Agriculture at Beatrice Hill
Horticulture and agriculture are important economic activities in the present day Litchfield Shire. These land uses have a long history in the region.
From the first, hopes for successful white settlement of the Territory's Top End were based on the prospects for agriculture. Surveyor-General George Goyder, reporting at the end of his survey work in 1869, wrote - "Sooner or later it must turn out well. The country is first class ... the soils in slopes, valleys and parts of the tableland are well suited for cultivation and mostly rich."
Several of the most significant early attempts at agricultural development occurred within what is now the Litchfield Shire. Perhaps the most spectacular of these attempts centred on Beatrice Hill, which overlooks the Adelaide River floodplains and on which the visitor facility Window on the Wetlands now stands. Incidentally, the feature was named after the ship Beatrice which was a survey and support vessel associated with the Escape Cliffs settlement, 1864 - 1867. The Beatrice had sailed up the Adelaide River and on 6 June 1864 the sailors sighted the feature which is now named after their vessel.
In 1881 Sydney man A.W. Sergison was attracted to the land around Beatrice Hill. He selected 5,000 acres on which he intended to grow sugar - "all this land is easily cleared, there being no timber of any account on it, and the plough can be at once brought into use all over it" Sergison wrote.
In the meantime, Victorian pastoralists Fisher and Lyons had taken up the leases over more than 100,000 square kilometres of land, stretching from the East Alligator River across to beyond the Daly River. Beatrice Hill was in the approximate centre of this area. Fisher and Lyons took over Sergison's lease and planned to establish a plantation at Beatrice Hill and to use the nearby Adelaide River as a landing and loading place for live cattle exports.
A brave start was made on the plantation. Maize and sugar were planted in 1882 and houses were built for European staff and Chinese labourers. The plough was not used, but the land was cultivated by the Chinese, using shovels. Dry stone walls were built as fences, and the remnants of these can still be seen by Window on the Wetlands visitors.
Rubber trees and coffee bushes were planted in the early 1880s. Coffee seedlings were carried by Aborigines across from another plantation near Rum Jungle, a distance of almost 100 kilometres. The coffee plants thrived, a crop was harvested and 10 tons of good quality coffee beans were sent to market in Melbourne. However, the returns did not match the cost of production. Sugar cane was also planted, but, in the absence of milling equipment, the cane was cut up for horse feed.
By 1886 a visitor noted that the rubber trees stood 22 feet (7 metres) high, while the coffee bushes underneath the shade of the rubber trees were bearing profusely. However, by that time Fisher and Lyons were sinking into financial difficulty. They had over-reached themselves when they made a huge investment in the development of Victoria River Downs cattle station.
The plantation at Beatrice Hill was abandoned from 1887 when the partners decided to concentrate on cattle production. Fisher and Lyons eventually lost everything and there was little gain for the Territory, except perhaps experience.
There were then some attempts made to interest Chinese merchants in taking over the plantation and using Chinese labour, but this idea could be taken no further when restrictive immigration laws made the entry of the labourers impossible.
The Beatrice Hill area became part of Humpty Doo station , held at various times by the Herbert brothers of Koolpinyah, by William Lawrie and by Lawrie's nephew Felix Holmes.
In 1956 Beatrice Hills was taken over as a government agricultural research station. An access road from Humpty Doo homestead was built and, from 1957, experimental rice plantings were made there. From 1959 the research emphasis at Beatrice Hill was switched from rice to livestock and tropical pasture production.