Squatters take possession of the Darling Downs

Squatters settle first and ask later

Well before the opening up of the penal colony of Moreton Bay for free settlers. Squatters started to arrive, many of them had an aristocratic background and their families were big landholders back in the mother country.  At least initially they adhered to the 50 miles exclusion zone around the penal colony they started to settle in the Darling Downs. According to Wikipedia, the term ‘squatter’ derives from its English usage as a term of contempt for a person who had taken up residence at a place without having legal claim. The use of ‘squatter’ in the early years of British settlement of Australia had a similar connotation, referring primarily to a person who had ‘squatted’ on ‘unoccupied’ land for pastoral or other purposes. In its early derogatory context the term was often applied to the illegitimate occupation of land by ticket-of-leave convicts or ex-convicts (emancipists).

From the mid-1820s, however, the occupation of Crown land without legal title became more widespread, often carried out by those from the upper echelons of colonial society. As wool began to be exported to England and the colonial population increased, the occupation of pastoral land for raising cattle and sheep progressively became a more lucrative enterprise. ‘Squatting’ had become so widespread by the mid-1830s that Government policy in New South Wales towards the practice shifted from opposition to regulation and control. By that stage, the term ‘squatter’ was applied to those who occupied Crown land under a lease or license, without the negative connotation of earlier times.

In general the early settlers lived peacefully next to each other in for example the Darling Downs and the Upper Brisbane River Valley. They depended on each other as there was no infrastructure, no government services, no close by towns or villages. Once the government became involved they had to wait and see if they could stay on the land they occupied and how much they eventually had to pay to obtain the title of it. While this led to complaints in general the squatters changed into proper landowners. For the first few decades of the Brisbane free settlement they were the main drivers of the economy. During all that time they still had to totally rely on themselves. They were the ones that created the first roads and slowly around them others started to gather and small villages emerged.

By now the term squatter had developed a class association, suggesting an elevated socio-economic status and entrepreneurial attitude, they saw themselves as the new landed gentry.  By the 1840s squatters were recognized as being among the wealthiest men in the colony of New South Wales, many of them from upper and middle-class English and Scottish families. Not long afterwards also the squatters who settled north of Brisbane joined these ranks.

The Aboriginal Wars.

The situation for the Aboriginal people however, started to deteriorate sharply after the convict settlement was closed. The Moreton Bay area and beyond started to see large numbers of new settlers. As the squatters extended their properties and more started to arrive, the Aboriginal people were pushed of their lands. They obviously didn’t take this laying down and significant armed resistance took place, especially between 1842 and 1844. In 1842 the last Commander had left Brisbane and while the official authority was situated in Sydney, the area was basically left to their own. Most squatters were magistrates and therefore had a certain level of legal authority. They requested military assistance from NSW to fight against the Aboriginal population. During the 1840s the number of soldiers increased from 20 to 50 and at its peak close to 100. Magistrate squatters could demand the soldiers to come and assist to rid them of Aboriginal people who objected the take over of their land. As a consequence thousands of people were killed by British soldiers as spears were no match for guns. The military never intervened in the massacres and killings on behalf of the Aboriginals. Towards the end of the decade the armed rebellions were broken and in 1850 the last British soldiers left Brisbane to be replaced by a locally formed militia and soon there after the Native Police arrived in the area who killed even more Aboriginal people over the following decades.

Following in the foot steps of Allan Cunningham

As mentioned here, Allan Cunningham had set out to explore the area to the west of Moreton Bay in 1827, crossing to the west of the Great Dividing Range from the Hunter Region and travelling north. In June 1827, he noticed a potential pass, but was running out of time to explore this further. This happened a year later and the pass became known as Cunningham’s Gap.  He named the mountains on each Mt Mitchell and Mt Cordeaux after the Surveyor General Thomas Mitchell and his assistant Willian Cordeaux. Back in Sydney he reported on the excellent pastures in the Darling Downs.

In 1828 Cunningham and Logan also explored a crossing over the Macpherson Range (part of the Scenic Rim) to the Logan Valley. The plan was to use the pass to drive cattle overland to Port Macquarie, however, this plan was abandoned, in favour of using shipping transport.

