Monday, October 3, 2016

T150 – Townsville Past & Present: Architecture in Townsville – Townsville Customs House

Pop into the Eddie Koiki Mabo Library and you can see one of the beautiful original plans (dated 1899) for the Townsville Customs House available for viewing in the special collections display cases on level one, currently showing as part of our T150 Townsville Past & Present project.

Townsville Customs House
This imposing red brick building with a distinctive dome, commanding an impressive corner position on The Strand, must be one of the most photographed buildings in Townsville.  It draws enthusiasm from visitors and locals for such details as the iron balustrades and the intricate brickwork.

The Customs House was commissioned by the Queensland Government just prior to Federation after which Customs responsibilities were handed over to the new Federal Government. The building was completed in 1902. The plans, held by the James Cook University Library Archives, date from 1899 – 1900.  They were prepared by the Queensland Government Architect’s Office and, in particular, respected architect, George Payne.

The building was designed for a pre-air conditioning tropical working environment.  It is L shaped so all rooms have through breezes. There are well shaded verandahs and wide colonnades along both streets and the rooms have high ceilings
Townsville Customs House with Strand in foreground, early 1900s, Coates Album, NQ Photographic Collection, NQID 10.
Building Controversies
Despite the enthusiastic public response to the plans, there were some controversies over the actual work which may have seemed startlingly modern to North Queensland residents.

The Brisbane Courier of 11 July 1900 gave a long and detailed report of the evidence given ‘at Townsville to an Investigation by the Public Works Commission’.  This includes the evidence of a Townsville builder:
Arthur Reid, builder and contractor, gave evidence. He complained that none of the local contractors could get a chance for the contract of the Custom House. The big jobs generally went to the Southern contractors, and he thought that the reason for this was that they usually paid lower wages. The tender of a contractor named Brady was accepted for certain work, although witness could have done it for £200 less. Witness was lowest tenderer for the woodwork, but was given no chance to carry out the contract. He did not think that Mr. Brady, the contractor, was any relation to Mr. Brady, of the department. Some of the department's plans and specifications were faulty, and had to be altered afterwards. Everything in the Works Department seemed to be mixed up. He thought that the department should be divided into districts, and a permanent officer stationed at Townsville. The witness gave evidence at considerable length in regard to the working of the department as it affected contractors.
The Strand with Customs House, Queens Hotel, Criterion Hotel and gas lamp, looking towards Ross Creek.  Townsville City Album, NQ Photographic Collection, NQID 2244.
Many uses
The Customs Service used this building for almost 100 years but other activities were also housed there at one time or another, ranging from the residence of the Collector of Customs, through the Stamps and Titles Office, the Department of Works, the Bankruptcy Branch, and the Electoral Office, to the use of the basement as an air raid shelter during World War II.

Although cyclones have caused superficial damage at several times, the imposing structure facing the sea remains part of Townsville’s long standing streetscape.  This heritage listed building is now in private hands.

- Ms Jean Dartnall and Dr Alan Dartnall

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