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Building Parliament House

A photograph taken in about 1875 by G.P.Wright. It was taken from the roof of Parliament House looking over the Domain towards Government House

The Early Stages

An extensive fire which burnt most of the wooden structures in Queen Street in December 1864 came perilously close to the convict barracks.  This event made the construction of a purpose-built parliamentary building a high priority.

The building was started in 1864, first occupied in 1868, and finally completed 25 years later in 1889. It is characterised by solid colonnades which keep the building cool in summer, some truly magnificent timber work which was produced from local Queensland timbers, and an impressive and gracious interior.

The foundation stone was laid on 14 July 1865 by Governor George Ferguson Bowen.  A ceremony was held for the occasion.  The foundation stone weighed four tonnes, below it copies of Pugh's Almanac, the Moreton Bay Courier and Guardian newspapers were placed along with the current coinage and an explanatory letter.  Although some doubt exists, it is believed the foundation stone lies beneath the main entrance off George Street.

Work began confidently. The site was cleared and levelled, and materials were stockpiled, including 500,000 sandstone bricks.  Initially there were problems in obtaining enough good quality sandstone. The original tenderers were not able to fulfill their contract.  As a result, Tiffin decided to rent a quarry at Woogaroo.  This method was more expensive than the original contract, but at least ensured a good supply of stone.  As a result the cost estimate for Parliament House rose alarmingly from the original £20,000 to more than £49,000 by June 1865.  Awkward questions were asked in the newspapers.  As a result, Tiffin was asked to account for the escalation.  Despite his explanation, Tiffin was dogged by a reputation of costly buildings throughout his Queensland career.

Depression of 1866

By the end of 1865, the walls were constructed up to the first floor level.  Work continued steadily into early 1866.  However, in June 1866, Queensland suffered a severe depression as a result of a financial crisis in Europe.

The young colony had come into existence only seven years earlier, in 1859, with little money and a great deal of work to be done.  In fact, it has often been claimed there was only 7 1/2 d in the Treasury when Queensland was created – and that this was subsequently stolen.  The Government had embarked almost immediately on a program of public works including Old Government House, Parliament House and a railway line from Ipswich to Toowoomba.  Debts were already owed for public construction undertaken prior to separation.  In addition, a Government subsidised program of immigration was proving expensive.  These expenditures were financed by loans from English Banks.  The Colony's main lender, Agra and Masterman, had crashed in May 1866.  When news reached the Colony in June 1866, there was widespread panic.  Many public works were suspended.  Subsequently the construction work on Parliament House was affected.  Instructions were given that: "In consequence of the present financial state, all further expenses beyond what is necessary to secure the work, be suspended."

The crash was short-lived with Agra and Masterman able to honour the colony's loan agreement by late July.  However, its effects were more long-lasting.  The crane used in the construction of Parliament House swung idle for so long that in July 1867, a company offered £40 for it, and it was decided that "if works at the new Houses of Parliament are to remain long unfinished, we might as well erect a new one".  However, soon after this, moves were made to continue the project.  The financial situation was improving and in late 1867, gold was discovered at Gympie, thus improving the colony's fortunes greatly.

In September 1867, the Department of Works instructed Tiffin to prepare a new specification of works required to complete the building within a more limited budget.  The new specification included the completion of the George Street wing only, which had so far cost £44,000, without the colonnade or porte cochere.  It was also decided to finish the project by contract and, in December 1867, John Petrie was awarded the contract for £17,500.

Completion

John Petries Father, Andrew Petrie, a civil engineer, came to Australia from Edinburgh in 1831 with his wife Mary and his family. He stayed in Sydney for several years attached to the Royal Engineers, and then in 1837 was appointed Superintendent of Works in Brisbane. An official residence was built for the family in 1838 on the reach of the Brisbane River now known as Petrie Bight. The family later purchased the land facing Adelaide Street.

In 1842, Moreton Bay was opened to free settlement and Andrew Petrie's post was abolished. However, Petrie decided to stay in the colony. He entered into private business as a builder and contractor. The firm secured many Government contracts and gradually became the most reputable and best known in Brisbane. Andrew's eldest son John joined him in the family business. 

In 1850, John took over the company's administration after his father was blinded in 1848 as a result of insufficient medical treatment of sand blight.

The firm was wealthy and self-sufficient. It had large stocks of materials on hand, and controlled its own brickworks, stone quarry, sawmill and lime kiln. In the early days, sufficient supplies of timber were easily found close to Brisbane and were brought in by bullock team or by floating logs down the river. The firm also began a monumental masonry works and a joinery works which supplied furniture for many major Brisbane buildings, including the Parliament.

