Friday, May 4, 2012

John Douglas and Queensland railway policy in 1863

This extract from my thesis examines the role played by Douglas in regards to railways and tramways in the Queensland parliament in 1863.

In 1863 Douglas was selected to the Queensland parliament representing the electorate of Port Curtis centred on Rockhampton.  On his first day in parliament, he presented a petition from his constituents requesting that there be no railway construction in the south of the colony unless the northern districts received a railway as well.[1]  It was not surprising that Douglas’s constituents felt this way, for there was keen competition between the various districts over the siting of the colony’s first railway. 
In presenting this petition, Douglas was conveying the anger of his electorate whose voters believed that parliament had neglected them when constructing a railway line from Ipswich to Dalby instead of in their northern district.  The residents of Central Queensland wanted their own east-west railway from Rockhampton to Peak Downs, claiming that they had greater need than settlers on the Darling Downs did, who had grown wealthy without the necessity of a railway.[2]  Douglas had recently chaired an “indignation meeting” at Rockhampton on just this issue.  Although his views were not as stridently expressed as many others, he sagely advised them to “go in for a railway too.”
Douglas’s initial address to the Queensland parliament consisted of mercilessly criticising the Herbert ministry for alleged misconduct, due to its attempted passing of a railway Bill at the end of the previous session, an action Douglas considered unconstitutional.[3]  Douglas opposed the ministry throughout the life of the second parliament and continually fought for the establishment of railway lines and road networks in the northern districts.  In this endeavour, the local paper, the Rockhampton and Central Queensland Advertiser, faithfully supported him throughout.[4] 
Initially the railway petitions Douglas presented on behalf of his Maryborough, Rockhampton and Gladstone constituents were treated with contempt by Governor Bowen’s private secretary, Henry Pitt, who, in his reply to Douglas, suggested that the petitioners should “devote to the practical object of improving their own local institutions the energies now wasted in fruitless endeavours of this nature.”[5]  This response, as well as Douglas’s reply, which hinted darkly that failure to act on the petition “may lead to the disintegration of the colony,” were published in full in the local newspaper and helped cement his support in the northern electorate by demonstrating his willingness to stand up to what were perceived to be dominating southern interests. [6] 
The Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser considered the private secretary’s remarks “indecorous and heartless.”[7]  However, the issue did not go away, and Douglas and his Central Queensland constituents were successful the following year when a route for the great northern line out of Rockhampton was approved and surveyed.[8]
Douglas foresaw the construction of railway lines being funded on similar lines to that in America, where “railways have been constructed and are now being successfully conducted by companies largely endowed with state lands.”[9]
Railway provision in the colony, and a sustainable means of funding them through land sales, were themes to which he would repeatedly return.[10]  The issues neatly married his two overriding concerns in his early parliamentary career: that of opening the north for development through the use of an efficient means of transport, and of finding a way to ensure it occurred in a manner that would fund and support the growth of the colony, not bankrupt it.  Douglas believed that railways should be built out of the proceeds of land sales, coining the term “land-grant lines” for this process.[11]  To him they were:
not so much a source of profit at the present time, but as a means of colonisation ... So far as paying for their construction was concerned, there were ample means by the sale of crown lands in districts contiguous to the lines.[12]
The development of railways in the young colony was deemed essential, for railways were the most important symbol of a country’s industrial, economic and financial power.  The more youthful or impoverished the country, the more urgently it seized on the railway as the key to progress.[13]  Douglas, along with every other Queenslander, understood this.[14]  They knew that a railway line in their district would inject enormous investment and bring lasting economic and transportation developments.  The question was not whether Queensland should build railways, but rather where was the best route to reap the rewards sufficient to justify the cost and effort required to build them.
Railways were ideally suited to Queensland, given its vast spaces and the poor state of the transport network in a colony without a navigable inland river system and atrocious roads all too often washed away by floods or turned to dust by droughts.[15]  Unfortunately, it also ignited the fierce regionalism prevalent in the colony, and frequently resulted in bitter rivalry between the southern and northern parts of the colony.
Premier Herbert envisaged a railway system operated by private enterprise based on the economical horse-drawn tramways he had seen in England.  The Moreton Bay Tramway Company was established to build tramways in the colony but struggled to attract sufficient financial support.[16]
In July 1863, Douglas presented a petition on behalf of William Coote, the late manager and engineer of the Moreton Bay Tramway Company, to inquire into negotiations between the company and the government regarding a tramway from Ipswich to Dalby.[17]  Incorporated by an act of parliament in 1861, the company had subscribers for £53,000 worth of shares for its proposal to build a standard gauge, horse-hauled, wooden-railed tramway from Ipswich to Toowoomba.[18]  The money raised was insufficient, and the company became insolvent in late 1862,[19] with its only asset - its survey plans – being sold to the government for £3,150.[20]  The company’s failure demonstrated that private funding of railways was not viable and that the government would have to finance their construction in the colony.[21] 
Nevertheless, in 1863 the government still wished to have a tramway built.  While it initially rejected an offer from the eventual successful tender, Tooth & Company, to build the line by funding it from a combination of land grants and government debentures, it eagerly seized on their proposal to use a narrow-gauge (3’ 6”) light railway line as advocated by its consultant, Irish engineer, Abraham Fitzgibbon.[22]  Coote had nothing but contempt for a railway based on such a narrow gauge, and did not hide his strong feelings on the matter.[23]
Douglas asked that a select committee consider the matters raised in the petition.  The motion was lost, but not before the premier, Herbert, remarked that Douglas “had been made a cat’s paw of by the audacious petitioner.”[24]  The timing and manner of the petition was contentious, with Coote having been an unsuccessful candidate for the seat of South Brisbane, while at least six and possibly up to nine members of the opposition were shareholders of the defunct company.[25]  Douglas’s championing of Coote’s cause was considered by the Daily Guardian newspaper to be overly ambitious.  It regarding him as being “young and green,”[26] while the Brisbane Courier considered Douglas to be neither conversant of the rules of boards nor how parliament operated.[27]
Although hardly an auspicious start to what was to be a long and distinguished political career in Queensland, the issue of the Tramway Company gave Douglas considerable publicity and a degree of prominence.[28]  While not a shareholder in the company, he supported Coote because he, too, was firmly against the introduction of a narrow-gauge railway into the colony.[29]
A week later, the Brisbane Courier reconsidered its attitude to Douglas following his opposition to a railway Bill introduced into parliament.  The paper believed that Douglas was:
worthy of the confidence reposed in him by the northern electors.  His reply to the arguments adduced in the debate was as sensible and sound as it was dignified.  He refrained from indulging in facetious remarks [and] what he did state was in accordance with the high opinions which had been formed of him.[30]

