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Commonwealth Government Records about the Northern Territory

Establishment of Vestey's meatworks

In June 1914 the Commonwealth signed a contract with Vestey Brothers (Vestey's) for the company to construct and operate a meatworks in Darwin and, in return, the Commonwealth would extend the existing railway line from Pine Creek to Emungalan (Katherine), a distance of 88 kilometres. It was expected that the meatworks would process a large number of cattle, many of which would be exported, and would provide impetus to the Territory's economy. The extension of the rail line would assist Vestey's, whose principal property, Wave Hill, was located west of Katherine. The line was completed in December 1917.

The meatworks was also completed in 1917, at a substantially higher cost than was originally estimated. It operated for three years before closing in 1920. Over the three years of operation there were frequent strikes and union demands for higher wages, and the meatworks never processed the number of cattle that was anticipated. After a short season in 1925 it closed permanently. The closure had a devastating impact on Darwin's economy. The lack of a local meatworks meant that cattle had to be sent long distances over stock routes to markets in adjoining states.

Causes of the closure ranged from union militancy and demands for higher wages to Vestey's deliberately overcapitalising the works to ensure it failed, thus protecting their interests in Argentina. Powell has suggested that Vestey's viewed operations on a world-wide scale and simply closed the works in response to economic forces generated far outside Australia.14

In April 1933 Senator George Pearce had discussions with Vestey's principal representative in Australia, Charles Conacher, to canvas the possibility of the works reopening, but these were unsuccessful.15 The meatworks gradually fell into a state of disrepair. They were demolished in the 1950s, and the site is now the home of Darwin's principal high school.

Selected Records Relating to Vestey's Meatworks
National Archives, Canberra
Vestey Bros freezing works – erection, 1912–15 A3, NT1916/1230
Construction of railway sidings for Vestey Bros, 1914–20 A3, NT1920/841
Vestey Bros – agreement regarding freezing works, 1914 A3, NT1914/6267
Vestey Bros meat works, 1915–17 A3, NT1917/258
Meat works, Darwin – formal opening, 1917 A3, NT1917/726
Meatworks – North Australian Meat Company – registration, 1917 A3, NT1917/1753
Vestey Bros – agreement with Government regarding meat works, 1918–24 A3, NT1922/4851
Vestey Bros – lack of shipping space and closing of works, 1919/21 A3, NT1921/3421
Image 3: Vestey's meatworks on the outskirts of Darwin, 1919.

Image 3: Vestey's meatworks on the outskirts of Darwin, 1919.
Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers (1917–19), volume VI, p. 1155
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Patrick Glynn returned as Minister in 1917 and issued an updated version of his 1914 policy statement.16 After reiterating the Government's intentions for an extensive program of capital works, he added a cautionary note that 'the war, which now prescribes duty and directs expenditure, for a time blocks projects essential to development'.17 World War I had a stifling effect on development in the Territory and elsewhere. Powell noted that it began at a time when Commonwealth revenues were buoyant, having been restricted since 1908 due to commitments to defence and aged pensions.18


Chapter notes | All notes

14 Alan Powell, Far Country: A Short History of the Northern Territory (Melbourne, 1996), p. 134.

15 NLA: MS1927, series 3, folios 1927/1271 (28 April 1933) and 1927/1270 (1 May 1933).

16 Patrick McMahon Glynn, Memorandum on the Northern Territory, Parliamentary Papers (1917), volume VI, pp. 1089–99.

17 ibid, p. 11.

18 Alan Powell, Far Country, pp. 128–29.


Chapter 2
Early Commonwealth Years, 1863–1911