Burketown Boiling Down Works (former) | Environment, land and water | Queensland Government

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Burketown Boiling Down Works (former)

  • 600375
  • Truganinni Road, Burketown


Also known as
Boiling Down Works
State Heritage
Register status
Date entered
21 August 1992
Manufacturing and processing: Works—boiling down/rendering
2.3 Exploiting, utilising and transforming the land: Pastoral activities
Construction periods
1892–1901, Boiling Down Works (1892-1901)
1892–1901, Boiling Down Works (1892-1901)


Truganinni Road, Burketown
Burke Shire Council
-17.73918118, 139.56260957


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Criterion AThe place is important in demonstrating the evolution or pattern of Queensland’s history.

The Burketown Boiling Down Works site is important in demonstrating the economic development of the Gulf of Carpentaria region and the development of the beef industry in Queensland. Built between 1892 and 1901 to process beef produced in the Gulf region for export, the site contains industrial remnants of a process that was once common but is now obsolete. Burketown was the third largest producer of tallow and hides in Queensland in 1894. Few other sites in Queensland are known to retain the range of remnant boiling down machinery found at this location.


The site of the former boiling down works, about 1.5 km to the east of Burketown, comprises the remnant machinery of the works and a ship’s tank, scattered across a site on a silted-up meander of the Albert River. The ship’s tank may be a remnant of William Landsborough’s exploration of the region in search of Burke and Wills in 1861. An earlier boiling down works had stood operated just south of Burketown from 1866 to the early 1870s, producing cured beef and tallow. A new operation was established on this site, east of Burketown, by the Carpentaria Meat Export Company in 1892 and extended in 1893. The works was abandoned around 1904.

The grazing potential of the Gulf of Carpentaria region was identified by John Lort Stokes during his 1841 exploration in the Beagle.[1] At the time, the area was occupied by the Mingginda People. Stokes referred to the country between the Albert and Flinders Rivers as the ‘Plains of Promise’. William Landsborough, leader of an expedition to find lost explorers Robert Burke and William Wills, also found the area promising for pastoralism. On his arrival at the ‘Plains of Promise’ in August 1861 in the brig-turned-hulk Firefly, Landsborough noted sufficient saline herbage he considered suitable for sheep. Landsborough’s party established a depot on the banks of the Albert River, where surplus provisions were buried in a ship’s tank near a marked tree (Site of Landsborough’s Blazed Tree, Albert River Depot, QHR 600374) in case the party needed to return to the depot. Returning to Melbourne in 1862, Landsborough promoted the region through the publication of his journals and a series of lectures.[2]

The new pastoral district of Burke was opened for settlement on 1 January 1864. The fledgling town of Burke (later Burketown) was established beside a port on the Albert River as squatters, wool agents and storekeepers made for the Gulf.[3] Pastoralists took up substantial landholdings and stocked their runs with sheep, converting to cattle when sheep proved susceptible to disease. However, the isolation of the ‘Plains of Promise’ restricted graziers’ opportunities to market their cattle. Without refrigerated transport, cattle could only be sold to other graziers or driven to southern markets. Failing these options, cattle could be boiled down for tallow.[4]

In the 19th century tallow was a product with a wide range of applications, including use in cooking, soap and candle making, and machinery lubrication. Queensland’s boiling down industry began in 1843 when Mackenzie and Co’s works opened in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.[5] Similar establishments were opened at Ipswich (c.1848), Maryborough (c.1850), Townsville and Toowoomba (both c.1866). As cattle holdings spread into the Kennedy and Gulf districts in the 1860s, a number of small-scale boiling down works were established on pastoral properties in the region. Many of these works were private operations which provided remote landholders with access to otherwise unattainable cattle disposal facilities.

Graziers did not favour boiling down their stock, as the process wasted valuable meat and reduced profits, but the process was necessary in times of economic hardship, when graziers struggled to maintain their land and livestock. In 1866, with the colony in the midst of a depression, partners Morehead & Young established a public boiling down operation on the Albert River near the Burketown settlement. Boilers, vats and other equipment were shipped from Sydney to a site south of Burketown. The works, managed by the Edkins brothers, produced tallow, beef and sheep products between 1867 and the early 1870s. Flood, disease and a lack of demand appear to have contributed to its closure around 1872. Disease in particular had a dramatic impact: Europeans deserted Burketown after a mystery illness swept the fledgling township in the mid-1860s, and it is believed that this disease contributed to the demise of the Mingginda people. They were succeeded by the Ganggalida people.[6]

