In 1863 John Black set up a pastoral run at Cleveland Bay where Townsville now sits. Just to the south was the Burdekin River. A major investor in this pastoral run was Robert Towns who wanted to set up a boiling down works for cattle for the years when the market prices were low. In 1864 a hotel opened near the run and a government surveyor then laid out a town on Ross Creek which the government named Townsville after Robert Towns. In 1866 blocks were sold, a Customs House was erected, Towns started his boiling down works and the port of Townsville was established. A monthly steamer service from Bowen began and the town grew. But like Cooktown, Cairns and other places it was gold and minerals that made the town boom. QLD did not have the great gold rush of Victoria but numerous small fields were discovered. In Townsville’s case it was gold at Ravenswood in 1868 and at Charters Tower from 1872. Townsville had a double advantage- it was a port for pastoralism- wool and cattle, and for the export of gold. Stores opened, more hotels, schools and churches and a town library all before 1877. Some of these opulent Victorian structures still stand. Significantly one early businessman (1874) was Robert Philp who provided groceries and other supplies for store keepers, especially on the gold fields.
Philp was a canny Scotsman, and in 1876 he became a partner of James Burns a shipping agent. The company of Burns Philp expanded and prospered with a dual business of shipping and wholesale supplies to grocers. They carried goods all around the Pacific Islands as well as north QLD. Burns remained in Sydney and Philp in Townsville. They started out as agents for Queensland Steam Shipping Co but they soon acquired their own ships. They also traded a lot in Red Cedar from the Atherton Tablelands from 1879. In Townsville they moved into real estate and business finance and Burns Philp was incorporated as a limited company in 1883. Next they moved into insurance and helped establish the Bank of North QLD. They invested in the Palmer Creek and the Herberton gold mines and tin mines. By the early 1890s Philp was in financial strife but he survived thanks to real estate development of new areas of Townsville. Philp went into local government and state parliament. He helped fund the establishment of Townsville Grammar School in 1889, he acquired his own pastoral runs, and he helped establish the University of Queensland in 1912. He was Townsville’s preeminent citizen. He died in 1922. Burns Phil still traded for many years with an emphasis on grocery items, but they were delisted on the Stock Exchange in 2006 when they were taken over by the Rank Group Australia Ltd. Spices and Uncle Toby’s were some of their last major business products. Robert Philp was typical of many of the business leaders of early Townsville.
Robert Town’s original idea of a boiling down works was later supplanted by a meat works run by the North Queensland Pastoral and Agricultural Society which was founded in 1879. They ran the boiling down works and the annual agricultural show. The boiling down works was replaced with a meat processing works in 1890 once the frozen meat trade to England and Europe was well established. The export of frozen meat, and much later refrigerated meat, became a mainstay of the industrial base of Townsville. The meat works became the Ross River Meatworks with a tall chimney that was landmark in Townsville. In 1995 Smorgon Meat Processing closed down the old meat works built in 1890/91. A property developer demolished the old meat works but the chimney remained. The next developer proposed to demolish the chimney in 2008 but the citizens of Townsville protested; the chimney was placed on the heritage register; and the City of Townsville paid for the chimney to be restored. It still stands today as a memorial of the inland cattle industry and its role in the development of Townsville into a large city. It is surrounded now by a new residential development!
Townsville’s geographic situation helped the town grow further. In 1911 a railway line was built from the sugar growing area of Ayr into the port of Townsville. But before this the western rail line was pushed out to open up the interior to the port of Townsville. This is the line we travel on this Sunday. The railway line from Townsville reached Charters Tower in 1882; next there was a branch line down to Ravenswood in 1884. In 1887 the line reached Hughenden in the centre of the cattle grazing areas of the west. Once copper was discovered at Cloncurry there was a push to have the line extended to that city and that was achieved in 1908. It was extended to Mt Isa in 1929. And as pointed out above, the line from Brisbane linked Townsville with the capital in 1923. From the early days the port of Townsville exported gold, cattle, timber from the Great Dividing Range and rainforest, sugar and tropical produce. So by 1900 Townsville was a large and prosperous city with an air of grandeur and wealth.
