A Northern Pilgrimage #2: In Townsville

In 1893 a reporter travelled north to Townsville by steamer before visiting the towns of Hughenden, Charters Towers and Cairns. He wrote a 15-part article series about this journey under the title of 'A Northern Pilgrimage', which was printed in both the Brisbane Courier and Queenslander newspapers.

In this second installment he described scenes, people and the political situation in Townsville.

Brisbane Courier, 2 October 1893

'Townsville during these early summer months presents a tawny dry appearance. The face of Castle Hill has been robbed of its timbers, and the rocks now stand out garish and gray and oppressively sterile. Naked precipitous cliffs rise from the shore, and from them all green clothing has been torn, and here the heat throbs and quivers all the long summer day. The town is tortuous in the extreme, and it is a mystery how it ever found a dwelling place on the slopes and ledges of ill-favoured rocks and among the dunes stretching back from the seashore. The main street winds along the banks of Ross Creek, and with much skill manages to hold its own between the tidal waters of the creek and the encroachments of the spurs of Castle Hill. Indeed, considerable and expensive excavations have had to be made to provide a footing for business premises, and not a few are driven into the rocks, while others overlap and shadow the waters of the creek. A large portion of Townsville has gathered on an island, and the flat sandy land of Ross Island is covered with houses and shops and graced with industrial establishments. In the city houses are built in all sorts of curious nooks and crannies, and perched on pinnacles, which appear to be eminently dangerous even for the sure-footed goat.

Out from the creek into the translucent waters of the bay stretch the two protecting arms of the breakwater, and the fortifications at the extreme ends of the crescent-shaped beach mark the boundaries of the ambitious city of North Queensland. Although the city is ill-shaped, crooked, and devious, Townsville possesses fascinations of no mean character. Take the beautiful seascape, for instance, which unfolds itself from the shore. Rolling in at the spectator's feet are the white-crested waves of the Pacific, breaking themselves on a longrunning soft beach and wantonly sporting with the sun and the wind; the waters of the bay are dancing prettily, and white gleaming sails stud the surface; in the middle distance is Magnetic Island, with its magnificent proportions and softness of colouring, and which guards the portals of Townsville, a faithful steadfast sentinel. Away to the left beyond Kissing Point lies pretty Rose Bay, where Townsville should have been, and Cape Marlow juts far out into Cleveland Bay. Set in the sea are the Palm Islands and Bay Rock, while out from the far-away haze looms Hinchinbrook Island, and on the wavetops near the roadstead can be seen glimpses of small boats and the long trail of the steamer's smoke as it spreads over the sun-glinted waters. To the right are the breakwaters, within the confines of which steamers and vessels lie at rest and take in produce for the great world beyond; Magazine Island is sharp and clear, and the numerous houses on the Ross resemble a flock of huge seagulls settled on a sandy promontory; the lighthouses are clearly defined, and on the edge of the horizon the white-columned signal at Cape Cleveland is plainly visible against the blue sky. It is altogether a lovely scene, and the wind and the waves are ever humming soft lullabies, singing merry songs, or filling the evening air with solemn anthems and divine hymns.

Townsville below Castle Hill, circa 1890. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Townsville is growing rapidly, not only in dimensions but in dignity and importance. Nine years ago I first saw the place, and since then its progress has been marked. In 1884 and for many following years Townsville sat on the great Northern fence and crowed with a boastfulness born of overweening confidence. Charters Towers, Cairns, Cooktown, and other more or less important places were merely dowdy hens in the eyes of strutting Townsville. Loud cock-a-doodle-doos were sent out, wings were spread, crests elevated, and challenges hurled at the South. It all had a bad effect, and jealousy prevented the neighbouring birds from taking shelter under the wings of the Townsville rooster.

