Bribie Island – A Handy History


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I would like to thank the many people who tell me how much they enjoy reading these regular articles about Bribie history. I had no prior interest in History before retiring to Bribie after an International career living and working in many countries. I soon discovered fascinating facts about my new island home and the significance to Queensland and Australian heritage. I write these articles to share interesting facts with more people, and our Handy History book is available at the Museum and Post Office for just $10 if you want more. This article might answer some of the questions I am frequently asked.


Many people have a slightly different story about this, most of which are a long way from the known facts, although the actual answer is “Nobody really knows”

Documents and Maps from as early as 1830 show different spellings of a “Brieby’s”, “Brady’s” and “Bribey’s” island. After establishing Moreton Bay Penal Settlement in 1824, and the new town of Brisbane, references are made to a “Brisbane” Island in the bay. The final name “Bribie”, recorded for the first time in 1845, may well incorporate traces of these various spellings and pronunciations. Tom Petrie, whose family werepioneer settlers in Brisbane in 1837, in his reminiscences to his daughter in 1904, he remembered a vague second-hand account he had heard from his father Andrew Petrie, more than 60 years earlier, about a convict by the name of Bribie who had fled to the island.

More than 30 years later in 1937, businessman and author Thomas Welsby picked up this flimsy thread and wrote a book titled “Bribie the Basket Maker”, a romantic tale of a convict who escaped and fell in love with an aboriginal woman on the island, settled, and lived happily ever after. This was total fiction, and Welsby himself admits there is no record of a person named Bribie in any of the Moreton Bay records. Research continues, and more evidence may yet become known, but the honest answer to the question “How did Bribie Island get its name” remains unanswered to this day.


When James Cook sailed along this coastline in 1770 he saw through his telescope the far away mountains he named the “Glasshouses”, being reminiscent of Glass Factories in his far-distant home. When Mathew Flinders and his aboriginal companion Bongaree came to explore this Bay almost 30 years later in 1799, he was the first European to set foot on what is now Bribie Island and climbed a Glasshouse mountain.

He named Pumicestone river but did not know it was an island. It was another 60 years before Queensland became a new Colony, separated from NSW in 1859.

In those 60 years, there were very few who came to this desolate Island. After Flinders and Bongaree in 1799, the first white men came by chance 24 years later, when three convicts lost in a huge storm out of Sydney, were washed up weeks later on Moreton Island. They were very lucky to be alive at all, and with help from various local tribes, they found their way around the bay to live for many months on this island before being rescued.

They thought they had been washed ashore south of Sydney and each spent many weeks walking north in the hope of reaching Sydney, but finding nothing they returned to the care of the island people. Those who came seeking a site for a new Penal Colony in Moreton Bay found these castaway convicts the following year. Some of the worst convicts from Sydney were sent to a new Penal Settlement at Redcliffe in 1824, which relocated after few months to the site of Brisbane on the river. Within a hundred years of the first sighting of these shores by Captain Cook, the once extensive Aboriginal population of Moreton Bay had been dramatically reduced. This led to the establishment of Queensland’s first Aboriginal reserve, set up here on Bribie Island at Whitepatch in 1877. In 1891 Archibald Meston, an Explorer, Author, Politician, and official “Protector of the Aborigines” briefly visited Bribie Island and made this observation in his diary…


The following is an extract from a Brisbane newspaper, dated 22 June 1919, apparently written by Archibald Meston. I am including these words here for readers to appreciate how stories are retold and legends created by the writings of high profile figures.


What is remarkable, is that just a few years after Archibald Meston declared it to be “the meanest piece of country in Australia” some Brisbane businessmen invested tens of millions of dollars, built a huge steamship and leased large areas of the Island, to create Australia’s first Island holiday destination on Bribie Island. In 1912, they built a Jetty at Bongaree, and over the next 20 years, Bribie developed as a destination for mass tourism. Thousands of visitors came by steamships from Brisbane at weekends and holidays, to enjoy cheap, healthy and basic holidays. More people came to holiday on Bribie, than lived in the entire Caboolture Shire at that time. The early boom years for Bribie Island were interrupted by the 1930’s Great Depression, and soon after that came World War 2, when the Military occupied the island, and most residents moved out. Holidays resumed after the War but by then Motor Cars were the favoured form of transport, and people braved the dreadful roads to bring their car by ferry barge to the Island. The bridge was built in 1963 and the Island was joined to mainland Australia. Looking back over the years, the Island has experienced some remarkable events and changes, many of which are still visible, if you know where to look.


-18,000 years ago the coast was over 50 klms away and the whole of Moreton Bay was dry land. The sea level slowly rose, and 6000 years ago was several metres higher than it is now.

-The current sea level, coastline and Bay islands have been this way for about 1000 years, and Bribie has only been an island for a few hundred.

– There are many Aboriginal sites gazetted on the Island, revealing occupation of this land for thousands of years. The Water Tower in the Caravan Park at Bongaree is on the site of a big Aboriginal shell midden, and in early days was called “The Hill”, a high point on the Island, before it was levelled.

-The name Red Beach originates from World War 2 when Australian and American troops practiced beach landing on various colour coded beaches. Red beach was close to the few residents of Bongaree, and the name stuck.

-Australia’s first Opera “Auster” was written by Emily Coungeau in her grand house in Banya Street, Bongaree, built in 1916 and still there today and known as Toc-H,

-The concept of an ANZAC day commemoration for those lost in World War 1 was initiated by Brisbane businessmen on a fishing trip to Bongaree in January 1916.

-An Ionospheric Research Centre was built on Bribie Island in the 1960s to study Radio signals in the upper atmosphere. For this new technology, an Atomic Clock was required to measure precise timing.

-In 1968, a complex Tax investigation found the former operator of the Bribie car ferry was required to pay $500,000 in back taxes. In today’s money, that is about $20 million.

MORE BRIBIE HISTORY Monthly meetings of the Historical Society are on the second Wednesday of each month in the ANZAC room at the RSL Club. Covid restrictions limit numbers, so attendance notification and approval is required.