Postcard from Brisbane III

Our first week in Brisbane had been great fun and it fully justified us spending two weeks here to better appreciate the city and all it has to offer. The start of our second week (Wednesday) was a Bank Holiday in the CBD giving everyone an opportunity, like us, to visit EKKA. We decided to stroll down to the start of Fortitude Valley in the morning which was when we realised how close we were to EKKA’s showgrounds in the Bowen Hills – we could’ve walked there!

Fortitude Valley is Brisbane’s evening entertainment capital, yet we were going to visit it during the day when most of its shops and restaurants were closed. Why?  – because the area has an interesting history and some of those historical buildings are still standing.

Early European Settlement

In the mid-1840s a Presbyterian clergyman, John Dunmore Lang, promoted assisted immigration as a means of relieving Britain’s impoverished classes. Acting in the belief that the government had agreed to grant the emigrants free land, Lang arranged the first of three shiploads to come to Moreton Bay. The first vessel, the Fortitude, arrived at Brisbane in January 1849. The free land was refused, but the new arrivals were given permission to set up a temporary village which beacme known as ‘Fortitude Valley’.

Religion and Retailing

During the 1870s and 1880s a number of churches of different denominations were built, an extensive drainage scheme constructed and schools opened, though Brisbane’s first railway line (1882) skirted the Valley.

Horse-drawn trams offered the main means of access to the Valley from 1885. Fortitude Valley’s rising commercial importance was best signified by the Renaissance style post office built in Ann Street in 1887 and the growing number of significant retail establishments, all department stores. The new shopping area was above the 1890 flood level, in contrast to central and South Brisbane.

Fortitude Valley had churches, chapels, State and Catholic schools, Oddfellows’ and Foresters’ halls, a public swimming baths in Wickham Street, numerous villa residences on the suburb’s outskirts toward the river and, in the other direction, the elegant new headquarters for the Exhibition (1891).

Electric trams were introduced in the 1890s while the group of department stores maintained the Valley’s retail importance for decades. Importantly, beyond the retail centre, there were substantial factories and warehouses.

Dark Deeds in the Valley

In the 1950s major retail chains from Melbourne and Sydney began to take over Brisbane and Valley department stores. The Valley’s retail strength dissipated as the retail anchors were closed, exacerbated by the rise of drive-in shopping centres. The industrial sites were now too small for modern industrial and warehousing methods, though some premises became affordable as galleries and for semi-retail occupations. Local employment dried up as people were attracted to the outer suburbs. In the 1980s Fortitude Valley was caught between a faded past and an uncertain future.

Recovery

A number of Malls, including the Chinatown Mall (1987) capitalised on aspects of the Valley’s cultural tradition and it became a middle-ranking retail area, known for Asian cuisine, entertainment and a fading history of illegal casinos and unlicensed night clubs. There are now 25 registered heritage sites in Fortitude Valley spelling out a brighter future for the area.

We discovered a neighbourhood of careworn character buildings that are home to a sprinkling of top art galleries, funky eateries, cafes and bars and some of the best indie shopping in Brisbane. The following week I had an opportunity to further explore the area, from James St down to New Farm, this time while the shops and eateries were open.