A heavy oak bar with a sword slung overhead, pressed metal ceilings and big old leather chairs … you can almost smell the port and cigars in the old officer’s mess at the Victoria Barracks on Petrie Terrace.
In fact, the whole complex scattered on the hill above the Roma St railway yards is a step back in time to what literally has all the principal characteristics of a 19th century British Empire military barracks, albeit on a small scale.
There is a central parade ground surrounded by a soldiers barracks, officer’s quarters, hospital and guard house as well as separate ordnance and transport compounds, together showing the military lifestyle of the 19th century.
Heading towards the CBD from Caxton St and The Barracks, it’s easy to miss the big gates as Petrie Terrace swings around behind Roma St but behind the historic stone wall on an elevated and strategically located site, there’s a whole new perspective of the city.
The story of the Victoria Barracks starts in 1864 after Queensland’s first governor, Sir George Bowen decided the colony should have a military force rather than police doing both jobs.
The state’s first military and convict barracks had been built in 1828, where the Treasury Casino now stands and the old stone walls went up in 1858, when there was a gaol in Petrie Tce.
At the time, this part of Brisbane was known as Green Hills, a nod to its location and the views at the time.
The Green Hills Barracks allowed the 100 Imperial troops views of the river to keep an eye on the wharves and government stores and also the growing settlement below.
Of the original buildings, a guard house, officers’ quarters and a main barracks building still survive.
The barracks were extended in 1866 and 1867 to provide a military hospital and a commanding officer’s residence.
When the next governor, Colonel Samuel Blackall, took over in 1868, he saw no point in having a military and in any event, Imperial troops were withdrawn from Australian service in 1869.
The barracks switched back to police from 1875-1885 and the police stables, which still exist, were built. They were elaborate, with the front door high enough for police to be mounted and ready to ride off down the hill at a moment’s notice.
It is said that in wet weather it is still possible to smell the horses in this elegant old building.
Then along came the third Governor, Lt-Colonel George French of the Royal Artillery (and also the architect of the Australian Defence Force) who urged the government to form a battery of permanent artillery. He restored the military barracks and Queensland Defence Force in 1885 and a few years later it was re-named in honour of the Queen.
The barracks were reoccupied for military use and remained as a military HQ until the 1990s. The Police didn’t like being near the military so they moved up the hill to their own police barracks.
In the late 19th century the military hospital was also used as Queensland’s first Lunatic Reception House where mental patients were considered for institutionalisation at the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum at Wacol. Wear grooves lead to a rare intact fireplace.
During World War II, Victoria Barracks became the communication centre when the allied headquarters was moved from Melbourne to Brisbane in July 1942.
It housed the cipher machines which linked the Australian Army to London, Washington and other allied capitals. At the height of operations, 70,000 coded words a day passed through the buildings.
It has been on a downhill slide since the late 1990s as operations have been moved to Gallipoli Barracks at Enoggera but it remains one of 18 defence museums in Australia.
In all the Victoria Barracks has 25 buildings dating from 1864-1967, the last being a rather ordinary typically ’60s model built for communications during the Vietnam War.
Most of the others are more elegant and are mainly brick with corrugated iron roofing.
And the scary part is, that these historic old buildings, 150 years of Queensland history, have been allowed to run down (not even a lick of paint) so that they are now at serious risk of being sold off for development.
There are regular tours of the Victoria Barracks, a short walk from Roma St station. The museum is operated by the army history unit and the Queensland Military Heritage Foundation. Call 3233 4531 to find out more about organising a visit.