Long before the days of Woolworths, David Jones or Bunnings, Far North Queensland had its
own retail giant – the home grown firm of Jack & Newell.

Unlike today’s specialist retailers, Jack & Newell were proud General Merchants and Universal Providers.

Boots to barbed wire; mosquito nets to marzipan; dynamite to doilies, you could buy it all at Jack & Newell’s. Barrel of anchovies? Complete cowhide? Fabric for a Jubilee Ball gown?

In fact … the saying goes that you could get everything from a needle to a haystack at Jack & Newell.

Jack & Newell were so big in the Far North that they printed their own currency, which was reputedly accepted as legal tender by banks and businesses.

The last Jack & Newell store closed its doors in 1982 in Chillagoe. Today, there is little evidence of the retail empire that was once the backbone of many Far Northern towns.

This website is a small attempt to ensure that Jack & Newell aren’t forgotten. Here you can visit some of their stores and hear from people who worked in them; you can follow the Jack & Newell trail; or you can simply read on to learn more about this remarkable Queensland retail firm.

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Scotsman William Jack and Irishman John Newell first crossed paths in the early 1870s, on the
Stanthorpe tin mining fields, south west of Brisbane. Both were working as managers in the store of another Scotsman, John Moffat.

These three men were destined for success and riches in Far North Queensland.

‘Willie’ Jack and John Newell were lured to North Queensland by reports of gold on the Palmer River, inland from Cooktown. But it was ‘black gold’ that was to prove their windfall.

In 1880 they were part of a prospecting party that found a rich lode of tin near the Wilds River, about 100km over the Great Dividing Range from Cairns.

Within weeks they had established the Great Northern Mine, an operation that would make rich men of them both and underwrite the rapid development of their retail empire.

The township of Herberton also sprang up as a result of Wollie Jack and John Newell's discovery.

No grog

William Jack was clearly the entrepreneurial type.

While his partner (and now son-in-law) John Newell was working up the Great Northern mine.
Jack was investing his share of profits in a general store. It opened in Herberton in 1880, and was soon turning over £3000 a month – an enormous sum for the era.

John Newell entered into the business in 1882 and Jack & Newell were off and running. Willie Jack however, was off!

He sold his share in the Great Northern to his old friend from Stanthorpe, John Moffat, and took off in search of bigger and better mineral deposits in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia and Timor).

He did leave an important mark on the merchant company he founded. William Jack refused to sell alcohol; an unusual business decision for a retailer on the rough and ready mining frontiers of North Queensland.

The policy was maintained by John Newell and his descendants over the lifetime of the company.

Canvas, tin and timber

John Newell was onto a good thing with his retail operation.

The discovery of tin at Herberton in 1880 had led to a rush of miners to the district and services were desperately needed.

Within a decade, rudimentary townships for hungry and thirsty miners sprung up adjacent to mines at Irvinebank, Silver Valley, Watsonville, Coolgarra, Mount Garnet, Montalbion, Stannary Hills, Mount Molloy, Chillagoe, Zillmanton, Calcifer and Mungana. Post offices, hotels and general stores were the key businesses in all these towns.

From their headquarters in Herberton, Jack & Newell stores simply followed the miners; supplying food, clothing, building materials, mining equipment and medicines in even the most remote of mining towns.

Without industrious storekeepers like Jack & Newell, miners could not have survived.

There were no roads, no housing, Aboriginal tribes that were bewildered and angry at the invasion of their land, wet seasons, dry seasons, insects, diseases and probably a few other “issues” as well!

Through a miraculous transportation network based on telegrams, letters, ships, bullock drays, packhorse and later railways and motor transport, storekeepers managed to provide a staggering array of merchandise.


In the remote areas of the Far North, cash was often in short supply.

Instead, storekeepers like Jack & Newell ‘covered’ a miner’s expenses, through a system known as GRUBSTAKING.

Newly arrived miners could go into Jack & Newell and obtain, on credit, enough food and quipment to get started. The account was ultimately settled with tin from the miner’s claim.

Colleen Simms from Herberton was on the other side of the world when she met a former miner who fondly remembered being grubstaked by Jack & Newell!

