Jack and Newell’s Mareeba store was the geographic and economic centre of their retail

From the moment the railway reached Mareeba in 1893, the town was destined to be a
transport hub. It certainly was for Jack & Newell.

Mareeba was the junction connecting the main railway from Cairns with a network of railways that ran across the Tablelands west to Mt Surprise and north to Mt Molloy. Having a store and storehouse at Mareeba meant Jack & Newell could efficiently bring supplies from the Cairns wharves or Brisbane rail yards to Mareeba, and then farm out supplies as needed to their smaller stores.

In 1957, Rod Newell rebuilt and enlarged the Mareeba store, and moved the firm’s headquarters there from Herberton, cementing the importance of Mareeba to the future of the business.

By the early 60s, Jack & Newell employed 58 people in their Mareeba branch, making the firm one of the largest employers in the town.

Their staff included administrative clerks; signwriters; storemen; ordermen; and managers and staff in three departments - hardware, drapery and grocery.

The firm’s executive consisted of a Managing Director, a full-time secretary and a full-time auditor. Throughout the firm’s history, the position of Managing Director was held by a member of the Newell family

Jack & Newell's disappearing fence

While tin was most common and most abundant around Herberton’s Wild River, it was found in
smaller quantities right across the Tablelands, especially at the northern edges of the
plateau, around Mt Molloy and Mt Carbine.

While these deposits were not sufficient to support large scale mining operations like
John Newell’s Great Northern Mine
, they did support plenty of small miners, or ‘scratchers’.

These men would get supplies on credit from Jack & Newell, a practice known as “grubstaking”, and head out bush. When they found a pocket of alluvial tin, they would bring their spoils
back to Jack & Newell at Mt Molloy or Mareeba. Jack & Newell would buy the tin, minus the
cost of the initial supplies, and then send it down to Cairns to be shipped to Brisbane or
Sydney for resale.

Of course, when the price of tin was low, there was every incentive to buy tin and little incentive to sell. Jack & Newell were not above stockpiling tin – or other minerals– while they waited for prices to improve. Storage could be a problem, but that was nothing that a good Jack & Newell manager couldn’t solve!

Kevin Brosnan recounts this story of Jack & Newell, told to him by his father …

Jack & Newells was the big store in Mareeba - this was before the First World War came on - and Jack & Newell was grubstaking fellas to go out and scratch for tin in the different creeks and they’d bring… I think a little bag of tin, weighed about 100 pound … and they’d bring that in and Jack & Newells would pay them …but he couldn’t sell it … and he built this fence in his horse yard at the back of the store, right around it .. it was just bags of tin stacked up, for years and years, and then the First World War come on and it was worth a fortune. But he held onto that, that Jack and Newell store, for years and years. He’d never see those miners go hungry. He’d buy the tin – must have been a wealthy fellow … and then when the war came, my father said, the tin just vanished, the fence went like that!
- source: James Cook University North Queensland Oral History Archive; IV Kevin Brosnan: CD 569

CLICK here for more tin stories

Carrying the tobacco growers

Just as Jack & Newell developed a reputation for supporting the sugar industry in Mossman, at
Mareeba the firm was seen as a lifeline for the tobacco industry.

Tobacco was introduced to the Mareeba district in the 1920s, but a combination of unreliable water, inexperience, pests and monopoly buyers meant the industry struggled for the best
part of thirty years.

It wasn’t until the construction of the Tinaroo Dam and better grower representation that the industry came good.

While Jack & Newell certainly reaped the rewards of the good years of tobacco in the 60s and 70s, they were also there during the bleak years of the 30s and 40s.

Rod Newell remembers:

“In the early days here at Mareeba they backed all the tobacco fellas, and they nearly all went broke and I believe the company wrote a lot of money off in those days.”

Norm Brown started with Jack & Newell at Mareeba in 1947, when the firm had 1000 account holders, including many tobacco farmers.

