technical expertise, but also marketing ideas. One method used in the USA to stimulate tram patronage was that of the “Trolley Park“, which was a picnic and recreation area at the end of a tram line. The first was established in 1829 at Coney Island, New York, where a horse drawn tram terminated. By the late 19th century, with the spread of electric tramways, their numbers rapidly increased. Many grew over time into large amusement parks.
In 1899, the Tramway Company was planning a new route branching off the West End line and following Gladstone Road past Dutton Park to the South Brisbane Cemetery, along the route of today’s 196 bus. Badger proposed leasing the park and constructing an artificial lake, pleasure walks, fountains, restaurants and assembly rooms. The South Brisbane City Council was amenable to the idea, as long as it was free to the public.
In the meantime, in 1900 Badger formed the Tramways Band. Early concerts encouraging tram usage were given mainly on the river bank at Hamilton but also at the Woolloongabba Sports Ground.
The Gladstone Road tram line was built in stages through 1901 and by January of 1902 was operating to the terminus at the South Brisbane Cemetery.
The Dutton Park lease
The tramways company didn’t make a formal offer to the Council until 1904, and it was another two years before the lease was finally signed. Dutton Park was to be leased for 15 years at a nominal £5 per year. The Company committed to spending £1,000 over 2 years on improvements and were to be responsible for upkeep and maintenance. They were not to charge admission, hold dances or sell intoxicating liquor.
The transformed park opened in late 1908 with a large fundraising fete in aid of the General and Children’s Hospitals. Special tram fares were offered and the route down Melbourne Street and Gladstone Road was decorated. With improved lighting from a 100 foot (30m) high iron tower surmounted by five arc lamps powered by the tram electricity supply, the Tramway Band started to hold regular concerts in the cool of the evening.
The 1908 park work included construction of a pavilion near Gladstone Road. Described as part hall and part kiosk, it was equipped with a kitchen along with crockery and cutlery, and was available for free use. Numerous community groups availed themselves of the facilities. The pavilion can be seen at the top of the hill in the image below of an International Order of Good Templars Village Fair held in 1909.
Richard “Dick” Stephens
Ipswich born Dick Stephens was chosen by the Queensland Government to work at the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition held at the Crystal Palace in London. There he became interested in developments in moving picture technology and returned to Australia at the end of the year with a projector and some films.
Stephens then spent 6 months touring country Queensland, but lower than expected audiences combined with the difficulty of generating power and the effort in setting up every night led him to seek a new approach.
He was convinced that open-air screenings in Brisbane would lead to large audiences, due to the novelty of motion pictures at that time. He approached the Brisbane City Council and almost had approval to use the Botanical Gardens only to have the idea rejected following objections from the head gardener.
Stephens was aware that Joseph Badger had established a recreation area in what he described as a “snake infested park” and that the expected boost in tram patronage had not occurred as mainly local residents, who walked to and from the park, attended the concerts.
There was a large natural amphitheatre, perfect for projecting films. The only drawback was the sombre view of the tombstones in the adjacent cemetery. Badger and Stephens soon came to an agreement.
The Dutton Park Garden Theatre
Stephens described the first event in his memoirs. It featured short films accompanied by the Tramways Band as well as the singers Flora and Andrew Kirk. That day, fifty tramcars carried an advertising banner “Dutton Park Garden Theatre Tonight” and Stephens paid boys to hand out thousands of handbills on the city streets.
On the evening of the show, a ship’s searchlight with an 80 kilometre range swung around illuminating suburbs which themselves didn’t have electric light. Mr E.J. Hickey recalled spending many hours with the search light operator as a boy and being able to see cows picked out by the light across the river at Carmody’s Dairy where the University of Queensland now stands3.
Fifteen special tramcars arrived packed with patrons, while thousands walked up Gladstone Road from West End and Woolloongabba. The crowd was estimated at 6,000.
In line with the lease conditions, entrance was by a silver coin “donation” for adults and a copper one for children. First-night delays meant that the crowd had greatly swollen by the time the gates were thrown open and the collection tables were knocked over. Many had entered by the time they were set back in place but the takings were still £50 with more from the rental of folding chairs for sixpence.
