Site icon Archaeology on the Frontier

Fortifying the Frontier?

By Heather Burke, Ray Kerkhove, Lynley A. Wallis, Cathy Keys and Bryce Barker

‘In the hut we built we made square holes in the corners & sides, and had pieces of wood hung by pieces of green hide and a hide latch[?] we could just open the little door and fire away if necessary.’ James McLaurin, Memories of Early Australia, 1888

Although not located in Queensland, James McLaurin’s account of building a hut in early 1840s Victoria provides an interesting first-hand glimpse into the mindset of Europeans living on the frontier. In relation to the Tasmanian frontier, Nicholas Clements and Andrew Gregg have gone so far as to argue that fear was “the most significant of the emotions characterising the wartime experiences of colonists’ (Clements and Greg 2015:223). Being afraid for their financial livelihoods, property, stock and personal physical safety, Tasmanian colonists employed a range of defensive tactics to protect themselves, including laying turf on roofs to prevent fire, enclosing buildings within log palisades or high brick walls, clearing the vegetation extensively around their properties, incorporating apertures into walls to allow gunfire and placing windows higher up the walls than usual, so that they could not be easily breached (Clements and Gregg 2015).

In Queensland, much less is known about the defensive propensities of colonists, although elsewhere we have discussed some of the more unusual psychological tactics that were employed on the frontier.

To better understand the nature and extent of defensive architecture in colonial Queensland, we carried out a desktop survey of accounts of potentially fortified domestic structures. We found these in newspaper accounts, manuscripts, published and unpublished reminiscences, letters, historic sketches and photographs, as well as oral histories. We specifically focussed on documents detailing early life in Queensland, c 1840–1910.

We defined ‘domestic’ as any civilian structure that was used for regular working, cooking, sleeping or relaxing. We eliminated any descriptions that were too generic (e.g. ‘every habitation [in the St George area]’ or ‘almost every homestead on the Belyando’), instead focussing on accounts that referred to a specific pastoral run or structure, allowing us to plot their locations on a map with some precision.

We also investigated all identifiable authors, considering issues such as their familiarity with the region, their broader knowledge of the topic and their closeness to the source of the information being reported. This allowed us to assess each account for reliability according to who was describing the structure, and when and how they acquired the information. We defined ‘first-hand accounts’ as those given by the initial builders or inhabitants, or by people who had visited or knew the place intimately around the time of construction, regardless of when their accounts were written. ‘Second-hand accounts’ were usually by the children of the original owners/occupiers and were typically recorded at a much later date, when this second generation themselves were classed as ‘old pioneers’. ‘Third-hand’ accounts were stories told by subsequent generations or owners, and other, later sources, many of which only had a very generic origin (e.g. ‘an old timer’). These were rarely reliable, and could only be classed at best as ‘local lore’.

Surprisingly, although we examined many different sources, very few detailed ‘fortified’ structures emerged and no images of early ‘pioneer’ huts contained sufficient detail or clarity to allow their features to be assessed. In the end, we identified 125 accounts of 97 different structures across Queensland (Figure 1). Only 13% of these could be considered highly reliable, first-hand accounts, a little over 20% (n=28) were second-hand accounts, leaving the vast majority as third hand sources (64%), most of which were only published much later as memoirs.

Figure 1: Geographic spread of fortified structure accounts across Queensland

That makes accounts such as Ernest Henry’s in 1859 extremely rare. Henry was one of the men who accompanied George Dalrymple’s reconnaissance expedition to the Cardwell area. He recorded in his letters written at the time how their party:

… placed four upright poles in the ground enclosing a space about 12 ft by 8 ft then joined them by long saplings passed through the forks at the top, dug a trench about 1 ½ ft deep all round in which we placed saplings leaning a little outwards against those at the top. We then placed all plates against the upright to keep them firm, filled in the trench, first laying poles on either side at the base of the saplings. We then placed two very tall forked poles at either end with a ridge pole across and spread our largest tent over all. Altogether it was very strong and well loop-holed, the walls were 8 or 9 feet high.

(Henry cited in Breslin 1992:41)

Likewise, John Carpenter, a shepherd on the Maranoa River in 1851, provided another rare glimpse into a fortified structure, given as part of his evidence to a Magistrate. When attacked by Aboriginal people he:

… barricaded the door, opened the port-holes (which are usually made in huts on the frontiers, for the purpose of resisting the assaults of the natives), and laid the fire-arms on the table. From one of the port-holes he saw about five hundred blacks assembled … They blocked up the port-holes before Carpenter had an opportunity of firing at them, but he stabbed one of them in the eye through a chink beside one of the holes … some … climbed on to the roof of the hut, and set fire to the bark roofing.

