Tracing the history of The Fort

Tracing the history of The Fort

Above: Mermaid Reach, viewed from The Fort c.2002 (Corinda and Sherwood are on the right) Painting by Michael Scanlan and used with his permission.

By Susan Prior

I wonder how many people, if they have given any consideration to it at all, have thought that the Fort Bushland Reserve in Oxley is named after some kind of military establishment. I know I did. But that is not the case at all. Here is a little bit about the history of the area.

For this article, I have relied on a publication produced by the Oxley-Chelmer Historical Society by local historian Ralph Fones. His book The Dynamic! And the Genteel has proved to be a great resource.

The Fort Bushland Reserve is an area of 10.6 hectares, situated on the corner of Cliveden Avenue and Fort Road, Oxley. It is the only part of that suburb to abut the Brisbane River, and quite impressive a spot it is, too. High on a bluff overlooking the Mermaid Reach of the river, it is adjacent to the Rocks Riverside Park, in Seventeen Mile Rocks.

Originally, the land was purchased in the 1860s by Henry Lucock for his brother. Back then the river would have been a much busier thoroughfare than it is today. The only way to travel between Brisbane and Ipswich was by the river, or by bumpy horse and carriage along the Ipswich Road.

According to Ralph Fones, ‘In about 1873, Henry William Coxen was travelling by boat to Ipswich, and when passing the property on which “The Fort” was to be situated, it reminded him of a similar position of a fort in Bombay, India. Coxen purchased the land from Lucock, and built his home, which he named “The Fort”.’

Lucock died in 1895 at 75 years’ old; he is buried in St Matthew’s Anglican Church Cemetery in Sherwood Road.

Coxen was an interesting man. Born in 1823, he was educated at Eton. A gunshot wound when he was a schoolboy left him with a useless right hand. It is thought this is why he was shipped out to Australia by his parents, accompanying his uncle and aunt, John Gould and Elizabeth (nee Coxen).

Nicknamed ‘Scrammy’, because of his injured hand, he learned his pastoral skills on farms owned by two more uncles in New South Wales, before trekking north to the Darling Downs where he became one of the youngest early settlers. Coxen was a successful pastoralist. Some of you may have heard of Jondaryan Station, north-west of Toowoomba, which he established.

Map of The Fort by Michael Scanlan and used with his permission.

Another property of his was called Bendemere, out at Yuleba, near Roma. Apparently, Coxen grew prickly pears in his garden there. We know many settlers grew the pear as a garden plant, because it had good fruit to eat and made a great hedging plant. The first settlers grew it for the cochineal insect that thrived on it, and from which red dye is made. Red is the colour of power, so red dye for the soldiers’ jackets was considered very necessary! Of course we know what happened. The plant grew out of control and had to be eradicated.

Much later, in 1921, an area now developed for housing and known as Arbor Reach in Sherwood became the national headquarters of the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board. At the time the menace of the prickly pear cactus crippled 26 million hectares of farmland, to the extent that some farmers were forced to walk off their properties. But as regular readers will know, I am once again digressing.

An article by AH Chisholm in the Australian Dictionary of Biography says this about Henry Coxen:

‘[He] became owner or part-owner of at least seventeen other large grazing leases. His career was varied from time to time by clashes with Aboriginals, by depressions, by a six-month journey overlanding 3000 sheep from southern New South Wales to the Darling Downs and by an adventure in mining on the Turon goldfield. In addition he twice visited England, first in 1845 working for three years with a mercantile firm, and second in 1867 travelling extensively and speculating in many mediums; he later confessed to having lost heavily on foreign securities and sugar-growing ventures in South Africa.’

Children of Henry Charles Coxen, photographed with their nurse, August 1912. Image no.194883, used courtesy of SLQ.

He built The Fort (the original homestead was a grand one, having 15 rooms, including six bedrooms), a neighbouring house called Eddystone – which he gave as a wedding gift to his daughter, Mrs Hassall – and another called The Slopes, nearby. In 1906, he sold The Fort to Thomas Knight Corkran in whose family it stayed until 1955, when it was purchased by the Catholic Passionist Order. After selling The Fort, Coxen moved into The Slopes. He spent his last years there, dying in 1915.

Born in Ireland, Corkran came to Queensland as a young man. He joined the Queensland Police, and was promoted to sergeant while serving in far-flung posts, including St George, Yuleba, Toowoomba and Taroom. He retired and moved into The Fort at Oxley where he lived for more than 30 years. He was an ardent Catholic and is said to have ‘given material assistance to the Duporth Convent, Oxley’. The convent is a story for another day, I’m sure!

Corkran, ‘a man of fine physique and nobility of character’ according to his obituary in the Catholic Freeman’s Journal in February 1937, ran dairy cattle on the site of The Fort to provide milk for his family’s consumption, which meant the land was relatively clear compared with how it appears today. The butcher, the baker and the grocer came all the way from Sherwood to make their deliveries. There was also a dam and a well, which came in handy during drought years.

The Fort, viewed from Fig Tree Pocket, by Michael Scanlan, and used with his permission.

In 1956, the Passionist priests took over The Fort. They began a tradition of community worship that continues today. When they first moved there they called it the Regina Coeli Retreat. Later it was renamed St Mary’s Retreat, however, its original name, ‘The Fort’, has stuck.

In 1958, in a nod to the home’s military name, two cannons were purchased from the Fort Lytton Barracks and were placed in front of the building, but by 1972 these had been acquired by a military museum. Apparently, this was shortly after Father Austin Kennedy accidentally rode his ride-on mower into one of them, and him declaring they were ‘inappropriate’ for a religious site!

As always, there is a lot more to this story, and, of course, it continues, with descendants of many of the families who first lived in the area of The Fort still living in Brisbane today.

The land that makes up the Fort Bushland Reserve was purchased in 2005 by Brisbane City Council. The next article will be about the bushcare group who look after this reserve so diligently and who make it such a beautiful place for us all to visit. You can find it here.

The Fort Bushland Reserve

The Fort Bushland Reserve

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Meet Summit and Gerrard