Footy Spirits and ‘Palmhenge’

Walking across the lawns carried a comfortable sunny spring warmth, every step varying birds and fragrances. A fresh river breeze. But once inside the palm stonehenge, perspiration, aching muscles, and a distinct recall of liniment. Ghostly memories of this place pre-date the personal trainers here now. Back over a century and a half to when Brisbane’s City Botanical Gardens was the sporting hub of the young colony.

The gardens were planted by convicts in 1825 for food to feed the then wholly penal population. The grounds were opened as a public park in 1865 by Queensland’s first governor Sir George Bowen. Crests recording his name and Queen Victoria’s reign still adorn the gates to this day.

Queensland’s first organised football match was played here in 1866. It was an early version of Australian Rules. It went for over five hours across two weekends, and finished a draw. The colony’s first organised rugby matches were also played here a decade later in 1876. A newspaper records a common sentiment , ““The game is called ‘football’, but barring the ‘ball’ part, almost any other name would do as well for it, so rough, scrambling, miscellaneous, and unscrupulous is the style…” The Australian Wallabies presently at the world cup may not agree.

Early rugby league was played here during the First World War, before a redesign. Today the northern end of the former football ground is covered by a circle of Royal Cuban Palms planted 96 years ago. Like a tropical stonehenge paying homage to past mysteries. The same trees will mark the spot for another hundred years.

When I visited this week, a cantankerous council sign declared, “The playing of sports on this lawn is strictly prohibited.” Oh how this place has changed since those first footy matches 150 years ago next year. But still the memory of liniment persists. Maybe it’s the tough love of the personal trainers. Most likely it’s the footballing spirits in the spring whispering amongst the palm trees.

If you enjoy historical posts like this, please ‘Follow’ my blog Thanks to Murray Bird’s “Athenians and Red Invincibles”, and “The Queenslander” and “Brisbane Courier” newspapers.

About Harold Peacock

Author | Historian | Detectorist


  1. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Thanks Harold.

    Not being from up that way, is it common knowledge about the prior uses of the Botanical Gardens?

    Are there any plaques etc that record this?

  2. Thanks Swish for reading. There is a plaque at the palm circle that says the site was previously used as a sporting field, but that’s all. No mention of the significance to specific sports history, and therefore it is little known. Murray Bird highlighted the significance of the site in his book “Athenians and Red Invincibles”. But still, the site remains probably the best kept sporting secret in Queensland.

  3. Thanks Harold for your piece on football’s origins north of the Tweed. I like the notion of ‘Palmhenge’ & the omnibus description of the early matches from a journalist of the time (no doubt the first games must have been chaotic in their structure & seemed so, especially to observers!). The lack of visible acknowledgement sound familiar … its a similar story with the genesis of rugby league in Sydney: the start of the inaugural season of league in 1908 was preceded by a game between the newly formed Sydney South club & a combined ‘Possibles’ side, played on a field at Botany within the grounds of Sir Joseph Banks Hotel (coincidentally also the site of Australia’s first private zoo, c.1850). The ground has long been subsumed by housing however there is no plaque marking this significant sporting event either at the nearby Sir Joseph Bank Park or at the Banks Hotel.

  4. Yes Rugby League is another matter. There is a plaque at foot level on the Commonwealth Bank building in Brisbane’s CBD that marks the site of the pub where rugby league was born in QLD. But to be honest, only those crawling out of the long-gone pub with their face to the ground would be able to read it. But it is there if you know where to look.

Leave a Comment