Mandate of heaven

WHEN HE KNEW we were moving to Australia, my father wrote to two friends in Brisbane asking where our family should settle. He was looking for a town rather than a city, but not too small. It had to have a good hospital and a good school; it had to be not too far from a major city – and it would be nice if the surrounding country could be the new muse for an artist who specialised in watercolour landscapes. Dad expected the return letters to contain a range of strange place names; the friends to whom he had written didn't know each other and had led very different lives. Both wrote back with just one suggestion: ‘Nambour'.

Lying in the humid warmth, encircled by chaotically verdant hills a hundred kilometres north of Brisbane, Nambour's story is its ability to attract. As Brisbane began to grow in the 1840s, the region around Nambour was proclaimed the ‘Bunya Reserve' for Aboriginal people displaced by white settlement. But settlers who had found the land on Brisbane's outskirts barren after selling its hardwood began to hear of fertile soil to the north. In 1842, leaders of the local Undambi and Nalbo tribes held a war council near Baroon Pocket in the ranges behind Nambour, resolving to push back the white settlers. A vicious war was fought, increasingly by Native Police, until 1855 when the resistance leader Dundalli was captured and hanged. The Bunya reserve was quietly forgotten among the massacres at Murdering Creek and Eudlo Flats.

Nambour's original attraction for white settlers was the vast stands of cedars that grew along the creeks flowing into the Maroochy River. In 1862 Tom Petrie sailed three miles up one of the Maroochy River's estuaries, and with the help of twenty-five Aboriginal labourers cut two hundred cedar logs. Petrie marked the logs he floated downstream with a circled ‘P'. One Sunday afternoon, his labourers asked to be branded with the circled ‘P' so that when they returned to Brisbane they would be known as Petrie's men. Petrie also got naming rights on the creek.

As the cedar loggers cleared the banks and hinterlands of Petrie's Creek, the cattle stations followed. The largest was christened ‘Naamba', a local Nalbo word for the red-flowering ti-tree that grew thickly in the area. In 1867, William Clarke's experiment with growing sugar cane near the mouth of Petrie's Creek opened the way for the entire flood plain and beyond to become a sugar plantation. The same year, John Nash discovered gold at Gympie, and a road was hurriedly hacked through the thick vine scrub for Cobb and Co's coaches to run from Brisbane. Matthew Carroll built a hotel near where the Gympie Road crossed Petrie's Creek to cater to the growing number of travellers.

Carroll's hotel was at first regarded as a minor stop on the road. The townships of ‘Middle Camp' (later renamed Woombye), three miles south on the Gympie Road, and Yandina, six miles north, were considered more important. Both towns had large hotels and Cobb and Co stations. When a police station and court house opened in Woombye in the early 1880s, it seemed likely that it would become the regional centre.

In 1891, a Gympie-Brisbane rail line was opened. The siding that was built where it crossed Petrie's Creek was named ‘Nambour' and serviced just six houses and the surrounding farms.

BY THE EARLY 1890s, Nambour was growing faster than the other settlements. The fertile soils had drawn a handful of families – the Howards, Perrens, Burys, Lowes and Whalleys – who together would build a civic centre that became the heart of local government, industry, commerce and education between Brisbane and Gympie.

Thomas Howard was born in 1844 in Nottingham, England. On arriving in Brisbane in the early 1860s, he worked on a railway construction gang and as a farm labourer. In August 1877 he selected eighty acres of land along the Gympie Road just north of Petrie's Creek, built a slab house and knocked a hole in the largest nearby anthill to serve as an oven. Howard saw the commercial opportunities of his selection almost immediately, and subdivided the land fronting the Gympie Road into residential allotments.

William Perren was born in Triplow, Cambridgeshire in 1828, and migrated to Brisbane in 1874. He worked as a farm labourer before selecting land on the southern banks of Petrie's Creek in 1877. His sons, Henry, William and John, selected neighbouring pieces of land along the creek.

George Bury was born in East Anglia in 1851, and disembarked the HMS Light Brigade in Brisbane in 1869. He almost immediately travelled north, where his first employment was building a sawn-timber homestead for the owners of the Naamba cattle station. Later he built a hotel, butcher's shop and store south of Nambour at Mooloolah on the Gympie Road before moving to Nambour in 1891.