Much of that spirit has died out I have observed, and is being replaced by a quiet thoughtfulness and a steady desire for progress. Bounce has departed and patriotism is steadily growing. The active, selfish corner-allotment agitation for separation is a thing of the past, and out of the ashes of that speculative syndicated movement there has arisen a purified passion, which has for its object the building up of a great nation in the Northern land. During the talks I have recently had with prominent men here I have been surprised at the moderate opinions expressed and the generosity of sentiments given utterance to. That separation must come there is a unanimous opinion and a whole-hearted desire that it may be speedily obtained. And Townsville is quietly prepared for self-sacrifice in the matter. "If the Northern people think there is a more suitable place for the capital than Townsville, then we are prepared to fall in with them," said a prominent merchant to me.
"Separation we must and shall have in the near future, and the people of the North are gradually coming into closer touch with each other, and recognising that it is useless to create divisions by absurd jealousies. The South only laughs when we quarrel, and for the future there is to be no fighting. Depend upon it when the North actively takes up the separation fight, and is unanimous on the question of boundaries, our position will be unassailable, and the South will be obliged to bow to the inevitable. Townsville is quiescent just now owing to various reasons, principally financial. When Townsville was active we raised the jealousy of our neighbours; now we have invited them to take up the work, and are quietly watching the development of events. It is a pity our politicians have been so plastic, and it is a sad blow to the cause that such a wholesale purchase of them should have been made. Four of our best men have been captured, but these are matters which will duly right themselves. We are being educated, and I am not sure but that the reverses which we have had will eventually turn out to be blessings. It is no use carping at the South. The people there are naturally averse to the disintegration of the colony, feeling that some of their trade would pass into other hands. I am bound to say, however, that the selfishness of the North is a shallow thing in comparison with the selfishness of the South. We may desire to benefit our purses, but at the same time we are anxious to develop the resources of the North, and we purpose living here and bringing up our families under the skies of this Northern land. We are no speculators or absentee traders, nor are we ignorant of the land we desire to govern. Progress and development is what we desire, and if wealth marches in company along the same path who shall say it nay?" 
The result of the division in the House the other night was received with some disappointment, but no bitterness or acerbity of spirit. Indeed the Separation League here is at present so many dry bones. It funds are exhausted, and its officers are stricken with languor. What they require to stimulate them into action is the sharp lash of strong opposition, and the division on Mr. Burns's motion may have that effect. If it has not, then Northern separation will cease from troubling for some time to come. Given unanimity in the North and a moderate amount of cash, separation would be an accomplished fact in three years, but present indications point to lassitude and a feeling of feebleness among those who once waxed strong in the fight.

Very clearly indeed does the finger-post point to returning prosperity in the North. The shadow of commercial depression has almost passed away, and business men here are in excellent humour, and speak hopefully of the future. The many commercial travellers I have met state most emphatically that business is sounder than it has been for many months, and that they are booking orders with freedom. Wool is coming down from the West daily, and substantial supplies are being forwarded to the stations. Reports from all the sugar plantations are painted in the brightest colours, and there is a decided inquiry for sugar lands, while town lots are again becoming marketable commodities. The small traders say that debts are now collectable, and there is little disposition to obtain long and annoying credit. Large parties of men are out prospecting, and "tucker finds" are reported daily. All these things point to better times, and as the wild, reckless speculative fever has given place to cautious, honest dealing, there can be no manner of doubt that peaceful prosperity has once more become a dweller in the land. Flinders-street, Townsville, is humming with life, and although there are several empty shops and offices, these are more the outcome of over-building in boom time than indicative of hard times. Indeed Townsville looks particularly happy. Very few men indeed are out of work, and there is an entire absence of that genteel poverty which for months past has been such a feature in the Southern metropolis. An empty house is a rarity, while in the suburbs there have recently been erected several very charming villa residences. The meatworks are all in full swing, and the foundries, although not crushed with work, have their fires burning merrily, and the sound of the steam hammer is heard all day. There are scores of indications that in Townsville at least the people will enjoy to the utter-most "A Merry Christmas." Grim poverty has slackened his clutch, and is gradually being driven out of the window by smiling prosperity.'