The Pensioners’ Camp of Tarragindi: A Forgotten Chapter of Brisbane’s History

Pensioners’ Camp
Gentleman's House, one of the examples of houses at the Old Aged Pensioners' Camp, Tarragindi, 1925 (Photo credit: Brisbane John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)

In the shadow of the Great Depression, a makeshift community emerged in Tarragindi. Known locally as the “Pensioners’ Camp,” this area became a refuge for those who had lost everything in the economic turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s. The story of this camp is a testament to resilience, philanthropy, and the stark realities of poverty during one of history’s most challenging periods.

Read: Tarragindi Treasure: ‘Onival’ – A Testament to Brisbane’s Growth

The Origins of the Camp

Pensioners’ Camp
A resident and his house at the Old Aged Pensioners’ Camp, Tarragindi, Brisbane, ca 1925 (Photo credit: State Library of Queensland) 

The Pensioners Camp began to take shape in the mid-1920s, providing shelter for families rendered homeless by the Great Depression. The land, located near the Tarragindi reservoir, was owned by Dr James O’Neill Mayne, a notable Brisbane philanthropist. 

Dr Mayne generously allowed destitute individuals to erect temporary shelters on his property. These makeshift homes were described as “rude humpies,” constructed from bush timber and eked out with flattened kerosene tins and other scraps of metal.

Life in the Camp

Pensioners’ Camp
Residents at the pensioners’ camp (Photo credit:

At its peak, the Pensioners Camp housed up to 500 huts scattered across the Tarragindi hills and gullies. The Brisbane Municipal Council eventually recognised the growing population and provided nine sanitary buildings to improve living conditions. The camp’s residents, who included families of mixed Aboriginal and Indian heritage, created a close-knit community despite the hardships they faced.

Dr James O’Neill Mayne: The Benefactor

Doctor James O’Neill Mayne (Photo credit: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland)

The story of the Pensioners Camp cannot be told without acknowledging Dr James O’Neill Mayne. Dr Mayne was one of the children of Patrick Mayne, a man who migrated to Australia from Ireland in 1841 and worked as a butcher but later became a businessman.

He became one of Brisbane’s wealthiest individuals and even became an one of the aldermen on the first Brisbane Municipal Council in 1859.

Patrick Mayne’s legacy was marred by controversy, as he allegedly confessed to a murder on his deathbed. In 1848, a sawyer named Robert Cox was brutally murdered at Kangaroo Point, and a significant sum of money was believed to have been stolen. 

According to the book The Mayne Inheritance by Rosamond Siemon, Patrick Mayne confessed to Cox’s murder before he passed away in 1865 from an unknown illness. He left behind a widow and five children, who had to endure a hostile colonial society that ostracised them for being the offspring of a confessed murderer.

Despite this dark shadow, Patrick Mayne’s children, particularly Dr Mayne, used their inherited wealth for philanthropic purposes.

Dr Mayne’s most significant contribution was funding the purchase of 270 acres of land at St Lucia, which became the main campus of The University of Queensland. His generosity extended to the Pensioners’ Camp, where he allowed the residents to stay indefinitely. Even after his death in 1939, his will purportedly ensured that the camp’s inhabitants could remain as long as they chose.

The Decline of the Camp

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After World War II, the camp’s population began to spread, with some residents moving to areas behind the former US Army Staging Camp near Mayfield Road, Moorooka. This expansion included a “coloured people’s area,” home to families of mixed Aboriginal and Indian races. In 1950, the Brisbane City Council attempted to clear out this area, but many campers remained until the mid-1950s.

The last resident of the original Pensioners Camp reportedly died in the 1970s. True to Dr Mayne’s wishes, the land was not sold or repurposed until the final occupant had passed away. This enduring respect for the displaced speaks volumes about Dr Mayne’s character and the legacy of compassion he left behind.

A Legacy of Resilience

The Pensioners Camp of Tarragindi is a poignant reminder of the human capacity for resilience in the face of adversity. The makeshift homes, constructed from flattened kerosene tins and other salvaged materials, symbolise the ingenuity and determination of those who lived there. Their stories, preserved through oral histories and the efforts of local museums, continue to inspire and remind us of a challenging yet remarkable chapter in Brisbane’s history.

Read: Honouring Passchendaele: The Legacy of a Tarragindi Street Named for Battle and Bravery

As Brisbane continues to grow and evolve, the legacy of the Pensioners Camp and the benevolence of Dr James O’Neill Mayne remain integral to the city’s rich tapestry. This chapter serves as a powerful testament to the enduring spirit of community and the impact of philanthropy during times of profound hardship.

Published 10-June-2024