The settlement of Scrubby Creek, later known as Walkerston, started as a transport hub, but was soon taken over by the sugar industry in the late 1860s, rapidly becoming the backbone of the little township in the late 19th century.
In his article, Early Days of Walkerston (Daily Mercury 1947), M M’Coll writes, “With the advent of the sugar mills and plantations, business in the township became very brisk, and it was soon a thriving place.”
So much so it seems that by 1869 Walkerston had its first hotel, the Alexandra (later the Duke of Edinburgh), followed closely by the Live and Let Live Hotel, the Queens Hotel, and the Albion. M’Coll reports that the Albion had a fine dancing hall that was the pride of the district: “People came from near and far to have a night’s dancing on this splendidly kept floor.”
Between 1868 and 1883, seven sugar mills – Alexandra, Pleystowe, Cassada, Branscombe, Lorne, Palms and Palmyra – were built in the local area taking advantage of the district’s perfect sugar growing climate.
Alexandra Mill was the first to be built in 1868 on the eastern side of Walkerston. The mill was a joint venture between Irishman Thomas Fitzgerald and Scotsman John Ewen Davidson on the Alexandra plantation, which was initially planted with cotton and sugar but soon entirely devoted to sugar.
Thomas Henry Fitzgerald was a surveyor who came to Queensland in the early 1860s. He has been described as the pioneer sugar planter of Mackay and of the Johnstone River district; the capital of this district, Geraldton, was named after him. Fitzgerald was Mackay’s first town planner, and its first MP. Davidson had cut his sugar-growing teeth on plantations in the West Indies.
Alexandra Mill had its first crushing season in September 1868; at which point it was the largest sugar mill in Australia and the first steam-powered mill in the Mackay district. As well as sugar, the mill produced very high quality rum in its distillery. The entire plant was made by Fletcher and Co. of London, except the Gladstone pans, cast iron vats and chimney, which were made in Sydney. In 1868 the workforce was reported as 79 for the plantation and mill. Fires were lit under the boilers at 5am each morning, and as soon as the steam was up the crushing could commence.
The Ipswich Herald and General Advertiser reported in November 1868 in an article titled Sugar on the Mackay, “Alexandra Plantation – the sugar mill is now in full work and answering every expectation of the proprietors, J.E Davidson and Co.” The sugar was considered to be of superior quality – “A sample of the sugar was handed to us yesterday by Mr J.E. Davidson, the managing proprietor of the plantation. In our opinion it is fully equal to the best refined article, being almost purely of a white glistening colour, small grained, of excellent flavour, and possessing the finest sweetening qualities we have had the pleasure of testing.”
The mills were fed by the adjoining plantations which meant farming on a large scale – often several hundred acres. Plantation owners were usually drawn from England or British sugar-growing colonies such as the West Indies. Often from well-to-do backgrounds, their living conditions were unlike most of their North Queensland counterparts. Houses were large and comfortable. The Honourable Harold Finch-Hatton, wrote the book “Advance Australia! An Account of Eight Years’ Work, Wandering, and Amusement, in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria” and spent some time in Queensland in the late 1870s and early 1880s – the heyday of the plantation era. His description of life on those sprawling homesteads makes for an interesting snapshot of how life was lived by their owners:
“On both banks of the Pioneer, at intervals of a few miles, are the residences of the planters, and certainly the lines have fallen to them in pleasant places. Their houses as a rule are extremely comfortable, and very well furnished, and the gardens of many of them are paradises of beauty. In good times, they make tremendous profits, and their occupation chiefly consists in watching other people work, in the intervals of which they recline in a shady verandah with a pipe and a novel, and drink rum-swizzles. Most of them keep a manager, so that they can always get away for a run down south, or a kangaroo hunt up the country. They are very hospitable, and keep their houses always open to strangers visiting the place, and to their friends in the country, who come uninvited, and are welcome to stay as long as they please.”
Whilst the lifestyle was favourable, at least to those wealthy enough to enjoy it, plantation farming in this way was inefficient and many failed as a result during the later 1880s. Larger companies with better equipment tended to succeed over the smaller companies with older mills. C.R Moore, in Queensland Sugar Industry from 1860 to 1900, describes plantation farming as “labour extensive, not labour intensive”. He reports that the Melbourne-Mackay Sugar Company – managed by JE Davidson and operating the lands of six plantations, including Alexandra, the Palms and Branscombe – had annual labour and rations expenditure of 66,000 English Pounds per year, a staggering amount when some workers earned as little as 6 pounds per year. The company closed down three of its five mills – one just built and never crushed – because economies of scale were starting to creep into the industry and the company could not afford to carry the losses. Moore comments that in the sugar industry rule-of-thumb had to give way to chemistry, economics, engineering and agricultural science if the mills were going to be a financial success; but in the 1880s few plantation owners took note of this advice.
Alexandra Mill closed in 1884 and cane was sent to the neighbouring Palms Mill.
Of the seven mills erected in the Walkerston district, only Pleystowe remained up until recently when it closed in 2008. Little remains of the old buildings that were at the heart of sugar in the district.
Albert Cook, of Greenmount Homestead, in a letter to the Daily Mercury in 1947, suggested that a monument should be erected to mark the spot of the Alexandra Mill – being the first steam-powered mill in the Mackay district, and built in the previously small and sleepy settlement of Scrubby Creek. To date this suggestion has not been carried out.
By the Friends of Greenmount Homestead