Museum of Brisbane

Tracking down the elusive Sir Thomas Brisbane

Brisbane was named after a man most of us know very little about. Former Brisbane Lord Mayor Sallyanne Atkinson sought to address this with a personal pilgrimage to his home town in Scotland where she found answers to some long-wondered questions.

Ask a dozen people on the streets of Brisbane how their city got its name and you’ll get blank stares. Brisbane was General Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane, Bart, a doughty Scot who came from Largs, in North Ayrshire. Ask a dozen people on the streets of Glasgow or Edinburgh if they know of the Scottish connection with Brisbane, Australia and you’ll get the same blank stares.

When John Oxley sailed north from Sydney in 1823 and found a wide-mouthed river he named it for his boss, Sir Thomas Brisbane the sixth governor of New South Wales. Later the convict settlement established upriver was called Brisbane.

I’ve recently been to Largs, on a sort of pilgrimage to find out more about the man who gave his name as well as his influence to our city. Largs (population 11,000) is a seaside town on the banks of the Clyde where people from Glasgow, 50 kms away, go for holidays. The beaches are not Bondi or Surfers Paradise but the islands of Arran, Bute, and Cumbrae are ferry rides away. The Vikings of the early Middle Ages rampaged up and down the Scottish coast and their last battle took place in Largs in 1263,known forever as the Last Battle of the Vikings.

Inland from the town there are rolling green hills and lush pastures, nowadays scattered with sheep. Sir Thomas had an estate in Brisbane Glen and that is where he died in 1860, in the same bed that he’d born in 87 years before. It was here that he built Scotland’s first private astronomical observatory and established his own international reputation.

Astronomy was his passion and the reason that he actively lobbied for the job of Governor of New South Wales. He was keen to study the uncharted stars of the unknown Southern Hemisphere. His scientific expertise had the support of such men as Sir Joseph Banks, but Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, muttered to the Duke of Wellington that he wished for someone to run the colony not the heavens.

The Duke was a fierce supporter of Sir Thomas, and had said when reviewing the Brisbane regiments “Had I these men at Waterloo, I should not have wanted the assistance of the Prussians”.

Sir Thomas’ interest in astronomy had begun as a young soldier when a navigational error almost shipwrecked his regiment, it became a passion and his expertise would be recognised by, for example, his early election to the Institute of France which was unheard of for a foreigner.

In 1808 he built his own observatory at Brisbane House, where new precision instruments could determine star positions and improve the accuracy of the longitude and latitude measurements for navigation. His instruments and designs were to be adopted at the Royal Observatories of Edinburgh and Greenwich and in national observatories around the world.

In New South Wales he was to design and build our first observatory at Parramatta, using instruments he had brought with him and his own money for the building and staff. Here they would catalogue 7385 stars.

Now there’s a move to restore and preserve the Brisbane Observatory which lies in a ruined state in Brisbane Glen. The Brisbane Observatory Trust has been set up with the senior descendant of the Brisbane family, Major General Sir Seymour Monro as its President. Sir Thomas’ own family died out with the death of each of his three children in their 20s. Other family members inherited the House but no-one lived there after the 1930s and it was demolished in 1941 as part of a wartime training exercise.

Now in Largs there’s a small Museum tucked away behind the main street, next to the old cemetery. It’s open through summer months and on request in winter as it’s manned by volunteers.  The Largs Heritage Centre also closed for the winter, is in St Columba’s Church on the seafront and has interesting Brisbane (Queensland) memorabilia, including a painting of City Hall by the late Brisbane artist William Bustard. The plaque says it was presented by the City of Brisbane on July 23, 1954, the date of Sir Thomas Brisbane’s birthday (and mine!).  In return we got his telescope which is on display in Museum of Brisbane.

The only building left that really honors Sir Thomas is his mausoleum in the old Largs cemetery in the middle of town where he is buried and where there are memorials to his children.

Two of his children were born in New South Wales, Eleanor Australia Makdougall Brisbane in 1823 and Thomas Australius Makdougall Brisbane in 1824. The use of the Latin female and masculine versions are interesting because the name Australia was not then in official use but was being used by people of influence.

Sir Thomas Brisbane had come to Sydney with his wife Anna Maria in late 1821 with their baby daughter Isabella. He was 47 and she was 35. Theirs was an arranged marriage initiated by their families 13 years before. But the wandering soldier took his time in walking up the aisle and local historians have documented evidence of his dalliances along the way. It was a successful marriage and she supported him in his work. He believed that ex-convicts could make good workers when their sentences expired and that strong agriculture was the future of the colony. He focused on agricultural industries, especially in wine and sugar and established an early Agricultural College. A keen race-goer he organised the importation of pure-bred stock from India to replace the scrub ponies then common in the colony. He formed the first mounted police band anywhere in the world.

Like his predecessor Lachlan Macquarie, he was to fall foul of his political masters in London. Seven months’ sail away and centuries before any fast communication, they had initiated the Bigge Report which was to be the downfall of Governor  Macquarie who had gone home in disgrace. Macquarie had earned the wrath of the free settlers by encouraging worthy and capable ex-convicts and the dismay of the government at his spending on the public projects which distinguish Sydney today. Commissioner John Bigge, whose report is also in Museum of Brisbane, was sent to Sydney to investigate the administration of the colony. In his 1822 report he criticised Macquarie’s emancipist policies, expenditure and management of convicts.

Governor Brisbane’s search for a northern settlement was to find a site for the “worst of the worst”convicts to get them as far away as possible from Sydney and presumably the free settlers who didn’t want to be reminded of the original purpose of their existence. Like Macquarie, he saw a future for New South Wales beyond its origins as a penal colony and identified the people who would make it happen whatever their origins had been. So the only city which bears the name of this earnest scholarly man was first managed in ways he could not approve. The Brisbane convict settlement was known for the harshness of its punishment regime.

Among his enemies was the firebrand Reverend J.D Lang the first Presbyterian minister in New South Wales who arrived in Sydney in 1823. Lang, ironically had grown up in Largs though in different circumstances from Sir Thomas and there was 26 years between them. Governor Brisbane though a staunch Christian and practising Presbyterian, refused Lang’s appeal for public funds to build a Scots church in Sydney where the official church was Anglican and the most numerical Irish Catholic. The Rev Lang was a virulent critic of both.

Accused of mismanaging Government money and “allowing confusion in the finances of the colony”, Governor Brisbane was recalled and his family set sail for home exactly four years after he arrived. On the voyage Lady Brisbane gave birth to a son who died still at sea three months later.

Back in Scotland they would continue to be active in the local community where they established the Brisbane Academy in Largs for both boys and girls to be educated. At his wife’s family home at Makerstoun in the Scottish borders Sir Thomas built another observatory. In 1828 he was given the Royal Astronomical Society of London’s Gold Medal and in 1833 he became President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh where his portrait still hangs in their George Street Edinburgh Rooms.

Whilst in Sydney he had been recognised by both the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge with honorary doctorates. The Brisbane name is not well known in Scotland, and I don’t mean our city in Queensland. There are no Brisbane names in the telephone directories of Largs, Edinburgh, Abderdeen or Inverness. There are only 8 Brisbane’s listed for Glasgow however, there are thousands of Macleans, McLeods and Macdougalls.

Back in Brisbane (Queensland) we do have the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium, that marvellous place at Toowong which is a fitting tribute to our man of stars. We also have his stars on our city’s flag. The City of Brisbane flag which is blue and gold representing the River and the sun contains Staffordshire knots for his old regiment….and stars to recognise his achievements in astronomy.

– Sallyanne Atkinson AO

Image: Sir Thomas Brisbane