Chinese Market Gardens in Toowong


Researched and compiled by Philippa Stanford including an extract from Glen Butler’s reminiscences included in TDHS’s book ‘Toowong Tramride from the Past’ by Leigh Chamberlain.

It seems that a significant proportion of the Chinese community in Brisbane were involved with market gardens. In 1916 there were 482 Chinese people registered in Brisbane. Nearly half gave their occupation as gardener with an additional 50 in associated businesses of fruiterer, fruit hawker or green grocer.

View looking over the Brisbane suburb of The Gap, with a Chinese market garden in the foreground, and Mt. Coot-tha in the distance, ca. 1950s. Image courtesy of State Library of Queensland.

In the period mid 1800s to the mid 1900s Chinese gardens could be found at Enoggera, Everton Park, Kelvin Grove, Toowong, and south of the river at West End, Eight Mile Plains, Runcorn, Belmont, Mt. Gravatt, The Gap, Sunnybank, Coopers Plains, And Yerongpilly. The ones at Enoggera, Kelvin Grove and Toowong were established first, before 1900, and the others later. It seems many of the gardens at Ashgrove were still operating in 1937 and the ones at Moorooka, Enoggera, Toowong and Newmarket in 1951.

At Toowong it seems there were Chinese market gardens close to Croydon St and Sylvan Road in 1913, Vera St (current basketball court of QASMT) and Bayliss St (near the current Scout Hall, formerly the Chinese Club)  Toowong. Further confirmation that there was a Chinese community in Toowong comes from historian Susanna De Vries, who writes that by ”the 1930s Toowong boasted an excellent Chinese Laundry in the Centre of the village.” There may also have been another market garden around the slopes of Stanley Terrace, Taringa.

The history of the market gardens in Vera St are interesting as it was  in the grounds of Karslake a house owned by Richard Langler Drew and then school teacher JB Fewings. Karslake was  a substantially-sized  property and reached from the corner of Miskin Street to where Sherwood Road bends to form Dean Street. It also ran down to the border of Toowong Creek. Later, after the deaths of Fewings and his wife, this back paddock was subdivided and sold. Various people purchased sections of land, and Fewings Street and  Vera Street were created. The land along the creek flats used as Chinese Market Gardeners, and was probably initially leased from Mr Fewings. Indications are that some time during the 1950s to 1960s, the land had been purchased by the Chinese market gardener at that time. When Toowong State High School opened in 1962 the Chinese market gardens were still operating, and the land did not become the property of the Education Department until later.

The market gardens at the back of ”Karslake”. Photographer not known but was probably Althea Munro Hull’s (nee Fewings) husband, Frederick Hull (aka Fred), who was a keen photographer. Photos sourced from the Fewings Family Album and provided by Fewings’ great granddaughter Genevieve Kennett].

In terms of the Bayliss St gardens Patrick Dixon recalled that his aunts who lived in Patrick Lane told him that after World War I the Chinese community grew Chinese vegetables on a fairly large scale. @The area was a creek eventually flowing into Dixon St., entering Brisbane river north of The Inn on the Park. Not sure of the exact timeframe but the land and building was sold for development when the Chinese club moved to The Valley.@

The gardens on Sylvan Street  were on private land facing the street which ran off Croydon Street, and adjoined the park. Several articles in local newspapers refer to Chinese Gardens on Cemetery Road (later Sylvan Road) Toowong.  In Toowong news the Queensland Times reported on 18 March 1890,  ”the water on the Cemetery Road rose considerably during Wednesday night and the Chinese gardeners were compelled to leave their humpies and camped on a high and dry patch in the middle of the road opposite the garden.” This article also comments on the Chinese Gardens on Sylvan Rd in 1913:
”It was decided that the Council should inspect the Toowong Creek Bridge with regard to the proposed alteration of the site, and further, that a visit should be paid to the land on Sylvan Road, known as the Chinese Gardens with the idea of considering its availability for recreation purposes”
Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), Wednesday 17 December 1913, page 6

Suburban growers took their produce to the main Brisbane produce market around Roma Street opened in the 1880s and also to a smaller one in South Brisbane. Several of these market shops were run by Chinese Fruiterers. Some of these were also shophouses and provided board and lodging for employees and out of town visitors. In 1908-1909 around one quarter of Brisbane’s Chinese population lived around Roma St. So possibly this is where the growers at Toowong would sell a lot of their produce although it is also possible that the local area purchased all the produce because most people went to the market gardens. In the High Street was Scholtz, the fruiter. They probably sourced produce from local market gardeners.

