Art Gallery exhibition rediscovers our port city heritage

Published on 06 July 2015

Forgotten Port City.jpg

Rockhampton is well known as the Beef Capital…but back in the days of sail and steam it was a thriving port city.

Rockhampton Art Gallery’s newest exhibition, Rockhampton: the forgotten port city is reviving the story of the Fitzroy River and the bringing back to life the heyday of Rockhampton’s port history with original photographs, paintings, maps and mementos.

“The rich port history of Rockhampton may be little known but the vitality and growth of the city can be directly traced through exploring its relationship to the Fitzroy River,” Chair of Rockhampton Regional Council’s Communities Committee, said.

For tens of thousands of years, the river, known as Toonooba, had been a life source for the Darumbal people.

 “European exploration, settlement and pastoral expansion of the region, particularly by brothers William and Charles Archer, hastened the need for a productive port, as did the Canoona ‘duffer’ gold rush of 1858,” Cr Swadling said.

The Canoona gold rush had a significant and enduring effect on the town and due to its expanded population, the New South Wales government proclaimed Rockhampton on 25 October 1858. Named by William Henry Wiseman, Commissioner for the District of Leichhardt, Rockhampton’s name even rose from the river by referencing the river rocks that were just near the town site and ‘hampton’ as a town near water.

After being deemed a port of entry, a Customs House was built and the ‘town near the rocks in the river’ was positioned as the principal town for trade north of Brisbane.

Despite its significant shortcomings as an inland port - a lack of deep water meant large vessels had to transfer loads to smaller vessels within Keppel Bay and then traverse the often shallow, ever-shifting shoals of the Fitzroy - private, commercial and government wharves were established along the riverbank of Rockhampton.

This legacy can still be seen today in the elegant architecture lining Quay Street, the fine stone buildings and Customs House’s majestic copper dome demonstrating a by-gone era of prosperity and trade. 

The fragile maps and objects, rare paintings and photographs that comprise Rockhampton: the forgotten port city, impart a deeper insight and offer a tangible link to a past that set the course of the region’s future.

“Today Rockhampton may not rely on the river for the transport of trade but the recent revitalisation of the riverbank with new apartment buildings and outdoor eateries continues to focus the Fitzroy as the flowing heart of the city,” Cr Swadling said.

Through the assistance of Arts Queensland, the Gallery has produced a 96-page exhibition catalogue filled with rare and unseen images, an interactive digital display and accompanying website. 

Rockhampton: the forgotten port city, will be on display at Rockhampton Art Gallery, 11 July – 25 October 2015. Entry is free. More information is available from

Rockhampton Art Gallery is owned and operated by Rockhampton Regional Council.