The small Scottish village that was home to Brisbane
A charming little seaside resort town on the Firth of Clyde 55km west of Glasgow, Largs was the scene of the last battle between the Scots and the Vikings in 1263.
It is also the home of Thomas Makdougall Brisbane who, although his time in Australia as Governor of the Colony of New South Wales was brief, left a significant footprint.
Apart from the city which bears his name, he established Australia’s first observatory at Parramatta and during his brief tenure, 1821-25, encouraged scientific and agricultural training and set up the first agricultural training college in NSW.
Major-General Sir Thomas Brisbane was born at Largs in Ayrshire on July 23, 1773 and died there almost 87 years later on January 27, 1860.
He studied astronomy and mathematics at Edinburgh University before joining the British Army in 1789, and going on to a distinguished career in Flanders, the West Indies, Spain and North America.
Brisbane served under the Duke of Wellington who recommended his appointment as Governor of NSW.
Soon after his arrival in Sydney on December 1, 1821, he began the first of many reforms such as improving the land grants system, the currency, freedom of the press, and streamlining the tickets of leave and pardons.
He had brought his astronomical instruments, books, clocks and two assistants, Ludwig Rumker and James Dunlop, with him to NSW and they opened the first properly equipped Australian observatory at Parramatta in 1822. It remained in use until 1855.
Ever the scientist, he was the first patron of science in Australia and became first president of the Philosophical Society of Australasia, later the Royal Society of NSW, the oldest learned institution in the southern hemisphere.
He conducted experiments in growing tobacco, cotton, coffee and flax in the colony and encouraged agriculture on government land.
But it was in 1823, when he sent Lieutenant John Oxley to find a new site for convicts who were repeat offenders that he secured his place in history.
Oxley discovered a large river flowing in Moreton Bay and the first convicts arrived a year later. Governor Brisbane paid a visit in December 1824.
The settlement was declared a town in 1834, and opened to free settlers in 1839 and at Oxley’s suggestion both the river and the settlement were named after the governor.
Brisbane left Sydney in December 1825, never to return to Australia. He settled on the family estate in Largs to continue his astronomical research and pursue his interest in his regiment and his estate.
In 1808 he built an observatory at his ancestral home and in 1835, published The Brisbane Catalogue of 7385 stars of the Southern Hemisphere.
In The Observatory in Brisbane Glen, Largs writer John Bonsor notes that “the name of this soldier, colonial governor and astronomer is now associated more with Australia than his native Scotland, where the Largs observatory is a forlorn reminder of his pioneering work.”
“The ruins of an old observatory can still be seen in Brisbane Glen marking the spot where Sir Thomas Brisbane studied astronomy,” he writes.
“The three main meridian pillars still stand on their knoll. Substantially intact, overlooking Waterside Street in Largs, these massive square pillars are known locally as the Three Sisters and the knoll upon which they stand has the unofficial name of Astronomer’s Hill.
“The most visible structure in Largs is the Three Sisters, great pillars which once bore lamps used to align the telescopes in the observatory about a mile and a half to the north, precisely along the north-south meridian.
“The observatory also contained a fireplace and a bed so that Sir Thomas could keep warm and rest when, as sometimes happens in Largs, the clouds came over. “Upon leaving to become Governor of NSW in 1821, he packed up his telescopes and took them along.
“As soon as possible he set them up again in a similar building in Parramatta and employed skilled assistants to operate them under his direction.
“He did, after all, have to spend some time running the colony. Sir Thomas Brisbane’s legacy to Australia was a functioning observatory which continued his work. Indeed some of the instruments he brought from Largs are on display today in Sydney Observatory. There is also a memorial to his founding of the Parramatta Observatory in the form of an obelisk standing on the site of his original transit telescope there.
“The city of Brisbane even boasts the Sir Thomas Brisbane Planetarium. Clearly his scientific work is better remembered in Australia than in his home town.
“The Three Sisters meridian pillars are the most substantial remnant of Sir Thomas Brisbane’s four observatories. They stand today as a splendid monument to the man himself, and to a past age of astronomical endeavor and achievement without which today’s deeper exploration of the universe would not be possible.”
Sir Thomas Brisbane is buried in the family vault in the small Largs kirkyard.