The settlers and families that made Mossman what it is today


Karlie Brady

Junior Reporter

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WHERE IT BEGAN: Petersen's Hotel in Front Street, Mossman 1911. All Images: John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Mossman’s sugar Industry and mill may have faced uncertainty lately but whatever its future may be, one thing is certain; its past has significantly shaped the town of today.

In 1873, following the discovery of gold on the Palmer River, the Queensland Government sent George Dalrymple to explore the northern coast to determine its suitability for development.

Upon his explorations, Dalrymple named the Mosman River (later changed to Mossman) after explorer Hugh Mosman, and reported on the good agricultural land along the river.

Following Dalrymple’s reports Dan Hart, a timber cutter from Jamaica, arrived in 1874 and became the first non-indigenous settler of Mossman.

In 1878, Hart settled his property on what is now the western half of Mossman town and named it ‘Coolshade’.

Before long he was growing tropical fruit and began experimenting with the cultivation of sugarcane, with which he had experience of from his time in Jamaica.

Hart was the first man to grow sugar in the area, pioneering the industry in Mossman and for a time the town was known as Hartsville.

He later donated land to the Anglican church where present-day St David’s Church now stands and imported seeds from Jamaica to plant the landmark Raintree’s adjacent to the church.

In 1879, Thomas William Wilson took up property on the eastern half of what is now Mossman town where he also experimented with Sugar.

He too donated a portion of his land for the Mossman River State School which opened in 1898.

Both Hart and Wilson subdivided parts of their land to create a site for the township of Mossman and present-day Front street follows the boundary between the two properties.

Other early settlers include R.O. Jones who selected land in North Mossman and named it ‘the Cedars’.

William Buchanan, who eatablished 'Bonnie Doon’. John Pringle in south Mossman with ‘Fairymount’.

William Samuel Johnston with his farm 'Drumsara’ and his brother John Dorrens Johnston with ‘Mango Park’.

The Foxton, Rex, O’Brien and Crees families were also among the early settlers whose names would be familiar to today’s residents.

While the early farmers dabbled in various crops, however the district’s excessive rain resulted in most of the land being converted to cane farming.

In the early days of sugar, the cane was often farmed in a plantation style were farmers grew and milled raw sugar on their own properties.

The first sugar mill was erected on the Brie Brie estate on the South Mossman River in 1883 by Harriet Parker.

However, this system was very costly and the small mill had little output making it unviable and the doors were closed in 1888.

As plantation systems continued to struggle, farmers realised they needed to create a large central co-operative sugar mill instead.

In 1893, the Queensland Government passed the Sugar Works Guarantee Act which allowed landowners to mortgage their land to the government for a loan to build a central mill.

The Mossman farmers formed the Mossman River Central Mill League and after much negotiation on where the mill would be placed, they eventually accepted Thomas Wilson’s offer of 20 acres at the junction of the two branches of the Mossman River for ₤200.

The Mossman Mill was opened in August 1897 and became the most northern mill in Australia.

The mill continued to expand and in 1906 became the first Queensland mill to crush over 100,000 tonnes of cane.

The town of Mossman sprung up around the mill with Mill Street becoming the central hub of the town, along with five hotels.


As the industry grew, a dark side of Australian Sugar emerged as the high cost of Australian wages made it hard for farmers to compete with overseas sugar growers.

Many South Pacific Islanders were employed for cheap labour and brought to Queensland, many illegally through coercion or kidnapping, in a process known as ‘blackbirding’.

These workers were known as “Kanakas” and were treated as slaves who were assigned to growers and could be gaoled for escaping.

At one time the Mossman Mill employed 143 Islanders and around 500 worked on farms in the region.

The Pacific Island Labourers Act of 1901 put a stop to this recruitment and by 1908, most had returned home.

Chinese workers were also commonplace on farms in the region and many played a key role in the region’s development before the ‘White Australia Policy’ of 1901 heavily restricted their employment.

European migrants, particularly Italians were next to try their hand at cane cutting and favourable reports of their hard work meant they were in high demand.

Many worked until they could buy their own land and bring their families over, resulting in the many Italian families that make up Mossman today.

The early farmers, the establishment of the sugar industry, and the building of the central mill has directly led to the town that remains today.

You only have to drive through Mossman to see history reflected back at you in the names of the streets, which honour the many early settler families.




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