In the nineteenth century many unexplained deaths in Brisbane occurred near the river. This seems one of the reasons why, in its various evolutionary forms, the Brisbane public morgue has had a long association with the Queen’s Wharf vicinity.
Brisbane’s first public morgue was built in the grounds of the former convict hospital. The hospital was sited between North Quay and today’s George Street, between Adelaide and Ann Streets. (The development known as Brisbane Quarter, at 300 George Street, is the latest construction on this site.)
In Brisbane’s sub-tropical climate, and with no refrigeration then available, the nearby presence of the morgue cannot have assisted in the recovery of patients who were recuperating in Brisbane’s first hospital. Understandably, there were moves to relocate the morgue. On 21 July 1862 tenders were called for the construction of a new morgue at the river end of Edward Street. The slab had already been laid near the A.S.N. Company wharf before the acting colonial secretary responded favourably to the objections of a deputation of nearby residents. The morgue remained within the hospital grounds, though the building was resited more towards the river and Ann Street.
From 1862, with the departure of the hospital to its new site at Bowen Hills, the former hospital became a Police Barracks. The morgue remained, although there were further attempts to have it relocated, one in March 1878 to the reserve immediately above the stock sale yards in Roma Street. Again there were objections and the morgue remained where it was.
Constructed where the demolished police barracks had been, the new Brisbane Supreme Court opened in 1862. Its location so near to the public morgue drew more complaints about the continuing presence of this small though essential building. Finally, in 1879, the government constructed a new public morgue, its design attributed to the government architect FDG Stanley, on the riverbank below Queen’s Wharf Road downstream of Victoria Bridge. The single storey timber morgue was at a suitable distance from residences. The area was most noted for its government buildings.
Unfortunately, the public morgue flooded in 1887 and was damaged extensively in a landslip in 1890 when its outer downstream foundations dropped away. It was repaired, only to be destroyed completely in the flood peaks of February 1893. Temporary space was found in the Department of Agriculture and Stock building.
Until a new morgue was constructed, the morgue at the General Hospital in Bowen Hills was then utilised for a public morgue. Funds were not readily forthcoming for a replacement until 1910 when, at a cost of £855.10.00, a new morgue designed by government architect Thomas Pye was built higher on the river bank below Queen’s Wharf Road. Construction was by Thomas Hooper.
This morgue was an improvement on those previous. Measuring 50 feet (15.24 metres) by 16 feet (4.87 metres) it was constructed on concrete supports. A landing jetty was situated below on the river bank. There was no refrigeration or air-conditioning. According to one newspaper report, as many as 2,000 deaths were investigated in this small building over the 16 years the public morgue operated in this location. With the Brisbane City Council keen to beautify the area, and a steep climb necessary from the jetty on the river, the decision was made in 1927 to move the morgue, literally.
This time it was to Alice Street, close to the river. At a cost of £1,333.50.0, the small building was dismantled and resited on deep concrete foundations. Constructed in timber with galvanised iron cladding, this ‘new’ morgue was divided into three sections. When the Brisbane River flooded yet again in April 1928 water surrounded the morgue, but it did not enter the building. There was no refrigeration until the Second World War (1943), when a refrigeration room was installed.
Key to the operation of the public morgue from 1947 was Doctor John Iredale Tonge. An Army officer in the Second World War, Tonge was the Director of the State Laboratory of Microbiology and Pathology from 1947, following the promotion of Dr Ted Derrick. The laboratory had emerged in 1910 from the Stock Institute and was attached to the Department of Health and Home Affairs.
Tonge’s office was close by, in the 1936 extension to the Department of Agriculture and Stock building in William Street. Were a new morgue to be constructed, Dr Tonge favoured a site in the Domain at Gardens Point (now in the grounds of the Queensland University of Technology) as suitable.
Conditions at the Alice Street morgue were less than favourable. According to Dr Tonge, the building was too small, its layout was not ideal and in its then condition fittings had been declared unhygenic. Following a visit to the morgue by Alex Dewar MLA to identify his deceased mother in 1956, and his subsequent speech in the Legislative Assembly, the need for a new morgue was publicly acknowledged. A minor upgrade costing £1,456 was made, though there were no improvements to the refrigeration facilities, a decision that left a noxious odour in the wind when the refrigeration plant broke down over the long weekend in May 1958.
A final decision on the site for a new morgue was made a year later. Located in the Domain and named the Institute of Forensic Pathology, it was operational from 1962 and remained on the site for thirty years, until 1992 when a new mortuary was constructed adjacent to Queensland Health’s Forensic and Scientific Services on Kessels Road. Dr John Tonge had retired in 1979. The new mortuary was named the John Tonge Centre in his honour.
Butterworth, L. K. What Good is a Coroner? : The transformation of the Queensland Office of Coroner 1859 – 1959. PhD Thesis, Griffith University, April 2012.
Dr John Iredale Tonge CBE MBBS FRCPA in Dr Q May 2013, AMA Queensland. https://issuu.com/amaqueensland/docs/doctorq-mayonline/45