Northshore History

The history of Northshore is intrinsically linked to the river. As an important fishing and campground for First Nations people, through a lively period as the main port of Brisbane, and now as the largest waterfront urban renewal project in the state.

The Ancient History of Northshore

Prior to around 4000BC the Brisbane River was an ice age stream, flowing into a vast floodplain covering much of where present-day Moreton Bay lies. As sea levels rose and inundated the floodplain, Moreton Island formed, and Moreton Bay took on its present shape. For the next two millennia, from 2000BC until around 0 AD, a broad delta of the Brisbane River formed, extending from Hamilton and Eagle Farm, up to Nundah in the North. The nutrient-rich former flood plains of Moreton Bay allowed sea grass beds to thrive, bringing dugong, and a vast array of marine life to Moreton Bay.

Northshore’s presence as a shifting series of tidal sandbanks near the mouth of the river, and the area’s proximity to the sheltered estuary of Breakfast Creek, brought an abundance of fish and wildlife. The hills of what is now present-day Hamilton provided the perfect backdrop as a place to fish, hunt, gather resources and camp.

Northshore at 6000BC

A rough outline of the Brisbane River mouth, showing Northshore circa 6000 BC.

Northshore’s First Nations History

Much of what is now the North Shore Hamilton area was known to the Turrbal and Jagera people as Yerrol or Yurrol, which referred to rainforest vine, used in hut-building and as a general fibre or rope. Nearby Doomben similarly referred to rainforest, meaning ‘a species of tree fern’ or ‘staghorn fern.’

Yerrol was what in the 19th Century was referred to as a ‘scrub’ – a riverine rainforest pocket. It and the fishery below it and towards Breakfast Creek was the ‘towrie’ – the main hunting or resource area – of one of Brisbane’s largest clusters of Aboriginal camps. It was also the area that northern groups, such as the Kabi of Bribie Island and the Sunshine Coast, were permitted to use as their hunting ground when staying in Brisbane. Consequently, many early settler interactions were with Kabi people staying in this area.

The ‘scrub’ extended all along the Hamilton Reach, forming dense patches bordering the river between Breakfast Creek and Eagle Farm. It was described in a historical report in the Brisbane Courier as being ‘very thick’ and as almost isolating the Women’s factory at Eagle Farm. Another, smaller patch ran roughly from Breakfast Creek Hotel to Argyle Street on the east bank and below Newstead House on the west bank, but the largest patch was the area that is now directly south of Kingsford Smith Drive. It ran from Brett’s Wharf east to the Royal Brisbane Golf Club – where the Northshore precinct now sits.

Yerrol towrie was important for many diverse foods. Wallabies, pigeons and Australian bush rats (rattus fuscipes) are described here and in Eagle Farm Black snakes were also often encountered in the area. Originally, large numbers of native bush rats lived in the vine forests. The area was also favoured by grey-headed flying foxes, bush turkeys, wompoo fruit-doves and topknot pigeons.10 The last few species rely on the fruit of the cabbage tree palm for sustenance, which suggest there were plentiful cabbage palms here. Flying fox and bush rat were especially important foods, and the work of catching and cooking these was done by women. They used special pronged spears to impale the bats, and nets to entangle the rats.

Aboriginal hunters from Brisbane, photographed in 1868

Aboriginal hunters from Brisbane, photographed in 1868

One of the best fishing spots in Brisbane

The whole Breakfast Creek- Hamilton area saw intensive fishing. A visitor as early as 1836 described the entire road from Brisbane to Eagle Farm as an Aboriginal “fishing ground” where large numbers of Aboriginal people gathered. With lines and four-pronged spears, Aboriginal women and men could be spotted trying their luck in their canoes on the river, or at rocky outcrops such as such as Garranbinbilla (Newstead Point) and Cameron Rocks. The catch included swans, pelicans, eel, bream, whiting, bream, jewfish, flathead, mullet, eel, dolphin, river mussel and prawns.

