Uncharted Waters: The Top 10 Moments of John Oxley’s Historic 1823 Expedition to the Brisbane River

John Oxley Brisbane

Did you know that 2023 will mark 200 years since the historic 1823 expedition of John Oxley to the Brisbane River, a venture that shaped the future of Queensland? Here are the top 10 moments that shaped the course of John Oxley’s journey and the future of Brisbane and its surroundings.



1. The Mission is Set (1823)

In 1823, Governor Brisbane presented John Oxley with a daunting task: to locate a suitable site for a penal colony for the most stubborn convicts. This mission set Mr Oxley on a path that would forever change the landscape of Australian exploration. 

Embarking on this journey, Mr Oxley was poised to uncover new territories and possibilities, venturing into what was then uncharted Australian territory. This expedition wasn’t just a geographical exploration; it symbolised a significant step in the colonial expansion and understanding of Australia’s vast landscape​​.

Who was John Oxley?

John Oxley was born on 1 Jan 1784 in Yorkshire, England. He joined the Royal Navy at a young age, embarking on a naval career that eventually led him to Australian waters. In 1802, Mr Oxley first arrived in Australia as part of a naval patrol, marking the beginning of his long-standing relationship with the continent.

By 1812, he had transitioned from his naval career to become the Surveyor-General of New South Wales, a role in which he excelled due to his keen interest in exploration and topography. His position as Surveyor-General placed him at the forefront of mapping and exploring the vast, unknown interiors of the Australian continent.

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His other notable expeditions include his 1817 and 1818 journeys along the Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers, which were instrumental in expanding the European understanding of Australia’s inland regions. These expeditions faced significant challenges, including harsh terrain and the eventual realisation that the rivers did not lead to an inland sea, as many had speculated.

Mr Oxley is also remembered for his contributions to the agricultural development of Australia. He was instrumental in identifying and promoting fertile lands for cultivation, which aided in the colony’s expansion and self-sufficiency.

He was an advocate for the settlement and development of Australia. His reports and maps from his expeditions were invaluable in guiding future exploration and colonization efforts.

Mr Oxley’s health declined in the late 1820s, and he passed away on 25 May 1828 in Sydney. 

2. First Glimpse of the Tweed Valley

As Mr Oxley navigated the Tweed River and valley, he was struck by the area’s stunning natural beauty. The lush, rich valley, adorned with magnificent trees and the winding river, captivated him. His vivid descriptions in his reports and journals convey a sense of wonder and excitement that was palpable. 

This moment was not just about the beauty of the landscape; it was a crucial discovery that highlighted the potential for new settlements and the richness of the Australian terrain. Mr Oxley’s impressions of the Tweed Valley would later influence colonial perspectives on Australian geography​​. 

John Oxley lands in Tweed Valley
Photo Credit: NLA/The Border Star/1941

3. A Crucial Meeting at Moreton Island

The expedition took a pivotal turn when Mr Oxley encountered two escaped convicts living among Aboriginal people on Moreton Island. This unexpected meeting provided Oxley with invaluable local knowledge and guidance. It was a unique interaction that bridged cultural divides and proved crucial in navigating the local geography. 

These convicts led Oxley to one of his most significant discoveries, demonstrating how chance encounters can alter the course of history​​.

4. The Brisbane River is Named (December 1823) 

Guided by the escaped convicts, Oxley discovered and named the Brisbane River in honour of Governor Thomas Brisbane. This act of naming was not just a formality but a significant colonial gesture, marking the river as an important geographical and administrative landmark.

Governor Thomas Brisbane
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Who was Gov Thomas Brisbane?

Sir Thomas Brisbane was a British Army officer and colonial administrator, born on July 23, 1773, in Ayrshire, Scotland. He served as the Governor of New South Wales from 1821 to 1825, a period marked by significant administrative reforms and expansion of the colony’s scientific and astronomical knowledge. Mr Brisbane was instrumental in promoting exploration and the development of infrastructure in the colony, including the establishment of a new currency.

John Oxley Names Brisbane River
Photo Credit: NLA

The naming of the Brisbane River was a key moment in the expedition, cementing Mr Oxley’s role in the European exploration of Australia and setting the stage for future settlements in the area​​​​.

5. The Strategic Decision at Wacol (3 December 1823) 

On 3 Dec 1823, Mr Oxley made a strategic decision to land and turn back at Wacol. This decision, whilst seemingly minor, was a critical juncture in the expedition. It demonstrated Mr Oxley’s ability to assess and respond to the challenges of exploration. This moment at Wacol marked not only a turning point in the expedition but also laid the groundwork for future exploratory efforts and settlements in the region​​.

6. Climbing Mount Ommaney

The ascent of Mount Ommaney was a key navigational and observational achievement for Mr Oxley. From this vantage point, he gained critical insights into the landscape’s layout, enhancing his mapping of the region. 

This moment was not just about the physical act of climbing but also about the broader perspective it offered. Mr Oxley’s observations from Mount Ommaney helped in understanding the region’s potential for settlement and navigation, furthering the colonial objectives of the expedition​​.

Oxley's memorial in Mt Ommaney
Photo Credit: Monument Australia

7. Rejoining the Mermaid (5 December 1823)

Reaching the Mermaid, their expedition vessel signalled the end of this exploration phase. This return was a moment of reflection and consolidation of the journey’s findings. The data and experiences gathered during this time were pivotal in shaping the future colonial policies and settlements. The journey back on the Mermaid marked the transition from exploration to the planning and execution of colonial expansion based on Mr Oxley’s findings​​.

8. Founding of Redcliffe (Post-Expedition)

The establishment of a convict settlement at Redcliffe, based on Mr Oxley’s recommendations, was a direct consequence of the expedition. This decision showcased the immediate and tangible impact of Mr Oxley’s exploration. Redcliffe’s founding represented a significant step in the colonial occupation and development of the region, a process that began with Mr Oxley’s mapping and exploration of the Brisbane River and its surroundings​​.

Redcliffe Memorial for Oxley
Photo Credit: Moreton Bay Library
Redcliffe Memorial for Oxley 2022
Photo Credit: Kerbray/Google Maps

9. The 1824 Follow-up Expedition

In 1824, John Oxley returned to the Brisbane River, accompanied by renowned botanist Allan Cunningham. This follow-up expedition allowed Mr Oxley to delve deeper into the region’s natural resources and potential for settlement. This journey was crucial in consolidating Mr Oxley’s findings from the previous year and further cemented his role in the development of the area. 

The 1824 expedition underscored the importance of continuous exploration and study in understanding and utilising Australia’s vast and varied landscape​​.

10. Oxley’s Lasting Impact on Brisbane

The city of Brisbane, as we know it today, owes much of its early development to Oxley’s exploratory efforts. His exploration and mapping of the Brisbane River laid the groundwork for the city’s formation. 



Mr Oxley’s journey went beyond mere discovery; it was instrumental in shaping the early urban and geographical identity of Brisbane. His legacy is a reminder of the crucial role that exploration and vision play in shaping the history and development of cities and regions​​.

Published 1-Dec-2023