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John Costello (1838–1923)

by Sally O'Neill

This article was published:

John Costello (1838-1923), pastoralist, was born on 31 March 1838 at Yass, New South Wales, the fifth child of Michael Costello, store-keeper and grazier, and his wife Mary, née Tully, whose four Irish-born children died on the voyage from Tipperary to Sydney in 1837. The family settled at Yass and sometime after 1851 sold their prosperous store and bought a thousand acres (405 ha) at Grabben Gullen near Goulburn. John had little formal education. Fearless and adventurous he caused much anxiety to his parents, now successful and respected members of the Irish Catholic community of Goulburn. By 16 he was a seasoned stockman, well known as a rider and horse-breaker and for his unerring sense of direction.

In 1862 his younger sister Mary married Patrick Durack who shared John's passion for horses, his restless energy and his incipient land hunger. Both were fascinated by the reports of explorers who had travelled through south-west Queensland, and a chance meeting with William Landsborough in Sydney crystallized their plans. In June 1863 Costello led a party of Goulburn Irish in their first attempt to take up land in south-west Queensland. They were caught in a drought north of Bourke; as a member of a forward party Costello narrowly escaped death by thirst and most of their stock and equipment was lost. Nevertheless Costello persisted with his plans, encouraged by his bride Mary Scanlan, an Irish girl who had emigrated from County Clare to help her brothers pioneer a selection in the Argyle district and whom he married early in 1865. His parents reluctantly agreed to finance the new venture, and later in 1865 the whole family left with 200 cattle and 15 horses to form a depot at Warroo Springs in northern New South Wales. In 1867 the Duracks joined them and the party moved on to Mobel Creek, 300 miles (483 km) further north. On the way they encountered drought, and Costello's son, born at Warroo Springs, died of fever; a daughter was born at Mobel Creek. Later that year Costello made a remarkable journey with 200 horses through unmapped country to Kapunda in South Australia. He made £3000 on the sale and on his return to Goulburn registered his Mobel holding of 40,000 acres (16,187 ha). Meanwhile Patrick Durack had explored north-west to Thylungra on a tributary of Cooper's Creek and with Costello the whole party moved there in April 1868. The Costellos built their homestead twenty-five miles (40 km) downstream at Kyabra. The next years were poor but Costello's optimism paid dividends. In the early 1870s good years brought buyers into the area where the Duracks and Costello had taken up some 17,000 sq. miles (44,030 km²) 'on spec'. Costello himself held 13,000 sq. miles (33,670 km²) of it on Farrar's Creek and the Diamantina, including Morney Plains which was sold to John Collins & Sons and Davenport Downs which went to Cobb & Co.

In 1877 Costello sold Kyabra, proposing to retire in ease to the coast. He bought Cawarral, a racing stud near Rockhampton and Annandale at Gladstone, but within two years he was back in the west to buy Lake Nash, a huge property straddling the Queensland-Northern Territory border, which he stocked with horses and cattle from his coastal properties. He lost heavily when severe drought hit his tobacco venture on the coast, but by the early 1880s he was planning to take up more land in the Northern Territory. After an expedition he leased some 2000 sq. miles (5180 km²) stretching from the McArthur River to the Roper. Lake Nash was put in charge of a manager; Costello sold his coastal properties, sent his wife and younger children on a trip to Ireland and set off with his eldest son Michael to establish a new homestead on the Limmen River, Valley of Springs. Their overland journey with stock was made in yet another drought. Men were scarce and goods were transported from the last outpost of Burketown at the exorbitant price of £75 a ton. They arrived safely at the Limmen late in 1884 just before the wet season. When his wife and children returned in 1885 Costello brought them to the Limmen. Through his wife's courage and his own buoyancy and stamina they managed to live in that beautiful but isolated area for six years, plagued by malaria and other diseases, white ants and bush fires. Their cattle were ravaged by hostile Aboriginals, dingoes and crocodiles, tick, redwater and by plundering prospectors heading for the Kimberley gold rush. Marketing of stock was almost impossible and land rents were absurdly high. Depression in 1890 finally forced Costello to abandon the Gulf properties and retreat to Lake Nash. Still dogged by drought, flood and fire, he attempted to solve his major problem by sinking two sub-artesian bores for water on Lake Nash. He succeeded at last but went bankrupt in the process. With only his insurance left he managed to buy the original farm at Grabben Gullen, which was badly run down through long mismanagement. After a fire in January 1905 nearly destroyed the house but cleared the timber he sold the farm at a good price and bought Tocabil, near Hillston, in western New South Wales. There he spent his last years organizing its building and stocking and shrewdly enlarging his holdings. He died on 25 February 1923 at Tocabil, survived by his wife and six children.

Select Bibliography

  • M. M. J. Costello, Life of John Costello (Syd, 1930)
  • M. Durack, Kings in Grass Castles (Lond, 1959)
  • Royal Commission on the Northern Territory, Votes and Proceedings (South Australia), 1895 (19).

Citation details

Sally O'Neill, 'Costello, John (1838–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 19 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 March, 1838
Yass, New South Wales, Australia


25 February, 1923 (aged 84)
Hillston, New South Wales, Australia

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