To the west of Northshore, on Breakfast Creek – near what is now the Abbotsford Road Bridge – lay a complex of weirs and traps. This was central to the economic life of the Hamilton-Breakfast Creek camps. It was even marked on early maps. Observers described it as ‘formed of stakes, saplings, and boughs,’ or as ‘big bough fences (which) formed traps, into which the fish got at high tide, and were easily caught when the waters ebbed.’ This suggests large structures similar to those used across northern Australia.

The location was excellently placed. Apart from the abundance created by the confluence of Breakfast Creek and Brisbane River, lagoons of York’s Hollow sometimes (after very heavy rain) drained towards Breakfast Creek, bringing even more fish. Thus ‘large quantities of fish were regularly caught.’ Chas Melton describes how, “in a few minutes…. (they catch) hundreds of bream, garfish, flatfish.’” What is worth noting is that Aboriginal people as sole traders used the fishery to supply Brisbane town. In fact, they dominated the fish trade in the 1830s to 1860.

“Until very recently the inhabitants of Brisbane depended mostly for a supply of fish upon the Aborigines of this locality, very much, no doubt, to the profit… of these sable sons of the soil.” Chas Melton, 1915

1840s map showing Aboriginal fishery and creek crossing

1840s map showing Aboriginal fishery and creek crossing on Breakfast Creek

A major travel route

Another distinguishing quality of the North Shore area even today is its importance as a travel route. As early as 1865, a horse bus ran between Brisbane town and this area. In 1886, horse drawn wagons were added as “feeders” between the horse tram terminus at Breakfast Creek and the Hamilton Hotel. The area was one of the first few places in Queensland to be serviced by horse trams.
Hamilton and Breakfast Creek were recorded by Oxley as being intertwined with many Aboriginal pathways, indicating it was frequently traversed. One route known to be used by Aboriginal people went through what is now Fortitude Valley, crossing Breakfast Creek (roughly by the Abbotsford Road Bridge). Here, Aboriginal people were recorded often swimming over. It then proceeded east and north along Old Sandgate road.

Kingsford Smith Drive follows the exact same track as an important, ancient Aboriginal pathway, amended by convict labour and upgraded over the centuries for stage coaches and cars. The reason the route is identical is because the hills run tight against the river, forcing any roadway into a narrow area of flat low land close by the river. The reason the road runs significantly northeast after Brett’s Wharf is that it once curved over the top of the rainforests and swamps that once existed there.

An important river crossing point

Moving by water was one of the quickest means of transport in pre-settlement Brisbane, and most pathways ran parallel to waterways. The Northshore area was important to Aboriginal people for its crossing points and its access to waterways. One was between the corner of Bulimba and Newstead; another from Brett’s Wharf area, on one end of the Yerrol scrub, but the main crossing was a bit east of today’s Gateway Bridge. Here the river became quite shallow (now much deepened by dredging), to the point that people could wade across on some days. The sand flats across the mouth thus assisted easy crossing, making this a popular spot for anyone wanting to get to either side. An early settler recalled how, opposite the mouth of Bulimba Creek, lay:

“…a fair-sized island, with a growth of timber on it, called Egg Island. The alteration of currents and the Hamilton scouring wall have now swept every vestige of the island away. …. The greatest obstacle to the river [boat] traffic was the Eagle Farm flats—a sand bank that extended from one bank to the other.”

Once a home to thousands

Traditional Aboriginal base camps were permanent spots that could persist for centuries or even millennia. They might be inhabited for weeks to months at a time, and even when not inhabited, they might be the home of passing visitors. During the 1830s to 1870s, the area’s Aboriginal camps featured more frequently in Brisbane news than any other camps. This was because the creek was considered a boundary between two worlds, with the Hamilton area being left for Aboriginal use.

