Historic Darwin

The Darwin City History timeline is short and dramatic and includes the Overland Telegraph, gold, crocodiles, world war bombings, uranium, cyclone Tracy and a population of hardy pioneers.

Inhabited for at least forty thousands years by the Aborigines, the first recorded sighting of the Northern Territory coastline was by William Jootszoon van Colster aboard the Dutch vessel Arnhem in 1623. The Dutch left a few names on the map such as Groote Eylandt (original old Dutch spelling for “large island”), Vanderlin Island, Arnhem land, Cape Arnhem, Cape Keerweer, Van Diemen Gulf and the Gulf of Carpentaria, after Peter Carpenter, then governor of the VOC. In 1644, Abel Tasman sailed along the northern coast and named Cape Van Diemen on Melville Island. The French also named many sites along the coast. The interest shown by both the Dutch and the French mobilized the British to settle the north of Australia long before many of the other colonies were established.

Soon after the establishment and settlement of Australia at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour), the first of several British settlements were made on the north coast, partly as a result of Philip Parker King’s surveys. Fort Dundas, on Melville Island, the largest of the Tiwi Islands, was settled on 30 September 1824 by Captain James Gordon Bremer who arrived on the Tamar. He named the fort for Sir Philip Dundas, First Lord of the Admiralty.

The settlers and convicts soon found that the natives were anything but friendly. It’s not like the settlers and convicts had any cultural sensitivities. Apart from the cultural clash with the natives, there were the white ants and the occasional cyclone which made life rather difficult. The soil was good but there were no animals to do the heavy work. Water buffalo were imported from Timor and they became the nucleus of the herd which was later transferred to the Cobourg Peninsula (350km east of Darwin).

In 1827 Major John Campbell arrived to take command of Fort Dundas, but relations with the Aborigines deteriorated all the time. In November 1827, Dr John Gold and storekeeper John Green were speared to death one night when they left the fort to go for a walk, unarmed. The death of Dr Gold left the settlement without a doctor. In April 1828, not seeing the deaths of Green and Gold as acts of war, in retaliation to the death of an Aborigines, Campbell still awaited an opportunity to demonstrate to the Tiwi that murder must be avenged. His view was typical of that common on the Australian frontier. European deaths at the hands of Aborigines were seen as murders, while the pre-meditated shooting of Indigenes by Europeans was considered by many colonists to be legitimate. The fort was abandoned later in 1828 and by February 1829 the Tiwi Aborigines were once again in control of their land.

On 18 June 1827, the twelfth anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, Fort Wellington, on the mainland at Raffles Bay, came into being when Captain James Stirling established another outpost on Cobourg Peninsula, after having rejected Croker Island. With four ships, supplies and men he was much better prepared than Bremer but here the Aborigines were even more troublesome. When Captain Stirling left, Captain Smyth took command. In September 1828 Captain Collet Barker arrived to take charge and for a while conditions improved. His convicts soon grew vegetables and fruit. Collet Barker was liked by the Malay fishermen and his own men who described him as honourable, just, indefatigable and dauntless.

As there were still many problems to be solved, it was decided in England that the settlement should be abandoned and Governor Darling was instructed accordingly. Both Fort Dundas and Fort Wellington were abandoned by 1829. Barker left reluctantly as he was convinced that permanent settlement was possible. Collet Barker was later murdered by Aborigines after swimming the River Murray in 1831.

Neither the Dutch, French nor anyone else had shown much interest in the north of Australia during those years, but the British government made a third attempt in 1838. This time it was Fort Victoria at Port Essington (inlet on Cobourg Peninsula) and by no other than Gordon Bremer on 27 October 1838. This time he had sailed in the Alligator and brought another two ships with supplies with him. It seemed that it would be third time lucky. Fruit and vegetables grew in profusion as did bananas, oranges, sugarcane and cotton. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge was also confident about the success of the settlement and made money available for a Church.

During July 1839 the settlement was visited by Captain J.C. Wickham and HMS Beagle. The Beagle was on its third voyage, commissioned to survey large parts of the coast of Australia under the command of Commander John Clements Wickham, who had been a Lieutenant on the second voyage, with assistant surveyor Lieutenant John Lort Stokes who had been a Midshipman on the first voyage of the Beagle, then mate and assistant surveyor on the second voyage. They reached the Swan River (Perth) on 15 November 1837. Their survey started with the western coast between there and the Fitzroy River, Western Australia, then surveyed both shores of the Bass Strait at the southeast corner of the continent. In May 1839 they sailed north to survey the shores of the Arafura Sea opposite Timor and reached Fort Victoria in July 1839. When Wickham first sighted the harbour of present day Darwin, he decided to name the port after Charles Darwin.

HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime
HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime, Civic Park

You can see the HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime in Civic Park. It was commissioned by City of Darwin in 2009 to celebrate 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin (1809-1883).

Created by Dr Anton Hasell of Australian Bell Pty Ltd, the Bell Chime is a publicly accessible musical instrument linking Darwin City to Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle from 1831-1836.

Civic Park
Civic Park

Featuring a series of cast bronze bells and a replica HMS Beagle ship’s bell, cast in brass, the HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime brings together the separate Eastern and Western bell traditions.

Whilst in Australia, Darwin was amazed at the variety of the parrot species, and a selection of these, cast in bronze from the small Budgerigar to the large Black Cockatoo, are perched on top of each bell in the park.

HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime
HMS Beagle Ship Bell Chime, Civic Park

After Bremer left Fort Victoria in June 1839, the little town and settlement began slowly to deteriorate.

In 1843 a migration scheme was hoped to bring both white and coloured migrants to the settlement. Cheap land for this purpose was advertised in Singapore and China but no interest was shown.

In 1846 Father Angelo Confalonieri became the first Catholic priest to come to the Northern Territory to establish the Church at Victoria. He died two years later without having been able to carry out his objectives. Victoria, and Fort Essington with it, was abandoned on 1 December 1849.

Mother Country gave up, and South Australia stepped up to the challenge. A fourth attempt at establishing a settlement on the north coast was made at Escape Cliffs, about 75 kilometres from present day Darwin, in 1864. South Australia embarked on the conquest of the North, where the Mother Country had failed. And this time it was different. The stout little ships ‘Henry Ellis’, ‘Beatrice’ and ‘Yatala’ carried pioneer-spirited men, not soldiers and convicts facing exile and worse.

The only man out of place was Lieutenant Colonel Boyle Travers Finniss, appointed in March 1864 to take charge as Government Resident of the Northern Territory, and who seemed to be a left-over from the earlier days of military martinets. The fleet arrived in Adam Bay in June 1864. From the very start there were problems. Finniss had been advised to settle at Adam Bay but against protests insisted on Escape Cliffs, where Fitzmaurice and Keys of HMS Beagle had narrowly escaped the attacked by Aborigines in 1839.

Here landed the first true pioneers of the Territory, known as “the men of ‘sixty-four'”. Many of them were surveyors and all were competent bushmen. They included J. T. Manton (chief surveyor), Stephen King and William Patrick Auld (both of whom had been with Stuart across the continent only two years previously), Frederick Litchfield, William and Gilbert McMinn, John Davis (who had been with McKinlay’s expedition from Adelaide to the Gulf and Bowen in 1862), F.J. Packard, E. Ward (postmaster), and about 30 others.

Stokes Hill was named by William Patrick Auld after Captain John Lort Stokes, one of the officers who in 1839 arrived in the harbour on the HMS Beagle.

Larrakia sacred site: Stokes Hill
Larrakia sacred site: Stokes Hill

Larrakia people know “Stokes Hill” to have within it a Larrakia spiritual ancestor. This ancestor is known as “Chinute Chinute” and manifests itself from time to time as a Tawny Frog Mouthed Owl.

The hill is a registered sacred site and no work takes place on it.

Larrakia sacred site: Stokes Hill
Larrakia sacred site: Stokes Hill

You can find a 1.7m tall bronze statue of a Tawny Frog Mouthed Owl sculpted by artist Koolpinyah Barnes, a respected Larrakia leader, on the walkaway between Smith St Mall and the Darwin Waterfront.

Bronze Owl. Artist Koolpinyah Barnes.
Bronze Owl. Artist Koolpinyah Barnes.

Once again there were problems with the Aborigines and it was Finniss who gave the first order to ‘shoot every bloody native you see’. Fortunately, his ravings were ignored by most of the more level-headed surveyors and their men. However it did not take long before the first white man was killed. Finniss’ style of governing did not endear him to the settlers and a handful of disgusted men determined to get away from Finniss’ camp at any cost. They were led by Jefferson Stow and, on 6 May 1865, set out for Perth in a 23ft. open boat. That was one of the greatest open boat voyages in history, almost forgotten today. None of the six men were seamen; they had only a pocket compass to guide them, oars, and a scrap of sail. They groped their way westward and southward for 5,000 kilometers, riding out mountainous seas off the wild Kimberley coast, and arrived, bearded and emaciated, at Fremantle, two months after leaving Escape Cliffs. As they stepped from their frail craft it capsized and sank. But that’s another story.