Cattle numbers rose in Queensland during the 1870s and 1880s. By 1885 Queensland was the principal cattle producing colony in Australia, but export opportunities remained limited. Experimentation with freezing meat for export occurred over the next decade, but the first freezing works in Queensland, the Ross River Meatworks in Townsville (QHR 602719), did not open until 1892. In the interim, a glut of stock, a drought in 1884-6 and another economic depression in the 1890s left graziers with an oversupply of cattle and few outlets for their disposal. The final straw came in 1892 and 1893 when New South Wales introduced, and Victoria increased, taxes on stock crossing the border.[7]

As a result, the early 1890s saw a number of enterprises formed to establish boiling down operations near grazing country in northwest Queensland. One such company was the Carpentaria Meat Export Company (CMEC), registered in June 1891 with the intention of setting up a new meatworks facility at Burketown. The town had begun to repopulate in the 1880s. As a location for a cattle processing plant Burketown had a number of advantages, including its proximity to both the ‘Plains of Promise’ grazing country and coastal shipping via the Albert River. Rather than taking up the site of Burketown’s first boiling down works, the CMEC leased 22 acres (8.9ha) near the former Albert River Depot, approximately two kilometres downstream of the town.[8]

The CMEC engaged ironmongers Burns and Twigg to design and supply equipment for their new Burketown boiling down works. Twigg & Co, later Burns and Twigg, had operated a foundry in Rockhampton from around 1877, and supplied machinery to Lakes Creek, Alligator Creek in Townsville, and the Barcaldine boiling down works. In February 1892 Burns and Twigg shipped 25 tons of machinery to Burketown, comprising ‘a pair of thirty-horse power Cornish boilers’. While installation work was undertaken, Queensland Governor Sir Henry Wylie Norman was shown over the site in April 1892, a highlight of his northern Queensland tour. [9]

With the boilers in place by May 1892, the Burketown boiling down works received 40 bullocks for its inaugural process. The stock reportedly came from Lawn Hill, a station run by former Burketown boiling down works manager ER Edkins. Burketown’s first process coincided with the opening of two other Gulf boiling down works, ‘Dalgonally’ in Normanton and the Torrens Creek works. Despite this competition, Burketown’s works had a successful first season. Cattle numbers were still rising in North Queensland, peaking at 1.3 million in 1894 but with cattle prices still low there was a market for numerous boiling works.[10]

Machinery upgrades were installed at Burketown before the processing season began afresh in March 1893. By April 1893 the works had its own train and wharf facilities. Though the works were closed briefly following an outbreak of tick fever, the works was processing over 100 bullocks per day by 1895, including stock from New South Wales, the Northern Territory and South Australia. In June 1894 Burketown was the third largest producer of both tallow and hides and skins in Queensland, out-produced only by Townsville and Rockhampton.[11]

In 1898, the CMEC was replaced by the Burketown Meat Export Company. The works was leased to the Endeavour Meat Export and Agency Company, which commenced operations on 7 June 1898. Three days later, a steaming vat of tallow sparked a fire, and the boiling down works burnt down. Within a day, Burketown residents had raised £400 for rebuilding, and meatworks employees offered a month’s labour for rations only. The company also sought assistance from the Queensland Government under the Meat and Dairy Produce Encouragement Act (1893) to rebuild. Engineer WH Swales, a partner in the Burketown Meat Export Company, was engaged to install new machinery, while the construction work was contracted to William Brown of Townsville.[12]

Rebuilding was completed for the 1899 meatworking season, and the North Queensland Register described the redesigned Burketown boiling down works in detail in February 1899. A new ‘imposing, substantial building’ housed the works. Equipment which had survived the fire, including the boilers, digesters and refiners, had been repaired and refitted, while new machines including an extract plant, mincing or shredding machine and a filter press and pump were added to the works. A 12 horsepower horizontal engine made by British company Tangye powered the mincing machine, dynamo and bone lift. The works also featured slaughtering pens and drying space for the hides, an engine and repair room next to the boilers, electric plant (powered by a small one horsepower engine), a manure grinding mill and a coopers’ shed where tallow barrels could be made.[13]

By the turn of the 20th century, the boiling down works was Burketown’s major employer. The town’s population boomed from 164 to 300 during the six month meatworking season, with meatworkers, firewood getters and drovers flocking to the works. The works also provided a market for a local salt industry, as salt was used to tan hides and preserve meat. However, the Endeavour Meat Export and Agency Company succumbed to financial difficulties and was wound up in March 1901.[14]

