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Barcaldine, Queensland

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by Ian Gill (subscribe)
I'm a Victorian based freelance writer & photographer. If you like this article click the 'Like' button, Facebook it to your friends & family and subscribe to my articles. Like my photos? Checkout my full collection at https://footloose.picfair.com
Published April 26th 2021
19th Century Union Hotbed
Barcaldine is a Queensland pastoral centre and former prominent railhead 1,072-Kilometres northwest of Brisbane and 108-Kilometres east of Longreach. It's on the Matilda Way, the 1812-Kilometre stretch of highway linking Bourke in New South Wales to the Gulf of Carpentaria.

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In a town steeped in industrial working-class history a statue commemorating the Great Shearers Strike of 1891 stands on Oak Street opposite one of five big century-old pubs on Barcaldine's main street. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


Barcaldine dates back to 1863, when a former Scottish slave trader, named Donald Charles Cameron, drove a herd of sheep overland from the New England region of New South Wales and established Barcaldine Downs station, named for a small town in Scotland.

Other settlers began buying land in the district around 1885 and the township was surveyed in late 1886, the same year the Central Western Railway between Rockhampton and Barcaldine was opened. But settlement way out here wasn't all plain sailing. There was a violent confrontation between settlers and the local Iningai aboriginal people. So violent was the conflict that the pre-settlement population of more than 700 Iningai had been reduced to less than 150 within a year or two.

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Barcaldine is in cattle country - drovers and their herd on 'the long paddock', the Matilda Way. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


It's hard to imagine Barcaldine being a hot-bed of anything but in the late 19th Century the town was at the centre of the Great Shearers Strike, one of Australia's earliest disputes between union and non-union labour, and an event that is today acknowledged as having led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

Queensland pastoralists had long been claiming that wool prices were falling and they needed 'Freedom of Contract' in their dealings with shearers who, for their part were seeking a unionised workforce and set wage. In 1890, the Queensland Shearers Union and the Queensland Labourers Union established a central district council based in Barcaldine to push the union line.

On 5th January 1891, the first strike action by shearers commenced at Logan Downs Station near Clermont when 120 shearers refused to accept a new agreement. In the same month, the Queensland Maritime Union placed a ban on the shipment of wool shorn by non-union labour and the scene was set for a series of violent confrontations between the two sides.

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The Australian Heritage Workers Centre showcases Barcaldine's involvement in union activity and ultimately the birth of the Australian Labour Party. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


Large camps of striking workers sprang up throughout Queensland's pastoral districts and there were numerous acts of vandalism, sabotage and violence, including instances of Queensland's Colonial Army being dispatched to confront strikers.

On 10th March 1891, 1,500 strikers clashed with police at Barcaldine Railway Station and again on the 18th March when non-union shearers arrived by train. On this occasion, it was reported that an order was given for troops to fire on the strikers but their Commander refused, ordering them to fix bayonets instead and the shearers dispersed.

On 1st May 1891, Barcaldine was the scene of one of the world's first May Day marches with almost 1,500 men marching through town, some on horseback others carrying banners and the Eureka flag and all cheering the Union, the strikers and the concept of an Eight Hour Day.

The strike ended in June 1891 with the unionists running short of funds and several of their leaders arrested. Station owners agreed to re-employ the strikers and the unions moved away from violent confrontation, seeking to have members enroll to vote and carry the fight to the ballot box.

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This 1917 vintage 'C' Pattern windmill on Oak Street was once part of Queensland's first free-flowing artesian bore at nearby Back Creek. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


Barcaldine's Tree of Knowledge, an ancient Ghost Gum opposite the railway station, had been a meeting place for unionists throughout the strike and, once hostilities ended, unions involved met here again to form the Labour Electoral Leagues, the forerunner of the ALP, the Australian Labour Party.

The Tree of Knowledge, or a facsimile of it at least, still stands in Barcaldine and attracts thousands of visitors a year to itself and the nearby Australian Workers Heritage Centre.

