The story of the Royal Queensland Blind Citizens Building

Royal Queensland Society of Blind Citizens Building. (Brisbane City Council Local Heritage Register)

The building on the corner of Vulture Street and Stephens Road has an interesting history dating back to the early 1900s. It is a story of inspiration, commitment and triumph over adversity of a community who, although visually impaired, lead a rich and happy life. It all began with the dream, inspiration, hard work and commitment of one man, John Olsen.

Framed photograph of John Olsen. Inscription reads “John Olsen, Founder Queensland Musical, Literary and Self-Aid Society for the Blind, President1919-1926. Died 9th Jan 1926”. (Vision Australia)

John Olsen (1852-1926) was born in Norway and immigrated to Australia at the age of 21. He lost his sight in a serious accident when he was thirty, but this did not stop him from leading a fulfilling life dedicated to community service and looking after the blind and visually impaired. He was a preacher and teacher in the Baptist and Christian Churches, and a librarian and teacher of Braille. He worked as a basket weaver at the Queensland Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution in Cornwall Street, Annerley. His charismatic nature and positive outlook on life endeared him to everyone he met.

Queensland Institute for the Blind, Basket Shop, August 1952. (Queensland State Archives)

On 13 March 1917 he established the Queensland Musical Literary and Self-Aid Society for the Blind (QML) which was to be run by blind people to assist the blind. The main objectives were to promote the study of vocal and instrumental music, literature and writing; to give financial aid to students; and to provide a recreational and educational building for the blind.

John Olsen was the Society President from 1919 until his death in 1926.

Memorial stone for John Olsen in South Brisbane Cemetery. (Vision Australia)

In 1924 the QML bought a property at 247 Vulture Street and converted the old residence on it for use as their base, becoming known as the Queensland Technical School for the Blind. After a few years they decided to erect a new, more suitable building which would become their club rooms.

A Spanish-style white stucco building with terracotta tiled roof was completed in 1933. It consisted of offices in the front, a lounge room, a music room, a concert /dance ­hall for up to 400 people and a supper room in the basement. One of the offices contained the library of the Queensland Braille Writing Association with over 4000 books available to members.

The Blind Institute Hall as it was known, fulfilled an important social role for those who worked at the Industrial Institution (School) for the Blind at Dutton Park as they would come to the society for recreation and entertainment after work. They were also able to develop musically, with the society providing interest free loans to members to buy radio sets and musical instruments.

An article in the Sunday Mail of 18 February 1934 describes the members as “ a contented little community, sharing each other’s joys and sorrows, laughter and tears. They are drawn together by the common bond of a great affliction, but they find in the club-rooms much of the happiness that persons of normal vision may never see.”

The Blind [Institute] Hall became a popular venue for regular dances open to the local community and many community events. During World War II the building was occupied by the USA Army which used it as a Post Office.

John Olsen died on 9 January 1926 and was buried in South Brisbane Cemetery. A memorial stone was placed at his grave site and a memorial tablet was put up in the Blind Hall in recognition of his selfless service to the community.

The QML was dissolved at its final meeting on 19 November 1974 and all assets passed on to the Queensland Society of Blind Citizens. In 1986 the name was changed to Royal Queensland Society of Blind Citizens.

In November 1993 the premises were sold for $340,000 ( but the Hall continued to be used as a dance studio and fitness centre. It is now part of the adjoining St Nicholas Free Serbian Orthodox Church.

247 Vulture Street was entered on the BCC Local Heritage Register (LHR) on 30 October 2000 in recognition of its ‘strong and long-lasting connection with residents of South Brisbane who have attended the hall for a variety of social, recreational and developmental activities since it was completed in 1933. It is also significant as a rare example of the Interwar Spanish Mission style adapted to an institutional building. (LHR)
(sources: BCC LHR/ Trove articles/Vision Australia/)