The Hamilton-Breakfast Creek area was privileged to have some of the most important traditional camping grounds of the lower Brisbane valley. In 1823 and 1824, Oxley noted the area was ‘numerously inhabited’. Early residents remembered ‘six or seven camps’ with between 20 to 300 residents each, depending on the season. This density was supported by an extensive fishery, many resources, and proximity to important pathways such as the major crossing point on the eastern side (past Hamilton). The area was an important site of corroborees, and a major tournament ground was located near the site of the present day Hamilton war memorial. Hamilton war memorial.

An Aboriginal camp in Brisbane, typical of the era

An Aboriginal camp in Brisbane, typical of the era

For the first few decades after colonisation, Aboriginal groups were permitted to continue living in and around the Northshore area. Even so, by the 1850s, every evening all Aboriginal people – especially those selling in the streets of Brisbane – were chased across Breakfast creek by police, if they did not leave of their own accord. This effectively made Breakfast Creek a battle line, and this indeed is how it is remembered in the Indigenous community to this day.

By the end of the 19th century, there was drive to contain all remaining remnants of Aboriginal populations within institutions. Apart from removing them to reserves and missions remote from urban centres, Aboriginal people were regularly incarcerated in leper colonies, hostels, prisons, orphanages, mental asylums, women’s refugees, and maternity homes, among other places. Life in these institutes was Spartan and highly regulated, with considerable comings and goings.

These institutes effectively ‘swept up’ the last Indigenous men and women still connected with the dwindling former camps in and around Brisbane. In the vicinity of Kingsford Smith Drive—and not far from the former camps—were institutes such as Tuffnell House (230 Buckland Road, Nundah), Holy Cross (Magdalen) Asylum (Chalk Street, Windsor) and the Salvation Army Maternity Home. Each of these were places wherein Aboriginal people were incarcerated, along with other inmates. The Salvation Army Maternity Home was the last institute to be strongly connected to the Aboriginal history of Kingsford Smith Drive. It stood at what is now Cameron Rocks. It was important in the family history of many Indigenous families associated with the Brisbane area.

By the 1910s the camps had disappeared and there were virtually no Aboriginal people left living in and around the area now known as Northshore.

Colonial History

In 1829, Charles Fraser, the Colonial Botanist, examined the region surrounding Brisbane town to expand agricultural uses. Fraser explored the north bank of the river between Toorak Hill and north-east of the islands in the Hamilton Reach. He found a fine stream of fresh water of excellent quality and land he considered suitable to grow rice and, in drier parts, wheat. He thought that this area was far superior to land closer to Brisbane due to ‘a great saving of water carriage’. This land became Eagle Farm. In 1829, female convicts were moved from the site of the present GPO in Queen Street to Eagle Farm. A road was hacked through the rocky bank along existing Aboriginal pathways to connect Eagle Farm to the centre of the settlement in Brisbane. It is thought that these women convicts built the first Hamilton Road—which became Breakfast Creek Road and Kingsford Smith Drive.

Eagle Farm and surrounding farms were generally productive in the early 1830s with maize and other products regularly exported to Sydney. The discovery of the Darling Downs, establishment of cattle stations at Redbank and Coopers Plains, and the penetration of the Macpherson Range—linking Moreton Bay to Northern Rivers, New South Wales increased both the potential for successful agriculture and the importance of Brisbane as an export centre.

The question of establishing an efficient port became more pressing— but the bar of the Brisbane River was too shallow to allow larger vessels in. A sand bar starting at Colmslie and stretching to Hamilton allowed people to walk across the river with the crossing only one metre at its deepest, a situation which continued until 1873 when a flood increased the depth to 1.8m. The need to improve the shallow river bar so that larger ships could enter the river port was a key issue in Brisbane’s struggle for independence from New South Wales which persisted through the 1850s until success was finally achieved in 1859 when Queensland became a separate colony with Brisbane as its capital (named after its first Governor).

In 1863, Brisbane’s main racecourse in New Farm relocated to the northern end of the present Racecourse Road and stimulated a range of development. In 1864, the Hamilton Hotel was built by Gustav Hamilton, a Brisbane solicitor, and opened to cater for race patrons. “The Hamilton, as its patrons called it, gave the area its name. A small wharf was constructed at the end of the original Racecourse Road to cater for craft bringing patrons to the races.