The tree was added to the National Heritage List in January 2006 but three months later was vandalised & poisoned. It didn't survive and was cut down in July 2007. The current memorial comprised of an enclosed stylised tree above the exposed original root ball was opened in 2009.

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A memorial to the Great Shearers Strike of 1891 stands on Oak Street just near the Tree of Knowledge. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


Visitors to Barcaldine today can walk, drive or cycle the award-winning Between The Bougainvilleas Heritage Trail, a sign-posted route showcasing significant historical sites and buildings in and around town.

The Tree of Knowledge tops the districts must-see list for most people.

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The Radio Picture Theatre on Ash Street opened in 1926, eventually closing in 1995. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


Also on Oak Street and not far from the tree is an impressive icon of the bush, a 1917 vintage C Pattern windmill which was originally erected at Back Creek, just a few hundred metres from its present location and the site of Queensland's first free-flowing artesian bore. Barcaldine has been reliant on bore water pretty much ever since and today the town is supplied from a bore and reservoir in Acacia Street.

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Barcaldine is on the Matilda Way, the 1812-Kilometre stretch of highway linking Bourke in NSW to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


The Australian Workers Heritage Centre in Ash Street is dominated by what looks like a massive circus tent and provides a great insight into the nations work history and Barcaldine's unique connection with the birth of the Australian labour movement. The complex is set on 2-hectares of landscaped gardens with a bore-filled billabong at its centre. It's also home to the 'Young-Un', the only surviving direct descendant of the Tree of knowledge.

For something a bit out of the ordinary have a look at the Comet Masonic Lodge on Beech Street. The two-storey building was erected in 1900. With corrugated iron back and sides the front of the Lodge is clad in timber and painted to look like masonry.

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The Tree of Knowledge was a focal point for union activity in Barcaldine during the 19th-Century and today attracts thousands of visitors annually. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


The main drag, Oak Street, is lined with five big outback pubs, each more than 100-years old and most if not all boasting an interesting and colourful past. Just the spot for a thirst quencher along the Heritage Trail.

A magnificent large marble clock at the intersection of Ash & Beech Streets is an unusual style of War Memorial erected in 1924 to honour the 292 local men who served during World War 1 including 38 who gave their lives.

The Radio Picture Theatre on Ash Street was opened in 1926 running as a family business until 1995 when the local branch of the Arts Council took it over. Beautifully decorated, it's run by volunteers and opens most weekends showing the latest movies - but you still sit on the original canvas chairs.

5-Kilometres east of town on the Capricorn Highway is Barcaldine Solar Farm, with 79,000 solar panels that tilt to maximise exposure to the sun and generate 53,500 megawatts of clean energy.

Queensland,Brisbane,Barcaldine,Outback,Cattle Country,History and Heritage,Travel,Get Out Of Town,Escape The City,Great Family Getaway
This magnificent marble clock was erected in 1924 to honour the 292 local men who served during World War 1. Photo: Copyright Ian Gill / Footloose Media


With a population of around 1,500 Barcaldine is a pretty little town, frequently referred to as the Garden City of the West, steeped in history and just a great place to spend a few days when touring central west Queensland.

Barcaldine Fact ..

Barcaldine was where Australian Light Horsemen first decorated their slouch hats with emu plumes.

Getting There ..

Barcaldine is at the junction of the Capricorn and Landsborough Highways 580-Kilometres due west of Rockhampton and 1071-Kilometres from Brisbane via Toowoomba, Roma and Blackall.
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Why? Get to know the Garden City of the West and the town at the centre of the Great Shearers Strike of 1891, one of Australia's earliest industrial dispute between union and non-union labour, and an event that is today acknowledged as having led to the f
When: Barcaldine is accessible all year round but to my mind the best time to visit central west Queensland in between August and November.
Phone: (07) 4651 1724
Where: 149 Oak Street, Barcaldine
Cost: The majority of Barcaldine's attractions are FREE.
Your Comment
A nice history lesson about a town we may have heard of, but not in any detail about its importance in Australian history.
by Neil Follett (score: 3|4546) 652 days ago
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