James Lowe was born in Staffordshire in 1868 and arrived in Brisbane in 1882 with his parents. His father selected land north of Nambour at Dunethin, where James spent his early adulthood felling and sawing cedar and beech. He left his first job at a sawmill to establish a butcher's shop in Nambour in 1907.

William Whalley was born at Ardwick, Lancashire in 1871 and migrated to Brisbane with his parents in 1883. On finding their initial selection at Tingalpa to have poor soil, thirteen-year-old William and his father James made a 176 mile, seven-day trek north to examine land around Petrie's Creek. Once they had selected land on the range west of Nambour, William took charge of felling the scrub and building a bark-roofed wood-slab humpy. After working as a sawmill labourer and a postman, he went to Brisbane as a plumber's apprentice, returning to Nambour in 1896 to open a general store, and later other stores at Mapleton and Cotton Tree (Maroochydore).

Individually, these men built highly successful businesses and industries that were to become the foundations of Nambour's burgeoning economic vitality. Collectively, they built Nambour's civic institutions to a level of organisation and stature that ensured it soon surpassed other surrounding towns as the municipal centre of the district. As a group their social power in include and exclude was unrivalled and lasted for several generations.

The urge for local government manifested early when meetings of the Maroochy Divisional Board began in the early 1880s in Matthew Carroll's hotel. In 1900, an Act of Parliament transformed the Maroochy Divisional Board into the Maroochy Shire Council. James Lowe and George Bury were both to serve as councillors and chairs of the council, guiding and shaping its developments during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1897, the district police station moved from Woombye to Nambour, followed in 1900 by the district court house. By 1940, the Maroochy Shire Council had built its own power generators and was delivering electricity to all urban centres in the shire.

Carroll's Hotel was also the venue for the first classes of the Nambour Provisional School in 1880. William Perren led a community effort to build the school its own premises, and provided all of the timber for the buildings that were opened eleven years later. The Nambour School expanded quickly, catering for students from Caboolture to Gympie who were delivered by train to Nambour station on school mornings. It became the first rural school (teaching agriculture and horticulture) in the state, and in 1936 was the only secondary school between Brisbane and Gympie. When the Country Women's Association built a large hostel for country students, children from across the Great Dividing Range joined the school's ranks.

In 1894, the Moreton Sugar Mill Company was formed in Nambour, and soon displaced the profusion of small sugar mills that lay dotted around the district. William Whalley and George Bury ran the mill for most of the first half-century of its development. They presided over laying tram lines to cane-loading stations in Burnside and Rosemount, from where cane was delivered, first by horse-drawn trams then by steam trams, to the mill with its chimney that dominated the Nambour skyline.

Whalley and Lowe were also prime movers in the founding of the Maroochy Pastoral, Agricultural, Horticultural and Industrial Society, and were its first two presidents. The first nine annual shows were held in Woombye, but under Lowe's presidency a large showground was cleared and levelled in Nambour. The tenth Society show was held there in 1909, and then annually ever since, displacing all others between Caboolture and Gympie. Whalley, Lowe and Howard were central in the formation of the Nambour Chamber of Commerce and the Nambour Hospitals Board. Whalley was a foundation member of the Nambour Masonic Lodge and its first Master.

THE BURGHERS OF Nambour were united by more than commercial acumen and civic spirit. Most of them were Methodists from the eastern counties of England, a centre of non-conformist Protestantism. These Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and Primitive, Wesleyan and United Methodists had faced persecution and discrimination at home and had emigrated in large numbers to the new world, first settling New England in the northeast of the United States, and also making their way to Canada, Southern Africa, New Zealand and Australia.

These Methodists believed a person was saved by believing in God's grace, and through the demonstration of such grace by moral and charitable behaviour. They were convinced that one could attain sinless perfection on earth, and strove for a calm assurance, an outward expression of the soul that attested to their relationship to God. God's grace was also apparent in how one acted – with diligence, frugality, sobriety, cleanliness and respectability – and by maintaining a rigid discipline in observing the Sabbath.

These origins and convictions provided an impulse to build a certain type of society, heavily based around the concept of the covenant. Each Methodist saw him or herself as having a covenant with God; and their relations with each other, within families and broader communities, were regulated by a complex web of contracts and commitments.

The eastern counties of England had bred a distinctive character. From earliest times, East Anglia, Kent, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Essex had been settled by the Angles, Jutes and Danes, proud Nordic people who did not acquiesce to serfdom easily. As a consequence, these counties had a much higher proportion of freemen than other parts of England; this part of the country also saw a higher incidence of rebellions against aristocratic misrule, and was a major centre of parliamentary resistance to Charles I and the Protestant reformation, with the highest number of Protestant martyrs in Britain.

