Newcastle Waters, Stockroutes and Droving

Many of the photos and much of the text is from the displays in the historic buildings, thanks to the Northern Territory Library and National Trust.

On 23 May 1861 John McDouall Stuart wrote in his diary:
" ... (we) came across a splendid reach of water, about one hundred and fifty yards wide ..... this I have named Newcastle Waters after his Grace the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary for the colonies".

The next non-Aboriginal activity in the area was the construction of the Overland Telegraph line in the early 1870's.
A young Alfred Giles was involved as was one John Lewis, who was contracted to operate a pony express along the ever-decreasing gap between the two ends of the line.
Both of these men were to take a role in the development of the area.

The pastoral lease of Newcastle Waters station was taken up by Dr. W. J. Browne of England in 1877.
Browne employed Alfred Giles to stock the station and in 1883 cattle were overlanded from Queensland by D'Arcy Uhr.
Browne's investments did not do well and in 1895 he sold the Newcastle Waters pastoral lease to John Lewis of Adelaide.
The Lewis family held the Newcastle Waters lease for over 50 years.

Stockroutes and water

Inadequate stock routes were a severe restriction on the growth of the Territory's pastoral industry.
In his report for 1905 the Administrator commented at length on the need for wells along existing routes.
"The want of well-watered routes.... closed nearly all markets to the pastoralists in 1905.
The Victoria River stations have a good outlet to the western market, but they cannot in dry seasons attempt the eastern and southern routes.
The eastern stations are, in years such as 1905, practically cut off from a market of any kind."

There had been existing stock routes for some years.
Nat Buchanan had pioneered the Barkly stock route and had blazed the way of the famous Murranji from Newcastle Waters, through Top Springs to the Victoria River region.

The Murranji - which takes its name from a desert frog capable of living underground for long periods without water - had the potential to reduce the long east-west route by four hundred miles.
However the 145 mile trek from the Victoria River to Newcastle Waters was without permanent water.
Even pastoralists who were desperate for markets for their cattle could not risk substantial losses.

In July 1909, Harry and Hughie Farquharson were droving 1 000 head of bullocks, known as stores, across the Murranji.
A couple of drovers returning along the track told them they wouldn't get a drink for 1 000 cattle between Top Springs and Newcastle Waters - a distance of almost 200 km!

There were three watering places, Murranji, Yellow Waterhole and The Bucket, with enough water for their horses only.
As conditions were favourable they decided to push on through the day and the night.

They led the cattle by hurricane lamp at night and the Farquharsons had to make sure they were upwind of the drying waterholes.
If the cattle had smelt water, the brothers would have been unable to prevent them from stampeding and possibly trampling each other to death.
In the end they managed to pass each waterhole without incident and all but five of the 1 000 beasts arrived at the cool waters of the Newcastle Waters lagoon.

Although the need was recognised, the change over to Commonwealth control in 1911 saw further delays.
There appear to have been some private bores put down on the Murranji and Barkly routes by 1914 but only in 1917 did the Government contract for the sinking of bores along the east-west stock route.

It was during this contract that Newcastle Waters was established as a depot for the construction of bores.
The town was also a central point for the intersection of the developing east-west route with the established north-south stock route along the OT line.

Syd Peacock was the contractor to complete the 13 bores between Anthony's Lagoon to the east and Yellow Waterhole in the west.
His plant consisted of six horse drawn wagons and a stationary steam engine.
The bores were equipped with wind driven pumps raised on steel supports, large storage tanks and troughing.
Work was finally completed in September 1924.

The thirteen bores were spaced every 17 miles.
Cattle travel at about nine miles per day and therefore would only be watered every second day.
Reliability of equipment was a matter of great importance and although the Government had agreements with station owners about maintenance, in reality it did not happen.

In 1928 a two-man maintenance crew under the Department of Works was set up at Newcastle Waters.

The droving season was from the end of the wet to September/October and during this period the crew worked non-stop to keep the network operating on a day-to-day basis.
The number of cattle on the route increased steadily, and then dramatically at the onset of World War II.
Some 62,000 cattle crossed the east-west stock route in 1942 - by 1944 some 140,000 head would pass through Newcastle Waters. Considerable funds were expended on upgrading bores and building new ones.

Still there were some problems, an example being that a new mob would arrive at a bore before the storage tanks had had a chance to fill after the previous mob.

After the war the volume of cattle being transported declined.
As early as 1948 "test runs" were being made with road trains but this means of transporting cattle was more expensive than droving and took some years to establish itself.