CLICK to listen to Colleen Simms --- or simply read the text below

"Once I met an old man in Sweden, this is when I was travelling around, and when he heard us talking he said “oh you’re Australians”, and he said “in my young days I went to Australia .. we jumped ship in Cairns, my brother and I, and went to a place called Herberton we didn’t know what we were going to do but that’s where everybody was going.” And he said “they explained to us if you went and saw Mr Newell he’d grubstake you and we didn’t know what grubstake was but we went and saw Mr Newell and we got picks and shovels and some bags to put the tin in and some food and so we went out Watsonville way and we got some tin and when you came back in, he took your tin and if there was money left over you got the money, but if it wasn’t enough he’d give you more food.” And he said “y’know, that was a wonderful wonderful system"

In our 21st Century world, it does seem extraordinary that businesses would lend credit to total strangers, just blown-in to a remote town. But think about it.

Jack & Newell needed miners to buy their goods. Extending credit was an investment in a future customer. Furthermore, this customer was already bonded to Jack & Newell, and not to any rival storekeeper.

From the miners’ perspective, it was not in their interest to avoid paying debts either, as they could end up destitute and starving in the rugged outreaches of the Far North, with no hope of ever returning to family or friends.

Storekeepers and miners needed each other.

But it wasn’t always just about business.

There is a strong communal memory amongst the North’s old timers of John Newell cancelling the debts of old tin miners or continuing to grubstake them when he knew that they would never be able to repay the debt. As a miner himself, he may well have been sympathetic to the plight of the small miners who scratched around for years with little reward.

On the other hand, work done by the Herberton_Mining_Museum has revealed that Jack & Newell actually held a considerable number of mining leases around Herberton. This suggests that some miners gave up their leases, or walked off and left them, and Jack & Newell acted to redeem their debt.

In Mossman, where Jack & Newell’s main customers were sugar cane farmers and their families, Jack Crimmins and Norm O’Donoghue also remember Jack & Newell owning cane farms. According to Jack and Norm, Jack & Newell took over the farms of farmers who had walked off and left them, unable to pay their debts. Jack & Newell would put on a manager until the farm could be sold, and their debts recovered.

Shinplasters and Calabashes

It wasn’t just miners who were short of cash in the remote areas of the Far North.

There are also good accounts of Jack & Newell printing their own currency.

Unfortunately, we have not been able to locate any surviving examples of these notes, colloquially known as SHINPLASTERS or CALABASHES.

Rod Newell, grandson of John Newell and former Managing Director of Jack & Newell remembers the notes, although he never saw one.

Click to listen to Rod Newell --- or simply read the text below

“ I never ever saw it but they used to call them shinplasters … I don’t know why but they were legal tender with the banks. And they tell the story that somebody got them and took them back over to London and had them printed and Customs caught them coming through into Australia … they let it through and nabbed the people in Chillagoe, I think. They caught them, it never ever got out and that’s when they scrubbed it all then … Burns Philp used to do their own money too, up in Normanton and those places ”

Dave Headrick, writing about his experiences in Cairns around 1900 also remembers Jack & Newell currency.

Jack & Newell had what was called a “calabash” to take the place of a 10/- (shilling) or a pound note. If the miners got drunk and calabashes got burnt or wet or destroyed, that was just the fellow’s bad fortune.
- Cairns Historical Society Bulletin, # 26 Feb 1961

There is no record of why Jack & Newell printed their own money, but it is worth remembering that prior to 1910, there was no centralised Australian currency. British and Australian produced coins circulated, as did notes from private banks.

For more information on the development of currency in Australia, try the Reserve Bank Online Museum

Wikipedia has some information about shinplasters and calabashes.

Tin, tobacco, cattle and cane

Jack & Newell had spread like wildfire during the mining days of the late 19th and early 20th
Century in the Far North.

However as the minerals ran out and the miners moved away, towns dwindled and died, and with them, their branch of Jack & Newell.

John Newell passed away in 1932, leaving the business in the hands of his two sons, William and John 'Bunny' Newell.

By the end of the 1930s Jack & Newell had consolidated to 7 stores, located in the Far North’s key commercial centres. While the firm had its roots in the mining industry, it soon adapted to servicing a range of local industries.