England's eastern counties were the most densely populated and most intensively urbanised part of the country. It was common for each town and parish to have a highly developed system of civic government. Town and parish meetings were a common event, each of which was presided over by ‘selectmen' – respected, honourable men who emerged as natural civic leaders by virtue of their personal qualities. Their belief in society as a web of covenants saw this part of England emerge as a centre of mercantile activity. As people of the book – basing their faith on intense biblical study and exegesis – they placed a heavy emphasis on education and literacy.

The drive to create strong civic, commercial and educational institutions flowed strongly through the Nambour burghers' blood and spirit. They focused on getting things right within the verdant valley ringed by the Blackall Ranges. Here was ‘virgin' land where they could serve God's will and construct a righteous society, free of the depravity, temptation and moral compromise of the world they had left.

In the old country, they had been passed over and excluded from all but the most mundane professions; in Nambour, they became the new aristocracy. In England, the individualist egalitarianism of their religion was regarded with suspicion by the established churches with their hierarchies and traditions; in Nambour, they would shape civic institutions and practices to match their convictions. Their religion provided solidarity and community in a remote and difficult location; more importantly, it provided a clear blueprint for the society they wanted to build. Those who had been labourers would become captains of commerce and industry; those who had started with little schooling would see their children well educated; those whose religion had marked them as outsiders would be the architects and guardians of a new set of civic institutions. As a minority, their clannishness provided self-defence; as burghers, the same clannishness would enable them to keep and exercise power to shape the institutions of their society. Their social order was built around respectability, business acumen and civic-mindedness.

At first, William Perren and his wife Emma opened their house on Sundays for Methodist services, occasionally welcoming travelling non-conformist clergy but usually leading collective worship. A turning point came in 1884 when James Whalley, who had been a Methodist Minister in Yorkshire, moved to Nambour and began presiding over weekly Methodist services in the Perrens' home. In 1881, Thomas Howard offered one of his allotments along the Gympie Road to build a Protestant church. Whalley immediately called a meeting of Methodists and John Perren proposed accepting Howard's offer on behalf of the Wesleyan Methodist community; the proposal was seconded by his brother William.

Whereas the Catholics and the Anglicans built their churches at the top of what came to be known as ‘church hill' – south of Nambour on the road towards Brisbane – the Methodist church was halfway down the hill, overlooking the business centre, the shire chambers, the mill, the railway and the school, as if to keep a careful eye over the institutions they had built, shaped and nurtured. Nambour's Methodist burghers – the Whalleys, the Burys, the Lowes, the Perrens – sat in the front pews and were soon joined by the Lanhams, the Days and the Grimeses – sober men with stubborn jaws and hard, appraising eyes.

Methodists didn't go to town dances or drink alcohol. Sundays were devoted to worship: church services in the morning; picnic lunches and working bees in the church grounds in the afternoon; and Sunday School, choirs and youth groups in the evening. Young Methodist men joined the Order of Knights; young women the Girls' Comradeship, and they raised money for the church and community causes. Methodists regularly married other Methodists. Methodist sporting teams competed in regional competitions; my first soccer team in the 1970s was a Nambour Methodist team. Methodist businessmen would often extend lines of credit to members of the congregation who were awaiting their salary; employment and contracting split strongly down Catholic-Protestant lines.

The institutions they founded and built – factories and shops, the shire council, the sugar mill, the school and eventually the hospital – were at the centre of Nambour's dynamism. They marked it as a regional centre to which the people from surrounding towns would come to do their shopping, banking, schooling, to see lawyers and accountants, tailors and undertakers. They also marked it as a place to which people gravitated to work at the mill, the banks, the factories and shops. Nambour expanded quickly, pushing the dairy, cane and pineapple farms out beyond the hills that surrounded the town. The business district spilled along Currie Street (as the bit of Gympie Road that passed through Nambour was called) and then along Howard and Lowe Streets. A movie theatre sprang up, and then the Blue Pacific Swimming Pool, where generations of Nambour kids learned to swim.