Yachting became a very popular pastime on the Hamilton Reach and in 1865, a regatta was designed to increase patronage at the Hamilton Hotel. The boat races were conducted with more enthusiasm than expertise, in the opinion of a newspaper reporter. Hamilton was also the destination of pleasure boats taking patrons to the races as early as 1867, a practice which continued at least until the 1880s.

A map of Brisbane produced in 1887, with the modern Northshore precinct overlaid in blue

Northshore Port

In 1869, the 381-ton barque, Cabot, loaded goods destined for London at Hamilton and by the 1870s, the Hamilton Wharf had become a landing place for a ferry connection to Bulimba, a growing shipping area directly across the river. From 1871 to 1877, the river was widened and dredged, and a number of channels were created on the Hamilton reach. The population of the Hamilton and Ascot district boomed in the 1880s when several estates of residential property were marketed.

In 1897, realising the futility of dredging alone, the chief engineer of Harbours and Marine, Ernest Alexander Cullen, proposed an ambitious scheme to improve the situation. After surveying, studying and reporting on the river and its main cuttings: Eagle Farm Flats, Quarries Reach and Hamilton Reach, he proposed complex engineering work to train and regulate the lower river. He recommended constructing training walls at Hamilton, cutting off some sharp points and additional dredging. His scheme also offered a solution to another growing problem—dredge spoil—and he recommended it be pumped ashore behind the new training walls to avoid the expense of carting the spoil into Moreton Bay. Effectively he planned for the creation of the area now known as Northshore. He also urged the government to use this land and buy surrounding land and for future industrial land. Implementation of the scheme began in 1898 with the commencement of the construction of the Hamilton Training Wall, it followed the line of the “Hamilton Sandbank”. The wall was completed in September 1900 and was expected to cost £23,000. Construction started opposite the Hamilton Hotel and extended downstream for a distance of about 2,500 metres. Rock dredged from the Lytton cutting was deposited to form the foundation.

In 1904, Hamilton became a town and in 1906, the Hamilton Training Wall height was increased to 3.04 metres above high water. Land reclamation behind the wall required 17 million cubic yards (14,214,159 cubic metres) of dredged material over 17 years. An area of 750 acres (304 hectares) behind the training walls between Hamilton and Pinkenba was purchased to provide room for future development.

View of Northshore from Hamilton Hill, 1912

View of Northshore from Hamilton Hill as the first wharves start to appear, 1912

In 1919, immediately after the cessation of World War I hostilities, the Queensland Government announced that it would construct new cold stores and a wharf for butter and cheese destined for Britain. The government retained most of the riverside land at Hamilton (Northshore) and became the construction authority and owner of the new Cold Stores Wharf and storage facilities, which were completed in 1922. These stores were the major catalyst to wharf development in Northshore and were a vital centre for the export of Queensland butter to Britain.

The original cold stores at Northshore

The original cold stores at Northshore

In 1928, E A Cullen prepared plans and specifications for Brett’s Wharf. It was to be suitable for the largest ocean-going ships, be the same level as the Cold Stores Wharf and designed to carry two lines of railway tracks to connect with proposed tracks on Cold Stores Wharf. Provision was to be made for the storage and handling of general cargo, including wool and large quantities of timber. Cullen recommended timber for the construction of the wharf as it would last 30 years, be cheaper and quicker to build and was more elastic and able to cope with stresses caused by the wash of passing ships.

