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150 years of the Supreme Court of Queensland

In 2011, Queensland’s Supreme Court celebrated its sesquicentenary. Throughout its history, the court has played a central role in the administration of justice in the state. It has heard some of the most notorious legal cases in Queensland’s history. It was founded on 7 August 1861, with the assent of the Supreme Court Constitution Amendment Act 1861. Two subsequent pieces of legislation, including the Additional Judge Act 1862 and the Supreme Court Act 1863, were also necessary to establish the court’s operating system.

Prior to separation from New South Wales, the former naval officer, Captain John Wickham, tried minor crimes in the Moreton Bay District. More serious cases were tried at the Supreme Court of New South Wales in Sydney. Two years before separation from New South Wales, the Moreton Bay Supreme Court Act 1857 established the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of New South Wales in the Moreton Bay District and S. F. Milford served as Judge. Milford resigned in February 1859, and was replaced by A. J. P. Lutwyche.

Initially, the Brisbane Supreme Court served as the Supreme Court for all of Queensland. As the colony’s population grew, two other courts were constructed. The first sittings of the Northern Supreme Court were held at Bowen in 1874 and the Bowen Court House was built in 1880 in classical revival style. The Central Supreme Court was officially opened at Rockhampton in 1896. After the opening of the Central Supreme Court at Rockhampton, the Northern Supreme Court moved from Bowen to Townsville. Justice Virgil Power, who served as the first Judge of the Central Supreme Court, was the first Queensland-born Supreme Court Judge. As the population of Queensland has grown, additional courts have been built at locations such as Bundaberg, Mackay, Cairns, Longreach, Maryborough, Roma and Townsville.

Although the Brisbane Supreme Court initially served the needs of the entire colony of Queensland, it did not occupy a purpose-built building until 1879. Until then, the Brisbane Court sat at the Old Convict Barracks in Queen Street. These barracks were in disrepair and a number of improvements, including new sets of windows, had to be constructed to allow the continued sitting of the Court. Furthermore, on Sundays, the area of the barracks used by the Court was also used as a church. Although the Court’s surroundings were not elaborate, Parliament did provide an annual grant towards the establishment of a Supreme Court Library from 1861 to 1879.

By 1870, despite minor building modifications to the convict barracks, it had become clear that a new building was required to house the Brisbane Supreme Court. A site on George Street was selected and the prominent colonial architect, Francis Drummond Greville Stanley, submitted plans for an elaborate neoclassical building which was two storeys tall. These original plans featured stone floors and other sophisticated detail. They were later modified for financial reasons and in 1875 John Petrie successfully tendered to construct the building.

On 6 March 1879, the new Supreme Court opened. The entrance on the North Quay frontage had been designed as the main entrance but this was soon superseded by the George Street entrance. In 1880, iron gates were also added to the building. In 1931, the Queensland Public Works Department provided funds for the renovation of the interior of the Brisbane Supreme Court.

On the night of 2 September 1968, the building that housed the Brisbane Supreme Court was damaged by arson. It was subsequently demolished, and in 1976, it was replaced with the current structure. The current Supreme Court building was designed by Bligh Voller and was opened by Sir James Ramsay on 3 September 1981. In 2008, a $600 million building program began to create a new Brisbane Supreme Court and District Court building. This new legal complex is scheduled to open in 2012 and will link up with a major public square and the existing Brisbane Magistrates Court. The precinct will occupy an entire city block between George, Roma and Turbot streets.

Cases

A study of the history of the Supreme Court of Queensland provides a fascinating insight into trends and developments from the state’s past. In 1867, as bushranging and gold rushes became increasingly visible in the colony, Thomas Griffin was tried in Rockhampton over the murder of two troopers who had served as the Claremont gold escort. In 1891, as the great strike altered Queensland society, 13 shearers who had gone on strike in Longreach were charged with sedition and conspiracy at the Rockhampton Supreme Court.

Many well-known Queenslanders served on the Supreme Court. One of Queensland’s most influential Premiers, Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, was appointed Chief Justice of Queensland on 13 March 1893 and was appointed to the High Court of Australia on 7 October 1903. Clearly, the Supreme Court has played a central role in the operation of justice in this state since it was founded.

