Barcaldine Downs

Sources:  Hoch, Isabel. 2008. Pages 15, 16, 23, 71, 109, 118

A Queensland land act of 1860 allowed settlers to take up runs of 50 to 100 square miles with no limit to the number that could be acquired by one owner. Fourteen year leases were granted if settlers stocked to within one quarter of carrying capacity within one year. The law was a formality, impossible to enforce in the early days. The Mitchell district was a frontier.

The first settlers in the area of whom records exist were J. T. Allen of Enniskillen to the south and John Rule and Dyson Lacy of Aramac Station to the north. In 1863, Donald Cameron, his son John, and James and William Crombie overlanded sheep from the New England district of New South Wales and pastured them along a forty mile frontage to the Alice River. They called their homestead block Barcaldine after a family property in Scotland and named others Glen Patrick and Cedar Creek. Leases were granted to them in 1865. By then the group had built a home of split slabs on Hazelwood Creek with strong bolted shutters and loop-holed walls for protection against Aboriginal attack. Donald Cameron brought his family to live there in 1866 and in time for his eldest daughters married the Crombie brothers.

By 1869 drought forced the Camerons and Crombies into serious debt and T. S. Mort, to whom they owed money, involved them in a partnership with J. T. Allen and Herbert Garnett. The company, known as J. T. Allen and Partners owned Enniskillen, Birkhead, Vergemont, Home Creek and Barcaldine Downs. Camerons and Crombies became unpaid managers for Mort and answerable to Allen, known as Black Allen, whom they intensely disliked. Donald Cameron moved to Home Creek with his family, leaving the Crombie brothers at Barcaldine Downs. Broken in health and spirit, exiled from the block he pioneered, Cameron dies at Home Creek in 1872 and was buried there.

The next decade brought prosperity for the others and in 1877 they were able to break free of the partnership by selling Barcaldine Downs and Home Creek to George Fairbairn and buying land in other parts of Queensland.

The government passed a new land act in 1884, under which each large property lost a portion, resumed for closer settlement. After consolidation Barcaldine Downs and Home Creek were run as one property and all stations retained use of their resumed portions for some time.

At that time the big stations were like small townships, each with its own store, blacksmith and butcher shop. Managers and owners had absolute power. Workers were obliged to buy rations from the station store and shearers were paid only for sheep shorn to the owner’s satisfaction. Shearers and shed hands lived in tents or primitive huts with dirt floors. An account of a visit to Barcaldine Downs in the Brisbane Courier, 4 April 1888 gives a picture of typical station life.


