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Robert Towns

Robert Towns

Robert Towns (c. 1794 - April 11 1873) was an Australian businessman, pastoralist, and founder of Townsville.

Towns was born at Long Horsey, Northumberland, England, on 10 November 1794. This is the date usually given, and it agrees with his death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald of 12 April 1873 which stated that he was then in his seventy-ninth year. The date given by the Australian Encyclopaedia, 1791, appears however, to be more likely, as after being educated at a village school Towns went to sea, was a mate in 1811, and a master in the following year. In 1813 he was captain of a brig in the Mediterranean, and in 1827 he made his first voyage to Australia as captain of The Brothers.

In 1833 he married the sister of W. C. Wentworth, and in 1842 established a mercantile and shipping business (Robert Towns & Co., General Merchants, Ship and Commission Agents) at Sydney. In a letter to William de Salis dated Sydney, 4 January 1853 Towns describes a shipping issue:

'I am afraid our Coolie trade is over, the rascals have been so troublesome, nobody likes to employ them, and our laws are so defective & punishment so trifling for such offences that they laugh at the idea of being put in Gaol - It is possible she may get a Charter elsewhere with Coolies...'
He afterwards bought station properties in Queensland, and about 1860 or a little later began growing cotton, employing South Sea islanders to do the cultivation and picking. Many attempts had been made to grow cotton in Australia before this time, but Towns was the first to do so on a large scale. Realizing that a port was needed on the Queensland coast north of Bowen, Towns arranged for explorations to be made from his stations, a suitable site was found at Cleveland Bay, and on to October 1865 it was gazetted as a port of entry and named Townsville.

Towns had been a member of the legislative council from 1856, and, although he did not take a leading part in politics, his advice was much sought in matters affecting business.

Working until near his death, Robert Towns died in Sydney on 11 April 1873. The memorial stone from his Sydney grave now stands atop a monument at Castle Hill, Townsville.

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