[1] Brisbane Courier, 23 July 1863; “Legislative Assembly, 22 July 1863.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 2nd session, 1863, p. 4.  A copy of the petition can be found in Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 2nd session, 1863, pp. 599-600
[2] John Kerr.  Triumph of Narrow Gauge:  A History of Queensland Railways.  Brisbane, Booralong Press, 1998, p. 23
[3] Brisbane Courier, 23 July 1863
[4] See, for instance, Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 3 October 1863; Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 3 November 1863 and a Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 29 December 1863 article lampooning the Queensland Times for ridiculing Douglas’s stance on this matter.
[5] Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 3 November 1863; Margaret Hardy.  Constitutional and Political Developments in Queensland during the Governorship of Sir George Bowen (10th December 1859-4th January 1868.)  MA thesis.  University of Queensland, 1972, p. 75-76
[6] Rockhampton Bulletin and Central Queensland Advertiser, 3 November 1863
[7] Ibid.
[8] Daddow, p. 21; Kerr (1998), p. 23
[9] “Legislative Assembly, 5 August 1863.”  Queensland Votes and Proceedings, 2nd session, 1863, p. 8.  The American government passed the Land Grant Act of 1850 to encourage the growth of railways and help offset the financial burden construction entailed.  The price of land was US$1.25 per acre, later raised to US$2.50 per acre.  The Act made once unwanted land valuable, and during the life of the Act, from 1850 to 1871, American railways received 131 million acres of land grants.
[10] See William Coote.  “Our Leading Public Men.  No. 1.  The Hon. John Douglas.”  The Week, 19 May 1877, p. 616
[11] Allan Morrison (1961), p. 569.  For a detailed exposition of Douglas’s land-grant lines philosophy, see, John Douglas (1882), pp. 484-99.  The idea that money received for the land itself would fund the development of railways was a variation of a concept called, in the language of imperial economics, the Doctrine of Sufficient Price.  This process, seen to be self-financing and self-perpetuating, was successfully used by Edward Gibbon Wakefield to found the settlement of Canterbury at Christchurch, New Zealand in the 1840s.  (James Morris, p. 142)
[12] “Hon. John Douglas at Warwick.”  Queenslander, 5 January 1867, p. 6.  Later on that year Douglas proposed that land be sold on the foreign market, to “revive a healthy flow of those immigrants who come out with money in their pockets.”   The benefits of this would include “the money still required to complete our railway system could thus be obtained with certainty, in connection with the still greater advantages which would result from the introduction of a class of persons possessing both capital end enterprise.”  (Queenslander, 17 August 1867, p. 5)
[13] Nicholas Faith.  The World the Railways Made.  London, the Bodley Head, 1990, pp. 5 & 59
[14] John Douglas (1882), p. 484
[15] Fitzgerald, p. 128
[16] Ibid., p. 263
[17] “Mr. Coote and the Moreton Bay Tramway Company.”  Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1863
[18] Kerr (1998), p. 4
[19] Daddow, pp. 6-7
[20] Coote embarked on a lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful campaign to secure some compensation from a government that had since utilised his initial work in the final tramway construction.  (Mason, p. 56)
[21] Kerr (1998), p. 4
[22] Ibid., pp. 4-5
[23] Daddow, p. 8
[24] “Mr. Coote and the Moreton Bay Tramway Company.”  Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1863
[25] Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1863, p. 2
[26] Daily Guardian, 31 July 1963, cited in Mason, p. 56
[27] Brisbane Courier, 31 July 1863, p. 2.  The paper now sarcastically described Douglas as a “great gun from the north” and a “star of the north,” who was now a “fallen star.”
[28] Mason, p. 56
[29] Queensland Parliamentary Debates, 1864, p. 50;  “The Railway Gauge.”  Brisbane Courier, 9 September 1863.  As Douglas later remarked:  “It would have been desirable to have a 4 ft 8½ inch gauge, but it was better to have the narrow gauge than none at all.”  (“Mr. Douglas at the School of Arts.”  Darling Downs Gazette and General Advertiser, 22 September 1883)
[30] Brisbane Courier, 6 August 1863, p. 2