The business of tourism: Queensland’s 1880s theme park

Tourism is a very significant sector of the Queensland economy. As have their counterparts in all kinds of Queensland businesses, Queensland’s tourism entrepreneurs have shown initiative, imagination, commitment to their goals and the willingness to take calculated risks to achieve their aims. Queensland’s climate has nurtured business enterprises ranging from the cultivation of sugar to cattle grazing to the celebration of unique natural attractions. The climate can also wound businesses: droughts, floods, cyclones can all be ruinous.

Queensport Aquarium Estate Map at Hemmant, Brisbane, Queensland, 1889. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Queensport Aquarium Estate Map at Hemmant, Brisbane, Queensland, 1889. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Tourism is particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and climate. Queensland’s first theme park, the Queensport Aquarium, was constructed near Hemmant in the lower reaches of the Brisbane River. The Aquarium was opened with great celebration in August 1889. There was far more to be seen than sea creatures ranging from seals to sharks. There were the ‘finest collection of tigers in captivity’, a black Java panther, a cheetah, bears, monkeys, an extraordinary collection of brids – parrots, cockatoos, pigeons, doves, English finches and black swans – and, of course, plenty of reptiles.

Flood scene at intersection Elizabeth Street and Creek Street, Brisbane, including a crowd of men, women and children on the corner, some men in a boat and a man on a horse. In the background across the water is the sign for 'Queensport Aquarium' and a part of Kangaroo Point is visible in the distance, 1890. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 66441

Flood scene at intersection Elizabeth Street and Creek Street, Brisbane, including a crowd of men, women and children on the corner, some men in a boat and a man on a horse. In the background across the water is the sign for ‘Queensport Aquarium’ and a part of Kangaroo Point is visible in the distance, 1890. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 66441

Admiring the animals was only part of the entertainment at Queensland’s first theme park. The huge concert hall was equipped with an organ which entered guests at concerts on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. There was also an Aquarium Band to serenade the ‘best singers’ who could be found in Brisbane. The Aquarium boosted the popularity of the area; land near the Aquarium was subdivided and sold as ‘The Queensport Aquarium Estate’.

The crowds who visited the Aquarium arrived by steamer from the Aquarium Company’s own wharf in the city centre. This was a package deal. The return fare on the Natone, the Woolwich or the Alice cost two shillings for adults and one shilling for a child. Moonlit excursions to dances in the concert hall became well patronised activities. The Aquarium and its hall were equipped with every modern convenience including electric light which was connected in September 1889.

Daytime activities included sports days to celebrate the new year, picnics on Foundation Day, as the 26 January was then known and, in May 1891, the amazing sight of a hot air balloon delighted the crowd. The Brisbane Courier reported, ‘Professor Fernandez, an aeronaut who has performed many remarkable feats in the Southern colonies, appeared at the Queensport Aquarium and made his first balloon ascent in this colony’, a feat which nearly ended in disaster when the balloon began to deflate and appeared likely to sink into the river. Fortunately, the balloon rose again and landed safely.

The Aquarium was not greatly troubled by the large flood in 1890, even though the wharf in the city was inundated. Worse was to come in the flood on 5 and 6 February 1893 which tore down the fences, liberating many of the animals, and ruined the carefully landscaped gardens. Before long, J D Campbell and the Aquarium Company advertised the sale of the steamers and, although picnic parties from the city continued to travel to dances and picnics, the grand theme park’s bright presence in the tourism spotlight had dimmed by the end of the century.

Helen Gregory – Historian in residence,  State Library of Queensland