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WHO WAS JOHN MOFFAT of IRVINEBANK?

I am no fan of philatelically inspired covers, having outgrown the habit some 40 years ago, but I had no reservations about buying this Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland) cover. It celebrated the life of John Moffat by unveiling a plaque of him at Irvinebank some 32 years after his death. The unveiling occurred on May 24, 1950, the same day of the IRVINEBANK/ 9-A 24MY50/ QUEENSLAND postmark His later life photograph adorns the cover, and there is a cuteness about the printed “The children ended their prayers each night with “God Bless John Moffat”. The pristine condition of the cover plus the fact that the postage stamps only amounted to 1½d suggest that it was sent in a separate cover (Figure 1).

Moffat’s name was previously unknown to me, but more than ample internet documentation was found, including a review of a book by Ruth Kerr in 2000, “John Moffat of Irvinebank”. John Moffat was born (May 26, 1841) in Newmilns, Ayrshire on the River Irvine in Scotland and he suffered from ill health (said to be a result of the Scottish weather). He came to Queensland at the age of 21 and first worked as a shepherd on a property about 500 km west of Brisbane, and his health greatly improved during this time. He married Margaret Linedale in 1889 and his religion was stated to be Swedenborgian*.

He first became involved with tin mining in northern N.S.W. at Tent Hill. Two of Moffat’s ex-employees (Willie Jack & John Newell) came to North Queensland in April 1880 and discovered a tin lode in Herberton, and they told Moffat about their find. Moffat helped the foundation of a viable tin industry in Herberton Qld in 1880. Irvinebank (27 km southwest of Herberton) became the centre of an industrial empire that spurred the development of the tropical North. It was originally known as Gibbs Camp when tin was found in 1882, but Moffat bought out Gibbs and 3 others, and renamed the site Irvinebank (after the River Irvine). Irvinebank became synonymous with Moffat’s name (he lived there for 29 years).

To-day, the town is a living museum - a pub, a few old buildings, a disused railway station and a tin mill which has fallen into disrepair. The National Trust has listed a number of the town’s buildings including the Loudon Mill built in 1884 and the former Queensland National Bank, built in 1905 (closed for banking business in 1924). There is also Moffat’s gracious house, which is at the top of the hill behind the bank building, and which has been turned into a museum.

Moffat succeeded in developing North Queensland by bringing both public and private capital to the region. ‘Wild Cat’ of the Sydney Bulletin hailed him as the ‘Carnegie of the North’ because of his fearless speculations and enterprising investments, which were responsible for employing over a thousand workers in mineral production. His projects crystallised the faith of local miners in his ability to sustain the North Queensland regional economy.

Between his arrival in Queensland and his retirement in 1912 to Cremorne, Sydney, the tin fields that Moffat controlled produced two-thirds of Queensland’s total of £22 million worth of base metals, up to that year. Moffat built up the mining industry as a key foundation of the North Queensland economy. He died in June 28, 1918, whilst on holidays in Toowoomba.

Although Moffat’s mining ventures were monopolistic, and he had a puritanical side, the public, politicians and the press were almost sycophantic in Moffat’s praises which included: “solid as the rock of Gibraltar”; “done more good for North Queensland than all the politicians of Australia”; “the noblest at the same time the most modest, albeit the most wonderful genius”; “the success of the man lay in his unselfishness, in his thoroughness, and in his kindliness”; “he respected all men, quarrelled with none, gave to everyman his chance, lived cleanly, spoke evil of none”; “he thought in terms of a community, and plowed part of his profits back to stabilise every new centre”; “another wonder of the world has turned up in the form of a person of an absolutely honest mining investor”.

The North Queensland prayer “God bless John Moffat” says it best, and the present cover is a fitting memorial to the career of a remarkable North Queensland colonist.

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*Emanuel Swedenborg (b. Stockholm 1688 - d. London 1772) son of a Lutheran clergyman. He was a member of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, with recognition across Europe as a scientist and philosopher. He entered a transitional phase in 1743-45 with a shift to theology which he maintained for the rest of his life. His works presented a Christian theology with unique perspectives on the nature of God, the spiritual world, the Bible, the human mind, and the path to salvation. It appears that John Moffat’s philosophy of life and industry was based on his religion.

This paper was published in The Queensland Stamp Collector, May-July 2004, Volume 21, Issue 82, pages 15 & 17.


 
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