The shows continued twice a week for some 10 months. Stephens recalled that the biggest audience of over 7,000 was for a screening of the 1904 film “Living London”. Believed lost, a copy was discovered in the Australian National Film and Sound Archive in 2007.
An idea of outdoor theatres of the time can be gained from the image below of the “Paddington Pavilion” at the corner of Caxton and Castlemaine Streets also operated by Stephens and his partners.
In 1910, Badger decided to switch operators from Dick Stephens and his partners Dave Olgivie and Rod McCallum to one of their competitors, Hugh Black. Stephens was not happy as he had made numerous improvements and was making a good profit. He went on to run a number of the cinemas in Brisbane and later he and his wife Lillian operated a theatre in Paddington. Tragically, in 1932 Lillian Stephens was murdered at the couple’s Dutton Park home during a robbery of their night’s theatre takings.
Hugh Black’s mixed cinematic and live entertainment, a style then known as a “continental”, continued to attract large crowds. The Tramways Band travelled by special tram from the Light Street depot to Dutton Park, playing all the way to advertise the evening’s entertainment.
Children who couldn’t afford the penny donation for entry would rush to help the bandsmen with their instruments when they arrived, avoiding having to pay3.
As well as singers, the continentals featured a wide range of performers including jugglers, acrobats, club swingers, dancers and hand shadow artists. An estimated 10,000 attended one night in August 1910, but not all of the evening’s performers had the audience appreciation that they deserved.
Black had engaged the then famous tenor Philip Newbury to perform. In his memoirs, Dick Simpson recounts that as Newbury was singing
“thousands of youngsters surrounding the platform began to yell and cat-call, when Mr. Newbury stopped in his song and said “You hogs!, you dirty swine!”. The selection was never finished and Mr. Newbury hurriedly left the grounds.
“Moving Pictures” continued to be main attraction for audiences.
Upgrades to the park
In 1911, the Tramways Company built new theatre facilities a little downhill from the original site with a stage, orchestra platform, seating for 1,500 and changing rooms. It was opened on a November evening with a charity performance in aid of the Young Women’s Christian Association. A prominent performer on the night was local soprano and teacher Emmeline Ida Louise Palmer, known in the style of the times by her married name Mrs. Gilbert Wilson.
The tram strike of 1912
Also in 1911, a Brisbane Chapter of the Australian Tramways Employee’s’ Association was formed. Badger introduced a requirement that prohibited “the display of badges or any other token likely to lead to invidious distinction being made by the men, themselves or the passengers”. Relations between the two parties steadily deteriorated.
Badger wanted no union members in the Tramways Band and offered a share of the revenue from Dutton Park concerts as an inducement. Many bandsmen resigned as a result. In a later court case, one testified that
Performances continued, however there was a Trades Hall vote to boycott the venue which hastened its drop in popularity.
Although an arbitration hearing on the badges issue had been scheduled, unionists decided to wear them from the 19th of January, 1912. Things soon spiralled out of control and a general strike involving 43 unions was called at the end of the month. Stores were forced to shut and there were several attempts to dynamite and derail trams operated by non-unionists. Along with other entertainment venues, Dutton Park was closed.
Below : Police and volunteers in Albert Square. Police kept order at shops such as this butcher’s. (State Library of Queensland)
Permission for a major union march on the 2nd of February was refused by the Police Commissioner. The day before police had been stoned and a shot from a revolver had narrowly missed an inspector’s head. The march was held regardless on what became known as “Black Baton Friday”. The Police response got out of control and many injuries were inflicted on marchers. Two may possibly have been killed.
The strike began to lose momentum and on the 27th of February, the Arbitration Court ruled that badges could be worn. It was however a pyrrhic victory, as none of the tramway strikers was re-employed until management passed to the Tramways Trust many years later.
Hugh Black recommenced his continentals at Dutton Park in March, although lingering animosity towards the Tramway Company adversely affected attendance. Advertising was careful to point out that the non-union Tramways Band was no longer involved.
