Arcades Road Trip: Brisbane, Charters Towers & Townsville Research

I’m doing a LOT of travelling as part of my research for my thesis. Recently, I did a trip to Queensland to look at the history of the nineteenth century arcades there. It was a fruitful journey that answered a number of questions that couldn’t be resolved through online research.

It allowed me to visit the sites & understand their location and placement within the cityscape of both the nineteenth century & today, and I also collected reams of information, images, plans, maps, directories, council records and other resources that will assist with my research.

Additionally I was able to gain valuable information through direct contact with the staff of the archives and libraries there that yielded some revelations. Some of the information was contextual and this was vital. Despite growing up in Brisbane, I knew comparatively little about its history compared to Sydney & Melbourne, as that has been  where my history and heritage work has focused up until recently.

There were four arcades constructed in Queensland prior to 1901 – while I say nineteenth-century a lot,  my study actually extends to 1901, in order for me to consider one of these specific Queensland sites, constructed in the year of Federation and on the cusp of the new century that brought great changes to the Australian urban landscape.

Two were constructed in Brisbane and both were the brainwave of enterprising businessman Henry Morwitch, who lived a truly international life throughout the British Empire and beyond. Born in Poland, he migrated to England, then Victoria, followed by New Zealand, back over to Brisbane (with a sojourn in Gympie), then to Sydney and, at the end of his life, returning to Britain. His two arcades were built on the busiest commercial street in Brisbane, Queen Street, in close proximity to each other.

These were the Royal Exhibition Arcade, constructed in 1877 and demolished in the years around World War I, and the Grand Arcade (fronting Queen and Edward Streets), built in 1885 and demolished in parts between the mid 1920s to late 1930s.

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Grand Arcade (front right) & Royal Exhibition Arcade (fourth building from rh corner), both featuring wrought iron verandahs, Queen Street, Brisbane, c1908, State Library Queensland.

Both sites are now taken up by commercial buildings featuring similar tenants, although certainly on a different scale. The Royal Exhibition Arcade was on the site of Macarthur Central, a large, recently constructed, shopping centre with diverse shops and eateries. As for the Grand, the Tattersall’s Arcade, part of the Tattersall’s Club buildings constructed between World Wars I and II, sits on the exact footprint of the Grand Arcade.

Macarthur Central, 255 Queen Street Brisbane. Site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade. Nicole Davis, 2014. Macarthur Central, site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade & several other buildings, 255 Queen Street Brisbane. Site of the Royal Exhibition Arcade. Nicole Davis, 2014.

The other two arcades that were built in Queensland were in seemingly unlikely locations, but at the time of their construction represented the progress and modernity of two regional towns that were booming, both economically and in terms of population.

The first was constructed in Charters Towers, nearly 1400 km from Brisbane, in the mining country of Far North Queensland. In 1888 the town was a city with a rapidly expanding population, drawn by rich lure of its gold discoveries and usurping the land of its traditional owners. By 1899 it had a population of 25,000 and was one of the biggest cities in the Australian colonies.

Entrepreneurs in Charters Towers used the gold wealth to create a European-style city, commissioning architects, often from the cities of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, to design buildings in the manner of the high boom metropolises far to the south. One of these was the Royal Arcade, today known as the Stock Exchange Arcade, constructed in 1888 for businessman Alexander Malcolm and designed by Sydney architect Mark Cooper Day. It was never completely finished due to Malcolm becoming insolvent, and today the back remains open to the land and laneway at the rear. It’s the only remaining arcade from the nineteenth century in Queensland and both it and the town, with its mining history and several heritage sites, are fantastic spots to visit.

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Charters Towers Stock Exchange building (former Royal Arcade), c1890. Photographer unknown. State Library Queensland

The last site I visited was in Townsville, 140 km east of Charters Towers on the coast. It’s a quite expansive city of 170,000 people. In 1901, the year of Federation, the Earl of Hopetoun, first Governor-General of Australia, opened the large municipal civic buildings constructed on Flinders Street. The structure, which took up a significant section of the block, included a Town Hall, a theatre, a licensed hotel, a market and a shopping arcade.

Unfortunately, not much survives in records nor in the collective memory about this arcade and before I arrived I doubted that it even was a real arcade in the sense that I was defining them. But I found some tantalising evidence in the Townsville City Library that did confirm it was an ‘authentic’ shopping arcade. This photocopy of a cross-section came from the original plans, which certainly existed in the 1990s, but now appear to be lost.

This amazing collection of buildings, built during a period of intense change for Australia, were unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1978 and today, the current municipal buildings, a typical example of 1980s civic architecture, stand in its place.

Despite the fact that the majority of these arcades no longer exists, seeing the sites on which they stood (and still stand, in the case of the Royal Arcade), allowed me to better understand their placement within the urban environment that no amount of looking at images or maps can provide. I also feel much more illuminated as to their place within the history of the cities in which they were built and the overarching historical narrative of those places.

The experience of road tripping to Charters Towers in particularly was fascinating as the bitumen road from tropical seaside Townsville took me to the dry almost outback of western Queensland and allowed me to understand the true feat of what was constructed in this now small town in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

I’m currently collating all the material and information gathered and this will figure in a longer case study of specific arcades that will contribute to my thesis.

This trip was made possibly by a Graduate Research Arts Travel Scholarship from the University of Melbourne. Lastly, a big shout out to those who assisted so much in my research on this whirlwind two week trip:

Brisbane City Archives

State Library of Queensland

Trisha Fielding and all the staff at Townsville City Libraries (Trisha, a historian, also has a fantastic North Queensland history blog in which she discusses the Town Hall buildings)

James Cook University Special Collections

Charters Towers & Dalrymple Archives Group, especially archivist and curator, Michael Brumby, who was excessively generous with his time and resources, and was willing to have great long chats about history with me.

Charters Towers Library

National Trust Queensland volunteers at the Stock Exchange Arcade and Zara Clark Museum in Charters Towers and the Hou Wang Temple in Atherton

The Stock Exchange Arcade Gallery (which allowed me to see the upstairs of the Royal Arcade)

And to the Royal Hotel and the Stock Exchange Arcade Cafe in Charters Towers, for giving me a luxurious place to lay my head and excellent coffee to fortify me!

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