Windmill of the Damned: Brisbane, Australia

Tower Mill aka The Old Windmill aka Windmill Tower aka That Weird Tower Thingie, stands in Observatory Park in the inner-Brisbane suburb of Spring Hill.

If you think it’s odd that there seems to be no single defining name for the structure, that could have something to do with it having had no single defining purpose.

Throughout its history the tower has been a shipping signal station, observation post, fire watchtower, museum of natural history, time keeping structure, television and radio broadcasting tower and torture device.

The 16 metre tall rendered sandstone and brick building was originally built to grind grain for the Moreton Bay penal settlement. However, not long after its construction in 1828 it had its first of many reinventions. Turns out, there wasn’t enough wind to consistently turn the sails, so a treadmill was installed. It was this treadmill that transformed Tower Mill into a method of convict punishment.

Having been adopted by British prisons in 1818 as a way for prisoners to gain “atonement through hard work”, treadmills aka the ‘everlasting staircase’, were a wheel of steps that teams of prisoners would work together to turn. They were, according to historian Vybarr Cregan-Reid, “a punishment just short of the death penalty” and walking one was a gruelling, monotonous, Sisyphean task capable of breaking a man’s body and spirit.

treadmills on gym
So not unlike being on a modern treadmill.

In Tower Mill the treadmill had a practical purpose. It was used to turn a shaft connected to cogwheels that rotated the grain grinding millstone. But the usefulness of the treadmills inside the tower did not lessen their brutality. Malnourished convicts selected for ‘punishment’ would work the treadmill in heavy leg irons for up to 14 hours a day. Death, illness and serious injury were common.

In 1849, after being damaged by a series of lightning strikes, the treadmills were removed (although they continued to be used as a method of punishment in the jails of the US and Britain until the turn of the century.) Shortly after, the structure began its third incarnation as a surveying tower helping to divide the, by then, free settlement of Brisbane.

high-rise buildings near body of water during daytime
Although it probably didn’t look like this at the time.

Interestingly, as if to somehow atone for its brutal past, each of Tower Mill’s later incarnations continued to contribute to the development of the city and the lives of its citizens. Albeit in varying degrees.

It’s use as a time keeping structure (through its use of a time ball and later a time gun) allowed residents up to 50 km away to regulate watches and clocks throughout the area. Ships approaching Brisbane were able to receive reliable information via semaphore messages from the tower and the addition of a transmission tower in the 1920s was instrumental in the introduction of television to Australia.

If you’re in Brisbane, the tower is free and easy to visit. Guided tours of the interior are, at the moment, only available through the Open House organisation. You can find more information about them here:

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Department of Anthropology & Sociology. The University of Queensland.

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