14 January 2012

Saving a historical industrial site in Brisbane

We know a lot about the heritage-listed Colonial Sugar Refinery 1893 in New Farm Brisbane, thanks to the State Department of Environment and Resource Management.
Founded in Sydney in 1855, the Colonial Sugar Refining Co (CSR) started to dominate the Australian sugar industry in a time of enormous change in the history of sugar; it fuelled the growth of sugar as a new industry in places with suitable growing conditions i.e Queensland. Technological advances in the refining process transformed sugar from a luxury item to a staple food, at least in western countries.

The Refinery and wharf, 2011, Brisbane

Attempts at growing sugar cane had already been made in Queensland prior to statehood, but new government encouragement of the growing of sugar cane in the colony strengthened in the 1860s. Plantations in new areas along the north coast quickly opened up in the 1870s, including in the Maryborough, Bundaberg and Mackay districts.

By 1874, Queensland was exporting sugar to the other Australian colonies. CSR moved north and acquired large tracts of land for sugar growing near Mackay. In total CSR established 3 large mills in Nth Queensland where  Pacific Islanders comprised the majority of the workforce.

By the 1890s, the plantation system was no longer dominant; the industry increasingly required large companies. CSR needed to concentrate more on the value adding end of the market i.e. milling and refining. CSR's Brisbane refinery was the 4th in a chain of refineries that they established in Australia's capital cities; refineries were opened in Sydney (Pyrmont 1878 Australia’s largest), Melbourne (Yarraville c1875), and Adelaide (Glanville 1891).

The original red face bricks

Brisbane was rapidly growing. In 1892 CSR acquired a riverside site of 3.5 hectares on the New Farm peninsular by buying up allotments on a recently sub-divided estate. The location had two major advantages: it enabled access for large ships and was also close to the city's markets. So the wharf (1893), on the river in the front of the main building, became a central part of the plan.

The 1893 complex consisted of the refinery building comprising char house, cistern house, pan house and refined sugar store; raw sugar store; melt house; boiler house; workshop; a two storied building containing offices, laboratory and hessian rooms; and the wharf. Most of the original machinery was made in Scotland. The char house, by the way, was middle step in the sugar refining process, in between the melting stage and the crystallisation stage.

Built during a time of economic depression, the Brisbane refinery was important in demonstrating the company's dominance of both the Queensland and Australian sugar industry for over a century. This was thanks, one assumes, to the Queensland Government's protectionist trade policies in the decade prior to Federation.

New Farm was already the industrial and warehousing district of Brisbane. But CSR added something new; they successfully lobbied for the building of the Bulimba branch railway (completed 1897). Later development of the area benefited from the availability of both wharfs and rail facilities, and included the woolstores (1909) and the New Farm Power House (1928).

The Refinery’s main building (1893) was a long narrow structure, facing the river. The walls were composed of face bricks laid in English bond, around a combination of timber and cast iron framework. It was four storeys high at the southern end and five storeys at the northern end. Rising above the corrugated iron roof line was a hexagonal shaped tower, originally used for the storage of char.

But nothing stays the same. In 1988, the residence was removed from the site; in 1989 the rail link to the refinery was closed; and CSR totally ceased operations at the New Farm refinery in 1998. The buildings fell into ruination.

Industrial feel to the apartment interiors

Now the exterior of The Refinery has been totally restored; the transformed interior now houses 30 apartments, thus converting a large industrial processing building to a residential use. And saving it. The main 1893 refining building still demonstrates the principal characteristics of a C19th industrial building, including use of fully visible face bricks, restrained embellishment and a narrow, vertical form. Note the char tower with its decorative brackets and finial, the grassed banks, fence, wharf and river. Directly behind the central core is the raw sugar store, flanked by warehouses on the southern side and ancillary buildings.

Internally many modifications have been made, resulting in some alterations to the floor levels, most notably in the char house. The framing in the southern end (refined sugar store and pan house) is timber, whilst that in the northern end (cistern and char house) is of cast iron. The renovated interiors retain this industrial image.

The refinery is now one of the last surviving industrial sites on the inner city reaches of the Brisbane river and one of the last to retain its wharf. So it is important. It had to be saved, and it was!

River frontage

Questions to ask, as a result of this experience:
1. Do important industrial sites deserve heritage protection, like churches and historical homes?
2. If the original industrial architecture was not aesthetically pleasing, can it be tarted up?
3. Should a preservation order cover the industrial building's interiors as well?
4. Do the outbuildings in industrial sites need to be protected? 


Andrew said...

I think it has to be a case by case basis, but certainly a lot more buildings like this one should be saved and converted to a modern use. Can't say I am so keen on the roof top addition in this case. They always have to squeeze that bit more profit out, but if that is what makes it economic, then better it is saved.

the foto fanatic said...

Certainly they should be preserved, and recycled for a different use if practicable. Although preserving as much of both exterior and interior as possible should be the goal, I understand that in some cases alterations would be inevitable. Not just tarting up, but necessary alterations to adapt to a new use. Ditto for the outbuildings.