By the end of 1865, the South Australian government sent explorer John McKinlay up north to check out the area east of Adelaide River and find a better place for a settlement. With the onset of the wet season he and his men had a terrible time. They returned after five months without finding a suitable site.

Meanwhile Finniss had been recalled to Adelaide and summoned before a Royal Commission where he was censured and criticized. By 1867 Escape Cliffs was also abandoned. It seemed that the old jinx that had dogged the three attempts at settlement by Great Britain in the Northern Territory also dogged South Australia’s brave but rather muddled efforts.

It was going to be fifth time lucky. On 27 December 1868, yet another party of surveyors sailed from Adelaide for the north. In charge was George Woodroffe Goyder, the Surveyor-General of South Australia, who was to become the “Father of Darwin.” The party sailed in the steamer “Moonta” and schooner “Gulnare.” This time, their destination was well-chosen — the glorious harbour of Port Darwin. The little ships anchored beside Fort Hill in that harbour on 5 February 1869 and Goyder named the settlement Palmerston, after the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston.

At Darwin Harbour, Goyder met the Traditional Owners of the land, the Larrakia people. Goyder said, “We were in what to them appeared unauthorized and unwarrantable occupation of their country.” Nonetheless, relationships between the newcomers and the Larrakia were cordial. Biliamuk, a young Larrakia man, assisted the survey party, and acted as an interpreter and cultural ambassador. Soon after, the Larrakia began trading bush tucker for tea, flour, tobacco and tools.

Goyder Camp at Fort Hill
Goyder Camp at Fort Hill

On the narrow neck of land formed by Fort Hill, at the foot of red-and-white sandstone cliffs, Goyder set up his camp in the shade of tamarinds and banyans. On Fort Hill, a brass cannon was set up, to guard this lonely outpost. For want of a better name it was known as “The Camp” for the first few years of Darwin’s history; it was the headquarters of the police and Government officials. Buildings with walls of pandanus trunks and saplings, and iron and bark roofs, were erected. On both sides was the sweep of the harbour’s deep blue waters, and 20m above was an extensive plateau overlooking the harbour — a plateau that afforded natural access into the interior. Here, Goyder surveyed the city — straight streets 3km long across the peninsula, named after his surveyors. They were Smith, Knuckey, Mitchell, Daly, McMinn, Bennett, Wood, McLachlan, and Packard, with Cavenagh Street named after the Land Commissioner of South Australia. Several of Goyder’s surveyors had been at Escape Cliffs, so they were no strangers to the north.

The First Road: Hughes Avenue
The First Road: Hughes Avenue

Hughes Avenue follows the path Goyder and his survey teams travelled up the hill. It is possible when travelling along Hughes Avenue today to see the remains of ironwood posts and sections of a dry stone porcellanite wall marking the old access route to Darwin. It is the oldest road in Darwin. The Avenue follows the contours of the escarpment from the Smith Street end of the Esplanade back down towards the sea finishing at the site where Europeans first camped.

Hughes Avenue was named after Captain Geoffrey Wesley Hughes, Harbour Master of the Port of Darwin from 1962 until his death in 1966.

Railway & stone embankment: the Stokes Hill Wharf
Railway & stone embankment: the Stokes Hill Wharf

The two existing wharfs in the port area of Darwin have taken their names from the two hills of the port area. Today only Stokes Hill remains. Fort Hill, the location for the flagpole above Goyder’s survey camp, was removed in 1965 to make way for new iron ore loading facilities serving the Mount Bundy mine.

There have been three wharfs constructed that have backed on to Stokes Hill.

The first, Port Darwin Jetty or Railway Jetty, was built in 1885-6. With an 8m tidal range in Darwin harbour, the jetty stood high on timber piles. The little Sandfly steam railway engine shunted trucks carrying cargo along the length of the jetty. Cyclone damage in 1897 and worm infestation weakened the structure and a temporary wharf was hastily constructed at the end of Stokes Hill point.

The second, Town Wharf, was completed in 1903, and stood on cast iron and concrete piers with wooden decking and a distinctive L shape. Cargo handling was by rail. The stone embankment, extending along the edge of the road leading to the wharf, was probably built at this time and was constructed of locally quarried porcellanite stone. The Town Wharf was severely damaged in the first Japanese bombing raid. The remains of the ships destroyed in that first raid remained visible at low tide until 1959, when the salvage rights were sold – ironically to the Japanese Fujita Salvage Company – and the wrecks were cut up and removed.