Cunningham"s Gap
Cunningham’s Gap – September 2020

A year later Cunningham drew Mt Mitchell, Mt Cordeaux and Spicer’s Peak from the windmill (Wickham Terrace) in Brisbane. Peter Spicer was the overseers of the convicts at the penal settlement. Cunningham’s Gap, however the track was unsuitable for drays (massive two wheeled carts with one bullock in the shafts and one in front) and was only used for those on horseback until a proper road was build in 1926. Nevertheless as early as 1846 an inn was operating at the foot of the Gap at Fessifern Reserve on Warrill Creek.

News of the lush pastures quickly spread resulting in a land grab. This coincided with a boom in the wool industry. There was big money to be made for the pastoralists and those with capital were eager to find new pastures to grow sheep.

With more settlers arriving and increased produce from the Darling Downs needed to be transported, the need for a better road grew more urgent. Initially supplies for these squatters had to be brought overland from Newcastle, through Maitland, Tamworth, and Armidale.

Basically a road was needed from Warwick and the southern Darling Downs traversing the Great Dividing Range to Limestone (Ipswich) and on to Brisbane. From Ipswich there was the option to use ships via the Bremer and Brisbane Rivers or to continue by road via Redbank.

The first squatters

Scotchman Patrick Leslie, in 1836,  especially travelled to Australia to learn about flock management at the Macarthur’s at Camden. He consulted Cunningham and became the first person to settle on the Darling Downs in 1840. Together with his brothers he established a sheep property at Canning Downs on the Condamine River in 1846. Patrick Leslie also built, the still existing, Newstead Home in Brisbane which he later sold to the ‘pre-governor’ John Wickham. Patrick Leslie is also regarded as the father of stud breeding in Queensland.

Arthur Hodgson and Gilbert Elliott (Eton Vale) were the next squatters to follow. In 1840 they travelled via Limestone (Ipswich) to Brisbane to visit Commander Gorman. After their return to the Darling Downs, Gorman decided to see for the area for himself and search for a much needed route for drays. The Cunningham Gap was to steep for this form of transport. He established such a route via the Flagstone Creek through a gap that became known as Gorman’s Gap. However the route towards the gap was very treacherous and became known as Hell Hole. Arthur Hodgson did find a better route but in the end the road from Toowoomba to Ipswich was established via Toll Bar (now part of the Warrego Highway).

Explorer and historian Henry Stuart Russell was a guest at the Elliott’s at Eton Vale on the Darling Downs. In 1841 together with his brother Sydenham Russell they became pastoralists and took up Cecil Plains on the Darling Downs and occupied it until 1849.

Another early pastoral stations to be established was Jimbour House. This property was first claimed by Henry Dennis on behalf of a Scotsman called Todd Scougall in 1842. However, it was developed by Thomas Bell who bought it 2 years later. The homestead still exists and  is unique in Queensland as the only genuinely grand country house in the English manner to be built in the state.

Jimbour House
We visited Jimbour in October 2020

Other well-established residences on the southern downs include Glengallan Homestead, Talgai Homestead, Pringle Cottage and Rosenthal Homestead.

By 1844 there were 26 properties including several sheep stations with more than 150,000 head.  Many of them owned by landed British gentry. Darling Downs then became known as the ‘jewel in the diadem of squatterdom’ with an elite ‘pure merino’ class living in comfortable houses.

In 1854, Charles Douglas Eastaughffe settled in the area. Spicers Gap Road opened the area in the 1850s.

As the Darling Downs were already occupied by 1841, the  Archers brothers (originally from Norway) they explored what they called Brisbane Valley and settled at Durandur (Woodford).  The McKenzie family settled close by in what is now Kilcoy. Together, a year later, they opened up a road from their properties to North Brisbane, keeping the D’Aguilar Range to their right crossing the numerous creeks that flowed into Moreton above the tide line,  arriving at the German Mission (Nundah) and from here via the bridge over Breakfast Creek.

The Squatters of course also had to be in Brisbane at regular times and many of them would stay in The Sovereign in Queen Street. It was the most reputable hotel in town and the first publican was George McAdam. He had arrived with a group of settlers who travelled with George and Patrick Leslie to the Darling Downs. McAdam was a groom at the Leslie’s before he became a publican. He maintained a business relationship with the Leslies’s (horsetrading). Through McAdam there was a strong link between the Darling Downs and Brisbane.

