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Published November 20th 2016
What Brisbane locals did on weekends in centuries past
Here at WeekendNotes, our team of writers happily spend our days searching out the best of the best when it comes to things to see and do around our fair city. There's no doubt that Brisbane has come along way in the last 20 years, bursting onto the scene as one of the world's largest subtropical metropolises, arguably offering more to see and do now than at any point in it's relatively short history.
But as the city has grown and changed, some of Brisbane's most charming historical attractions have disappeared to make way for the new – and while we can't have it all, there are some that we'd love to have back again at the very least just what it was like living in the River City in centuries past. For me personally, these are five I'd give my left lung to have reincarnated in all their former glory.
1. Whites Hill Teahouse
A Talbot car touring Whites Hill in 1911 (Courtesy of John Oxley Library - State Library of QLD)
Something about the words "Tea House' captures the imagination, and the thought of dressing in your Sunday best to sip tea and scones at a pretty chateau on of Brisbane's highest vantage points definitely sounds like a more romantic notion than the stock standard high tea packages at the CBD hotels.
During the early 20th century, one of Queensland's first commercial tourism ventures was located at the summit of Whites Hill, in what is now part of Camp Hill. Not only did the Whites family operate a teahouse from their palatial residence, the Whites Hill residence was also the quintessential wedding and function venue for important events in the period. Also onsite was an astronomy telescope and camera obscura – an entertainment device also known as a pinhole image where a scene was projected through a tiny hole onto an opposite wall, but upside down and in reverse.
After the owner Robert White died, the land was sold to Brisbane City Council where it served as an army training ground and observation point during the second world war. The Whites residence fell into disrepair and was repeatedly subjected to acts of vandalism before it was demolished in 1964. To the vandals I say, this is why we can't have nice things…
2. Brisbane River's Floating Baths
Swimming baths at Dutton Park, Mowbray Park and Southbank were a safe way to cool off in the Brisbane River - Courtesy John Oxley Library (State Library of QLD)
If it weren't for the threat of bull sharks, and that the Brisbane River is often a murky shade of brown, it's always been slightly tempting to consider cooling off in the Brisbane River on those days where the temperature reaches stupid.
For at least 70 years from 1857, that's exactly what bathers used to do, in properly established tidal baths of course. Because many people weren't good swimmers, these fenced tidal pools were seen as safe, family-friendly and a great way to cool down. You can almost see the city's residents modestly splashing about in their striped full piece vintage swimsuits without a care in the world, least for the water quality which was no doubt much cleaner in those days.
Floating baths were also supposedly shark-proof, with the most impressive where on the banks of the river where QPAC sits today. Other floating tidal pool enclosures were also established near the Eleanor Schonell Bridge in Dutton Park and at Mowbray Park in East Brisbane next to the ferry terminal. You can still see the rail and steps down to where the floating baths used to be today.
When it comes to cooling down in Brisbane today, sure, we have the chlorinated and overcrowded inner city Street's Beach at Southbank – definitely an impressive attraction for international and interstate visitors, but it doesn't quite have the nostalgia and romance of the 19th century river pools from the yesteryear. These days, for those looking to nod back to the former days of the city, the Spring Hill baths have been preserved as the oldest original swimming baths in the southern hemisphere, and Brisbane's first salt water tidal pool in Wynnum, built during the Great Depression, still provides respite to locals during the city's long, hot summers.
3. Cloudland Dance Hall
Cloudland's massive entrance arch was visible from many corners of the city (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
Many of Brisbane's more mature residents will still remember Bowen Hills' Cloudland Dancehall, hot to be confused with the Ann Street mega venue standing today who cleverly borrowed the namesake. During the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Cloudland was the place to be in Brisbane when it came to socialising and being seen.
Originally known as Luna Park, an 'alpine railway' transported guests from Breakfast Creek tram station up to the highest point of Bowen Hills to the entertainment complex, which also included a rollercoaster before being temporarily closed during World War 2. After reopening, the venue was known as Cloudland Ballroom, with its giant entrance arch visible from many areas of the city. Inside the venue was a picture of grandness, including huge decorative columns, dome skylights and many a chandelier. Cloudland was the place to be for any notable rock and pop concert of the era and hosted three of Buddy Holly's six Australian concerts and the venue was said to be Australia's finest ballroom.
Controversially, Cloudland was demolished in spite of no permit, and having a national trust listing in the early hours on November 7, 1982 to make way for an apartment building. Because even in 2016 Brisbane definitely needs more apartment buildings…
A rollercoaster inside a shopping centre? You better believe it. As a 90s kid there was nothing cooler than visiting the playland of Tops inside the Myer Centre, with the star attraction being the impressive dragon roller coaster. I've still got many a fond memory of pestering my parents to ride the dragon, "just one more time please!" while looking down from dizzying at the atrium and shops below. Undoubtedly the best part was the sharp turn before entering the pitch black cave at the end of the ride.
Also within the mini amusement park where the Event cinemas are now located included arcade games, a swinging spaceship and Ferris wheel. Tops closed down permanently in 2000 after falling visitor numbers and to make way for the cinemas that exist today. Snore.
Fun fact: The top floor of Adelaide's Myer Centre also was home to an indoor roller coaster and amusement centre called Dazzeland which closed its doors in 1998.
5. The Queensport Aquarium and Zoological Garden
A map of the Queensport Aquarium Grounds (courtesy John Oxley Library - State Library QLD)
Located where warehouses and shipping docks stand today, just east of the Gateway Bridge was the site of The Queensport Aquarium. Visitors would catch the steam ferry from a dedicated wharf near Custom's House to see what was so much more than just a simple aquarium.
The complex was a resort within itself set among 11 acres of landscaped grounds. On-site included a seal pond, shark enclosure, a miniature zoo, and a two storey aquarium building to mimic the popular traditional aquariums of English seaside resorts. To top it off a 1400 person concert stage in the complex held moonlit concerts and dances. Not to mention, the resort housed the largest collection of tigers in captivity in Australia. Before WeekendNotes existed, this was the place to go on weekends in Brisbane, and undoubtedly one of Australia's premier tourist attractions.
Tourism ventures are however vulnerable to the environment, and the economy, and after a flood in February 1893 tore down fences, freeing many animals and destroying the manicured gardens. After these events the shine of such an attraction wore off before the land being sold for subdivision in 1901.
Floods destroyed much of the Queensport resort in 1893, and the land was sold of for redevelopment in 1901. (Courtesy John Oxley Library - State Library QLD)
Today, we have the fine aquatic attractions of Underwater World on the Sunshine Coast and the Gold Coast's SeaWorld, but they don't quite capture the imagination of the excitement and wonder of The Queensport Aquarium in its hey-day. Of course, how could they?
Like many attractions that could be seen as counterparts to those listed above, because we have such easy access to them, and they become part of the everyday, with none of the fond nostalgia. Because they are so accessible and in our own 'backyard' many take them for granted. Only once are they gone, do we realise what we've lost.
Wow, Julian, love your article - very innovative! Not being a born and bred Brisbanite, you've really educated me - what novel ideas i.e. swimming in the river, an amusement park at the top of the Myer Centre - everything 'old' was 'new' to me.