Timber at Brett's Wharf, circa 1900

Timber at Brett’s Wharf, circa 1900

During the WW2, diversion of port maintenance and construction equipment to more urgent war purposes interrupted normal commercial activity and development. Government attention was focused on the capability of the Port of Brisbane to serve military purposes. The major wartime construction authority, the Allied Works Council, spent more than £2,000,000, an enormous sum at the time, to increase available berths at Hamilton and further downstream. Naval use of the Hamilton Wharves became much more common after 1939 when the HMAS Hobart arrived at Brett’s Wharf. Reclaimed land at Hamilton was used extensively by the USA Army and Navy under lease and they took over the Eagle Farm Racecourse for the duration of the war, re-naming it Camp Ascot. The Pinkenba camp, at Meeandah, became Camp Damascus. The wharves constructed for Brett’s, the Cold Stores and the Brisbane Stevedoring and Wool Dumping Company were extended upstream and downstream and by 1943, they were almost exclusively used for receiving and despatching war materials. The USA Navy made their submarine base at the woolstores wharves in Tenerife and the Hamilton wharves became a naval repair base.

The port became a hive of activity immediately after the war as trade and industry developed rapidly. Bulk shipping of wheat, sugar and live sheep were important post-war exports. Ships bringing members of the Australian armed forces home from war regularly berthed at Hamilton. There were also passengers leaving Brisbane, in February 1946, the Mariposa left Brett’s Wharf with the last group of Brisbane-born war brides sailing to the USA to join their American husbands. Australian naval ships and those of Australia’s allies continued to dock at Hamilton for decades after the war. Ships bringing immigrants to Queensland after WW2 were also regularly seen at Hamilton and exports of food to deprived war-torn Britain generated great activity on all the Hamilton wharves.

By 1969, Brisbane’s first container terminal was built by private enterprise at Hamilton, however, by 1974, the Port of Brisbane Strategic Plan identified Fisherman Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River as the site for a completely new container port, better suited to the loading and unloading of large ships.

Urban renewal

In the early 1990s, the 1926 MacTaggart’s Woolstore at Tenerife, became the catalyst for the conversion of the largest collection of riverside wool stores in Australia into apartments. Inner city living and urban renewal was gaining popularity and the Brisbane River became a focus for public appreciation, redevelopment schemes and urban planning priority. Cycle paths and riverside promenades, enthusiastically received during Expo 88, became popular. During the 2000s, urban renewal of Northshore began at the western end, the old Brett’s Wharf site, new high-rise apartments, villas and restaurant, serviced by the Brett’s Wharf City Cat terminal. On the old Cold Stores Wharf site the new Portside Wharf, $750 million Brisbane Cruise Terminal, associated high-rise apartments, supermarket, retail outlets, restaurants, cinema and public plaza.

2021 aerial map of Northshore overlaid on 1887 map

2021 aerial map of Northshore overlaid on 1887 map

In 2007, the Queensland government passed the Urban Development Authority Act 2007 which created a statutory authority, the Urban Land Development Authority (ULDA), to tackle issues of population growth and declining housing affordability, with powers to streamline and accelerate planning and delivery of urban development and associated infrastructure. The ULDA were tasked with catalysing urban renewal projects and ensuring ‘vibrant inclusive communities’ were created close to the centre of cities. On 27 March 2008, the 304-hectare Northshore Hamilton Urban Development Area (UDA), was declared. In February 2013, the Urban Land Development Act 2007 was repealed and replaced with the Economic Development Act 2012 and all UDAs (Urban Development Areas) under the previous legislation became Priority Development Areas (PDAS). Economic Development Queensland (EDQ) took over responsibility for all PDAs including Northshore.

EDQ manages, the 64 hectares of government-owned land at Northshore and has planned and delivered public infrastructure projects to support the areas transition from an industrial port to a vibrant residential community including land decontamination, demolition of unusable old wharves, repurposing wharf timber, development of new parks, streets, pedestrian and cycle infrastructure, opened the riverfront up to the public, and establishment of successful and much loved placemaking interventions such as Eat Street Northshore, and the Northshore Tennis Park.


Kerkhove, R. (2021). Report and recommendations: Northshore indigenous history. First nations historical analysis produced for Northshore and Economic Development Queensland by Dr Ray Kerkhove

L Dean (Lori Dean) and H Gregory. (2020). The transformation of Northshore 1820–2020. A post colonial history of Northshore commissioned by Economic Development Queensland.