The following is an account of a recent visit to Barcaldine, station, owned by Mr. George Fairbairn, and one of tho largest in the West, while all hands were busily obliged in shearing operations:-A small party left Barcaldine town last Wednesday for the station, going along the railway track for a few miles and then turning off on a station road. The town was left at about 3 p.m., and the twenty miles between the two places were got over by sun-down. Plenty of grass was visible on tho road, but largo bare patches were soon where bush fires had been raging. Near the station buildings and within several miles of them the grass was very brown, and a good rainfall is required to brighten up the country. The sheep have been collected in the home paddocks, waiting for their turn to go through the sheds, and they have eaten and trampled down the grass, making a very striking contrast with other parts of the run. Barcaldine was one of the first runs taken up in the district, and contains an area of over 1000 square miles, only a small part of which is unavailable, consisting of scrub and sterile patches. For miles the downs roll away to the right and loft, and clumps of gidyea afford shelter for stock when the animals require it. All the blocks are subdivided into paddocks, securely fenced, there being several hundred miles of wire fencing. There is not much natural water on tho run, and the few creeks and holes soon become dry ; were it not for capital this beautiful country would still be in its primeval state. The original owners of the run disposed of their property to the Messrs. Fairbairn soon after taking it up, and tho now proprietors speedily set to work conserving water. After the expenditure of a quarter of a million of money, dams are provided in various parts of tho run, many of them capable of with-standing tho severest drought ; 250,000 sheep can now be comfortably carried on tho station. The recent good seasons have enabled the run to completely recover from the effects of the drought, and by natural increase it is once more well stocked, the last lambing for instance giving about 93 per cent, of which 88 per cent were weaned, and this is considered on excellent result. Large numbers of men are constantly employed on the property, the working expenses of which average £15,000 per year. The manager is Mr. A. J. Rogers. Upon giving up the horses prior to entering the house the remains of what was evidently a fine garden were passed through. It is now a paradise for weeds. The former manager, Mr. Geo. Johnston, took a great pride in the garden; water was carted half a mile for it, but white ants destroyed the fruit trees, and, although a few grape-vines survived the drought, a too severe pruning has kept them from making much headway. Now Barcaldine is so near no trouble is taken to keep up a kitchen garden, it being much easier to procure vegetables from town. The main building looks very poor from the outside, being built of slabs like most of the erections, but there is a great difference inside, the large house being lined throughout with cypress pine and varnished, looking very handsome and comfortable. Great care was taken with the ventilation. The roof is a double one, the original being bark, and an iron roof erected over this. As there is a space of from 6in. to 8in. between the two coverings, it is very cool in summer. There are thermometers placed under the veranda of the main building and under the store (all iron) veranda, and the difference in the records in summer is very often 12 deg. There are several weatherboard cottages around. The store is built of slabs and iron, and is well stocked with rations for the 150 hands at present employed on the station. It is managed by Mr. R. Wilson, lately of Alice Downs. There are yards and outbuildings innumerable surrounding the homestead. The butcher has to kill a bullock a day, and a number of sheep, for the meat supply. The water for home use is drawn half a mile from a dam built in Hazelwood Creek, by means of which the water is thrown back for three-quarters of a mile. Some time ago an attempt was made to find water by sinking, a well being put down a distance of 200ft., but the work was abandoned after passing through a continuous stratum of blue shale. However, 400 gals. per day can be obtained from the well, but, as the water is slightly brackish, and the quantity not considered worth taking out, the hole is covered in. After breakfast next morning the horse yard was visited to have a look at some of the horse stock, for which Barcaldine is celebrated, and the breeding of which was extensively carried on until recently, when all the energies of the management were directed to sheep. The horses wore splendid animals, fine up-standing silky-coated creatures, not a mediocre nag amongst them. In the mob was Mr. Johnston’s old favourite, Ben Violoch, the hero of the Corinthian races at Blackall a few years ago; the gray Barcaldine, or “Spider” as he is called on the station, who will be trained for the town annual races; and Mr. Emerson’s Forester. A start was then made for the woolshed, which is situated three-quarters of a mile south of the main station buildings. Quito a little town was found at this spot. Three hawkers were also handy with a wonderful assortment of goods stored away in their waggons, and, as several shearers were accompanied by their wives, several “houses” of calico and brush-wood had been erected for them. Besides the men’s huts several tents were scattered over the plain surrounding the shed, and the scene was quite picturesque. The shearers’ cook was preparing break-fast when the party passed the huts, and under a large bough shed was laid out a knife, fork, spoon, tin dish, and pannikin for each man. No snow white tablecloth adorned the table; the breakfast was laid on the dark coloured boards, and between the places to be occupied by every two or three men were placed large bottles looking suspiciously like bottled Perkins or Castlemaine, but in reality containing nothing stronger than vinegar. A hundred yards beyond this was the shed, a largo building composed of wood and roofed with iron, and about 250ft. long. The scene was a very animated one. At the door the contractors for taking the wool to the terminus, Messrs. Pout and Palfrey, were busily engaged in loading their waggons. It is estimated that there will be fully 800 tons to take away. The wool has only to be taken thirteen miles by team, after which the road strikes the railway lino at a spot known as the Eight-mile on the lino extension, where it is loaded up on trucks and brought down by the engine every other dry, the locomotive going for them early in the morning. This arrangement prevents any delay in getting the produce away, and as fast as the wool is baled the contractors are ready for it. Upon entering the shed there was great difficulty in keeping out of the way of the workmen, all rushing about intent on making a good tally before the breakfast bell was rung. The first object to be noticed was the dumping machine, driven by a steam engine of about 4-horse power. The bales were squeezed by hydraulic pressure into about half the size of the bales leaving the wool press. The iron bands were put on and secured by iron buttons, a great improvement upon the old fashioned rivets. The bales were then numbered and branded with the class of wool they contained, and rolled out to the teams. The next objects to engage attention were two wool presses, kept constantly going, giving the hydraulic machine its work to keep pace. The wool is baled here, and after leaving the press is weighed and handed over to the man in charge of the dumping process. A few stops load up to the classing, rolling, and shearing departments. Mr. Shon, who has been classing for the Messrs. Fairbairn for more than thirty years, was observed to be busily