In support of the Commandants: subaltern officers of the Moreton Bay settlement, 1824 – 1850
Rod Pratt, Harry Gentle Visiting Fellow 2021

Legacy of a convict colony

When the British Government ended transporting convicts to the American colonies following the American Revolution in the late 18th century, Australia was chosen as an alternative site for founding a penal colony. The first fleet of eleven convict ships arrived in Botany Bay on 20 January 1788 and the town of Sydney, New South Wales was founded.

In 1823, British explorer John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in search of a location to establish a place of secondary punishment for hardened criminals and recidivist prisoners. While at Moreton Bay, Oxley discovered and explored the lower part of the Brisbane River, subsequently recommending it as a site for a convict settlement. He returned in September 1824 with a detachment of British soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Henry Millar of the 40th Regiment, who first commanded the new penal settlement of Redcliffe. This settlement was soon found unsuitable and in 1824 moved up-river to Brisbane Town.

In 1839 transportation to the Moreton Bay Penal settlement ceased and it closed in 1842 when Moreton Bay was opened up for free settlement. With the end of convict transportation the role of the British soldier changed to serving in the Mounted Police, maintaining civil order, protecting settlers from frontier conflicts with Aboriginal peoples and defending communication and trade routes as the pastoral frontier expanded.

(Above: The Old Windmill Brisbane Image: JOL SLQ Neg No 11359)

Today, little remains of the legacy from Moreton Bay’s convict era apart from structures such as the Commissariat Store, the old Windmill, some archaeological remains at Redcliffe and Dunwich, as well as numerous place-names. Looking at Queensland’s SE corner there are examples of Hilliard’s Creek (George Hilliard 28th Regiment), Mount Gravatt (George Gravatt 28th Regiment), Logan Creek and Logan River after Patrick Logan, Mount Cotton (Major Sydney Cotton 28th Regiment), Clunie’s Flats (James Clunie 17th Regiment), Gorman’s Gap (Owen Gorman 80th Regiment), Lockyer Creek (Major Edmund Lockyer 57th Regiment), Norman Creek (Sgt John Norman 40th Regiment), Ovens Head (Lieutenant John Ovens 57th Regiment ( not to be confused with his more famous uncle Major John Ovens also of the 57th Regiment), and even Coochiemudlo Island was once named Innes Island after Lt Joseph Long Innes 39th Regiment.

Moreton Bay was just one among many postings in the Australasian Colonies but, with the closure of small outposts in the continent’s north, in what later became the Northern Territory, Moreton Bay became the most remote garrison in Britain’s global empire. From 1824 to 1869 approximately 1,500 British soldiers served at Moreton Bay.