The History of Townsville


Captain James Cook and his crew first sighted the area now known as Townsville on 6th June 1770. Cook name Cleveland Bay, Cape Cleveland and Magnetical Island remarking the “The whole appear’d to have the most rugged, rocky and barrenest surface of any we have yet seen.” However, it should be noted that Cook’s observations of Cleveland Bay were made from about 10 kilometres out to sea and thus this was a fleeting and distant impression. For many more years all judgements of North Queensland were made from the coast.

The first recorded European landing in Cleveland Bay was by botanist Allan Cunningham who stepped ashore at Red Rock Bay on Cape Cleveland on 14th June 1819. This was only thirty one years after the first settlement in Australia. In the three days the ship’s party were there, no Aboriginals were seen, although footprints were sighted and a number of native huts and smoky fires were observed indicating a large number of inhabitants. It was not until the ship’s departure of 17th June that several Aboriginals appeared on the sandy beach at the northern end of Magnetic Island – now known as West Point Beach.

Twenty years later more Europeans arrived on board “Beagle” and landed at what is now known as Shelley Beach, Pallarenda. They noticed a sandy spit connecting Magnetic Island with the mainland and concluded that it must have been sufficiently shallow at low water to allow Aboriginals to cross on foot as no evidence of canoes were found.

James Morrill is said to be the first white man to live in the area – in Feb 1846 the barque “Peruvian” left Sydney for China and Morrill was one of the crew of fourteen. The ship was wrecked on Minerva Reef in the Coral Sea and twenty one crew and passengers escaped. After 44 days adrift during which fourteen perished, seven reached the shore and after several days eating oysters and whatever food they could find, they encountered a group of Aborigines. Morrill was one of the seven and the only one to survive the following years. He remained with the natives for fifteen years and then hearing of the presence of white men he remained with those of the tribe in the area of Cape Bowling Green.

In 1863 after a number of natives had been shot by white men, Morrill prevailed upon the blacks to let him approach his own people again and in his own words “I washed myself to make myself as white as possible…Before they had time to use the gun I said “Do not shoot me, I am a British subject, a shipwrecked sailor.” He was fed and clothed by the settlers but spent a further day or so with the natives explaining his situation. He later married and lived in Townsville and purchased land for the price of four pounds as a gesture of sympathy to him for his experiences. His son owned the land after his death and it is now occupied by Woolworth’s store.

Townsville, located in the pastoral district of Kennedy was opened up to settlers in 1861 for pastoral occupation. The actual discovery of the site for Townsville was made by Andrew Ball and Mark Watt Reid in an expedition in 1864. They formed a permanent camp on the spot which is now between Tattersalls Hotel and Queen’s Hotel (Channel Ten Studios) and thus became the first recorded white residents of Townsville. John Melton Black travelled to Sydney in 1864 and persuaded Robert Towns to back a boiling down works which was built during 1865 on the banks of Ross Creek. Cattle and sheep were grown on properties and crops including sugar, cotton and coffee were planted.

The year 1866 saw the opening of the first banks, the Australian Joint Stock Bank and the Bank of New South Wales. Both were located on the Strand. The steep climb up and down Wickham Street – as it was then, led to most businesses moving from the Strand in the next two decades.

On Aug 16th 1866 the “Burdekin and Flinders Turf Club” held their first races at German Gardens (now Belgian Gardens) on the flat ground towards Ingham Road. A cottage hospital on the Strand was established that year and the School of Arts Library with some 300 books and magazines opened. This became the settlement’s first seat of learning in a house on Cleveland Terrace – the old Supreme Court site.

In March 1867 Townsville was lashed by a cyclone and almost every building in the infant town was destroyed – the Court House escaped damage, however, despite its being located on the Strand. Black sold his interest to the Towns company in 1867 and Thomas Aitken bought 3500 acres of the Ross River land, later called Aitkenvale.

By the end of 1867, Townsville had a population of about 350 and seven hotels. Prosperity to the area came with the discovery of gold at Ravenswood in 1868 – the first gold was transported to Townsville by packhorses It was then sent by steamer from the port of Townsville. By 1870 the population reached 2000 and the main outward consignments were wool, tallow and hides.

The Townsville Grammar School opened in 1883 in temporary premises on Flinders Street and the first stage of the North Ward Townsville Hospital was completed in 1882 – the construction was two storeys in brick with 12 foot verandas. The wards provided were surgical, fever, Asiatic and “lock” (suspected tetanus cases) comprising 70 patients.

Apart from the Victorian buildings, which still give character to the city, the 1880’s brought further notable developments to the commercial centre of the town. The “Townsville Bulletin” appeared twice weekly for Sept 1881 and was published daily in 1882.

By the early 1880’s local mangoes, paw-paws and grapes were plentiful and were grown commercially at Acacia Vale (Gulliver’s Gardens), German Gardens and also at Stuart Creek. The census population of Townsville 1881 was 5140 rising to 11454 in 1886.

Townsville has grown rapidly in the ensuing years with major sources of income being from mining, cattle, agriculture, timber, sugar and the processing and export of minerals, manufacturing industries, tourism and defence forces. Townsville is now the commercial, industrial and administrative capital of North Queensland with one of the highest growth rates in Australia. Development continues and many exciting new projects are planned.

The sense of history has been retained with wonderful old buildings being restored – some of which are Bishops Lodge, Bank of NSW, Customs House, Cluden Racecourse, The Townsville Grammar School, several Hotels along Flinders Street East and in South Townsville, Magistrate’s Court, Post Office, St James Cathedral, Rosebank (Andrew Ball’s House), Sacred Heart Cathedral, Waringa (Jacob Leu’s house) the Queen’s Hotel, Townsville Railway Station and the Burns Philp offices.

Every citizen and visitor should be aware of the enterprise, character and beauty of early Townsville which, mingled with the modern day city provides an enviable and relaxed lifestyle of the “Tropical North”.