The Queensland Outback – Unions, Birds, Surveyors and Poets

In my mind, I compartmentalise the ‘Australian Outback’ into different regions. For example, the Kimberley in Western Australia relates to cattle. The desert area in the Centre is all about Aboriginal culture and this area of central Queensland is all about wool. Yesterday, we drove south east to the town of Blackall and on the way, we passed through some little towns steeped in outback wool and sheep history. 

The first was the little town of Ilfracombe. It calls itself ‘The Hub of the West’ and is named after a coastal town in Devon, England. It is best known as the location of the Wellshot Sheep Station which In 1892, was the biggest sheep station in the world. it was not the biggest in area, but instead for the number of sheep it carried –  460,000. So important was the property that Ilfracombe was known as Wellshot until 1890. Now it has a large collection of old farming equipment displayed for a mile of the highway through town – old graders, tractors, trucks, pumps, traction engines and wagons. Normally, all this sort of stuff just litters the homesteads but here it has been collected to form a long display along the highway.


Further along the highway is the larger town of Barcaldine. This was the location of the famous shearers strike of 1891. At that time, wool was so significant in Australia’s economy that this strike almost brought the country to its knees. Shearers rejected the terms of a set of conditions proposed  by the grazers and went on strike for better pay, conditions and for workers rights. A protracted fight between unionised and non-union labour ensued. The leaders of the strike were eventually charged with conspiracy and sentenced to three years imprisonment.

Meetings of shearers were held under a Cabbage Gum tree just outside the railway station and this is also where non-union shearers would arrive in town by train to be met by the striking shearers. These encounters (most likely vocal and violent) took place under the same tree. It became known as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ and was later the site where the formation of the Labor Party was proclaimed. It has since died but replaced with a memorial that shows the extent of the original tree.


At the time of the shearers strike, there was no federal industrial legislation as we have today. Every state was a seperate colony until federation took place in 1901. The strike had two significant consequences. The first was the  creation of the Australian Labor Party  which still represents the political interests of Australian Trade Unions. There is a large museum in Barcaldine commemorating this development. There are now only half as many pubs in town as there once used to be but judging by this number, there must have been a lot of thirsty workers in the neighbourhood.


The second outcome is a unique part of Australian Industrial Legislation that requires workers to be paid a ‘living wage’. This wasn’t formalised, if my memory is correct, until a famous case just after federation in 1904 when the newly formed Industrial Arbitration Commission ruled in a case against the International Harvester Company that workers should receive enough pay, as a minimum, to fund their basic living costs. This concept continues to this day through the regular determination of the ‘Minimum National Wage. I think that it is currently set at around $17.70 per hour. Therefore we have a very different system to North America, for example, where the minimum wage in the USA and Canada varies state by state and can  be as low as $8 or $9 per hour.

I am always excited about the number of birds that we see here in Australia. As we were driving, we came across a number of examples by the roadside. We saw a few Australian  Bustards which are long legged birds of the open plains. More spectacular were the Brolgas. These large birds gather in their hundreds around water holes in the dry season, but move around the plains in pairs and family groups in the wet seasons. We saw many groups of these big birds.


As a kid, I was always told that anything that was a long way away was located ‘beyond the black stump’. The expression ‘black stump’ was the name for an imaginary point beyond which the country is considered remote or uncivilised. Well, In the town of Blackall, I found the real one. Apparently, in 1887 a group of surveyors arrived there and established an Astro Station to conduct survey readings to establish a defined perimeter of the town. Tree stumps and other suitable stable platforms were often utilised rather than a set of legs for their theodolites because they gave more stability when taking longitudinal and latitudinal observations. This Astro station at Blackall was used as part of the survey to fix the position of many principal outback towns that extended from Brisbane to Boulia via Roma, Charleville and Blackall. This enabled Queensland to be mapped more accurately. It was considered at the time that country to the west of Blackall was beyond the ‘black stump’. The original black stump has at some time been replaced  by one of fossilised wood.


Just out of Blackall is the little settlement of Isisford. Both are situated on Barcoo River. This river is something of an enigma as it starts out as a river and ends up as a creek (Coopers Creek) which flows into Lake Eyre. We couldn’t get to Isisford as the road is still cut by floodwater. It is where Andrew Barton (Banjo) Paterson wrote his amusing poem’ A Bush Christmas’

This poem ‘A Bush Christening’ starts with the first verse:

On the outer Barcoo where the churches are few,
And men of religion are scanty,
On a road never cross’d ‘cept by folk that are lost,
One Michael Magee had a shanty.

It goes on to  tell the story of how an Irish immigrant, Michael Magee, is the father of a ten-year-old boy who has never been christened. By good chance a priest passes by one day and he and Magee decide to take advantage of the situation and have the boy baptised. The boy overhears the conversation, and, thinking that a “christening” is rather like the branding of cattle, decides to make a run for it. Not to miss out on a potential member of he flock, the priest chases after the boy but seeing that he has no chance of catching the runaway, he flings a flask of Maginnis’s whisky at the boy. This hits the boy on the head and douses home with this sacred liquid.. Thereafter the boy is known as “Maginnis”.

Banjo Paterson is Australia’s most prolific and best known bush poet. I can recite the first verse or so of some of his poems and i always enjoy reading them. Banjo Paterson grew up in rural New South Wales in the second half of the 19th Century. He qualified as a lawyer but this real love was poetry. He was an official war correspondent during the Boer War and volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during WW1. He went on to write for various journals and had a unique ability to describe life around the turn of the 20th Century in rural Australia. Some of my favourite poems by Banjo Paterson are at these links: Clancy of the Overflow, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, The Man from Ironbark, Waltzing Matilda, and of course, The Man From Snowy River.




2 thoughts on “The Queensland Outback – Unions, Birds, Surveyors and Poets

  1. Such an interesting travel tale, hadn’t realised “Banjo” lived to the time of WW1. Hope the travels are safe

  2. I am somewhat saddened that the stories and many others like them which you have just related do not form part of a compulsory component in the education of all Australian young today. The hard lives our farmers of all kinds along with their families lived in order to be part of the prosperity of our nation in its early development should not be forgotten. And the pathways to forming many benefits to the working man and the legislation in general from which we all are enriched today.

    Thank you for bringing some of this history to light again Bruce as you and Jill visit some of the ‘outposts’ in Australia.

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