Accounts for Parliament House clearly show the wide variety of services performed by John Petrie's firm.  Over the following years, Petrie is recorded as supplying furniture, matting, verandah curtains, blinds, fire hose reels, gas brackets and other sundry items.  The firm also cleaned the carpets, painted walls, repaired furniture and locks and made many additions and alterations as was required.

John Petrie was a public spirited man and, in 1859, was elected the first Mayor of Brisbane. He also served on many public boards including the Board of Water Works and the Brisbane Hospital Board until his death in 1892.

Progress of Construction

Following Petrie's involvement from December 1867, building progressed steadily.  By April 1868, the ceilings of the main chambers were completed, the main staircase erected and work had commenced on the refreshment room.  Economies were noticeable following the depression.  Apart from limiting construction to the George Street wing without the porte cochere and colonnade, the painting and decoration of the building was not as elaborate as might have been expected.  Tiffin reported in July the same year that the Government could largely occupy the first and second floors which housed the chambers with work to continue on the ground floor. 

The roof of Parliament House was originally made of zinc. It was imported from England in a prefabricated state and then reassembled on site with the aid of a numbered system and models. A London representative of the roof's supplier assured Tiffin zinc roofs were adapted for hot climates, and had been successfully used in the West India docks and South America.  Convinced, Tiffin ordered the zinc roof in an Italian pattern, sending tracings and specifications to London for prefabrication.  In spite of elaborate preparation, problems arose.  The sheets had been packed badly and had chafed. The hooks had been soldered in the wrong place, some ridge capping was missing, and although all of the sheets were stamped 16 gauge many were actually 14 gauge.  A considerable amount of work had to be done to make the roof fit.  In renovations undertaken in the early 1980s, a new copper roof, made from Mount Isa copper, was installed over the original.

The difficulties with the original zinc roof perfectly exemplified Tiffin's problem in trying to build a grand building in a remote city. He was unable to choose and supervise many of the components personally and was forced to rely on agents.  The probability for error and cost overruns was great when materials were ordered from the other side of the world, with only slow communications by letter.  Building such a commanding building in a then remote colony proved quite challenging.  It is a credit to those involved that they were so successful. 

As was common at the time, most of the building's ornamental fittings such as lighting, plasterwork, ornamental glass, tiles, balusters and marble mantelpieces were imported from England.   Parliament House was originally lit by gas.  However, it was one of the earliest Brisbane buildings to use electricity. In 1883, the Government Printer's steam engines supplied the electricity.  By 1892, electricity was installed throughout the building.

Moving In

Parliament met for the first time in the new building facing George Street on 4 August 1868, but the building was, at that time, far from complete.  The ground floor was still occupied by workmen, the staircase had only a temporary railing and the plaster was wet.  The daily newspaper of the day, the Moreton Bay Courier, rather acidly commented:

The Parliament sitting in their half finished Chamber, in the centre of a vast pile of debris, with the noise of a whole army of workmen ringing in their ears from all directions, seems to be perfectly in character with the ministry and all their proceedings.

Problems with lighting, flooring and noise from the galleries became obvious. However, the chambers were described favourably.  The Courier said:

The Chamber itself is a magnificent room…The galleries are arched underneath, and the ceiling is in panel, richly ornamented…and give(s) a beautiful rich tone to the whole.

The depression of 1866 meant money was still short when moving into Parliament in 1868.  At first, Members and officials moved in with their old furniture from the former convict barracks in Queen Street.  Only the most essential extra furniture was approved, and the old furniture was repaired where necessary.  From about 1870, new furniture was provided by John Petrie, mainly in Queensland yellowwood and cedar.  Much of this original furniture is still in use today.  Such pieces include the desks for the Speaker and President in the chambers, large tables originally used in the chambers, chairs, bookcases and shelving in the libraries.

By November 1868, the building was all but complete.  However, it fell far short of Tiffin's original plan.  The colonnade designed for sun control at the front of the building, initially deleted for reasons of economy, was eventually built in 1880 of sandstone from Murphy's Creek.  The porte cochere remained unbuilt for almost 100 years when it was added during refurbishments in the early 1980s.

The final cost of the George Street wing varied depending on the source, but ranged between £60,000 and £80,000. This was between three and four times the Government's original, and obviously unrealistic, commission.