The table shows the proportion of cattle carried by road transport in the Territory.
1956/57 3%
1958/59 25%
1960/61 45%
1962/63 42%
1964/65 76%
1966/67 85%
1968/69 95%

Stock routes became a thing of the past.


Droving cattle is a job which requires tenacity and skill.
It may not have been as romantic as the songs and poems relate but it is certainly an important part of Australia's heritage.

In the Territory most of the droving was done in the Dry season and toward the end of a season a well-used route would become a dust bowl.
"In the (Dry) the Murranji is bulldust - just dry, dry as dry and thick.
But in the Wet it's a bath.
You can bog a mule or horse right up to its bloody withers then".
(Dick Scobie)

Many of the men and women were "loners" who for various reasons did not like town life.
Others were born and bred in the bush.
Aboriginal people also took a strong role in the industry and were renowned for their skills.

The drovers routine was standard.
At first light the cook would prepare a breakfast of tea and damper and set out extra food for the drovers to take in their saddle bags.
The cook would move ahead, stopping to set up the billy for lunch-time tea, and then again to the overnight camp.
The main meal consisted of meat, onions, potatoes, and tinned or dried vegetables.
Curry and spices masked stale ingredients or mistakes.
Jam was the main sweet.

A watch had to be kept over the cattle at night - a rush was the thing most feared by drovers.
"... . when a mob go, they go BANG!! that's it, and you was dead asleep and you'd just jump straight out, no boots, straight onto the night horse and you're gone".
(Scotty Watson)

It was the drover's job to try and turn the cattle into a circle and let them run themselves out. However chasing cattle through lancewood scrub in the dark was particularly dangerous. Although every drover had a night horse trained to avoid scrub while at a gallop, the brittle lancewood could still prove fatal.
After weeks on a dusty stock route a town was a welcome break and at Newcastle Waters stores could be replenished, telegraphic communication with owners could be made and, most importantly, a drink or two could be had at the Junction Hotel.
All good boss drovers ran "dry camps" so the Junction Hotel had great appeal. Rum and beer were the standard drinks; a favourite was a mix called "Rankine Bomb" an 8 oz glass almost filled with neat rum and topped off with port as a sweetener.
Drovers who were the best of mates while walking cattle could engage in drunken fights only to make up the next day.
The one policeman at Newcastle Waters did well to keep clear of large brawls.
Grog was a part of the tradition but understandably so after weeks of up to 14 hours a day on horseback in thick dust.

The Town

In 1930 the government resumed one square mile from Newcastle Waters station for a town site.
However some structures already existed, the oldest being the 1914 police station - which was south of the present school.
Works Department had also established a depot and accommodation to the south of the police.
None of these structures remains.

One of the earliest surviving structures is Jones' Store/George Man Fong's house.

The lot was first leased in 1934 but no improvements were made until the lease was transferred to Alfred Ulyatt in late 1935.
He built the central core of the present building and intended to operate a store.
However, he obviously changed his plans very quickly as the lease was transferred to Arnold "Jock" Jones on 6 January 1936.
Jock and his wife and family lived in and operated a business from the building until 1949.
They added to the structure and built the bread oven at the rear.
The business was diverse - store, bakery, butcher's shop, petrol outlet.

Jock also made deliveries in his truck and was very well-liked in the wider community.
The family also helped many a drover down on his luck.

After the Joneses left in 1949, Charles and Charlotte MacKenzie continued the trade until 1953 at which time Archie Rogers took over the premises.

Archie was a saddler - there was no longer a need for a general store in Newcastle Waters.
He ran his business from the old house until 1959 at which time George Man Fong and Bill Mathews took over the lease.
Bill moved on fairly quickly but George, who had been a boss driver worked as a saddler from the premises until 1985.

Warren Mungatroyd, a policeman stationed at Elliot became interested in the heritage value of the property and actually purchased the lease after George moved to Katherine.
The National Trust had been involved in discussions with Warren but had also undertaken a major survey of the old township from which was gained a greater insight into its significance.
The Trust subsequently took an opportunity to purchase the property from Warren.
An application to the Australian Bicentennial Authority for funds to restore the property was successful and an official opening took place on 17 September 1988.
Mr Peter Jones, Jock Jones' son has renewed his interest in his family's heritage and was present to unveil the plaque.

The adjacent store in similar style was built in the early 1950's.
When Max Schober moved his business to Elliot in the late 1950's the Junction Hotel was reduced to a bottle licence.
It totally closed in the 1960's.

