Watson Bros to Gregory Downs

In 1876 three Watson brothers came from “Walwa” on the Upper Murray in Victoria following a
survey trip the previous year, to settle on the Gregory River at “Gregory Downs” some 120 kms
south of Burketown.Two of the brothers, Harry Frederick and Philip Sydney were twins aged only 19 at the time and

the youngest Robert McGregor (Greg or Greggy) Watson was only 17 years of age. When they arrived, a family friend, who traveled with them and was to be a partner, returned immediately to Victoria and sold his share leaving the three Watson boys to “sink or swim” The holding the Watson’s selected embraced the present day Gregory Downs, Planet Downs, Kunkulla, Kamarga and Yeldham and comprised around 1,000 square miles capable of carrying 24,000 cattle.

This 1939 newspaper article below was compiled from R M ‘Greg’ Watson’s Diary that was written as a reminiscence around 1934.

Professor Archie Watson (L) with Sidney, Harry and Greg Watson.

“Messrs. Harry F. Watson and R.M. ‘Greg’ Watson, are two of the original lessees of the Gregory Downs, a large cattle station in the Gulf of Queensland. The Watson Brothers, in association with another brother, Philip (Sidney) a twin to Harry , took up Gregory Station over 60 years ago. Philip (Sidney) has since died (1936) and the two surviving brothers have retained their interest in the property ever since, being amongst a select few, if not the only original pastoral lessee’s in Queensland.

Sidney Watson and his wife, suffragist, Annie Lister on the road to Lawn Hill. Married in 1898 they went to Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush for 2 years.

Each year they spend the winter at Gregory Downs , which is now run by a manager, and Harry for a month or two. At Thursday Island another brother Professor Watson, has long since made his home. Linked with opening up of Gregory Downs, is the legend of the running river.

Robert McGregor :Greg” Watson and Sidney Watson on the Gregory River at the Gregory 20-Mile Outstation

The Watson Brothers were bred on the Upper Murray which flowed a perennial stream and at an early age, the three boys H.F & P.S – twins aged 18 years and R.M (Greg), two years younger, set out by steamer from Melbourne for Townsville.

Diner Camp. Harry Watson with Model T Ford in 1915.

Before leaving they had arranged for the delivery of 1000 head of well-bred heifers and the purchase of a mixed herd of 900 head from Dotswood, outside Townsville , had also been negotiated.

Arrived at Townsville , the brothers immediately set out for Dotswood , where they learned that the cattle were already on the road. The plant was overtaken at Rockwood, in the Tangorin district, and delivery made there.

The Watson’s pushed on to the Upper Diamantina , remaining there for seven to eight months on what is now Kynuna Station. Pelicans and native Dogs had polluted the water and the stock were moved into Nelia Ponds, where a separation was subsequently arranged. The Twins pushed on with the healthy remainder of the 900 head and left Greg behind in-charge of the young and under-nourished stock.

During his few weeks’ stay at Nelia Ponds, Greg had become anxious concerning the fate of the heifers, bound from Victoria, but one day, while riding his rounds , he came upon a beast bearing the Victorian brand he was seeking. He then realised that the stock had got through, passing within two miles of his own charges, and he pushed on. Final directions as to the location of the ‘Running River’ were obtained by the three brothers from the late Mr. Rowley Edkins, who then conducted Mount Cornish, In partnership with the late Richard Hann.

When they had left Dotswood, the manager at that time, the late Mr. O’Rourke, ridiculed their quest, stating the lizards in that country ‘measured a foot between the eyes,’ but the goal was reached in 1877, just about 13 months after the three brothers had set out in pursuit of the Dotswood herd.

An area of something above 1000 square miles was taken up on both sides of the Gregory, which has never failed to provide surface water since the holding was originally leased.

Gregory River around 1918.

As the Watsons pushed through to the Gulf, they passed Dagworth, which had just been selected by the Mills brothers, who were then established in a tent.

Gregory Downs Homestead around 1929
Gregory Downs Homestead on right with kitchen and store in 1937.
Original Gregory Downs Homestead. The left side of the building still stands and, after the new homestead was built, in the 1940’s, by Lew Blackmore, was used as an engine room for the power generator.

Shortly after the selection of Gregory Downs, other pioneers took up land on the Barclay Tableland and rations were obtained from a schooner which came to Burketown twice a year from Brisbane. The Watsons, being nearest at hand, always met this vessel, and stood guard, until all of the settlers had removed their stores by teams.

The first sign of local development at Burketown came with the establishment by the Watsons of a store at Burketown, and that town was opened for the second time. They persuaded a wheelwright named Kelly to open a hotel, which they built, but after that Burns, Philp and Co., Aplin, Brown and Co. commenced business, and the Watsons, to use their own words, cleared out. The advent of new stores brought increased traffic through Gregory Downs and the brothers transferred their homestead from the East to the West side of the river, establishing their bookkeeper In the original homestead at what became the first Gregory Downs Hotel.

Gregory Hotel 1908.

Burketown became quite an active centre, but the opening of the road to Camooweal, following upon the extension of the Cloncurry railway system, killed the trade and the town ‘died’ again.

Harry Watson (left), Tom Doyle, son of the manager Bartel T H Doyle (centre) and Watson’s nephew, Murray Black (right), from Tarwin Meadows, Victoria, pose with two wild pigs and a plains turkey (Bustard) – the result of their day of hunting on Gregory Downs Station, Queensland, in 1917.

For the first 20 years, markets was a problem to the Gulf settlers; they still are. Until the extension of the railhead there was no market close at hand and the Watsons sent several small drafts on the hoof to Darwin, a distance of 1200 miles, obtaining no more than £3/10/- per head for bullocks on delivery. Mr. H. F. Watson remembers the first venture of that kind. The Watsons decided to link up with a drover who passed through their way for Darwin and Mr. H. F. Watson left in charge of a draft numbering between 300 and. 400. Most of these were ‘butchered’ on the long trek across the Territory, the remainder being sold at Darwin, and the net profit from the venture was £9/2/6. Afterwards the boiling-down works at Burketown took bullocks at £1/10′. per head and subsequently the introduction of outside capital enabled the works to take cattle for canned meat purposes, but a real market was not found until the railway went beyond Cloncurry. Since then the Gregory Downs bullocks have travelled to Kajabbi on the hoof and are trucked for coastal meat.

Sidney Watson, Gregory Manager Bartel T H Doyle, Tom Doyle (standing), Bartel Doyle Jnr and Murray Black at Gregory Downs in 1917

Originally Gregory Downs had an area of about 1000 square miles, but has been reduced to 570 square miles at the present time (1939) by Government resumptions and the stock return has decreased from 24,000 to about 11.000. The herd, however found its origin in the heifers delivered from Victoria, in 1877 by Harry Shadforth and his elder son (Bob), founders of his well-known Victorian family which still holds a pre-eminent position.”

Gregory Downs Station after resumptions, 602 square miles

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