Incidentally, I have mentioned this building in my blog too:

Hels said...


you put your finger on the key issue - profits for the developer Vs conservation issues. But I too am glad when an important historical site is (mainly) saved.

Hels said...

foto fanatic

thanks for creating a link. I will add it to my post straight away.

Now I have got involved in whether to save industrial history or not, the next project I am going to look at is the Foy and Gibson complex in Collingwood.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels,

I'm a strong believer that industrial buildings should also be considered for conservation.

We have lost too many in my town Gravesend, UK alone.

We used to have an airport built in the 1930's with a stylish terminal building. From this airport many of the pioneer aviators (e.g. Amy Johnson, Alex Henshaw) set off on their record flights.

The only part of the airfield remaining is a small strip of concrete dispersal in a farmer's field.

The rest of the airport is covered by a leisure centre and 1950's housing estate.


Hels said...


I now think that if you had an airport terminal built in the stylish 1930s taste, it should have been protected. Largely because of its historical importance, not its architectural uniqueness. Whatever it would have taken to make it viable - an aviation musuem, shops, flats, a training centre for apprentices... whatever.

Too late for Gravesend, but look at Swindon railway workshops, which have since become a railway museum and shopping centre. http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2011/10/railway-workers-in-swindon-utopia.html

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We are firmly of the view that industrial buildings should also be candidates for renovation, restoration and preservation. Indeed, in recent years, the UK's National Trust has moved into this very area of preserving the nation's industrial heritage to great acclaim and enormous public interest.

The sugar factory in Brisbane looks to have been very sympathetically restored and clearly it has made commercial sense too.

Glen / Kent Today and Yesterday said...

Hi Hels, I think in the case of Gravesend airport the urgent need for housing in the 50's after the wartime losses outweighed any other concerns.

The airport was used by the RAF during the war but once it ended it was more or less redundant as bigger and better civilian airports had been built in the London area.

It was a prime location to build houses.

Will get round to writing a post about it one day...


Hels said...

Jane and Lance

when resources are scarce (when are they not?), the UK's National Trust is to be highly commended for preserving the nation's industrial heritage.

Here is a familiar example, although not quite industrial. Charles Dickens's Cleveland Street Workhouse was considered so ugly and such a miserable part of history that it was about to be pulled down. English Heritage has since given the building listed status. But just in the nick of time!

Hels said...


My dad was an ex-serviceman so I really do understood. Straight after the war, our nations had priorities more urgent than preserving historical sites.

But more historical treasures were destroyed in the name of progress in the 1946-1966 era, I suspect, than in the rest of history.

An architect need not have been a genius to design housing all around the 1930s hanger, preserving the hanger for services that the community needed anyhow eg kindergarten, shops, museum, garden nursery... anything!

Have a look at when Chicago plundered its own history, in http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2009/10/walter-gropius-legacy-destroyed.html

Hermes said...

Still catching up after being off-line and glad to see a good news story for a change.

Hels said...


amen to that! I wonder what proportion of historical and architectural treasures are saved.

Intelliblog said...

This is a great building and of great historical significance to Brisbane. Anything that will tend to preserve a historical building as close to its original look and feel is preferable to it being demolished. That of course means that sometimes one has to make concessions to the developers (i.e. they need to make a profit).

The National Trust of course is important in preserving the really significant buildings and making them into museums.

Hels said...


realistically speaking, you are absolutely right - one does have to make some concessions to developers. Otherwise all the thousands of preservation projects would have to be paid for out of the tax base and that, as we know, will probably never happen.

So the question is - how much concession? It looks as if the old Colonial Sugar Refinery in New Farm achieved the right balance.

I wonder if The National Trust can only preserve the really significant buildings by making them into museums. Would it breach Trust guidelines if a historically significant old building was preserved and used as a school, block of flats, office building, tourist centre etc etc?

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Hels said...

I can see you have just started blogging yourself. Good luck with it :) The history of India is often fascinating.

Penny said...

I have just read your very interesting article on the CSR Refinery Redevelopment at New Farm Brisbane. You were right - they had the balance perfectly right. The wharf has proved a wonderful historical link.

However I am very sorry to have to tell you that as we speak it is being demolished. And being replaced with a small concrete jetty - just like all the others.

I have made enquiries to the Qld Heritage Council and tried to find the BCC Approval No to which they refer (on notice on the fence) on the BCC website but to no avail. It is too late.

Hels said...


Thank you for your comment, but why was the original wharf pulled down - for safety reasons? because it was considered ugly?

It smacks of historical vandalism to me :(

Hels said...

See the blog Sydney City and Suburbs.

Former grain silos and factory buildings have been converted into apartments in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown. They were part of the Crago Flour Mills, an industrial estate beside the railway lines.


Jim said...

Fascinating post. I think it's fantastic when they find new uses for these old buildings. Thanks for providing the link on my post.

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Hels said...

Jim and Allan

Nothing stays the same, does it? Great building decisions made in 1892 are looking decidedly old fashioned and derelict 100 years later. Pulling down and rebuilding often seems cheaper and faster, at least for developers with no sense of history.

Well done, Brisbane!