Click to listen to Norm Brown --- or simply read the text below

“When I started, there one thousand people that had accounts, monthly accounts with Jack & Newell. They were a 30 day credit, the bulk of those. I had the job of pushing my bike around the streets of Mareeba delivering those accounts, the majority of people paid but there were the odd ones who would get a little bit behind but Jack & Newell were very considerate with their customers. People with big families and that, who couldn’t pay their monthly account on the due date, well they were allowed to pay that off .. but they did have a lot of bad debts, mainly with farmers.
When they were bad with tobacco and that, when their prices weren’t good at the tobacco sales, if their crop got wiped out with a hailstorm in those days, or their crop was somehow destroyed or they never got the price they were expecting for their tobacco .. quite a few of those had accounts written off ..

The modern 'Old Fashioned' store

In the late 1950s, Jack & Newell made a substantial investment in their Mareeba business.
The store was demolished and rebuilt in the style of a “modern” Department store,
and the branch officially became the Head Office.

Norm Brown remembers …

“To see that first building being done, well that was a real feather in their cap, you know. To have something more modern and moving with the times."

Was it a big deal in town?

“It was, yeah. The biggest deal I think was when they were ripping up the floor boards to see how many shillings and pennies and thripences and sixpences were underneath the floor! And there were a lot of scavengers there looking because there were that many cracks in those old floors it’s not funny. Yeah, there was a lot of coins that went through those floors.

Ivy Cooper came to Jack & Newell in 1959 after running her own retail business at Home Hill near Townsville. Despite Jack & Newell’s modernisation push, Ivy says she was struck by the old fashioned style of the business, and came to love it.

CLICK to listen to Ivy Cooper --- or simply read the text below

“Oh very old fashioned, very old fashioned, and what struck me was the country side of it, you know? Everybody seemed to know everybody, everybody was good friends in the shop, there was no “oh he’s the boss – although we respected the boss – but everybody was just like family. And I couldn’t get over how the country life, the country part of it was … first I thought I wouldn’t stay but I ended up over seven and half years! ”(laughs)

So in the late 1950s, even then, to someone coming from Home Hill it felt a bit old fashioned?

“Mmm .. yes yes .. but I thought it was well run for a country town. The shop itself was a big shop really, for a country place.”

Robert Galvin also worked for Jack & Newell at Mareeba.

He says he certainly got an old fashioned introduction to the firm when he started as a junior in 1962.

CLICK to listen to Robert Galvin --- or simply read the text below

“Jack Crimmins got me up the front to the counter and said now the way to learn things in this store is to start on this stand here and I’ll give you a duster and a bucket and rag and go through and wash all the shelves, it should take you a few days to get to the end of it, which it did, it took about four days and I thought that was great. I went back to Mr Crimmins as we called him in those days - there was no Christian names used very often, with the senior people anyway – and I said I’ve done that what should I do now? And he said the next best thing to do is to go and get that bucket and rag and start again and by the time you go through it twice you’ll have a fair idea where things are, which was exactly right. I thought well, there you go!”

Lyn Dyer is another former Jack & Newell employee from Mareeba.

She says the firm’s image wasn’t helped by a distinctly old fashioned approach to pest control. Ivy Cooper also remembers it well!

“We’d come back from holidays at Easter, we’d have four days off and there’d be a big carpet snake lying along the front window as you approached it, and Mr. Delaforce would come up and pick the snake up and away he’d go and put it out the back again, because it was good for rats and that sort of thing.”

“I got the fright of my life … they didn’t tell me that there was a carpet snake there and I got a horror of snakes. So, anyhow there was a chap working over in hardware, I think his name, Howard somebody, and he said, Ivy I want to show you something, it’s some lovely crystal, whatever it was, and I said, good. I walk over and here is this dirty big snake and it was tame. They had it in the shop all the time, but I didn’t know that of course. Yeah, that was true about the snake.”

The scale of Jack & Newell
Jack & Newell may have seemed old fashioned to an outsider, but their systems and networks
were remarkably efficient, given the scale of the region which they serviced.