They retained their reputation as mining suppliers and ore buyers in Herberton, but their Mt Garnet and Chillagoe stores became essential suppliers for cattle stations; their Mossman business serviced the town’s dominant cane industry; and Mt Molloy and Mareeba had the region’s tobacco farmers on their books.

Cairns remained a busy warehousing and forwarding agency for companies needing to get goods in and out of the Cairns port.

Throughout Jack & Newell retained their policy of providing goods on credit to their customers. Cane and tobacco farmers were able to ‘book up’ goods until their six monthly or yearly crop was sold, then settle their accounts.

In bad seasons, Jack & Newell would carry debts until the next crop, or allow them to be paid off over many years. Cane farmers and tobacco farmers in particular remember Jack & Newell as the firm that “kept them going”.

They also retained their reputation for supplying anything and everything their customers needed. Whether it was saddles, fencing wire, wood stoves, sides of bacon, fresh fruit, shampoo, perfume or sugar sacks, Jack & Newell could supply it.

Get big or get out!

Jack & Newell traded strongly throughout their long history in the Far North, but with the advent of better roads and bigger retail
competition, John Newell’s grandson Rod Newell faced a difficult choice.

By the 1970s, he could see large, national supermarket chains making their way north. These supermarkets provided a greater range of groceries than Jack & Newell could carry, and operated for longer hours with fewer staff.

Kevin and Fay Marsh were managing Jack & Newell at Mt Garnett in 1970, when they decided to get out of the business.

“Coles and Woollies were getting bigger and bigger and more and more of them. It hadn’t hit then but you could see it coming. I’d hate to have a little shop now. In those days they were only doing the same as we were 5½ days a week, but now they’re 7 days a week.”

It was either get big or get out.

Approaching retirement age, Rod Newell chose the latter.

In November 1975, their largest operation and head office at Mareeba was sold to the local North Queensland Tobacco Growers Co-operative and reopened as a 'Budget Supermarket'.

In the early 80s, Jack & Newell’s assets were sold to Primac, ending the Newell family’s involvement with their brand, after a century of retailing. Through the late 70s and early 80s, Jack & Newell stores at Herberton, Mossman, Mt Garnett and Chillagoe were gradually sold, as was their Cairns business and premises.

The Jack & Newell apartment building has been built around the site of their Cairns operations.

Their Herberton store is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.

End of an era

It wasn’t just the name of Jack & Newell that vanished with the closure of the last store
at Chillagoe in the early 1980s. A whole way of doing business vanished as well.

Jack & Newell’s business model had evolved over the first half of the 20th Century, when the Far North’s small communities had limited contact with other towns and centres. The roads were terrible; very few people could afford a car; and rail travel was too slow for casual trips.

These communities relied on Jack & Newell too for their everyday domestic and agricultural needs. If Jack & Newell’s didn’t have it – or couldn’t get it - then it was a case of going without.

Long serving local managers knew their local customers, understood their particular circumstances, and as long as an attempt was made to pay accounts, even the most desperate household was able to obtain credit.

But with better roads and more cars, people no longer needed local stores as they had in the past.

Robert Galvin worked at Jack & Newell’s in Mareeba, then for the Budget Supermarket after the business was sold in 1975.

“ Then when they changed the credit over, no credit could be stored up … and everything became cash. People still had accounts at that stage, but then they had to put a service fee on because they didn’t pay their accounts on time and that got people upset in the bush, and they said but we’ve been dealing there for 50 years. But things had changed. And they started realizing it themselves because then, then you start having trouble with cheques, you know. Those days someone’s cheque was accepted as their word, but as the new progress took in, cheques were starting to bounce and people were having a hard time. Yeah, people chose to continue others went other ways. Change. It was a sad time. ”

Could Jack & Newell have survived?

If there had been a younger generation keen to take over the business, could Jack & Newell
have survived?

Rod Newell is adamant that it would never have made it.

“ Nearly all the private companies are gone now. You know, Jack & Newell weren’t by themselves, there were other companies like them right throughout Queensland and Australia, and they’ve all gone. Those western towns I believe had stores that operated the same way. They’ve all gone now, the supermarkets have taken it over. You can’t compete with them now. It’s a different business. ”