Pettigrew Saw Mill

Photograph taken in 1893 shows the water inundation of Pettigrew’s sawmill. The mill buildings are located in front of and behind the chimney in the mid right of the photograph

The largest landowner on Queen’s Wharf during the nineteenth century, William Pettigrew, was from Ayrshire, Scotland. A trained surveyor, through his association with Dr John Dunmore Lang he migrated to Queensland, arriving in Brisbane on the Fortitude in January 1849. As the expected land grants associated with this immigration scheme proved non-existent, Pettigrew surveyed with the Government Surveyor Warner before joining Commissioner of Crown Lands Stephen Simpson in his journeys around the region. He also set out the plan on site for Simpson’s new home, Wolston House.

Pettigrew was encouraged by the stands of trees he had seen on his travel with Simpson. In 1852, through his brother in Scotland, he obtained second hand machinery for a steam driven saw mill, the first of its kind in Queensland. With £200 from his inheritance, he built a stone and timber wharf at the river’s edge of allotment no. 2. Pettigrew then had a basic mill building 25 feet (7.6 metres) wide and 80 feet (24.3 metres) long. It stood 14 feet (4.2 metres) in height. A brick chimney 40 feet (12.1 metres) high, constructed by John Petrie, served the twenty horsepower steam engine which drove a circular saw, a heavy frame saw and a turning lathe. The mill commenced operations on 28 June 1853.

Unfortunately this mill burnt to the ground on 8 July 1855. Pettigrew believed the culprits were pit sawyers who worked in the saw pits on allotments nos. 3 and 4 closer to Queen’s Wharf, which belonged to member of the Binstead family, also sawyers. Mechanisation would inevitably remove the need for their labours. Pettigrew rebuilt the mill and expanded his enterprise by constructing another mill at Dundathu outside Maryborough, which commenced operations in 1860.

In 1874 Pettigrew’s Brisbane saw mill was badly damaged in another fire. This fire started in a grain mill which he had established to use surplus steam. The grain mill was on allotment no. 1, which he had purchased from the Coutts family in 1872. Within two months the sawmill was again operational and four years later Pettigrew constructed a two-storey mill clad in corrugated iron on his original allotment, no. 2.

William Pettigrew had purchased allotment no. 5 from the liquidation sales of the assets of Orr and Honeyman in 1872. Here on the river bank Pettigrew established a large carpenter’s shop. In April 1874 Pettigrew purchased allotment no. 6 from Thomas Dowse and the same year allotment no. 7 from the widow of Patrick Mayne, Mary Mayne. He ran a railway system to the wharf of the former and made use of Dowse’s old two-storey stone store building, although it was at risk of sinking into the mud at the river’s edge. He established a timber yard at the eastern corner of the intersection of Margaret and William Streets, diagonally opposite the mill and owned other land in the near vicinity. The company traded as W. Pettigrew and Son after Robert Pettigrew turned twenty-one in March 1883 and received a ten per cent share.

Eventually the sawmilling activities would spread across all the allotments to Queen’s Wharf. In 1888 Pettigrew and his son Robert took out a mortgage to purchase Lot 4 and, although  no title documents exist, he probably did the same with Lot 3. A canny Scot, Pettigrew likewise never built large structures on these allotments, using them instead for stacking timber, a blacksmith’s shop and the earth closets which serviced the mill’s employees. He also made use of a wharf on allotment no. 4.

Two events contributed to the decline of the Brisbane sawmill of William Pettigrew and Son. As a consequence of the 1874 fire, other mill operators made inroads into sawmilling, leaving Pettigrew competing for business rather than leading. Then the flood peaks of 1893 devastated the site, causing extensive damage to the mill buildings and sinking one of his steamers, the Tadorna Radjah. Other Pettigrew mills outside Brisbane also were affected. Soon after, a financial crisis that had been looming eventuated. Banks suspended payments, including the Royal Bank in which Pettigrew had invested. Creditors wanted their money.

In 1894 the process of liquidation of William Pettigrew and Son commenced. Pettigrew held on, just. Production recommenced at the sawmill adjacent to Queen’s Wharf, although on a significantly smaller scale. In 1898 the mill was inundated with flood water again. Foreclosure was inevitable. On 26 July 1898 Pettigrew signed a petition of insolvency, with the Union Bank taking possession of the mill. Contractors moved in. William Pettigrew and his son Robert moved away in March 1899. William Pettigrew died on 28 October 1906, while living with his daughter in Bowen.

Additional Reading


  • SLQ Image 64896
  • SLQ Image 104851
  • ANMM Object 00048193

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