engaged in allotting to the several bins the different qualities of wool. At a long table, near the classer a number of men were engaged in rolling fleeces brought by the boys from the ” boards,” touring oil’ ” pieces” which were placed among the “looks,” and carefully rolling up the shoot of wool remaining. The floor was constantly swept by a couple of aged people, and every scrap of wool carefully saved and placed among the “locks,” which are scraps and trimmings off the fleece, logs, head, &o. At the ” boards,” which provide room for eighty shearers, the scene was most animated. In pens down the centre was the supply of sheep for the day. In front on either side were the shearers, sixty being employed at the time of the visit. Each shearer, when he had put a sheep through his hands, shoved the animal down a shoot into a hurdled enclosure, where after the day’s work is done tallies are made, and each man is credited with the number of sheep he has shorn during the day. The visitors were shown around by the ” boss” of the shed, Mr. Stark, and he supplied every information asked for. There was every opportunity given for witnessing the various styles adopted in shearing by the men. One man was particularly noticeable for the clean and steady manner in which he performed his work. He was watched while putting through half-a-dozen sheep, and never made one double cut ; he kept steadily ahead without the rush observable in others, and Mr. Stark said he always made a good tally, although appearing to take matters very comfortably. Of the sixty hands employed in the shed, about forty were from the Peak Downs district, including the overseer ; and the class of work is far above the average. Ono hundred and eighty-five thousand sheep are being shorn, out of a total of 220,000, the remaining 35,000 being lambs reserved for next season. Each man averaged about eighty sheep per day of nine hours, the weekly average being nearly 5000; and about 110,000 have already been disposed of. A board placed in a conspicuous position contained the names of the shearers, and the result of each day’s work since the commencement of the shearing. Several men had made treble figures during one day’s labour, the loading position being taken by a man named Campbell with 120. But this is scarcely it criterion to go by when judging a man’s ability, as several were employed, for instance, on ewes in lamb with only eight months’ wool on, and much greater care has to be taken with those animals. As soon as a sheep is finished a boy gathers up the fleece and, running to the table, dexterously throws open the fleece and rushes away after another, while the man with the broom scrupulously gathers up the ” locks” and puts them in a large bag provided for the purpose. The wool this season is of good quality and singularly free from dirt and seed. At 8.15 the bell sounded for breakfast, and in a few seconds the busy hum had ceased, and the stillness was only broken by an occasional bleat from a “snipped” ewe. Several lots of the shorn sheep were counted by the visitors while the men were at breakfast, and some had earned 4s. before breakfast by completing over a score. All the men employed belong to the union, and are paid 4s. per score ; rations are cheap, and contentment reigns. Something was said about the Wolseley shearing machine, and it appeared that the day is not far distant when it will be used on this station : the requisite steam power available, an engine lying idle at the washpool, and an immense saving in wool must result. AB Mr. Stark said: “Only reckon the value saved in wool if only a quarter of an ounce extra is obtained from each sheep !” The manager kindly found a couple of fresh horses for the visitors’ buggy, and a start was made for the washpool, situated six miles away to the southward, great delay on the journey was caused by the opening and shutting of numerous gates ; but after about an hour’s pleasant driving another canvas town came into view, and the travellers stopped opposite the dining-tent. There were quarters provided for the men on the other side of the creek, but they scorned to prefer their own tents. The washpool is very prettily situated on St. Andrew’s Creek, which, like the Hazel-wood, finds its way into the Alice. A large and expensive dam has been constructed here, the water being 20ft. deep in front of the washpool, and running back about a mile and three-quarters, there being a beautiful sheet of water as far as the eye could reach. The banks are lined with timber, rushes, and rank grasses. The contractor for the scouring is Mr. McKewan, who said he had about 200 bales of wool to scour, principally locks, and that with the men he expected to turn out 12 bales per day. Operations had only been started the previous day, so that only one lot of dried wool had been binned. The dirty looking looks were put into iron tanks, in which water and soft soap heated to about 100 deg. were placed, and the whole well mixed up. The mass, which presented then a most filthy appearance, was carried in buckets to troughs of perforated zinc, of which there were six or eight, and these were placed on a level with the water and well stirred about. The whole concern was raised and lowered in the water until the wool looked as white as snow. The wool is afterwards taken out and placed in rolls to drain, and then spread out upon wool sheets to dry. After drying the wool is placed under cover or in a bin, and is lastly baled and taken back to the shed to be dumped. The sheep washing plant comprises a pile of buildings and machinery that cost some thousands of pounds. The plant has not been used for some time, as there is a far greater demand for greasy wool than for scoured. A pile of sand weighing, it is supposed, a dozen tons or so, was pointed out as the dirt that came off the sheep’s back in past seasons. The whole operation was explained by the manager. A large Roby engine drives the spouting plant, and a smaller engine provides the steam required for the sweating-room. Upon returning to the dining-shed the travellers found Mr. McKewan had prepared a pot of tea for them, and it went well with a few slices off a monstrous cake. The dam is full of fish, and there is so much water in it that the yolk from the wool washing is not expected to poison them. A number of yellow-bellies, perch, and long bream were caught, weighing from 1lb. to 2lb. each. There are not many marsupials on the station, but a short time ago a party wont on the warpath against them and obtained over 1000 scalps. Everything having been seen, the party returned to the home station, and thence back to town, arriving, after a very enjoyable outing, at 5 o’clock in the evening of the day after leaving town.

Barcaldine Downs was sold to James Clark and Peter Tait in 1914 by Henry Sealy continued as manager. Sealy ran Barcaldine Downs from 1890 until he retired in 1922.

When management of Barcaldine Downs was taken over by Brian Garde in February 1946 the station ran 70,000 and employed 33 personnel. A violent storm destroyed the wool shed in October 1949, causing an acute problem to replace it in time for shearing in February 1950. Materials were unavailable for immediate work and iron had to be removed from a shed at Mantuan Downs (also owned by Clark and Tait) and timber brought in by transport that cost more than the value of the timber. Jack Lennon and Son, of Barcaldine completed the new shed in time for the scheduled shearing. Afterwards they remained to build another shed to replace one lost by resumption of a block know as Twenty Mile and to repair and alter the homestead which had also been damaged in the storm. By the time Garde retired in 1975 Barcaldine Downs had lost so much land in resumption that sheep numbers were down to 40,000 and employed personnel to 12.
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