The Newcastle Waters, or Junction Hotel and store remain as two of the town's most interesting structures.
The hotel was established by local storekeeper, Jack Sargent, in 1931. It became a popular stop for drovers and travellers for many years.

Jack gathered a group of his debtors and had them build the hotel of scrap materials salvaged from the area, including parts from abandoned wind mills at stock route bores.
The finished product was considered a fair exchange by all concerned. Jack had his hotel, the debtors had their "slates" wiped clean and the drovers had a "proper" watering hole.
A liquor licence was granted in 1932.

Shortly after Max Schober took over the management of the hotel but mainly worked at his store across the road.
The slab of Max Schober's store remains on the western side of the road, it being the only building erected on that side because of flooding.
An employee by the name of Harry worked at the pub.
Harry had his own method for serving beer, which was kept cool in wet straw. Sober customers received cold beer but as they became less sober they were given warmer beer - thus Harry saved his limited cold stock for customers who could tell the difference.

Max would drive hundreds of kilometres by wagon, and later by motor vehicle, to meet the incoming drovers and their plants to distribute supplies, often on credit.
Another character, Harry "Bulwaddy" Bates would ride the thirty miles from Beetaloo for a tot. Here he would hitch his horse and sit at the bar with his rum or whisky.

Dutch born Oscar Shank took over the pub from Max in 1955.
It was said he could cook up a meal comparable to a top Sydney restaurant, but his opinion of local tastes was to the point: "All they want is steak and eggs, steak and eggs."

Oscar continued trading even in the face of dwindling custom until the licence was transferred to the township of Elliott in 1962.
The Junction operated under a bottle licence until the 1970s when it was closed down by Newcastle Waters Station owner and Territory identity, Roy Edwards.

The Junction Hotel was an important part of the Newcastle Waters township which was situated on the top of a rise on an ironstone ridge.
It marked the end of the infamous Murranji stock route and was at the junction of west to east and north to south droving routes. It was the start of the next stage into Queensland.

Most of the droving was done in the dry season and at the start of the wet there could be up to fifteen droving plants camped around the ridge.
At that time of the year there were no cattle to look after and no worries for the drovers. And that was when most of the drinking was done at the Junction, as most boss drovers ran dry camps during drives.

The realignment of the Stuart Highway away from Newcastle Waters, the advent of road trains and a dramatic decrease in the movement of stock on foot spelled the end of the township, and the junction.
From 77 000 head overlanded on the Murranji in 1951, numbers dwindled to 6 000 in four mobs in 1971.
By the mid 1970s not a single drover was operating with horses over long distances in the Top End.

A pub that existed to cater for the overlanders could not survive the eclipse of the horse borne drover, and the junction Hotel closed down.

It did, however, reopen briefly in 1988 for the last Great Cattle Drive, when boss drover Noel "Pic" Willetts and his men drove a mob of 1 200 head from Newcastle Waters to Longreach in Queensland.

Other interesting structures in the town include the Telecom Repeater Station and residence, both built in 1942.

Fred Taylor's house should also be noted.
Fred built the house himself in the 1950's.

The church is a Sydney Williams structure erected in 1962 by the Aboriginal Inland Mission.
It is still occasionally used.

Newcastle Waters township was economically reliant on droving and kept going into the 1960's although the Stuart Highway was realigned during World War II. The town of Elliot gained in importance as Newcastle Waters became a virtual ghost town.

The Aerodrome

Ross and Keith Smith's flight from England to Australia in 1919 required a number of strips for refuelling.
The schedule included Darwin, Katherine, Newcastle Waters and thence on to Queensland.

A ground crew, under the leadership of Hudson Fysh, was employed to organise the logistics. Fysh later wrote,
"At Newcastle Waters (we) made history by getting work started on North Australia's first cleared aerodrome ..."

Other pioneer aviators also used this small strip cleared by Aboriginal workers, and in 1928 and 1935 the aerodrome was upgraded.
By 1935 Qantas Empire Air Service was using the Newcastle Waters strip as a vital link in its mail and passenger run.
The improvements were not sufficient, particularly in the Wet and in March 1936 a Qantas aircraft broke through the runway and sank two feet.

A further contract was subsequently let to resurface the strip with ant bed and gravel.
As a watercourse passed beneath the runaway. problems continued and Qantas pilots were complaining of ridges on the surface by 1937.
Numerous methods were tried to improve the surface but none was successful and Qantas stopped using the strip in November 1937.






No liability for timeliness, integrity and correctness of this document is accepted.
Last updated: Wednesday, 10.11.2010 12:13 PM