The end of the Tramways Band
In 1912, many of the former tramway bandsmen, wishing to continue playing, formed the Brisbane Excelsior Band which continues today as one of Australia’s premier brass bands.
Badger had offered to gift musicians with their instruments but a later disagreement led to a court case. Bandsman Billy Veal won the case, was allowed to keep his trombone, and became the first president of the Excelsior Band.
The Tramways Band and later the Tramways Employees Band continued to perform in Brisbane until 1918.
The decline of Dutton Park
The Dutton Park Theatre was run by Hugh Black until 1917, with breaks during the cold months. His “continentals” slowly dropped in popularity, as feature films became longer and an increasing number of suburban theatres, such as the “Lyric” in West End (see my post Tom Garrick and his West End Cinemas), were established.
In 1915, the South Brisbane Town Council agreed to an offer by Badger which included an attractive price for running a new tram line down Grey Street to relieve congestion and handing over the Dutton Park improvements for £1, in return for cancellation of the lease six years early.
The next year, the council built floating swimming baths at the park. Its positioning failed to take in account the tides and at the opening swimming carnival, the spectators laughed at the sight of competitors having to stand up to turn at the end of each length. By the 1920s, the baths were in poor repair and they were demolished after a flood in 1931.
The Council did some repair work and extended the pavilion before letting the venue to Charles Laker late in 1917, but the lease was terminated after just 6 months. The era of large open-air park film screenings had come to an end.
The pavilion was fitted with electric light and used by community groups from time to time, such as the children’s fancy dress ball held by nearby Saint Ita’s School in 1924. In 1925, a reporter visited the site and described the ruins of a toboggan slide, ticket office and dressing room, a dilapidated stage as well as the iron lighting tower, still standing.
In 1929, the Council issued a tender for demolition of the pavilion but following objections due to its regular use, part of the building remained and was used for some time as a Scout Den. It was finally demolished in around 1973.
Dutton Park became a sports venue with four tennis courts near Gladstone Road that were leased to local clubs, as well as a football field near the river.
In the 1930s, many homeless men lived in Dutton Park and in other locations around Brisbane (see also my post The Davies Park Story). Some slept in the remans of the pavilion. One newspaper report from 1934 claimed that almost 100 men were sleeping in the park, some having constructed quite elaborate shelters.
The park was used as a dump in the last decades of the 19th century and again in the 1930s and 40s. There was an intention to close the dump in 1945, however it was in use as a refuse tip until at least until 1967.
Dutton Park was further transformed by the construction of the T. J. Doyle Memorial Park Drive in 1949, cutting the park in two, and the busway leading to the Eleanor Schonell Bridge in 2006.
The park’s facilities at the time of writing in 2022 include picnic and barbeque areas, a children’s playground, a basketball court, off-leash dog areas and the former Scout Den, built in around 1986, and occupied by Birds Queensland.
It’s certainly difficult to imagine the park filled with 10,000 people enjoying an evening’s entertainment all those years ago.
© P. Granville 2022
- Indigenous Aboriginal Sites Of Southside Brisbane Dr. Ray Kerkhove
- JOSEPH STILLMAN BADGER: The Man and His Tramways Garry R. Ford
- Hickey, E. J., and Summers, H. J. Early Memories of Dutton Park / Compiled by H.J. Summers (1974). Print. (State Library of Queensland)
- O’Donnell, Dan. Brisbane Excelsior Brass Band 1912-1995 / by Dan O’Donnell (1995)
- Dawson, Christopher, and Boggo Road Gaol Historical Society. Absolute Fairyland : Heady Days in Dutton Park / Christopher Dawson. (2006).
4 thoughts on “The Dutton Park Garden Theatre”
Thanks Paul, another excellent job.
Dr William J Metcalf
Adjunct Lecturer, Griffith University,
Honorary Associate Professor, University of Queensland,
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi are you also highgate hill community news on Facebook? Cheers Candi
Sent from my iPhone
Hi Candi no it’s not my Facebook group though I post on it from time to time.