Reminiscences of the Chinese market garden at ToowongLeigh Chamberlain research and interviews

There was a Chinese market garden near the Butlers’ home in Vera Street, West Toowong. Glen Butler’s mother purchased the family property and house in about 1924-25, and Glen lived in this house all his life. Glen said he knew she paid £550 for it, which was equal to two years’ pay in those days.

Chinese people had first come to Australia in about 1839 to help with the pastoral industry. Later waves came during the gold rushes. Not all made their fortune and most could not return to China. Many chose to set up market gardens near towns and in suburbs.

Glen’s memories of the various Chinese gardeners are helpful. Bell’s shop rented rows of vegetables and came and picked them for sale in their shop. But by 1914 there was a Chinese market gardener in Carr’s Paddock. Leila Carr from Taringa (no relation to Carrs of Carr’s Paddock) recalls going with her parents as a child to buy vegies.

People went to the Chinese market gardens behind Toowong Memorial Park to buy fruit and vegetables. The produce was high in quality, but fertilized by human faeces.

Glen recalled (as told to Leigh Chamberlain):

”When I first remember the Chinese market gardener, he was ‘big time’. I can remember when we were kids, the shop around [in] the [other] street, Bell’s store, would buy a bed. A whole bed could be 50 yards long and full of lettuce. Ronnie Bell would come and pick them every morning, as he wanted them. Other shops in the area would buy a bed too…you would leave them in the garden, see — come around every morning and pick a couple of dozen.

The Chinese market gardener did not pick the produce. Ronnie’d pick them as he wanted them. He would pick as many as he would think he could sell, hopefully. To the best of my memory, the shopkeeper would come and cut them all as he wanted them, which was a good idea.

He’d say to Johnny, the gardener, ‘Right, I’ll give you this much money. In those days, it wasn’t really dear …he’d count them up and give him a couple of pounds for the whole bed, or ten pounds for the whole bed’, which worked out all right for the gardener. He had the bed sold before he even started.

Anyway, we — my brother and I — we got the idea that we could buy the lettuces for a penny and sell them for a three pence. We didn’t make much money out of it that I can recollect. It should have worked all right, but I think we tried to sell some to the woman over the road and she took them and didn’t pay us. We hung outside and they refused to pay us, so we took the lettuce back.

We had another lurk. There used to be horses in the paddock over the back. That paddock over there was Palmers’, as you know. [Now the grounds of the Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology] That’s right, the son had horses. We used to go and collect the manure and sell it for three pence a bag. We busted our guts. We tried to make some money for Exhibition — sell it for three pence a bag — horse manure!

I don’t know the early market gardeners’ names. You’re only going back 70 years! I don’t remember what their names were. But he was quite good. I think that gradually, as time went, the others weren’t as good as the first bloke. But I can remember about three or four different market gardeners were there until the Tomai family arrived.

They (the Tomai family) would have arrived at the property in the early 70s, I suppose; and he didn’t really use the property as a garden. He was a cook. He started his own restaurant down Geebung way somewhere. I think he had a heart attack on the job and died.

The old house that Mrs Tomai had lived in had no water, no electricity in the house. I think it had an earth floor. What I remember of it, the walls were wood, but the roof, naturally, was corrugated iron. And that property, they owned it apparently. And when they sold it, it was bought by the government. As was the Palmer’s Paddock!”

Sadly Glen Butler has since died.

Note from author: Update on the story of the school:

After purchase by the Queensland Education Department the former Chinese market garden became the Toowong State High School’s netball courts and volleyball courts.

Locals were always allowed to access the pathway along the creek to Miskin Street, and it was a popular bikeway as well. Students accessed the school buildings this way as well. The school authorities seemed to be supportive of the locals using the lower oval, and often people were seen practicing their golf and walking their dogs. It was a great place to take little children to have a play, and kids would practice their footy skills with friends. The school’s tennis courts were available for hire as well.

Later, when the school was renamed as Toowong College, the former volleyball courts were leased to the newly formed Vera Street Gardens.

A suggestion in about 2003 that Toowong State School expand its campus to build facilities on the lower oval was canned. Instead the Toowong College was closed by the Education Department and the SMT Academy was established. Toowong lost its local secondary school, and the decision was taken without consultation to the local community.


Joan Fisher, The Brisbane Overseas Chinese Community 1860s to 1970s: enigma or conformity, thesis, University of Queensland, 2005)

Queensland Times, Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser (Qld. : 1861 – 1908), Tuesday 18 March 1890, page 5, TOOWONG

Leigh Chamberlain; interview with Glenn Butler

TDHS Facebook discussions

Further reading: