Darwin - Culture and History

Port Darwin was discovered by Lieutenant John Lort Stokes and named by Captain J.C. Wickham when, travelling in the HMS Beagle, they passed the harbour area in 1839. Wickham named the area after Charles Darwin who had once sailed in the HMS Beagle. In 1869 it was renamed Palmerston but in 1911 it reverted to Darwin.

The settlement of Darwin is a vital part of the interminable saga of trying to establish an outpost of the northern coast of Australia. The various settlements at Escape Cliffs, Port Essington and Fort Dundas (see Melville Island) had all been miserable failures. The South Australian government were determined to make the settlement at Port Darwin work. Consequently they were far more systematic and thorough. The Surveyor-General was sent to the area and by 1869 he had surveyed the town and had drawn up plans for leases. In spite of these preparations the new town of Palmerston was hardly a boom place for real estate. The town would almost certainly have been as short-lived as the previous attempts at settlement had it not coincided with the construction of the Overland Telegraph. Thus the outpost had an instant raison d'etre.

In 1870 the first pole at the northern end of the Overland Telegraph was placed in the ground. Two years later Government House, a remarkably beautiful old seven-gabled house which overlooks Darwin Harbour, was built. It was pulled down and rebuilt in the 1880s and that building, known as the 'House of Seven Gables', still stands today surrounded by a white fence and magnificent tropical gardens. Its domination of the harbour foreshore is a combination of good luck and superb architecture. The town/city has been seriously damaged by cyclones three times and during World War II it was bombed over 60 times.

The period from 1870 to 1900 saw successive waves of settlers. The Chinese who had worked on the Overland Telegraph now turned their attentions to market gardening and established a thriving Chinatown in the centre.

By 1881 the town had a population of 3451. The sudden increase in the population saw the construction of the Fannie Bay Gaol in 1882–3. The gaol was closed in 1979 and in 1982 it became the Fannie Bay Museum. The gaol is located on East Point Road and has a number of interesting displays including the gallows which were erected in the infirmary for the Territory's last execution in 1952. Other interesting displays include the women's section and the mess. The laundry was destroyed by Cyclone Tracy and it is appropriate that the gaol now houses a Cyclone Tracy display which includes an excellent photographic display and a continuous 30 minute video of the devastation.

The story of the disaster which was Cyclone Tracy is one which is widely known in Australia. At the time, Christmas Day, 1974, it received massive media coverage.

It was, quite simply, Australia's worst natural disaster. At 3 am the anemometer at Darwin Airport recorded winds of 217 km/h before it stopped working; winds of up to 250 km/h were estimated to have hit the city; total damage exceeded $1000 million and 65 people were killed; about 26 000 people had to be evaluated and over 1000 people needed medical attention; 16 people were lost at sea, their bodies never recovered; the ABC radio station, 8DR, was off the air for 34 hours; over 90 per cent of all buildings in the city were seriously damaged.

Some of the buildings which were devastated were the Old Police Station, the Court House and Cell Block all on The Esplanade which runs along Lameroo Beach. The buildings were constructed in 1884 under the guidance of the architect John George Knight who was at the time, the Government Resident for the Northern Territory.

The Police Station, Court House and Cell Block had all been used as the headquarters for the Northern Territory Mounted Police until World War II when the Royal Australian Navy took over the buildings and the area became known as HMAS Melville. They remained in under Navy control until Cyclone Tracy damaged them. It was a comment of the building techniques of the nineteenth century that even after Cyclone Tracy had wiped out most of Darwin the buildings were still standing, albeit somewhat damaged. Their importance was such that in 1978 the government decided to have them reconstructed and they are now used as offices by the Northern Territory Administration.

The 1890s saw the discovery of gold at Pine Creek and the development of a pearling industry in the seas to the north. The result was that by 1891 the population of Darwin had grown to 4 898.

There are two free publications Top of Australia - Visitors Magazine and Visitors' Guide to Darwin - Australia's North both of which are published by the Darwin Tourist Promotion Association and are available from all Tourist Information Offices in the Darwin area. They both contain good maps of the city and plenty of up–to–date information.