The foundations of Brisbane awoke from its slumber this week with news of the multi-billion dollar Queen’s Wharf development. An historic precinct hidden away in a little-visited area of William Street will now be revived, and perhaps even more secrets revealed, by a modern casino operator.
The Commissariat Store has stood on the site since 1829, and is one of only two convict-built structures left in Brisbane. This is where the vilest of New South Wales’ convicts were sent as punishment for repeat offences. Life here was cruel. Today the owners of Brisbane’s only casino are wanting another go themselves, and their plans include preservation of the Commissariat quarter.
The beautiful building is made from earthy coloured stone quarried from the nearby iconic cliffs at Kangaroo Point, and sandstone from Oxley Creek. The original mortar is easily discernible with its pieces of white parched oyster shell collected from Aboriginal middens on Moreton Bay’s Stradbroke Island. The bars on the windows were put there to keep desperate offenders out.
Convicts laboured with picks into the rocky site, constructing a twenty foot high retaining wall. The last time that earthworks were undertaken here was following the 2011 floods when the convict wall, and its oyster shell mortar, gave way to a burst water main. A large section of the wall was destroyed and part of the Commissariat itself.
From behind the broken wall came gushing water and hundreds, if not thousands, of priceless convict era artefacts. Whole pieces of tableware, bottles, pipes, and other personal objects revealed themselves from within the voluminous cavity. Many more were left in situate as the damage was repaired. Unwanted items had been used by the work gangs as backfill. Great lengths of streets today evidently rest upon invaluable relics from Brisbane’s brutal past.
As well as preserving Brisbane’s convict heritage, the Queen’s Wharf project might even unearth more centuries old treasures when it is scheduled to start in 2017.