Monday, 26 October 2015

Ross River Meatworks

Construction on the Ross River Meatworks began in August 1891, and by June the following year the first cattle were being processed there. As well as providing a solution to the problem of how to deal with an oversupply of cattle in the region, the meatworks proved an economic boon for the region, employing 700 workers at its peak.
Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, c. 1930.
Photo:  State Library of Queensland.

Within just a year of construction beginning, the first shipment of frozen beef - 600 tons of it - left the Townsville harbour aboard the Otarama, bound for London. By the end of November, the meat had arrived in good condition, and the venture was hailed as huge success.

To introduce the meat shipped by the Queensland Meat Export and Agency Company to the British public, a banquet on “an extensive scale” was to be held once the steamer Ruahine reached London. The Ruahine was the second ship to arrive carrying frozen Queensland meat (this time from both Townsville and Brisbane) and 150 invited guests were expected to attend.
Freezer hands at the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, c. 1900.
Photo:  Townsville City Libraries.

An editorial in the North Queensland Register reflected the optimistic mood generated by the success of the first shipment.

“Far-seeing capitalists already recognise that there is going to be a great development of the meat export trade from Australia, and are preparing to assist it by building a new line of steamers, specially designed for the work.”

“In time to come, freezing works will be established in every port of this coast, and the annual return from exported meat will rival those of gold, wool and other products of North Queensland.”

Before very long the meatworks was the subject of complaints from locals about the foul smell created by the waste material that emptied into the Ross River from the meatworks. There were fears that the waste from the meatworks would bring disease and in early September 1897, these fears were realised.

The Central Board of Health in Brisbane received an urgent telegram from the Health Officer at Townsville advising that an epidemic of typhoid fever that had broken out at the Ross River Meatworks had reached 25 cases, and was increasing daily.

It appears the outbreak was left to run its natural course, as the Health Officer had no actual power to act, and in any case the Central Board of Health felt it was the responsibility of the local council to prevent any further spread of the disease.
Cooperage at the Ross River Meatworks, Townsville, c. 1900.
Photo:  Townsville City Libraries.

One local reporter, who had visited the meatworks in June, believed that the stench wasn’t actually coming from the river, it was from waste material that had been through a “digester” and left to rot on the ground. He suggested that if the material could be effectively dried it would present less of a problem.

Overall, the reporter felt there was, “nothing unwholesome in a good solid meat works stink. People in time get used to it but of course I admit it is rough on visitors and while I was there it stopped my watch,” he said.

After receiving complaints from nearby residents, the council demanded the QME & A. Company rectify the “nuisance” by the end of the year.

To try and reduce the stench, the company took steps to utilise waste products more effectively, which resulted in the production of fertiliser that proved a very profitable side venture.


  1. The University of Melbourne Archives recently digitised a small album of photographs from the works, c1900, collected by Terence Cutler, who wrote his thesis on the AMIEU and the meat industry:

    1. Hi University of Melbourne Archives - thanks for sharing!