Robert Galvin started at Jack & Newell in 1962, and even then the firm was still an essential service for an area that stretched from Mareeba to Chillagoe to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and
right through Cape York.

“See people that had accounts weren’t necessarily a land owner, they could have been people working in the railway, that maybe worked out of town for a month and they might come home once a month but they would send in an order for tobacco – that was pretty important in those days but you’d just put it on the Einasleigh train or the train wherever it went up there and we covered areas up the Peninsular way too, probably right up to Moreton Telegraph station, right up the top .. but all the stations in-between too. Most of those people were property owners but the individual had an account, a lot of people in town had accounts too.”

Mareeba was not only a busy store in its own right, it was required to hold stock for the smaller branches. The firm needed to move an enormous amount of stock every day, most of it from Brisbane.

While these days the railway from Cairns to the Tablelands is regarded as a tourist service, back in the 1960s and 70s, rail was an essential freight link for firms like Jack & Newell.

Norm Brown worked at the Mareeba office from 1947 to 1975.

“We used to get a lot of stuff from Brisbane via rail, we had a contract with rail and the instruction were goods rail ex-Roma St and it would come direct to Mareeba … and then we would get that wagon at Mareeba rail, at the goods shed. We had a big warehouse at the railway and we had a man full-time there, six days a week and 8 hrs a day, and that was his job to empty those wagons and put into the warehouse … each morning a truck would go over there and bring back x amount of cartons, jam or whatever. We paid annual rental on big warehouse there, it was a separate building maintained by Jack & Newell, at the goods shed terminal at the railway.”

Robert Galvin remembers the shed too – and he says back in the 60s and 70s, not everything came safely packaged.

CLICK to Listen to Robert Galvin --- or simply read the text below

“Our biggest job in the hardware was unloading wagons. The cement would come in, I think they were 11 ton wagons of cement. Now we had no forklifts in those days, towards the end Rod (Newell) bought a crane, which was slower than doing it by hand because you’d have to try and hook it up and put cradles under it, but we’d go over, two or three of us would jump in a truck, go over and unload 11-ton wagon of Fibro which is fibro- cement, never knowing about the asbestos side of it, which these days is starting to catch up with people. I have a friend now, who just had an operation, lost half of his lung because of asbestos, didn’t even know he had it. And we use to come back looking like Santa Claus, we’d be snow white with asbestos dust all over us and cement powder. And the other thing we sold a lot of to the farmers in those days was arsenate of lead. That was in 28 pound tins and we use to unload those by hand and sweep the floor and when we finished there would be dust going everywhere. It was in a little area that was supposed to be locked off and most of the time it did have lock and times it wasn’t.”

Was it profitable?

Jack & Newell were clearly a vital and busy firm in the North Queensland retail landscape but it is

difficult to determine the extent of their profitability.

Clearly there was a great deal of turnover, but what was profit is not so easy to establish.

This staff circular, believed to be from 1965, provides some insight into the operations of the firm, and its own operational costs, including the assessment that it cost one dollar per minute, (circa 1966) to run the larger branches.

Read the Jack & Newell staff circular
    -courtesy Cairns Historical Society

According to Rod Newell, in a very good year the firm would make £90 – £100,000 profit, from the whole business. This would have been in addition to paying fees to its three full-time Directors and one Brisbane Director.

As a private company, Jack & Newell was required to distribute it profits to its shareholders on an annual basis, most of whom were descendants of Willie Jack and John Newell, the founders of the firm.

The firm also paid its entire staff a Christmas bonus and provided a staff discount of around £2000 per month, although as Norm Brown noted, most of it soon came back into the store.

His kids would walk in and buy an ice cream and tell the staff,“book it up to dad!”

More information about Mareeba

The best starting point for information on the history of Mareeba is the Mareeba Historical Society

Your Recollections and stories of Jack & Newell in Port Douglas