Maryborough has a long, proud and fascinating history. From humble beginnings as a pioneering wool port in 1847, by the start of the 1900s, Maryborough was thriving centre of commere and industry. In the lead up to Federation, it was one of Austalia's largest immigration ports and at one stage was the rival for Brisbane as the new Queensland captial.
Before European arrival, the Butchulla People lived in the Maryborough area for thousands of years. They lived in harmony with the land, which provided all they needed, offering fresh water lagoons, fish, oysters and other food sources.
The shallow waters near the township site provided a ‘stepping stone’ to cross the Mary River, which the Butchulla people called Moonaboola.
Discovery: The start of something big…
“I’ve seen what looks like a first rate harbour and a river … goodbye to drays, bullocks, Cunningham’s Gap and hell holes – hurrah! for immediate water carriage for wool.” - Henry Stuart Russell, 1842
Discovery honours for the region fall to then Superintendent of Works at Brisbane, Andrew Petrie, who set out in a whale boat in May 1842 to explore the rivers north of Moreton Bay. Petrie and his expedition, which included Henry Russell (quoted above) travelled approximately 72 km upstream of the river, referred to generally as the Wide Bay River. Those onboard were greatly impressed with its potential as a much needed port to export wool to Sydney.
Just a few years later in 1847, Maryborough began life as a wool port named “Wide Bay Village” when enterprising Ipswich inn keeper George Furber and a party of men set up a wool store and wharf on the north banks of the river. In that same year, the river was renamed the Mary River.
The early village of Wide Bay was at the frontier of settlement in Queensland while the Port of Maryborough played a defining role in shaping the make-up of the new colony.
Settlement: Chasing a Dream
Quick on Furber’s heels came other eager pioneers, including brothers Richard and Henry Palmer and Edgar Aldridge who selected a new site on the north bank of the river opposite Furber. Soon a fledgling village evolved – a gathering of shanty hotels and stores and slab huts set between dusty streets.
Within a year over 1000 bales of wool were shipped from its wharves with expectations that soon “the whole of the wool of the Burnett district and even some from the Darling Downs will be sent to Sydney by this river” –John Carne Bidwell.
The Commissioner for Crown Lands, John Carne Bidwill, arrived in December 1848, and established a camp on the southern side of the river on the banks of Tinana Creek. One of Bidwill's tasks was to find a coastal overland route from Maryborough to Brisbane as an alternative to the then route through Gayndah; he died in 1853 without accomplishing this task.
A post office was established in January 1849, and the settlement then became known as Maryborough. By 1851, when Maryborough was declared a township, it was the third largest settlement in the colony with 299 inhabitants with men outnumbering women three to one.
Time to Move...
By mid -1850, the residents of Maryborough were just settling in, when the government surveyed the township and declared they had to move! At the time, the town was well established as a commercial centre and as a port for shipping wool, hides, timber, and tallow.
However when a Government appointed surveyor sent to design a layout of streets and public spaces arrived, he concluded that the best location for the town was down stream (near Queens Park), where the river was deeper and would accommodate larger vessels.
Residents objected strongly but were also among the main purchasers when the first sale of land for the new township was held in January 1852. Relocation did not take place immediately, as many were reluctant to move from their established homes and businesses at the old site.
“We most respectfully showeth that your memorialists at great personal risk formed the settlement on the Mary River and expanded large sums in erecting houses which settlement your Excellency was pleased to call Maryborough. Your memorialists have heard with great dissatisfaction that the surveyor intends recommending another place … as a more proper site for the town” Petition by residents to the Governor protesting the town plan - Signed 6th of October 1850.
Gradually fewer ships visited the original port and by 1856 most of the early inhabitants had relocated to the new town, known then as East Maryborough.
The town’s church was dismantled and relocated, however the Court House remained in use for almost 10 years and burials still took place at the cemetery until the 1870s. Although some families remained, the old village was virtually abandoned and reverted to farming land.
Port to Prosperity
In 1859 Maryborough was declared an official port of entry – a defining moment in its history. By 1859, pioneer settlements in the new Queensland colony such as Maryborough were in desperate need of workers. The solution many believed was immigration – men, women and children bought directly from England and parts of Europe.
As a result, over 30,000 immigrants and South Sea Island labourers – along with tonnes of gold, opium, rum, perfume, wool, sugar, timber and other imports and exports – were to pass through the Maryborough Port.
The first ship of immigrants to dock in Maryborough was Ariadne, arriving from Liverpool in October 1862. Her arrival started a flow of new migrants into the region – with ships from Plymouth and Liverpool docking almost every two weeks, bringing immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Scandinavia.
Some were escaping persecution in their homelands, many were seeking jobs and a new life, others were after adventure and some came searching for gold. They spent months at sea – and while it was relatively smooth sailing for some, it was not the case for others.
“We were informed the voyage on the Alardus would be three to four months at sea, but my goodness, we were horribly wrong. Our suffering upon that godforsaken vessel was seven months of misfortune and hardship. Thirty of our companions died at sea. Poor souls.” Danish migrant, June 1873
Another interesting account of the perils of the journey were recorded in 1883 by English immigrant John Funge. “On the third day began such a pantomime you never saw … children screaming, mothers and fathers unable to look after them and the vessel rolling from side to side with tremendous force. The poor women and children were rolling backwards and forwards like dead things, some crying, some praying, some wanting to be taken back.”
A Golden Age
Helped by the influx of new settlers from afar, Maryborough continued expanding into a thriving, bustling town with its port, exporting wool, cotton, timber, sugar – and then gold. Wharves stretched from the Granville Bridge to the old mill site, where the Brolga Theatre stands today. Many of the buildings from that era remain.
Maryborough’s Bond Store was built in 1864 to manage this thriving trade. Today it operates as one of the city’s largest museum collections - complete with earthen floor, old handmade bricks and old wooden rum barrels from that era.
With the discovery of gold at nearby Gympie in 1867 Maryborough became one of the major access points to the fields and four million ounces of gold were processed through its major banks and shipped south from its port. Hotels, brothels and opium dens flourished as did commerce. Many of the grand old heritage-listed buildings and hotels in the area were built to service the Port and its associated merchant businesses.