Central Queensland through the eyes of a pioneering drover

By Elizabeth Conway

Ever wondered what some of Central Queensland’s iconic stations and newly established towns were really like in the nineteenth century? The recently published, Capricorn Drover, could give you an idea. It tells the story of a droving journey that was made in 1878. The book brings to life a simple diary recorded by Edward Talbot, second-in-command, as he and his fellow drovers moved a mob of cattle from one station to the next and on into the ‘never never’ country.

The team took more than 1,000 breeding cattle from Waverley Station, near St Lawrence, across the colony to the newly established Diamantina River Station in the west. Fifty bulls travelled separately. Western Queensland was largely unfamiliar territory for Talbot, and for the rest of the droving team. They had all heard talk of the stations and small towns that they were to visit and Talbot, in particular, was most keen to see them for himself. He therefore recorded in his diary his impressions of several of the places to which they ventured. Capricorn drover provides background information in support of Talbot’s comments and includes historical photographs that, with a bit of imagination, show how the world might have appeared to Talbot and the others in or around 1878.

Clermont was the first town they visited which, due to the stimulus of nearby copper mining, had grown quickly into a bustling place. Talbot was required to remain in the town for two nights while the team moved on. He and the drover in charge of the mob’s accompanying bulls took the opportunity to enjoy the delights of Clermont. They were able to spend both nights dancing, the first at a ball and the next, at a country dance. Talbot’s brief description of this fun indicates what a social and enjoyable place Clermont had become by 1878.

The next place of note that they visited was Bowen Downs Station. The huge station had been established eighteen years previously and ran mostly sheep. As they approached, the team could see well laid out and fenced paddocks. None of the men other than the boss drover and Talbot were allowed, by the boundary rider, to approach the homestead itself. Talbot expected to see ‘a fine place’ having heard so much about it. Although Bowen Downs had developed into a small hamlet consisting of cottages, workshops, stables, stores, and farm sheds for various purposes, Talbot confessed himself a little disappointed that it was not as large as he had been expecting. He noted, however, that the manager’s residence was a ‘fine house’ located a good distance from the other buildings. Also at Bowen Downs was what was known as the Chinaman’s Gardens where the boss drover, Kelly, was pleased to be able to purchase a cabbage, the first the men had had on the journey.

It was not too long before they passed by Muttaburra, a remote settlement that had been surveyed and officially declared the previous year. Despite having various businesses already established, including a store, a public house and a saddle repair shop, the place appeared to have been hastily constructed. Another traveller described Muttaburra’s public house as a very rowdy grass hut. Talbot wrote that he thought that it was ‘not much of a place yet’ but that he was sure that it would become one someday. Indeed very soon after their visit, Muttaburra boasted a Cobb & Co changing station, hotels, blacksmiths and banks.

Ambo Station was an outstation of Mount Cornish that Talbot visited in the hope of finding mail waiting. His interesting observation was that the men on Ambo lived in ‘a good deal better houses than the squatters do down our way’ (St Lawrence).

Gradually, the team made their way to Darr Station, now called Darr River Downs. Talbot was impressed by the accommodation there, commenting that ‘they have a very fine stone house at the station’. The sandstone house that he saw was probably the storehouse, which had been built in 1874 and used as the station’s homestead for some years. The stone had been quarried from the bed of a nearby river.

Image credit: State Library of Queensland

Vindex was another station admired by Talbot. It was, at that time, a sheep grazing property. Talbot described it as a ‘fine run’ and noted that they were busy with lambing. The station had been established only two years previously, with dams for stock watering already installed and also an engine to power the washing of the sheep before shearing. At Vindex the team encountered a thick morning fog, which the station manager told Talbot was the first he had seen in western Queensland.

They then headed for Elderslie Station, a land of open plains covered in Mitchell grass and stocked with both sheep and cattle. Using the most abundant building material in the area, a simple and functional pise or rammed earth dwelling had been constructed. A stone homestead would be built only a few years later, further west on the property. Part of Elderslie was referred to as ‘the Nile block’ and Talbot said of it, ‘I like it very much’ and indicated that he would be very happy to live and run stock there. Sadly, just before the team reached Elderslie, the well-liked station manager had shot himself while in a state of delirium tremens due to having imbibed homemade spirits in a shanty that operated on Elderslie.

Eventually, the team reached Diamantina Lakes Station and was able to deliver the mob in excellent condition. The cattle were the foundation of the large herd that would be developed on the property. Diamantina Lakes Station would eventually be renowned as prime cattle fattening country but it is now a vast and impressive national park. While Talbot’s diary gives us an idea of what some stations and townships were like in 1878, unfortunately we do not have his opinion of Diamantina Lakes Station in its most early days, as the last part of his diary has not survived.

Capricorn drover is available via: https://www.digitalprintaustralia.com/bookstore/non-fiction/historical/capricorn-drover.html

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