The Burketown works was taken over by the Queensland Meat Export and Agency Company (QMEA), which was expanding its operations into the Gulf. Considerable improvements, including canning and preserving facilities, allowed for the treatment of 10,000 cattle in 1901 and 1902. QMEA’s November 1901 export report indicated that Burketown was the second largest supplier to the London market, exporting 1,588 cases of canned meat and 212 casks of tallow compared to Townsville’s 7,275 cases of canned meat and 707 casks of tallow. Dalgonally, also operated by QMEA and formerly the larger of the Gulf meatworks, exported 801 cases of canned meat and 82 casks of tallow.[15]

Despite this apparent success, there were hints of the Burketown works’ uncertain future. Cattle numbers in North Queensland dropped to a record low in the wake of a significant drought, and large numbers of graziers walked off their runs rather than restocking. In November 1903, a QMEA director suggested that the meatworks would only operate in 1904 ‘if cattle became plentiful’, and noted that unlike freezing works, Burketown’s limited operations did not use every part of the processed animals. Operations at Burketown were discontinued around 1904. A 1912 enquiry into the meat industry blamed transport difficulties, high wages and lack of stock for the closure. Despite its eight year hiatus, the inquiry confirmed that the Burketown machinery was still in ‘good order’, though the meatworks buildings were reportedly being ‘eaten away by termites’.[16]

QMEA retained the Burketown property until 1914. Rumours circulated that the buildings would be restored or removed, but the new proprietors appear to have had little interaction with the site. The buildings were removed in the late 1910s or early 1920s, possibly for reuse at another meatworks. A range of machinery was left on site, including the Burns and Twigg Cornish boilers, a Colonial Boiler and a set of vertical boilers, three engines and other miscellany. No reference was made to the ship’s tank, though it was likely on the site at the time. Ships’ tanks were used all over Australia to store food and water. They were particularly useful in remote areas which lacked a guaranteed water supply. The tank on the site may have been left from Landsborough’s expedition: the Firefly sank in the river near the meatworks site, and an attempt to salvage two of her tanks was made some time in the 19th century. The tank has no other identification, such as a maker’s mark; these marks were usually on the tank lid, which has not survived.[17]

From June 1917 the Burketown lease (Special Lease 472) was divided in two and leased to local residents, although they seem to have undertaken little activity on the site. Both tenants forfeited their leases and left Burketown by the early 1920s. The land was resurveyed as Portion 78 and gazetted as a Pound Reserve in July 1926. The old meatworks equipment, machinery, bricks and other remnants remained on site, attracting sightseers who came to visit the nearby Landsborough tree.[18]

In 2015 the Federal Court recognised the non-exclusive native title of the Gangalidda people over the site. The site remains in the trusteeship of the Burke Shire Council.[19]


The Boiling Down Works (former) is situated near a silted, cut-off meander of the Albert River on black clay soil floodplains, approximately two kilometres to the east of Burketown, accessed from Truganini Road via a loop access road. Grass grows sparsely in the vicinity interspersed with low bushes and trees.

The site contains a range of steam equipment, some boiling down machinery and substantial footings, foundations and floors. There is at least one depression within the overall core site, which may have been a water storage area, but is now heavily silted.

The larger machinery – boilers, tanks and engines appear to be largely in situ, although the colonial boiler is on its side. One of the larger engines has a large tubular flywheel. There are some items clearly associated with the actual processing of the animals for tallow, blood and bone and hides. These include several tanks and a small roller crusher. Items include:

·         Engine 1: Flywheel 2.03m diameter; belt drive wheel 0.91m diameter; concrete mount 0.6m x 2.64m;

·         Engine 2: Top valve manufactured by Jo Evans and Sons, Wolverhampton (UK);

·         Flywheel 1.52 diameter; concrete mount 0.68m x 2.13m; concrete aggregate is a dense mix of small river pebbles; one piece has broken clay brick aggregate;

·         Two Lancashire Boilers: under-fired boilers, with two quarter doors to firebox in each boiler, manufactured by Burns and Twigg, Rockhampton; 7.31m long x 1.75 diameters;

·         Colonial Boiler: manufacturer unknown, 3.65 m long x 1.37m diameter;

·         Tubular flywheel engine: manufacturer unknown, 2.58 diameter wheel; tube is 0.017 outside diameter; adjacent drive belt is 1.21 diameter; single cylinder engine;

·         Ship’s tank: remains, 1.21m x 1.21m x 1.21m;

·         Vertical boiler and tank: Vertical boiler (lying on side) 2.58m long x 1.21m diameter, 2.29m long x 1.52m diameter;

·         Roller/crusher: Manufactured Savage; rollers are 0.020m x 0.45m long; and

·         Other machinery and deposits: various pieces of equipment are scattered around the site which includes a domestic artefact deposit near the north-west corner of the site with a range of 19th century glass ware and ceramics.


