Maryborough - History and Culture

Aboriginal Heritage

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. 

The arrival of the European settlers interrupted the Butchulla people's traditional way of life as access to hunting and ceremonial grounds was cut off in many places. The original inhabitants saw sheep as a food source, an animal not restricted by tribal law and therefore could be eaten by all. This practice led to violent confrontations between the two groups. 

Despite conflicts, Aboriginal people were increasingly employed by settlers as cheap labour for domestic work and labouring jobs.

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 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.

Did you know:  Quite a blow! 

The area Furber selected for his store and port was on the wrong side of the river for the sheep runs to the west. He also chose an area that was a favourite fishing, hunting and tribal place and water supply of the local aborigines, creating tensions between the two groups.  Shortly after arriving, he was struck in the back of the head with an axe while digging post holes. Despite being badly wounded in the neck, he rode for treatment to Ipswich, almost 250 km distance, arriving there some three days later almost delirious with a badly infected wound.

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 ….

"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 -  6 October 1850.

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.

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.

Early Industry

Maryborough Industry

Maryborough's life as a quiet rural outpost ball changed in 1867 with the discovery of gold in nearby Gympie.  The Gympie gold rush helped transform Maryborough into a bustling, thriving port and stimulated the growth of key industries, such as engineering and timber, for which Maryborough is still world renown.

Maryborough's rich hinterland soils and river first drew the early pioneers to the district and the new settlement was soon supporting cotton, sugar, timber and grazing industries. 

When James Nash discovered gold in Gympie in October 1867 thousands rushed to the district eager to make their fortune or find work. Banks flourished with four million ounces of gold passing through the city's major banks before being exported from the Port of Maryborough.  The gold rush also led to the establishment of the Maryborough to Gympie rail link to carry the gold to the port.


With the gold mining came the need for machinery and the creation of Walkers Limited, a firm that would become a stalwart of Maryborough industry.  Walkers began operations in Maryborough in 1869 supplying mining equipment to Gympie and later to other mining operations around Queensland.  As the sugar industry grew, Walkers began to manufacture many of the mills that sprung up along the Queensland and New South Wales coast including Proserpine, Mackay and Maryborough. 

For 100 years, the Walker's foundry shipyard was one of the nation's leading builders of naval ships, barges and dredges.  In 1897, Walkers built Queensland's first stream engine.  Since then, more than 800 locomotives, 284 passenger vehicles and a number of high speed "Tilt Trains" have been built at Walkers, which is now known as Downer EDI.


When first settled, all the timber for the city's early buildings were cut by pit sawyers and roughly dressed by hand.  The Gympie gold rush suddenly increased demand for timber for shoring up excavations. From there the timber industry grew steadily, with increasing exports to Brisbane and Sydney.  The first mill was established in Maryborough in 1861.

The following year William Pettigrew and William Sim built a sawmill at Dundathu to mill pine. In 1966, Andrew Wilson, Robert Hart and James Bartholomew established a mill and wharf at Granville. It was destroyed by fire in 1881, and a new one built next to Queens Park, although it too was destroyed by fire in 1934.  It was again rebuilt and, after changing hands throughout the years, finally closed in 1985. The Brolga Theatre now stands on the site.

Maryborough's most successful timber operation was established by Richard Hyne in 1883 on the bank of the river at the lower end of Kent Street. Through five generations, the Hyne family developed their timber business into what is now one of the largest and most successful privately owned timber companies in the southern hemisphere.


Maryborough is one of Queensland's original cane growing areas and its story is one of great resourcefulness and perseverance. Tropical or sub-tropical agriculture was something of a mystery to the early pioneers with their experience of much cooler climates.  For this reason, early attempts to grow sugar in the region faltered until 1865 when the Maryborough Sugar Company was formed with Mauritian immigrant Thomy de Keating as Managing Director. 

Sugar plantations soon cropped up all over the region.  The first mill was set up in 1866 but it was not until 1867, when the Maryborough Sugar Company installed processing machinery from Glasgow, that production became profitable. Sugar continues to play a vital role in Maryborough, employing many locals whose families have worked in the sugar industry for generations.

Did You Know?

  • Coal also played a big role in Maryborough's growth. The discovery of coal on the southern bank of the Burrum River in 1863 played a major role in the early development of the entire region, accelerating the growth of Maryborough and Hervey Bay and providing impetus for the extension of the railway north from Brisbane and the construction of the Urangan Pier, Hervey Bay. 
  • More railway engines have been built in Maryborough then any other city in Australia. 
  • Migrants entered Australia through the Port of Maryborough.
  • Maryborough had the first country telephone exchange in Australia in 1882.