Bulimba (with Bob Spencer)

Early Settlers

            The native name of Bulimba was “Tugulawah” (heart shaped). The first European settler was David Cannon McConnell who built Bulimba House in 1850 at the end of Bulimba Point. The house was built of grey freestone, obtained from the Black Ball Quarry – a site later occupied by Baynes Brothers, as a meat works known as Queensport. McConnell grew maize and oats as fodder for his cattle, which he imported for his pastoral holding he had taken up at Cressbrook.

Bulimba House as it appeared in 2004

In 1887 Edward Griffith, the manager of the Royal Bank of Queensland, acquired Bulimba House. Bulimba House is the oldest stone house still standing in Brisbane. (State Library of Queensland)

            McConnell had planned to make Bulimba his home, but found the climate unsuitable for his wife, who was in poor health. Donald Coutts then bought the Bulimba property, and after cultivating it for some years, cut some of it up into small blocks and auctioned them in 1864. When Coutts died the remaining property was sold to Thorpe Riding who cut it up into 4 ha and 5 ha farms that were sold and worked for many years.

            The only practical way to Brisbane was by boat, and the Bulimba Ferry dates from 1864 and was operated by John Watson, a boat-builder by trade, who also built Fort Lytton near the mouth of the Brisbane River. He also built the Mercantile Wharf on the bank opposite his home at Bulimba.

Map of Bulimba in 1875

            The earliest settlers at Bulimba grew mainly vegetables and maize, but in 1856 bananas were planted, and by 1862 they became the principal crop. At about this time, sugar cane growing was introduced with the first sugar being crushed by the floating sugar mill named Walrus, which steamed along Bulimba Creek and later the Brisbane River. Later, with the introduction of steam powered crushing mills, the Walrus went out of existence as a sugar mill, but later became established as a distillery. Walrus Rum was well known in the late 1860s.

            Later as the sugar industry expanded, more land was required for growing the cane, and the industry gradually transferred from the Bulimba area up along the Queensland coast.

Boat Builders

            As a young man, Norman Reginald Wright had spent some time with his parents on a mixed farm on Coochiemudlo Island in Moreton Bay. The venture proved to be unsuccessful and the family returned to Brisbane where Norman worked for the firm of Laycock-Littledykes. However, due to an accident, he suffered a hand wound and was unable to work for several weeks, and during this period he spent most of his time at the boat shed of John Hawkins Whereat at McConnell Street. It was here that he decided to enter the boat building business and applied successfully for a job with Whereat’ s. During his employment at Whereat’s, Wright designed and built ‘out of cedar picked up in the mangroves on Peel Island and scraps’ the ten-footer Commonwealth with which he won many sailing championships.

            In the off season, fishing trips in George Crouch’s fishing boats to the sand hills on Moreton Island never failed to secure ample supplied of fish. (The Crouch Brothers, fishermen, arrived from Botany Bay early in 1865 and later bought land on the river bank at Bulimba).

            In 1909 Norman Wright commenced business on his own account initially at Newstead. However, a Brisbane City Council decision to resume the water frontage caused the removal to Bulimba.

            With the outbreak of World War II, the Bulimba boatbuilding industry shifted to wartime construction and contributed all types of craft from small motorboats to coastal patrol boats, with the Fairmiles being the best known.

            Just as Norman Wright owed a debt to John Whereat for his start in boatbuilding, so too did he pass on his skills to many other boatbuilders, initially to the likes of Jack McCleer, Roy Bliss, Charlie Crowley, the Tripcony’s, and Lance Watts, who in turn continued the tradition as the Bulimba boatbuilding industry continued to evolve to the present today.

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)

Queenslanders (with Bob and Mardi Spencer)

I had met Bob and his wife, Marjorie (Mardi) Spencer some 20 years previously on the beach at Peel Island’s Horseshoe Bay. Bob is now well into his 80s and Mardi is 90 as I call at their comfortable old Queenslander home on top of the hill at Bulimba. In the early days, when it was first built, it would have commanded expansive views across the river and Brisbane itself. Unfortunately, other houses and trees have now stripped them of this privilege. A massive ship’s anchor greets me at the bottom of the front stairs – a testament to Bob’s lifelong fascination with Moreton Bay and its vessels.

The Spencers’ house ‘Mount Lang’

The original owner of this property was James Johnston who was one of Dr. James Dunmore Lang’s emigrants and came to Moreton Bay in the Lima, the third and last of Dr Lang’s immigrant ships. The ship arrived in Moreton Bay on 1st November 1849. Ships did not come up the river in those days. The passengers were brought to town in the steamer Tamar and landed at the old Queen’s Wharf where the immigration barracks were at that time. A certain Mr. Sutherland took James’ wife and her two children to his place on Windmill Hill, where they were put into a bark humpy which was built to keep out the rain. There was a terrific thunderstorm during the night but no water got in.

James’s first job was with George Raff at New Farm. George and Alexander Raff were merchants in Eagle Street. He then entered the employment of David Cannon McConnell as gardener at Bulimba House. James’ wife, Helen, was also employed there attending to Mary McConnell and looking after their first baby. After James Johnston had been working with McConnell for some time, he purchased 70 acres of land adjoining McConnell’s property in 1851 for £70 ($140). This was the first scrub farm along the riverbank, which he named Mt Lang Farm in respect of Rev Dr John Dunmore Lang who he thought highly of.  

James Johnston went into sugar growing and erected a mill at Tingalpa. In 1874 he had a bad accident in which his foot was caught in the machinery and was so badly crushed that he had to have it amputated. The sugar mill at Tingalpa was afterwards removed to the old home at Bulimba.

            Bob and Mardi’s home is a veritable treasure trove of Moreton Bay history. Bob shows me a roomful of books and photos of early Bulimba and Moreton Bay. He had been polishing a mint condition Primus Stove engraved with the Swedish Royal crest.  ‘Another thing I collect,’ he says with understandable pride.

            Here’s one of the photos Bob has collected:

1934 newspaper article ‘A House Afloat’

            Radio was the name of the passenger-carrying vessel in the photograph. During World War II it was used for towing target practice in Moreton Bay. Bob Dath supplied the timber for this house, which was built for Jim Crouch in McConnell Street, Bulimba. The house and contents were transported to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River on May 1st, 1934. Mr Flynn was the removalist. After approximately five years on Bishop Island, the house was transported back to the same site at Bulimba. In 1952 Ted Millis bought the house and he and his wife lived in it until it was sold in 1978.

            When Ted Millis and George Kretchman founded the boatbuilding firm of Millkraft, Ted’s house was moved further over on the site to make room for Millkraft buildings. The house was purchased by the Ramblers Parachute Club in 1978 and moved to Toogoolawah. It is still used by the club as their clubhouse.

            Another photo catches my eye:

The Crouch property at Bulimba (photo courtesy Bob Spencer)

            It’s the old dance hall from Bishop Island that I had used in a previous book (Moreton Bay People – The Complete Collection). The advertisement on the roof is a dead giveaway. So, the dance hall at Bishop Island also was transported down the river from the Crouch property at Bulimba – but unlike the other house, it never came back again.

The Dance hall Bishop Island (photo courtesy Ted Crouch)

There are dozens of other historic photos on the dining room wall, but time does not permit a detailed inspection. Suffice to say that Bob and Mardi’s home ‘Mount Lang’ is a veritable museum of Bulimba and Moreton Bay history, and one which is worthy of preserving for future generations.

Bulimba Point (photo courtesy Bob Spencer)

(Extract from Peter Ludlow’s book ‘Moreton Bay People 2012’ (now out of print)