Dr Shirleene Robinson
May 2010

 

Public Records held at Queensland State Archives relating to the Supreme Court of Queensland

Photographs

  • Supreme Court, Brisbane, 1897. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1108378 (Digital Image ID 2195)
  • Supreme Court, George Street, Brisbane, c1890. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1127648 (Digital Image ID 2704)
  • Rockhampton Supreme Court, corner East and Fitzroy Streets, Rockhampton, c1890. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1127649 (Digital Image ID 2705)
  • Bowen Court House, Williams Street, Bowen, c1890. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1127614 (Digital Image ID 2670)
  • Court House, Mackay, c1890. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1127615 (Digital Image ID 2671)
  • Portrait of the Honourable Sir Samuel Walker Griffith, Premier of Queensland, c1890. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1148886 (Digital Image ID 3064)

Correspondence, notebooks and batch files

  • Brisbane Supreme Court, Batch File, c1965-1974. Queensland State Archives Item ID 603865
  • Brisbane Supreme Court, Batch File, c1943-1972. Queensland State Archives Item ID 300910
  • First page extract from the Civil Sittings Notebook of Judge Lutwyche, the Resident Judge at Brisbane, Moreton Bay, 16 May 1859. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1137582 (Digital Image ID 2814)
  • First page extract from the Criminal Sittings Notebook of Judge Lutwyche, the Resident Judge at Brisbane, Moreton Bay, 23 May 1859. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1137583 (Digital Image ID 2815)
  • Judge S. Griffith's Notebook - Supreme Court of Queensland, Criminal Sittings, c1896-1900. Queensland State Archives Item ID 99319
  • Public Works Department General Correspondence file including Supreme Court tenders and original buildings, c1881. Queensland State Archives Item ID 107919 [letter 1881/3426]
  • Judge Stanley's Notebook - Supreme Court of Queensland, Criminal Sittings, 1951. Queensland State Archives Item ID 100759
  • Chief Justice's correspondence, c1928-1944. Queensland State Archives Item ID 92704
  • Judge G. Harding's Notebook - Supreme Court of Queensland, Circuit Court, Civil Sittings, Ipswich, c1881-1894. Queensland State Archives Item ID 99475
  • Judge's Notebook - Supreme Court Southern District, Brisbane, Registrar's Record, Civil Cases heard by Chief Justice, c1907-1913. Queensland State Archives Item ID 97109
  • Miscellaneous letters received and sent by, and notes in handwriting of, Mr Justice Harding, c1881-1882. Queensland State Archives Item ID 92467
  • Correspondence and papers re cases in the Supreme Court Moreton Bay mostly concerning Mr Justice Milford, c1855-1858. Queensland State Archives Item ID 92483
  • Judge S. Griffith's Notebook - Supreme Court of Queensland, Civil Sittings, c1895-1897. Queensland State Archives Item ID 99265
  • Miscellaneous letters received by the Chief Justice or by his Associate, c1863-1874. Queensland State Archives Item ID 92482

Architectural drawings and specifications

  • Architectural drawing of the New Law Courts, elevation to North Quay, George Street, Brisbane, 1875. Queensland State Archives Item ID 328565 (Digital Image ID 5346)
  • Architectural drawing of the New Law Courts, George Street, Brisbane, 1875. Queensland State Archives Item ID 328564 (Digital Image ID 5345)
  • Law Courts proposal – Plan for Queen’s Gardens, Supreme Court Brisbane, undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 328566
  • Architectural plan of the Public Offices and Court House, Maryborough, 1888. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1111039 (Digital Image ID 2591)
  • Architectural plan of the Law Courts, Brisbane, 1888. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1110683 (Digital Image ID 2576)
  • Architectural plan of the Court House, Townsville, 1888. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1126512 (Digital Image ID 2599)
  • Architectural plan of the Supreme Court, Brisbane, undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 584604
  • Architectural plan of Supreme Court, Brisbane (Ground Floor), undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 584556
  • Architectural plan of Supreme Court, Brisbane (First Floor), undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 584558
  • Architectural plan of Supreme Court, Brisbane (Gallery), undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 584557
  • Architectural plan of Supreme Court, Brisbane (Gallery), undated. Queensland State Archives Item ID 584559
  • Drawing showing west elevations of Prisoners' Barracks, Moreton Bay, c1839. Queensland State Archives Item ID 659651 (Digital Image ID 5257)
  • New Law Courts, Supreme Court, level 2, c1969. Queensland State Archives Item ID 117595

Legislation

  • Bill to provide for an additional Judge of the Supreme Court, 1862. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1428357 (Digital Image ID 5420)
  • Bill to amend the Constitution of the Supreme Court of Queensland and to provide for the better Administration of Justice, 1861. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1428358 (Digital Image ID 5442, Digital Image ID 5443)
  • Bill further to amend the Constitution of the Supreme Court of Queensland and further to provide for the better Administration of Justice, 1863. Queensland State Archives Item ID 1428359 (Digital Image ID 5422)

Related resources

Brief guide 22: Court records provides an overview of the court structure in Queensland and records held in Queensland State Archives’ collection.

Other records relevant to the Supreme Court, including court records, can be located using the ArchivesSearch catalogue.

This interactive Google map shows a selection of past and present locations of Supreme Court buildings throughout Queensland.



Last updated 21 June 2013
Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 2195: Supreme Court, Brisbane, 1897
​Queensland State Archives Digital Image ID 2195: Supreme Court, Brisbane, 1897