Spicers Gap

Landowners in the Southern Darling Downs such as Leslie and Bracker however, continued to look for a better pass. In 1847 Leslie’s stockman Henry Alphen found one over the Main Ridge. This was first known as Main Gap and later as Spicer’s Gap. Situated only 4 kms south of Cunningham’s Gap. Between Mt Mitchell and Spicer’s Peak. As mentioned above, both these mountains were named by Cunningham in 1827. Henry Alphen received approval to establish an inn on the western side of Spicer’s Gap (later known as Jubb’s Inn).

However, none of the “Gaps” were easy and there are far more complaints about these early roads than there is praise. Yet, until 1926,  Spicer’s Gap remained the only  feasible route for drays to travel over the Great Dividing Range. The alternative would be to circumvent the ranges and travel via Toowoomba. What many travellers however did describe were the marvellous view on the Spicers Gap Road from what is now called Governor’s Chair. Named so as several Governors enjoyed the views from this spot.

With basic infrastructure in place, the postal service was also expanded to the Darling Downs.

Governors Chair - Spicers Gap
Governors Chair – Spicers Gap – September 2020

Settlers in the Upper Brisbane River Valley

With the closure of the penal colony, early settlers came from the Downs via Gorman’s Gap and Lockyer Creek to settle on the Brisbane River. These were the McConnel brothers, the MacKenzie brothers and the Brothers Bigge (inevitably nicknamed Big and Little) as well as the Archer brothers. Some, like Ferriter & Uhr of Wivenhoe and Borthwick & Oliver of Buaraba, moved north to establish Barambah, Tarong & Nanango at the headwaters of the Brisbane River. The Archers moved to Cooyar and Emu Creek (and eventually Eidsvold & Gracemere), and Walter Scott joined his nephew Simon Scott at Taromeo Station on the Blackbutt Range

Ludwig Leichhardt last seen in the Darling Downs

After he had enjoyed a farewell dinner at the Victoria Hotel in Queen Street, he embarked on his next exploration. He travelled with his party further west to the Darling Downs. It was from Jimbour  – at that time the furthest property one west in the Darling Downs that Ludwig Leichhardt started his exploration expedition in 1844.

Leichhardt leaves Jimbour 1844
Leichhardt leaves Jimbour 1844

He went north all the way to Port Essington in NT. Three years later he started another expeditions from the Darling Downs, this time with the aim the Swan River in WA. He examined the course of the Condamine River. He also crossed the route he travelled on in 1844. However, this expedition failed, nothing has ever been heard of seen from them. The party was last seen on 3 April 1848 at Cogoon station of the young squatter Allan Macpherson at Mount Abundance on the Darling Downs.  The name had been given to this place by Thomas Mitchell on his expedition that crossed the Darling Downs as he saw on abundance of millet grass. Several search expeditions were send out over the following years. Four year later Augustus Gregory found a tree marked “L” near what is now Blackall in the Desert Channel region, beside the Barcoo River.

Leichhardt leaves Jimbour 1844
Leichhardt leaves Jimbour 1844

Mitchell went beyond the Darling Downs

In 1846 Thomas Mitchell on his third expedition travelled further west into what is now Queensland. He was jubilant about the enormous amount of millet grass and foresaw a very rich future for the area now called the Maranoa.

Mitchell's fourth expedition 1845/46
Mitchell’s fourth expedition 1845/46 – Maranoa – Oct 2020

From here her trekked north and took measurements from the Black Stump where later the town of Blackall was established. Mitchell was frustrated to hear that he was not the first explorer in some of these areas, as Leichhardt  been here before him in 1844.

The Black Stump - Blackall
The Black Stump – Blackall – October 2020

In the meantime the crossing of the Dividing Range remained a continuous issue that was discussed in Parliament as well as at the local communities that started to emerge and of course especially among the station holders. While slowly improvements started to appear the route via Spicer’s and Cunningham’s Gaps remained treacherous. Once the railway was build linking Warwick, Toowoomba and Ipswich to Brisbane road maintenance actually declined. It became an issue again once truck transport started to emerge.

Spring Bluff Railway Station
Spring Bluff Railway Station1860s – October 2020

In the meantime Spicers Gap played a key role in another new form of communication, the arrival of the telegraph. In 1879  a link was established via this Gap from Brisbane to Toowoomba and Warwick further linking it into the line at Tenterfield to Sydney. Further extensions into Queensland followed over the next decade.

Brisbane capital of Queensland

Convict History of Brisbane TOC