El Arish North Queensland

Places, Faces and Events of an Historical Soldier Settlement town

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1918 - 1925

El Arish became a real success story in an ambitious Commonwealth Government initiative to rehabilitate returned servicemen after WWI.  In many other parts of the country these returned soldier settlements were a disaster with many walking off their land, finding the daunting task of clearing the land and building the farm just too hard.

Farmers battled to make the small lots viable and always had a eye out for another farm if someone walked away.  These were the real Pioneers.  Before the advent of the tramline that was connected from El Arish to the Tully Mill the farms hauled their cane along their own 60cm 'horselines' and then loaded it on the the State Government's railways to be taken for milling.

El Arish was lucky - Eighty returned soldiers initially settled in the El Arish area.  Their endeavors by 1925 meant that the farms were producing 40,000 tonnes of cane and in that year the Tully Mill began operating.


"They tackled scrub with nothing but a crowbar, a mattock and a few sticks of gelignite ..."

- Harry Linnett Jnr, son of one of the original settlers, Bert Linnett.

Farming in El Arish

 Sugar Cane

El Arish's main crop is sugar cane which is harvested usually between June and November is processed at the Tully Sugar Mill.  As the seasons change and the cane goes through the various stages of growth so too the landscape is ever changing.

Although sugar cane was brought to Australia with the First Fleet it was not until the late 1861 that the first white squatters brought it to North Queensland.  Desperate for income, the Queensland Government supported the setting up of large sugar farms and indentured labour, especially from the South Pacific Islands, was used right up to 1904 after which all recruitment stopped, leaving a huge opportunity for  migrants from Italy and other European countries who arrived in Australia seeking a better life.  They quickly took up the opportunity to gain employment in the Queensland sugarcane fields.  This made it a win-win for the returned soldiers and government alike.

The original Settlement was based on cane and each soldier received the amount of £625 to set up his home and farm. This had to be repaid plus interest. If anyone surrended their block and it was taken up by another returned soldier, they in turn had to take on the responsibility of the farm debt as opposed to purchasing it from the original settler.

It cost about £30 per acre, with around 3,000 plants per acre to hand plant. 

Many Italian cutters worked long and hard and earned enough to buy their own small farm.  The growing of sugarcane became the preserve of small, family-operated farms and, today, many sugarcane growers in Queensland are descendants of the early cane cutters as well as the original Soldier Settlers.

The multi-cultural diversity the migrant families, in no small part,  contributed  much to our sugar industry. They also brought their wonderful food and culture which is still so much part of El Arish and surrounding areas today.

In those days the crop was cut by hand.  Back-breaking, hot, humid work in a ferociously demanding climate.  It was not without it's dangers too with illnesses like Leptospirosis (Wheels disease) which is common in warm, tropical conditions, and it spreads easily.  If untreated it can be potentially, and was, fatal.  Leptospirosis is caused by specific bacteria resulting from contact with fresh water, wet or dampened soil, or vegetation that has been soiled by urine from an infected animal - usually rats.  Another common disease amongst the early pioneers was Scrub Typhus.  It is a minute red tick found in the scrub and they would come in contact with it while they were clearing their blocks.

The timber from these blocks once felled would go to the government timber mill by bullock or horse teams and the proceeds of this timber would be credited to the block it came from.  (See more about the Timber Mill here) 

The cane paddocks used to be burnt before harvesting.  This was mainly to clean the cane, making it easier and safer to cut, but it also helped with weeds and vermin.

Farmers are by nature innovative and given the conditions, as well as the returns, they were constantly refining their processes and methods.
The mechanical cane loaders developed between the 1930's and 1950's made a huge difference to the industry but it was the arrival of the front end loaders around the 1950's and then, in the 1960's the first mechanical harvesters, that really changed the face of cane farming.


The first banana plantations were started by the Chinese migrants working on the goldfields. In the Tully area, bananas were shipped to market via the Tully River and, in Innisfail, on the South Johnstone River.

The trade in north Queensland bananas stopped during World War I when there were restrictions on local shipping and outbreaks of plant disease.

The banana industry re-established in the area at the end of World War II in 1945. Stan MacKay and a number of other growers began farming in the area.

Bananas were packed in 40kg wooden boxes and transported to market by rail up until the 1960s when road transport was introduced. Today bananas are packed in cardboard cartons and transported by both road and rail in refrigerated containers.

The industry has grown substantially and the total farm area producing bananas in north Queensland is about 12,000 hectares.  The area is now the largest producer of bananas in Australia.

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Links of Interest

The Australian Sugar Heritage Centre at Mourilyan is packed with interesting items and well worth the visit.