The years 1820-1850 were years of great political, economic and social change. By 1852 the transportation of convicts had ended and Australia’s best grazing land was occupied. Free immigrants poured into the country. Gold fever had greatly affected Australia but it was the years of pastoral expansion, free immigration and ways of granting land that would so affect the life of George Chale Watson. Pastoral expansion changed the society that was previously dependent on the sea and coastal shipping. Watson grew up in the nautical world but by 1860 Australian society was looking inwards to the land itself as a source of its commerce, wealth and culture.
On April 17 1861, at a desolate place in Central Australia the first of the ill fated Bourke and Wills expedition were buried and the land remained mysterious, largely unconquered.
Enchanted by stories of expeditions into the mysterious continent George Chale Watson gathered his earnings and took a ship for Queensland via Sydney. He embarked for Brisbane, from Sydney aboard the historic steamship the Telegraph, under the command of a distinguished colonist, Captain O Reilly. They had a ‘splendid passage with bright sunshine to the land of my dreams’ reaching Brisbane in April 1862.
Initially Watson opted to ‘become a producer’. To this end he searched for a homestead within the reach of the city. At the Survey Office he established that the nearest procurable land was on the main Ipswich road. Armed with these maps he searched for suitable land. The land he chose was at the Rocky Waterholes, now known as Mooroka. He lost no time in forming a camp.
Having matriculated upon his pre-emptive right in Tasmania (Sir William Denison, when Tasmania was a Crown colony, issued regulations under which the colonial youth and colonists could acquire a pre-emptive right to 500 acres by the annual payment of twelve pounds ten shillings, with the right of purchase) Watson used his right by becoming the selector of 500 acres. He planned to operate as a cultivator and timber getter. He engaged a labourer and within a few days they erected a more extensive homestead and laid out an estate of 15 acres in divisions as a vineyard, orchard and cotton field.
Cotton growing was then the rage in Queensland; the civil war in America, together with the Manchester Cotton famine, induced the Queensland government to offer a bonus for Queensland cotton. Consequently cotton growing companies formed their plantations and cultivators set out their cotton fields which were calculated to yield forty pounds an acre.
Drought proved to be a problem and so when a Tasmanian acquaintance suggested that Watson could improve his prospects by taking a vacancy in the Roads Department Watson decided to review the situation. Indefinite prospects of rain and the uncertainty of gathering a return influenced his decision. The prospect of earning two hundred pounds a year was appealing, especially since this would enable him to live on the homestead and have sufficient funds to pay for manual labour.
Watson presented himself to the Engineer of Roads with testimonials from leading Melbourne merchants with whom he had had transactions while he was managing the store in Echuca and he was appointed. The business of the Roads Department at this time was rapidly increasing. Railways had not been developed and the whole traffic into the interior was by teams and mail coach communication. At the time Watson joined the Roads Department it was raising to a zenith of importance.
The rapid opening up of Queensland, immediately following its separation from New South Wales eventuated in unprecedented activity. Access had to be provided to and from the interior, as well as to settlements springing up through the influx of population. Capitalists were being attracted to invest in enterprises in the new colony and their needs had to be met. The colony was quite literally spreading in all directions as explorers found inviting areas. A large army of operatives was required to ensure the construction of roads, draining, metalling and logging.
The Engineer of Roads Department rapidly became a hive of activity with the Government providing substantial allocations for the construction of roads and bridges. Squatters, settlers and property owners continually urged their respective claims for attention and began to use senatorial mouthpieces to ensure that they got what they needed.