THOSE WHO CAME to Nambour felt a vibrant magic in the hollow among the hills. School kids would pause from their street cricket to chase the falling cinders from the sugar mill and ride on the cane trams that held up the traffic on the Bruce Highway; the roads through the Maroochy Valley would on occasion be buttressed on both sides by the towering flames of the cane fields; and a giant fibreglass pineapple became one of the country's most successful tourist attractions.

It was a place where an artist who migrated from India could support his family by selling paintings privately to the local community, without having to work through galleries and dealers. But the town was divided with lines that were visible to those who knew or learned the legacy of the old families and which subtly structured the society beneath its civic and commercial vibrancy.

The movement of people into Nambour was a sign of success for the society the Methodists had built. But the newcomers also unsettled the tightly structured community. The response of the founding families was to draw closer together, into an inner circle of worship, respectability and sobriety presiding over a vibrant and growing town. They were ambivalent towards outsiders – proud that Nambour attracted people but determined to keep newcomers at arm's length while reminding them of the way things were done. At Nambour High School in the '70s and '80s, ‘Brizzos' was a term of scorn and abuse for new arrivals, irrespective of where they were from.

The people drawn to Nambour came from the country or from the expanding coastal settlements at Coolum and Maroochydore. They came to shop at the Co-op or at Bayards' haberdashery or Tritton's furniture store. They came to work at the mill or SEQEB or the Commonwealth Bank or the Nambour Hospital. Sooner or later, they all encountered the gap between the ‘old families' and the rest. Visitors and newcomers soon found the social limits of contact with those who seemed to run the town and its institutions; enduring friendships were more likely between new arrivals than across the old family-newcomer divide.

This fostered the flipside of Nambour's dynamism – the steady stream of people who left. Many who left had absorbed the town's gifts – its cheerful optimism, strong traditions of schooling excellence, public health facilities – but also felt stifled by its proprieties, snobbishness and low horizons. They included the children of newcomers – a future prime minister, a future minister for ageing – as well as those from older families – a future federal treasurer. For those energised and empowered by Nambour's dynamism, the town's claustrophobia was tangible.

Ultimately, the twin flows overwhelmed the old order. By the mid-1970s the old burghers retired and died and their families sold up the businesses that had drawn the townscape. Tourism to the Sunshine Coast surged, and the region's economic vitality moved towards the coast as shopping centres and high schools opened at Caloundra, Maroochydore, Kawana and Noosa. The centre of political weight shifted to the coast. Not long after the Bruce Highway by-passed the town. Nambour's commercial and civic life blood, the mandate of heaven that had made it pre-eminent among townships for hundreds of miles, had begun 
to ebb away.

On the evening of ANZAC Day 1987, Nambour residents awoke to sirens and an orange glow over the centre of the town. A Vietnam veteran had lit fires in all of the churches in the centre of town. Most were saved with minor damage that was soon repaired. The Methodist church was gutted and the records of the church and the deeds of its burghers were destroyed. Its blackened brick walls were pulled down as the congregation decided to relocate to the church of the Presbyterians, with whom the Methodists had merged to create the Uniting Church a decade earlier. The block on which the church had presided over Nambour's beating heart was sold.

A large office block was built on the site and the Commonwealth government became the main lessee, housing in the building the regional offices of the Commonwealth Employment Service and the Department of Social Security. Where once Nambour had attracted those seeking a new beginning and a chance to get ahead, the town began attracting those with little hope. Nambour provided social services and health care, proximity to the beach and cheap accommodation in the flats that sprang up during the 1980s. The business centre gradually succumbed to chains of cut-price stores, second-hand shops and thrift emporia. As the world sugar price collapsed, the mill operated for shorter and shorter periods through the year, the cane trams became rarer. The mill finally closed in 2003, and its chimney which had dominated Nambour's skyline for so long was pulled down.

But the gifts implanted in all those who passed through Nambour – the culture of strong civic institutions, the spirit of optimistic enterprise, the respect for education – did not desert the town. Nambour has produced its fair share of prominent footballers, musicians and accomplished professionals, but has become most famous for its alumni who have excelled in politics. Through Kevin Rudd's veins runs the civic culture of the town in which his uncle presided as one of the longest-serving mayors. When the old Maroochy Shire Council merged with the Noosa and Caloundra City Councils in early 2008, the new mayor, Bob Abbot (previously the Noosa Shire mayor), chose Nambour as the seat for the new Sunshine Coast Council, passing over the booming coastal cities. It would probably bring a faint flicker of pride – due recognition – to the grim faces of Nambour's burghers.

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