(Moreton Bay Courier, 23 August 1851:2)

Loop-holes—square, round or vertical slit holes pierced in a wall to shoot through—were the most commonly described defensive features mentioned in most sources. Variously labelled as slots, slits, portholes, apertures or ‘shooting holes’, loop-holes were expedient features—they could be created in any shape or number and were often described as being cut, bored (e.g. structures at Rookwood, Cockatoo), pierced (e.g. Waroo) or augered through timber slabs (e.g. structures at Imbil, Yandina Creek, Herbert River). All first-hand accounts referred to the presence of some version of a loop-hole, suggesting that they were a common element of domestic defense.

Perhaps the best observer in this respect was Robert Gray, a former member of the 97th Regiment of Foot, who participated in the final siege of Lucknow (British India) in 1858 (Gray 1913). [Incidentally, he was also a cousin of Ernest Henry.] He later took up pastoral leases around Richmond and Hughenden. In describing Lammermoor Station in north-west Queensland, the house of his friend and neighbour, Robert Christison, which Gray regularly visited in the late 1860s not long after its construction, Gray noted: “My friend had then a substantial and neatly erected log hut with loopholes for rifles” (Gray 1913:130). Given his prior military experience, Gray could be expected to know a functioning loop-hole when he saw one.

Other defensive features noted in our study included:

Wooden shutters were ubiquitous on early buildings because glass was expensive and difficult to acquire, although being able to close and strongly secure openings provided obvious defensive benefits. At Albinia Downs (in central Queensland), Robert Patton noted that the Dutton family always secured the house at night, a situation that was only resolved by the arrival of the Native Mounted Police in 1860 (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 1862:2). Others were less fearful. Describing the hut he inhabited on St Helen’s Station near Proserpine c. 1866, pastoralist John McCartney noted that, although the hut was loop-holed “we did not bother to close the doors or shutters, knowing we were safe from spears” (Capricornian, 27 February 1909:4).

Although mentioned more rarely, some sources referred specifically to structures as ‘blockhouses’. Technically, a blockhouse is a classic military feature, usually built inside a fort or in a defensive position of its own. In the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries they were typically two storeyed and cantilevered—built with an upper floor projecting outwards above the lower. Loop-holes were located around the walls on both storeys and hatches were built into the floor of the upper storey.

Two storey blockhouses were also a relatively common frontier defensive structure in the 19th century in New Zealand, although these are quite different to those being described for Queensland. The New Zealand examples usually had milled timber walls, with double exterior walls filled with gravel, clay or other protection against gunfire. Some were built with palisades or other physical, external barriers (Prickett 1992).

None of the Queensland descriptions describe two storey buildings, cantilevering, wall filling or external palisades, although most accounts were too imprecise to know exactly how a structure was built. Many accounts, in fact, seem to use the term ‘blockhouse’ to describe the standard timber slab construction of most early Australian buildings, suggesting that this term was being incorrectly applied to structures that may have had no defensive elements. It is true that timber slab buildings were solidly constructed, but this was not necessarily for any defensive purpose—it was simply the by-product of that particular construction method and set of materials.

Chronologically, the term ‘blockhouse’ only started being used in reference to frontier structures in Queensland in the 20th century; the earliest reference we found dated to 1935. Rather than being a description of a dedicated military-style defensive structure in the 19th century, this term seems to have become popular much later and was then applied in hindsight to what were probably standard early Australian timber buildings. The use of such a term as an indicator of frontier violence or defensive behaviours on the Queensland frontier must therefore be treated with caution.

The vast majority of structures identified in our survey as potentially being fortified were homesteads or the main huts on sheep or cattle runs (55% of all accounts). These were followed by adjacent outbuildings (12%) and outstations (13%). This is not surprising given that 19th century pastoral runs were vast unfenced domains containing large numbers of stock. Apart from the nucleus of a head station, pastoralists relied on a network of widely separated outstations to monitor animals, paddocks and water sources. Given that these were usually important resource areas for Aboriginal people, pastoral runs became one of the main arenas for frontier conflict.

In a second post we’ll explore the historical development of fortification stories. This speaks to the way a broader narrative about settlement was being constructed throughout the 20th century to become the received wisdom it is today. Despite the fact that very few of the fortification stories we uncovered could be considered highly reliable, it is likely that accounts of fortified domestic structures are not all mythological and that defensive elements were more common than we might think. Our review also indicated that defensive features were usually minimal—holes in walls and barrable doors, windows or other ports of entry—reflecting the often ‘rough and ready’ nature of frontier construction.

We found that almost every area of Queensland has stories of places that are said to have been fortified—if you know of any, we’d love to hear them.


Breslin, B. 1992 Exterminate with Pride: Aboriginal-European Relations in the Townsville–Bowen Region to 1869. Studies in North Queensland History No. 18. Townsville: Department of History and Politics, James Cook University.

Clements, N. and A. Gregg 2015 “I am frightened out of my life”: Black war, white fear. Settler Colonial Studies 7(2):221240.

Gray, R. 1913 Reminiscences of India and North Queensland. London: Constable and Company.

Prickett, N. 1992 The archaeology of the New Zealand Wars. Australasian Historical Archaeology 10:3–14.



Exit mobile version