The third, Stokes Hill Wharf that you can see today, was not officially completed until the end of 1956. It was built of steel and concrete with timber decking and served as the main port of Darwin until facilities were transferred to the new Darwin Port at East Arm in 2000. East Arm became the terminus of the north-south transcontinental rail freight link.

Goyder arrived back in Adelaide in October 1869 and on 21 January 1870, 60 men, women and children stepped ashore at Fort Hill, pitching tents and occupying huts left by the survey party among the tamarinds and pandanus palms along the shore below the cliffs. They had arrived to build a permanent settlement.

Among the settlers was Inspector Paul Foelsche, of the famous South Australian Mounted Police. With a handful of troopers he brought the first civil law to the Territory, and lived in Darwin until he died 44 years later. W. G. Stretton, who was to spend the remainder of his varied career in the Territory, in the public service, also arrived. Mr. Milner, who had been at Escape Cliffs, was Acting Government Resident, in place of Dr. Peel who had acted in this capacity since Goyder’s departure.

The schooner “Gulnare” arrived a few days later with livestock and stores, followed by the barque “Bengal” with more settlers, stores, and horses. This new town, the fifth to be established in the Territory, but the only one to attain permanency, was named Palmerston, the same name as that of the ill-fated Escape Cliffs settlement. A Union Jack was run up on a pole on Fort Hill’s flat summit, the settlers fired their guns, and gave three cheers for the Queen.

The first buildings of bark and saplings were erected in the town Goyder surveyed, early in 1870. The first hotel, the Commercial, was of bark. Later, substantial buildings of stone, quarried from the nearby cliffs, were erected. The first white child born in the settlement was Walter Reginald Gardiner. Eastward and northward around Queensland the “Gulnare” had sailed from Adelaide to Port Darwin. Now westward around the Leeuwin and the Bight back to Adelaide she flew before the wind in 11,000 kilometers of sailing around the continent to bring more settlers and Captain Bloomfield Douglas as permanent Government Resident for the Northern Territory. He and his wife and seven children arrived on 24 June 1870.

Captain William Douglas chose the site for the Government Residence in 1870 and the town began to take shape. In 1872, Government House (also known as the House of Seven Gables) was built, then in the 1880s it was pulled down and rebuilt.

Government House, The Esplanade
Government House, The Esplanade

One hundred and forty-five years ago these newcomers were awed by the lovely harbour and beaches and multi-hued cliffs crowned with tropical vegetation, but appalled by the incredible loneliness, isolation, and by the wild Larrakia warriors with bones through their nostrils and 3m spears in their hands who swarmed in friendly welcome from their camps.

The first Residency was a large log hut with a canvas roof. The Douglas daughters and the young surveyors and police troopers in the settlement provided a primitive social life, with riding parties to nearby beaches and lagoons. Then suddenly the isolation was broken by the barque “Bengal” sailing in out of a blood-red tropic sunset after almost grounding on the treacherous reefs in the Vernon Islands. She carried wonderful news: South Australia was to build an overland telegraph line across the continent from Adelaide along the route of John McDouall Stuart, with an overseas cable to come ashore at Port Darwin.

For months after the “Bengal” arrived the settlers eagerly scanned the empty sea horizon from the cliffs at Fannie Bay and East Point for sign of smoke or sail. After three months of waiting and no news, the little steamer “Omeo” sailed in and anchored at Fort Hill one morning of blazing heat early in September 1870. It was loaded with men, horses, drays, bullocks and equipment for construction of the overland telegraph line. This was one of the great moments in Northern Territory history, for the overland telegraph brought life and permanency to Palmerston on Port Darwin. With the completion of the line the spectre of abandonment which had hovered over the settlement’s four predecessors vanished forever. Hard times were ahead, and while Darwin is still isolated, it has become the aerial gateway to Australia.

The story of Darwin really begins with the necessity to establish a support route for the Overland Telegraph to the southern states of Australia. In November 1871, the 1,800 kilometre submarine cable between Darwin and Banjoewangie in Java was laid. This in turn was connected through Batavia (now Jakarta), Singapore, Europe and London.

Overland Telegraph Memorial, The Esplanade, Liberty Square
Overland Telegraph Memorial, The Esplanade, Liberty Square

The memorial commemorates the centenary of the overseas cable to Java in 1871, and the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin in 1872, and the first message between London and Adelaide.