The town was declared a city in 1902 when it had around 10,000 people. Into the 20th century it became a major finance and banking centre, education centre and retail and industrial centre. By 1917 it had Townsville Grammar School and a boys and girls Catholic College and a college for Anglican girls. Much later Townsville University College opened in 1960 and it is now James Cook University, the second university established in QLD. Despite more growth in the early 20th century the town was also troubled by industrial strife between the workers and the big sugar plantation, mine and pastoral property interests. Between 1916 and 1918 during World War One the city was troubled with strikes by seamen, garbage collectors, and meatworkers. In 1919 during a strike meeting of unionists and workers in Flinders Street shots were fired. The meat workers in Townsville had been on strike for months and during a demonstration the police opened fire. Behind the strike was not only low wages but stirrings by the local Bolsheviks which stirred the workers up to be anti-German, and hence against the World War One effort and sacrifice. This was also the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia so they were against oppression by the ruling classes. Townsville was one of the first cities in Australia to have a local Communist Party group in 1922.
It was World War Two that had a much greater impact on the city. The city felt abandoned when news of the Brisbane Line leaked out. Australia’s war plan was to defend the country to a line just north of Brisbane leaving the rest of QLD to Japanese invaders if this happened. This plan was developed following the February 1942 bombing raids on Darwin and other northern towns. But after the December bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941 Townsville became the base for around 50,000 American and Australian troops fighting in the Pacific region. In July 1942 the Japanese bombed Townsville three times. During the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 aircraft from Townsville played a major role as they did in other battles. Therefore it is not surprising that the second worst Australian aircraft disaster ever was in Townville in 1943. 27 people died when an aircraft crashed soon after takeoff at Townsville in August 1943. (The worst Australian air crash was at Mackay in June 1943 when 40 were killed.) 1943 was a bad year for air crashes in Australia with 140 people killed during that year.
After the War the troops disappeared but later in 1966 the Lavarack Army Barracks was established with about 2,500 troops and it now houses the 3rd and other Australian Brigades. Ten years later (1976) the Townsville Air Force base started up with more units being added over time. By this time the city population had grown to 80,000 people. Today defence is still one of the major employers in Townsville. The other major employment sectors in Townsville are tourism (boosted after the airport was opened in 1939), education, transport and port handling and metal processing. Townsville has three different refineries; one for zinc which comes from a mine near Cloncurry; one for nickel which is imported for processing from Vanuatu, the Philippines and Indonesia; and the last for copper from Mt Isa which is further processed in Townsville. Health (hospitals) continues to be major employer in the city.
Townsville, the Sugar Sifter and Castle Hill. 1890s chemist shop in Townsville.
In 2008 the cities of Townsville and Thuringowa combined to form a new Townsville City Council governing authority. The combined estimated population for the combined cities for 2010 is 190,000 people and growing. In recent years it has had a revitalised city centre and waterfront in an area that had been railyards. The esplanade called the Strand on Cleveland Bay (named by Captain Cook in 1770) has been updated and new residential developments are common with apartment complexes near the water front. Tourism and research has been boosted in the last 20 years with the Museum of North Queensland, the Barrier Reef Headquarters, the Australian Institute of Marine research, etc. Townsville is undoubtedly the capital of North Queensland and should it be?
In 1887 a Separation League was formed in North QLD to form a separate state with Townsville as the capital. This was diluted somewhat when Central QLD (based on Rockhampton) also formed a League a couple of years later. This proposal came to a vote in the QLD parliament in 1897 and nearly passed. It went to the vote the next day but several parliamentarians were absent and the vote failed. The next serious attempt to create a new northern state happened in 1948 when the state Governor mentioned this possibility in a speech. In 1955 a “new state for the north” convention was held in Mareeba but nothing eventuated. But the movement did not die away. The issue received public notice again in the 1960s and 1970s. More recently in 1994 a North QLD Party was established by a leading Townsville politician. This party adopted an “official” north QLD flag in 2003. The group still operates and wants their state to be called Capricornia but their website has recently disappeared.
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