Queensland’s History Alive Festival

By Joanna Egan 4 November 2014
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Brisbane’s historic fort roars to life as Vikings come face to face with a German tank at the most diverse living history festival in Queensland

HISTORY IS curiously alive at Fort Lytton. A replica 1940s motorcycle and sidecar are parked on the road alongside an authentic 1937 Plymouth car – and as a German tank rolls past a medieval camp, a woman sits at a little desk with her sewing box open, hand-stitching fleur de lis onto the hood of her cape. Nearby, a woman at a convict and settler camp hand-spins raw wool onto a spindle, with her billy hung to boil above a burning log. The field is strewn with medieval swords, axes, armour and chainmail. Plumed Napoleonic hats are hung on posts alongside gladiators’ helmets. Coloured flags featuring military symbols and Viking ships flap alongside coats of arms, heraldry banners and embroidered maps.

It’s the annual mid-year History Alive festival, Queensland’s biggest multi-period living history festival, and 37 disparate groups have come to Fort Lytton, at the mouth of the Brisbane River, to re-create more than 2000 years of world history. Late-19th-century and colonial encampments are surrounded by large, brightly coloured medieval marquees and clusters of khaki tents, some covered in 20th-century camouflage.

“It’s a bizarre and extraordinary event,” says Rowland Dowling, a ranger at Fort Lytton National Park since 1990. “There’s nothing like it anywhere: where you can see a Roman centurion having a cup of coffee next to someone who’s dressed as a World War II soldier. And even though the majority of individual groups don’t fit into the particular historic timeline of this site, they all go to a lot of trouble to portray their historic periods with accuracy, and that’s the real value of this event.”

Visitors wander between camps to experience the ways in which different communities ate, dressed, fought and behaved. By walking the length of the field, crowds can absorb a melting pot of human history.

“I was on the road earlier and there was a Panzer – a German tank,” says Susie Ford, an Auckland-based re-enactor wearing a hat and blouse that belonged to a woman from the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which supported the British Army during WWII. “They were re-enacting when a group of Vikings began marching towards the tank, and soon enough there was a stand-off,” she says.

Fort Lytton is considered to be the birthplace of Queensland military history. It was built between 1880 and 1881 to stop enemy vessels from entering the mouth of the Brisbane River. An underwater minefield, operated from a tunnel under the fort’s stone garrison, stretched across the river, and four lines of defence were set up to protect it.

The fort’s compound was the main training ground for the Queensland Defence Force in the early 20th century, and was fully manned during both world wars; however, by the end of WWII, most of Brisbane’s defences had moved offshore to Moreton and Bribie islands and the fort was abandoned. It has been protected as a cultural heritage site since 1988, and each winter actors bring its history to life.

“The group we’re re-enacting camped and trained inside the fort in the 1880s,” says Louise Howard, from Brisbane re-enactment group The Queensland Scottish Association. “When colonial forces came to Fort Lytton for their Easter training in the late 19th century, that whole field would’ve been covered in A-frame tents,” Louise says.

She stands in her corset and silk dress on a grassy knoll that conceals the fort from the river, and points over a water-filled moat to the surrounding clearing. “It was a big event for the local community because it was a bit like a festival; people would come along to watch the firing and shooting competitions.”

A loud boom rolls across the field and a smoke cloud billows over the mouth of the Brisbane River. The roar of Queensland’s largest firing cannon, a 64-Pounder, hangs in the air as members of ‘A’ Battery, Queensland Permanent Artillery, stand behind their six-pound field guns and fire a salute. Their blasts clap across the silty water, making small puffs of smoke in the winter air.

Outside the fort’s walls, men dressed in the uniforms worn by ‘A’ Battery and the Brisbane Garrison Battery in the 1890s stand to attention beside the cannons their predecessors fired. Inside the fort, a cluster of canvas A-frame and bell tents replicate those used by the Queensland Scottish Volunteer Corps in the late 1880s. The fires of a field kitchen smoke as a hunk of beef boils in a traditional Soyer stove, and women in Victorian dress gather at a wooden table with a group of kilted men who represent the Scottish Volunteer Corps.

One of the men in tartan, historian Brian Rough, has coordinated History Alive since it began in 2000 with the help of a volunteer committee. He is the president of the Queensland Living History Federation, and has been involved in military re-enactment for nearly three decades. He says that History Alive aims to showcase the diverse re-enactment groups that make up the federation, and promote Fort Lytton as a historic site.

“You’ve got to suspend your disbelief to enjoy what’s right in front of you,” he explains, adding that within the fort’s walls his group can experience a taste of late-19th-century life.

At each camp, re-enactors from all walks of life come together to do just that. Some are attracted by the combat, others by the costumes, and some just love history. “For many people it’s about taking off your business suit…strapping on a suit of armour and going out to tell a story.”


The full story can be found in Australian Geographic #110.