The 3,200 kilometre Australian Overland Telegraph Line was built in the 1870s between Port Augusta and Darwin, connecting Australia to the rest of the world. During the construction, workers uncovered some gold near Pine Creek, about 200 kilometres south of Darwin, which further boosted the young colony’s development. The influx of miners and machinery passing through Palmerston (Darwin) led to the establishment of a railway to Pine Creek which was officially opened in September 1889. Although the line was extended further south to Larrimah, it was finally closed in 1976. It took until 2004 for a rail link to be completed, allowing an Australian train to connect the North with Southern States.

The Northern Territory was transferred to the Commonwealth in 1911, and Darwin became the official name of the still small town.

Development was slow, the distances to anywhere else were just too big, transport and communication difficult and the weather unpredictable.

Enter WWII. In the 1940’s 10,000 allied troops were moved to the city of Darwin on Australia’s northern coastline. It didn’t prevent the two major air raids by the Japanese on 19 February, 1942. 243 people died in the Darwin bombings. Darwin had to live through 63 more raids, the only Australian capital city to come under major attacks during WWII.

But the biggest disaster hit the city of Darwin on 25 December, 1974 in form of Cyclone Tracy. The cyclone and its aftermath are well documented in Darwin’s Museum & Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, a fascinating and chilling exhibition. When you see whole suburbs without a house standing, the magnitude of this disaster hits home.

50 people died on Christmas Day 1974, and 70% of the city of Darwin was destroyed. Darwin is a very new city simply because there was almost nothing left standing after Cyclone Tracy.

Along Smith St, across from Civic Park, you can see the Old Darwin Town Hall Ruins.

Historic Darwin

The Old Town Hall was originally built in 1883 during the Pine Creek gold rush. The building survived the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese during WWII, only to be destroyed by Cyclone Tracy 50 years later. Heritage listed, the Darwin Town Hall Ruins are all that remain today of the initial structure constructed in local porcellanite during 1882-83.

A building that survived both the war and Cyclone Tracy is Brown’s Mart, one of Darwin’s most historic stone buildings, built in 1883 and now home to the Darwin Theatre Company.

Browns Mart
Browns Mart

Behind Brown’s Mart are the Darwin City Council Chambers, where an ancient banyan tree known as the Tree of Knowledge casts a huge umbrella of shade. Planted at the end of the 19th century, the tree has been a meeting place, dormitory and soapbox for generations who lived in or passed through Darwin.

Tree of Knowledge
Tree of Knowledge

The plaque reads: Located on the site of the old Terminus Hotel in Darwin’s old Chinatown, this tree has been used as a meeting place, postal address and community notice board. It was also a place where Chinese youth met with and learned from their elders and where wisdom was gained in its shade.

Known as the Tree of Knowledge, this ancient tree is culturally significant to the Larrakia Aboriginal people who know it as “Galamarrma”. The tree, a Banyan (ficus virens) was well established by 1898 and is believed to be a part of the remnant rainforest which made way for the town of Palmerston – later Darwin.

The Terminus Hotel was progressively demolished following its closure in November 1931 and in 1969 community pressure saw the plans for the new Civic Center altered by three meters to accommodate the significant part of Darwin’ history and heritage.

Darwin has been through three very destructive cyclones, including Tracy on Christmas Day 1974, and World War II when Chinatown was destroyed by fire. And, through it all, Galamarrma has survived to remind us of our past.

Tree of Knowledge
Tree of Knowledge

With so much destruction of both homes and infrastructure by Cyclone Tracy, the population of about 45,000 was reduced to about 10,000 by a mass evacuation of people to other Australian cities, the biggest airlift in Australia’s history. This was organised by Major-General Alan Stretton, Director-General of the Natural Disasters Organisation and Minister for the Northern Territory, Rex Patterson. Many of the families that left never returned and the rebuilding attracted people from many different places resulting in a young, diverse population who rebuilt the city. Some locals say it’s due to that rebuild that the city of Darwin is so easy to navigate today. The planners were given a second chance to get it right…

The satellite city Palmerston was established in the 1980s, about 20km south of Darwin. The last milestone (for now) in Darwin’s history occurred on 17 September 2003. The Adelaide-Darwin Railway was completed, and since February 2004 tourists can experience a train journey crossing Australia from South to North on the famous Ghan.

Last Christmas was the 40th anniversary of Cyclone Tracy. Today’s Darwin shows no trace of it.

Historic Darwin

One thought on “Historic Darwin”

  1. I feel if I ever visit I will know Darwin well in advance…..thanks guys you are like pioneers for folk like me😃

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