The area between George, Albert and Elizabeth streets in Brisbane is now a bustling part of the CBD, neighboured by the quiet sanctuary of the Botanic Gardens, but in the latter half of the 1800s it was both the red-light district of colonial Brisbane and its Chinatown.
Frog’s Hollow, possibly named after its noisy amphibian residents, was a low-lying swampy area of mangroves and mosquitos, prone to flooding, squalor and disease. It resembled a slum more than a thriving area of a developing city.
Being cheaper, the area attracted warehouses, housing and businesses that catered to the lower classes. Chinese shopkeepers set up alongside the gambling dens, brothels, ill-kept boarding houses, pubs and crudely built cottages, adding opium-smoking to the district’s illicit offerings.
Among its residents were the working classes, the poor, prostitutes, charlatans and opportunistic ne’er-do-wells, with many susceptible to violence and civil disobedience and all giving the area a bad reputation. Visitors to the city wishing to visit the Botanic Gardens would frequently find themselves in the midst of this dubious neighbourhood.
The poor reputation of Frog’s Hollow and its proximity to both the central part of the city and the Botanic Gardens saw campaigns to demolish the buildings and improve the drainage and sanitation of the area.
The general displeasure with Frog’s Hollow, particularly with its Chinese residents, came to a head at 8pm on 5 May 1888. It was election day, and what seemed an innocuous argument between a Chinese shopkeeper and a working-class individual quickly escalated to a four-hour riot that has been described as ‘possibly Australia’s worst episode of mass violence’.
Both political parties – the Liberals led by Premier Sir Samuel Griffith and the opposition by Thomas McIlwraith – had aggressively campaigned on a platform of anti-Chinese legislation. McIlwraith had advocated rapid and drastic action, and on election day his all-male supporters, under the influence of free beer and spirits from supportive local businesses, transformed his words into action. Through the rough and ready streets of Frog’s Hollow a horde of rioters unleashed their anger at the Chinese community.
Over 2,000 people were involved in the riot: rampaging up and down Albert and Mary streets; smashing Chinese shopfronts; pillaging shops, homes and boarding houses.
The police, however, stood by, doing nothing. When later questioned, Police Inspector Lewis argued that he had not issued orders for officers to baton charge, or mounted police to curb the violence, because ‘the majority of people in the street were respectable citizens and would probably have been injured had this been done.’
As time passed, Frog’s Hollow transformed from an area of ill-repute to office buildings, hotels and fancy eateries, its humble beginnings barely recognisable today.
Frog’s Hollow today
During the construction of the Cross River Rail in Brisbane, several artefacts from Frog’s Hollow were uncovered below Albert Street. The findings included fragments of pipes and ceramics, a large key and a range of old Chinese coins.
These findings have helped paint a picture of what life would have been like in one of colonial Brisbane’s more notorious and colourful neighbourhoods.
The pipe fragments allude to the vices that could have been enjoyed in the area at the time, while the Chinese coins hold an intriguing history of their own. Thought to have been brought over by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th century, the coins sat undiscovered below the CBD surface for 100 years or so. It is unclear what the coins would have been used for, but theories suggest they may have been an internal currency among the local Chinese population, gambling tokens, or offerings for festivals and special occasions.
As the Cross River Rail sets to transform the future of travel to, from and through Brisbane, it has also helped us better understand and appreciate some of the secrets that are hiding below the surface our state’s capital city.
Cover image: Looking north along Charlotte Street from the corner of George Street during the flood of March 1864. The sign for The Brisbane Courier newspaper office is visible at the right of the frame; ITM435739