When you look down at the banks of the Mary River as it flows through Maryborough it’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always as you see it in the image above. But there was a time when it was nothing like this and peace and tranquility were the last things you could experience if you were standing in this location.
There was a time when Maryborough was one of the busiest ports in Australia with sailing ships arriving and departing for all parts of the globe.
Many of the arriving ships carried immigrants who wanted to settle in a new country where they could make their fortune In the period between 1859 and 1901 over 22,000 immigrants stepped ashore in Australia at the Maryborough wharves.
Departing vessels carried cargoes of wool, hides, timber and tallow.
The port was so busy that the wharves, where ships could load or unload’ would be fully occupied while other ships were forced to wait for days till their turn came to unload.
Today the wharves have gone and only a few jetties remain to provide moorings for local yachts and Maryborough is not one of the designated arrival points for overseas vessels entering Australian waters.
That’s a far cry from its heyday when Maryborough had its own Harbour Master, Customs House, Bond Store and Pilots who would guide visiting ships along the Mary River to its mouth at River Heads.
All those important functions and people needed buildings and houses and today many of those buildings remain in what has become known as the Maryborough Portside Precinct.
The Bond Store
At the heart of the Maryborough Portside Precinct is the Bond Store.
The Bond Store was built to house imported items that attracted a government tax. Some of the items stored in this building included spirits, tobacco, cigars and even opium and those items remained in store until the relevant tax was paid.
Today this is a beautiful old building that has withstood numerous floods serves as a museum that will take you back to the days when sailing ships from all over the world arrived and departed with passengers and cargo.
The Bond Store is open 7 days a week and the displays are definitely worth seeing.
The Customs House
Adjacent to the Bond Store is the Customs House. This building was erected in 1900 to replace an earlier building and it remained in use as a Customs House until late in the 20th Century.
Today it houses an interpretive centre for visitors who want to know more about this interesting period in Maryborough’s history.
The Customs House Residence
This building was built at the same time as the Customs House and it was the home of the resident Customs Sub-Collector and his family.
Today it houses the Muddy Waters Café on the ground floor and rotating arts and historical exhibitions on the floor above.
The Harbour Master’s House
This fine house sits high on the hill overlooking the port and it’s easy to imagine the Harbour Master stepping out onto his veranda of a morning to review the busy scene below.
Today the Harbour Master’s House is a private residence and is not open to the public.
The Union Hall
Perhaps the least imposing but important building in the Maryborough Portside Precinct … and the one that is in the worst condition … is the Union Hall.
Working conditions on the wharves at Maryborough were harsh and the pay was poor to say the least. Many of the labourers on the wharves lived in squalor that would be totally unacceptable today so it was a workforce that relied on the Union for support and protection.
This simple wooden building was the home of the Union that looked after those who relied on the wharves for an income.
J E Brown’s Warehouse
Almost next door to the Union Hall is the imposing warehouse of J E Brown. Mr Brown set up business in Maryborough in 1857 and provided provisions and other supplies to the ships that called into the port,
This imposing warehouse was built in 1879 and today it houses the Maryborough Military and Colonial Museum. This museum has an exceptional collection of over 7,000 items of military and colonial memorabilia including 2 Victoria Crosses
The Criterion Hotel
Hotels can always be found close to a wharf district and the Criterion Hotel is one of two hotels in the street behind where the wharves were situated in Maryborough.
The original hotel on this site was licensed in 1864 and was known as The Prince of Wales. It was a single-storey building and it was destroyed by fire in 1878.
The Criterion was built as a two-storey building and the third story was added in 1882.
While today the precinct is a great place for families back in the days when ships were coming and going this area would have been perhaps the roughest part of town.
The dark side of Maryborough Portside
Sly grog shops, gambling houses, opium dens and brothels are just some of the lesser businesses that would have been located in this area. And it would not have been a place for god-fearing and law-abiding townspeople after dark
While the wharves brought considerable prosperity to Maryborough they also brought disease and death. Australia’s only outbreak of pneumonic plague … or Black Death … occurred in Maryborough in 1905. The first victims were the five children of a labourer from the wharves. Three other people, two nurses and a neighbour of the stricken family, also died before the outbreak was brought under control.
Until it was brought under control the situation for the town was dire and strong measures were put in place to isolate anyone who may have had contact with a carrier of the disease. You can read more about those measures and the effect that the disease had on the town here.
These days those dark stains on the history of the area are gone and the precinct is a wonderful place to look back into history and see just how different Australia was when Maryborough was the busiest port in Queensland.