Brisbane Burns: How the Great Fires of 1864 Shaped a City and its People

Sharyn Merkley

"Firewood was collected from the bush which in those days was no further away than Ann Street (about two blocks). Bread was delivered daily from across the river at Kangaroo Point and milk from Tom Haye’s dairy just around the corner in Albert Street, where the cows grazed contentedly alongside the Australian Hotel.”

1864 was a tough year for the fledgling town of Brisbane as it struggled to throw off the shackles of its origins as a harsh penal settlement. Commerce was vital to this northern outpost and its heart beat along Queen Street - a rough dirt track lined by deep open drains and constantly rutted by the busy traffic of horse drawn vehicles.
Two devastating fires, one in April and the second, and worst, in December, swept through the commercial hub. Nearly 70 shops, offices and homes in Queen, George, Elizabeth and Albert Streets were destroyed, a terrible blow to the growing community.

This book is the dramatic, uplifting, at times heart-wrenching, historical record of those who saw their dreams and hopes reduced to ashes, yet survived to lay the foundations of the booming sub-tropical metropolis that today is Australia's third biggest city.

It brings to light the stories of both the ordinary and well-known citizens of early Brisbane whose lives were touched by the fires. Each personal story is connected by the timeline and path of the fire as it engulfs then consumes buildings, homes, shacks and livelihoods.
Here is central Brisbane, 1864, consumed by fire but alive with the family histories of such varied workers as drapers, butchers, jewellers, saddlers, politicians, policemen, hairdressers, publicans and ex-convicts to name a few.

About the Author

Sharyn Merkley was born in Brisbane and is a family historian with a lifelong passion for the lost stories of the city and its people. She is a researcher for the Genealogical Society of Queensland, which involves undertaking specilaist research projects primarily focussed on early Queensland settlers. She has worked on the Annie Wheeler Project loooking at the lives of over 2500 World War I soldiers and is currently working on an index of Battle of Waterloo veterans who settled in Australia after the conflict. She regularly volunteers as a library research assistant and is currently completing further studies on family history through the University of Tasmania.
With a specific interest in the local and social history of Brisbane, Sharyn was inspired to write the story of the 1864 fires by a chance discovery of a newspaper article about the personal impacts of the fire on the citizens of the young city. She was determined to bring to light the stories of both ordinary and well-known personalities whose lives were touched by the fires - people who contributed to the early commerce of Brisbane and helped shape its growth.

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • About the Author
  • Map of the Fires
  • Introduction
  • 1 Queen Street 1864

The Fire of April 11
  • 2 Edward William Fegan - The grocer who made history
  • 3 Rowland Illidge - The gentleman hairdresser
  • 4 Richard Ash Kingsford - Grandfather of 'Smithy'
  • 5 Simon Fraser and John Francis Buckland - A formidable duo
  • 6 North Brisbane Hotel - A treasure trove of tales
  • 7 The Brisbane Volunteer Fire Brigade - 'Useless', said the Press
  • 8 The 12th Regiment - Unruly Redcoats
  • 9 John Phillip Jost - A pesky pork sausage maker
  • 10 Robert Bulcock - A shrewd politician
  • 11 William Keith - Dented but not defeated
  • 12 John Markwell - The ironmongering tailor
  • 13 John Alexander McDonald - An indefatigable quite achiever
  • 14 The smoke clears

The Fire of December 1

  • 17 Alexander Stewart – the ‘Royal’ Scot
  • 18 William Hemmant – A purveyor of ladies and gentlemen’s apparel
  • 19 Emile Gaujard – The flamboyant Frenchman
  • 20 George Cutbush – A rocky road to success
  • 21 Donald Dallas – Dogged by disaster
  • 22 James Collins – A starry-eyed butcher
  • 23 Isaac Lenneberg – The Café De Paris
  • 24 Albert John Hockings – A legacy of plants, trees, parks and gardens
  • 25 George Edmondstone – Pragmatic Scot and honest politician
  • 26 Augustus John Kosvitz – Scoundrel or Saint
  • 27 The Victoria Hotel – A chequered history
  • 28 The Sovereign Hotel – Dispensing utmost civility and attention
  • 29 Benjamin Henry Palmer – Shadowed by misfortune
  • 30 Nathaniel Lade – A tragic tale
  • 31 James Robert Dickson – A most extraordinary citizen
  • 32 The curious case of Mr. Pillow’s Humpy
  • 33 Dawn breaks

  • Postscript 
Thinking Like A Surveyor: How Brisbane CBD Got Its Shape
  • Endnotes
  • Cast of Characters


  • Bibliography