Researching in Brisbane Again

photo of young girl dressed up as a nurse and young boy dressed up as a wounded soldier with arm in sling.

Like children in many parts of the world, Queensland children were affected by the Great War. This cover of the weekly newspaper, The Queenslander from 1st December 1917, is captioned, “The Spirit of the Times”. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

Over the last few weeks I have returned to my research roots. I have been exploring the history of Brisbane from the turn of the twentieth century to the beginning of the Depression. My client is interested in the life story of a man who was born in Brisbane in the early twentieth century who moved to Sydney as an adult. He went on to work in East Asia during World War II and then became a successful business man. It is a pleasure to be part of such an interesting multi-national, collaborative project.

Once again I have been exploring the education history of the time, the politics, the culture and the experiences of young people growing up in Brisbane during this era. Fortunately I still have the references and workings for my honours thesis which was about Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum held in 1910. Some of the work I did on that is relevant for my current research.

I gladly left our sodden house for a research trip to Brisbane – what a delight to have working lights and a good internet connection for a few days! I immersed myself in old records the Queensland State Archives and the State Library of Queensland as well as exploring the local area where our man had grown up. A good sense of place is important if an historian to portray the history well. There is nothing like walking the streets and visiting the places which are the sites of the history that is being researched.

Climate is all important in Queensland’s history. I was reminded of just how difficult February in Brisbane can be. The day I was exploring the local area the temperature was 38 degrees and horribly humid. Students had just returned to school for the beginning of another school year. There were stories of air conditioners failing in classrooms. Thirty hot bodies in an uncooled classroom is horrible. Imagine what it would have been like in the past with much larger class sizes.

I love exploring the history of Brisbane during the first decades of the twentieth century. Brisbane was a rambunctious, class-conscious and divided society. Take a look at some of the chapter titles in the book Radical Brisbane edited by Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier:

  • Sectarian Disturbances 1900
  • Larrikin ‘Push’ 1902
  • Baton Friday, 1912
  • Free Speech Fight, 1913-14
  • Conscription Riot
  • Red Flag Riots, 1919

And so the list goes on. Aside from these more spectacular disturbances there was creative assertiveness at polling places during elections, spirited debates in parliament including twenty-four hour sittings (during which I suspect the Hansard reporter had great difficulty staying alert) and a complex multicultural population contributing to the vibrancy of the city. More broadly, the state of Queensland elected the world’s first Labor government and a number of important events in the early history of unionism and the labour movement occurred in Queensland.

One hundred years later it is too easy to read about the tensions as a gripping yarn. It is important to remember that the riots, fights and demonstrations were the indicators of a divided society and angry people who were having difficulty negotiating the alleviation of their grievances. These problems detrimentally affected the lives of many people. Throughout this period there were deep racial tensions and serious injustices occurring throughout the state and indeed throughout the new nation of Australia.

All this was part of the cultural and political environment in which the children of Brisbane lived. But of more immediate importance to most children of Brisbane at the time was life in the home and at the local state school. Through electoral rolls, newspaper items, education records as well as birth, marriage and death records I am stitching together the life of the family at the time bit by bit. It is painstaking work but those tiny three-line classified advertisement can reveal a lot.

I returned to Sydney and found our lights were still not working. An electrician came and extracted over a litre of water from one light fitting. With that light fitting removed all the other lights now work which is a relief. On separate matters, our internet now works well and we will be able to cook regular meals again for the first time in a fortnight when our malfunctioning cooktop is replaced tomorrow.


Each week I have been adding new links to my Stumbling Through History Links page. I hope that this resource will help you in your work whether as a professional historian or someone who enjoys exploring their family or local history as a hobby. Check out the new links I added today.

8 thoughts on “Researching in Brisbane Again

  1. Hi Yvonne, I enjoyed reading your blog about your interesting research in Brisbane. My Dad and family were brought up in Brisbane – they were in the wave of English migrants who came out in early 1920s. Dad went to a State School. My grandmother used to worry about him when he became interested in Social Democrats but I guess that would have been through the 1930s. Brisbane was like a second home for our family. Regards, Carol.


  2. Oh I just love this! You write and research just as I hope to do! Thanks for this as it validates what I’m doing and adds ideas.
    I’ve just been reading letters from 1937 and my grandparents’ driving tour of Europe. Now I long to retrace their steps 🙂


    • Those letters must be so interesting! My grandmother lived and worked in Paris in the early 1920s but sadly nothing that she may have written about it has come to light.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am also just back from a conference in Brisbane. One of the most interesting papers was “A Settlement Geography of Brisbane”, tracing the movement and building-patterns of communities within the Greater Brisbane Area. Schools, as you noted, were the most significant facilities to be planned and built.


    • The urban planning and architecture of Brisbane is really interesting. In the area I’m researching houses on hills facing north-east to catch the breeze were the most highly sought after. Highly regarded schools, including state schools, and train lines also made an area desirable – nothing much has changed one hundred years later. The architecture of early twentieth century houses in Queensland is also very interesting.

      That sounds like a conference I would have liked. Are you going to blog about it? I would love to read about it.


    • I like your approach with the history of the Junction Park State School. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

      It is a shame that I could not catch up with you and other colleagues while in Brisbane. I didn’t even have time to catch up with family living in Brisbane or visit my favourite secondhand bookshop there.


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