Tower Mill: An Archaeological Investigation of Queensland’s Oldest Surviving Building

By Taylor O’Neill – Museum Studies student at the University of Queensland with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Archaeology.

Known as the Old Windmill or The Observatory, Tower Mill is an instantly recognisable part of Brisbane City and Queensland’s oldest building. What can archaeology tell us about this place?

Located on Brisbane City’s Wickham Terrace, you’ve probably glanced at Tower Mill once or twice while navigating traffic. Turrbal and Jagera people have lived on this land longer than 6000 years, caring for Country. More recently, Tower Mill has become a fixture of the landscape since its construction by convicts almost 200 years ago, making it the oldest building standing in Queensland. The Mill has been continuously occupied since the convict period, resulting in many archaeological artefacts that connect us with the development of Brisbane as a city.

Observatory at the top of the old Windmill in Brisbane, ca. 1892. Photo credit: State Library of Queensland

Breaking ground – Archaeologists investigate Tower Mill

In 1990, Brisbane City Council and The University of Queensland’s Archaeological Service Unit conducted a survey and excavation within the grounds of the Mill, investigating if anything of heritage value lay under the soil. The Tower Mill excavation unearthed a large amount of archaeological material. However, it was difficult for archaeologists to detect exact dates as all this material had become quite mixed underground. This meant that there was no exact way to define each phase of occupation. This isn’t catastrophic! Archaeologists have managed to develop a theory of the site based on what artefacts they found which, individually, were all evidence of Tower Mill’s involvement in several eras of historical significance, both locally and internationally.

In 1990, Brisbane City Council and The University of Queensland’s Archaeological Service Unit conducted a survey and excavation within the grounds of the Mill. Photo Credit: J. Hall.

Convicts and Television

Tower Mill was constructed during the convict period to feed the growing population of Queensland. It did not perform well as a windmill powered by sails so a treadmill was installed. Convicts were forced to run on the treadmill to power the mill as a punishment. This wheel caused frequent accidents, often broke down, and was even struck by lightning in 1836.

After falling out of use, Tower Mill was stripped of its mill components and converted to a signal station, alerting Brisbane to the arrival of ships. A caretaker lived in a cottage on the site from 1881 and this occupation period may well be represented by the domestic artefacts recovered from the site, including beads, buttons (see Images 1 and 2), and dressmaker pins. The Mill also served as a watchtower for the fire brigade. Its location up on a ridge overlooking the city made it a vital highpoint of the growing Brisbane.

In 1923, Queensland’s institute of Radio used the tower for experiments transmitting a radio signal and Queensland’s (possibly Australia’s) first television signal was sent from Tower Mill on May 6th, 1934. The broadcast was only conducted upon request to a very small number of Brisbane people who had a television. Viewers were able to request images of fine art which were broadcast every Sunday. Archaeologists uncovered fragments of metal, copper wires and small components that could very well reflect this ground-breaking activity.

This three-holed button is highly unusual and is over 100 years old. Photo Credit: Peter Waddington.
Decorative beads such as these were often sewn into garments and personal items to individualise them. Photo Credit: Peter Waddington.

Our museum’s first home

Tower Mill has been occupied by many people and institutions over the years, including our own collection! Queensland Museum was established by the Queensland Philosophical Society – an organisation attempting to establish a museum of natural history. Members donated scientific items from personal collections, to a new public natural history museum. The collection that was to become the foundation of the Queensland Museum collection we know today, was temporarily established at Tower Mill in early 1862. The collection only took up the space of a single room.

Read more about our history: Chapter 1: 1862 – 1918 (56 years) A Fledgling Natural History Museum

Still standing

Tower Mill is an interesting archaeological site due to its near-constant occupation with a variety of uses from the earliest days of the convict settlement. It has seen the convict era, the free settlement of Brisbane, the comings and goings of ships, the early beginnings of our very own Queensland Museum, and Queensland’s first radio and TV signals. The excavated artefacts represent these periods well, from a musket ball and percussion cap through to plastic Bic pen.

To hear more about Tower Mill’s other uses, check out some of our other blog posts or search it up on the collections website and don’t forget to keep up to date with the latest museum news sign up to our mailing list here or follow us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.