They were drawn to Far North Queensland by news of gold finds on the Palmer River, but it was a retail empire that helped Scotsman William Jack and Irishman John Newell become household names throughout the region.
The pair played a key role in the birth of the Herberton tin mining district in the 1880s – both as prospectors and through their general store, which provided a kick start for mining newcomers as well as serving growing local communities.
Jack & Newell stores sprang up throughout the north and even printed their own currency, according the Historical Society of Mareeba, which compiled research for a website highlighting this part of local history.
Willie Jack and John Newell were part of a prospecting party that found a rich lode of tin near Wilds River, Herberton, and established the Great Northern Mine.
According to the historical society, Jack invested profits from that mining operation into establishing a general store – which opened in Herberton in 1880.
John Newell joined the business in 1882 – lending his name to the new retail chain.
He continued to run the business with another mining connection, John Moffat, after Willie Jack left to continue his prospecting career in the Dutch East Indies.
The discovery of tin at Herberton led to a rush of miners to the district and as new townships sprang up, so did Jack and Newell stores.
The mining settlements included Irvinebank, Silver Valley, Watsonville, Coolgarra, Mount Garnet, Montalbion, Stannary Hills, Mount Molloy, Chillagoe, Zillmanton, Calcifer and Mungana.
“Every time two miners got together, Jack & Newell put up a shop,” joked Historical Society of Mareeba secretary Helen Kindt, who helped research the storekeepers’ history for the Jack & Newell website.
“They had absolutely everything – you name it they sold it. They didn’t just cater for the mining man – they catered for families.”
This meant a retail range that stretched from dynamite and bullets to underwear and tea sets.
Better roads and the growth of large supermarket chains contributed to the demise of Jack & Newell stores from the 1970s, with the last one closing its doors in Chillagoe in 1982.
The stores may be gone, but they are not forgotten – with Mrs Kindt and her fellow researchers finding many far north Queensland residents with fond memories of the chain.
The Historical Society of Mareeba’s presentation on Jack & Newell can be found via a link on the website http://www.mbahistsoc.org.au/
Jack & Newell stores gave many early arrivals to the tinfields a leg up through a practice known as grubstaking.
The new miners could obtain the food and equipment needed to get them started on credit, with the account to be settled with tin from their claim.
The Historical Society of Mareeba website explains how such transactions made sense in these remote communities, where cash was often in short supply.
Extending credit was an investment in future customers for Jack & Newell, and the new miners would be bonded to them rather than any rival storekeeper.
However the society’s research also unearthed many memories of John Newell cancelling miners’ debts or continuing to grubstake them when he knew they would never be able to repay the store.
It suggests that the former miner may well have been sympathetic to the plight of those who scratched around for years with little reward.