[1] G. C. Bolton, 'Stokes, John Lort (1812–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stokes-john-lort-2703/text3793
[2] Landsborough, Journal of Landsborough’s Expedition from Carpentaria, in search of Burke and Wills, 1862.
[3] Lack and Cilento, Triumph in the Tropics, 1959, pp242-3, 246-7; Allingham, ‘Taming the Wilderness’: the First Decade of Pastoral Settlement in the Kennedy District, 1988, p69.
[4] May, ‘The North Queensland Beef Cattle Industry’, 1984, p122. See also http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/southwest-graziers-smiling-as-rain-leaves-sheep-wearing-bushy-grasssocks/story-e6freon6-1225881361988
[5]Johnston, Brisbane the first 30 years, 1988, p94.
[6] Allingham, ‘Taming the Wilderness’, 1988, pp114-115; Brisbane Courier 28 April 1906 pp37&38 – letter from James Gibson on Queensland’s Pastoral History; Launceston Examiner 4 May 1866 p2; Survey Plan B144.18, George Phillips, 31 Oct 1866; Trigger, ‘Change and Succession in Australian Aboriginal Claims to Land’, 2015, pp55-59; Taylor on behalf of the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples #2 v State of Queensland [2015] FCA 730, para 9.
[7] May, ‘From Bush to Station: Aboriginal labour in the North Queensland pastoral industry, 1861-1897’, 1983, p30.
[8] Carpentaria Meat Export and Agency Co, QSA Companies File, item No 283376, file 182, Book 6
[9] Queenslander 11 August 1877 pp 21-22, Report of the Third Show of the Fitzroy Pastoral and Agricultural Society, where Twigg and Co exhibited; Queenslander 19 May 1894 pp944-955; Capricornian 2 July 1892 p7; Brisbane Courier 13 February 1892, p4; Brisbane Courier 29 April 1892 p5.
[10] Mackay Mercury 14 June 1892 p2; Zita Denholm, 'Edkins, Edward Rowland (Rofley) (1840–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/edkins-edward-rowland-rofley-3468/text5305, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 November 2016; Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away, 1972, p99.
[11] North Queensland Register 5 April 1893 p25; Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away, 1972, p219; Telegraph (Brisbane) 5 July 1895 p5; Queenslander 22 June 1895 p1160; South Australian Register 1 July 1896 p4; Queenslander 21 July 1894 p136.
[12] Brisbane Courier 11 June 1898 p4; Northern Miner, 13 June 1898 p2; Cairns Post, 27 February 1935 p6.
[13] Brisbane Courier, 8 October 1898 pp7-8; Supplement to the North Queensland Register 27 February 1899 p1.
[14] Pugh’s Almanac 1901: Burketown; Queenslander 27 October 1900 p872; Queensland Government Gazette, 20 April 1901 p1351.
[15] Normanton Centenary, 1968, p9; May, Arctic Regions in a Torrid Zone, The Ross River Meatworks 1892 – 1992, 1990, pp14-16; May, Arctic Regions in a Torrid Zone, 1990, p43; Brisbane Courier, 27 November 1901 p3.
[16] Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away, 1972, p221; North Queensland Register, 16 November 1903 p56; Cairns Post 9 May 1911 p4; Queenslander 9 November 1912 p37; Minutes of Evidence taken before the Royal Commission on the Meat Industry of Queensland, 30 October 1912, p525.
[17] May, Arctic Regions in a Torrid Zone, 1990, p43; Queenslander 9 November 1912 p37; Townsville Daily Bulletin 23 March 1914 p3; Scone Advocate 19 May 1914 p4; Pearson, ‘From Ship to the Bush: Ship Tanks in Australia’, 1992, p27.
[18] Reserve File 3925, DERM, Innisfail, Far North Region; Queensland Government Gazette 22 July 1926; Townsville Daily Bulletin 14 January 1926 p10.
[19] Taylor on behalf of the Gangalidda and Garawa Peoples #2 v State of Queensland [2015] FCA 730, para 9.

Image gallery


Location of Burketown Boiling Down Works (former) within Queensland
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
Last updated
20 January 2016
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