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The Trailblazing ketch Dawn
The Trailblazing ketch Dawn
By David Jones of the Qld Maritime Museum
Recalling Queenland's Centenary Print E-mail

by David Jones of the Queensland Maritime Museum

The aircraft carrier HMS Centaur arrives in Brisbane on December 8, 1959 to participate in celebrations of Queensland’s centenary.

June 6, 1859 was a day like any other in Brisbane.  But on the other side of the world Queen Victoria was signing a proclamation separating a new colony named Queensland from New South Wales, and granting it self-government.  The date is now celebrated as Queensland Day, but in 1859 communications were slow and it was not until December 10 that Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen stepped ashore where the Botanic Gardens now stand and was driven through dusty streets to Government House, now the Deanery at St John’s Cathedral.  From its balcony he read the proclamation declaring Queensland’s independent status.  Governor Bowen and his beautiful young wife, Lady Georgina Diamantina, had arrived in Moreton Bay the previous evening aboard the sloop of war HMS Cordelia.  In the morning they transferred to Captain Robert Towns’s 161 tonne paddle steamer Breadalbane for passage up-river amidst great rejoicing and festivities.

This year Queensland commemorates its sesqui-centenary, Q150, with activities throughout the year recalling our heritage and celebrating 150 years of achievement.  While sharing in these festivities, many Queenslanders will remember the excitement and spectacle of Queensland’s centenary in 1959.  Then also, the party continued all year with a range of impressive maritime events and high-profile visitors included.

First on the nautical calendar was the Centenary Brisbane to Gladstone Ocean Yacht Race which commenced off Shorncliffe pier on Good Friday, March 27.  There were 15 starters ranging from the 20m Kurrewa IV down to the 8.5m Cimba.  But form was with Sydney’s 17.4m Bermudan sloop Solo which had won the previous year’s race in a record time of just under 35 hours.  The fleet struck storms on its first night out forcing some vessels to withdraw.  In the event only nine yachts finished with Solo again the winner in a time of 533/4 hours.  Solo has become well known along the coast over the years since, most recently cruising out of Manly Boat Harbour.

A month later the USA honoured Queensland’s centenary by sending an imposing goodwill visitor to Brisbane for the annual Coral Sea Week commemoration.  This was the heavy cruiser USS Bremerton of 17,200 tonnes, the largest and most powerful American warship seen in Brisbane up to that time.  With her was a submarine, USS Blackfin, and both were thrown open for public inspection during their stay.  Concurrently with their visit an industries fair was being held at the RNA show grounds showcasing the latest technology and machinery being used in a wide range of Australian activities.

Australia’s military recognition of Queensland’s centenary focused on the Queen’s Birthday, June 15, when a Royal Review was held in Victoria Park.  The Navy’s flagship HMAS Melbourne was in port for the occasion.  Her sailors joined with Army and Air Force personnel for the parade and her aircraft outnumbered those of the RAAF in the review’s fly-past. 

A more impressive Naval presence came six months later when Britain sent a task group led by the aircraft carrier HMS Centaur for the major celebrations on December 10.  On the wharf to meet Centaur was Sister Eileen Savage, the only nurse to survive the wartime sinking of the hospital ship Centaur off Moreton Island 16 years earlier.  The task group came from the Royal Navy’s Far Eastern Fleet with its Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir Gerald Gladstone, present in his flag frigate HMS Alert.


Princess Alexandra leaves a civic welcome at the City Hall on August 18, 1959. photo courtesy State Library of Queensland neg no 30157.

Undoubted highlight of the year was the royal visit by Princess Alexandra of Kent in August and September.  Young, vivacious, and glamourous, she spent three weeks touring the State, making a great impression and being warmly welcomed everywhere she went.  The Brisbane River became the centre of attention on Saturday 22 with the Centenary Regatta held on Milton Reach.  A continuous program saw eight hours of water skiing, canoe, speed boat, rowing, outboard runabout, yachting and rescue events.  The high point of the regatta came at 11am when Princess Alexandra arrived at a landing stage near the Regatta Hotel.  Here she boarded the 14m luxury cabin cruiser Valiant to lead a procession of decorated small craft down the river from Toowong to Hamilton.


A launch decked in bunting and crowded with sightseers during the royal progress down the river on August 22.

The Royal Progress passed between groups of decorated yachts, launches and small craft from various boating groups which joined in the cavalcade as the Princess passed.  It was a light-hearted occasion with boats dressed in flags and bunting and the people on board thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Large crowds estimated at 70,000 gathered at vantage points along the route and vessels at commercial wharves dressed ship with flags.  By the time Valiant reached Hamilton the following procession of launches, yachts, dinghies and canoes numbered a hundred and stretched for over a mile astern.  They returned to Milton where the regatta continued.

Princess Alexandra took to the water again during her tour of north Queensland.  She spent a weekend relaxing on Lindeman Island, being conveyed there from Bowen and afterwards to Mackay aboard the veteran destroyer HMAS Warramunga.


Breadalbane proceeding upriver on December 10, 1959 with ‘Governor Bowen’s’ party on board during the centenary re-enactment of Governor Bowen’s arrival.

Centenary celebrations reached a final climax on Thursday, December 10, the anniversary of Governor Bowen’s arrival and his reading of the Queen’s proclamation in 1859.  The day was declared a public holiday and celebrations re-enacting events a century before began on the previous evening with a mounted constable carrying news of Governor Bowen’s arrival in Moreton Bay to Captain Wickham, Government Resident, at Newstead House. 

Some 200 actors in period costume were involved in the

re-enactment next day.  Governor and Lady Bowen, the latter played by former Miss Australia and television personality Nancy Knudsen, travelled up-river in the Breadalbane to disembark at the Botanic Gardens.  Breadalbane was in fact a wooden work boat suitably modified with side paddle wheels and smoking funnel to resemble the original vessel.  The Governor’s arrival at 10am began 11 hours of festivities shared in Brisbane by an estimated 100,000 people and as many elsewhere in the State at regional and country events.

 USS Bremerton, Brisbane’s Coral Sea Week visitor, at Colmslie on April 26, 1959.

Governor Bowen’s party was driven to the Deanery where a 100 years was bridged by common sentiment.  The current Dean, in period costume, read a loyal address to which Governor Bowen responded.  History faded into the present as the incumbent Governor, Sir Henry Abel-Smith, read a message from Queen Elizabeth and unveiled a commemorative plaque.  The rest of the day was given over to partying.  A cavalcade of transport spanning a century travelled through the city to the Exhibition Grounds where a sporting and variety program followed, culminating in a fireworks display.  It was a fitting climax to a year to remember.  We look forward to our sesqui-centenary in 2009 creating similar enjoyment, spectacle and celebration. 


The launch Valiant with Princess Alexandra aboard on August 22, 1959.

A comprehensive program of activities has been arranged for Q150.  The Queensland Maritime Museum is preparing a special display ‘Voyages’ illustrating immigrant travel to Queensland through our first 100 years.  This will open on Queensland Day, June 6, and run for the remainder of the year.  The display will cover the eras of travel from sailing ships and steamers through to post-war migrant liners and will be of great interest to very many Queenslanders whose forebears arrived in this state by sea.  We look forward to welcoming you at this display.

Sources include 1959 issues of The Courier Mail and The Sunday Mail.

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