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Donald Crawford Watson (1924–1999)

by Peter D. Griggs

This article was published online in 2024

Donald Crawford Watson (1924–1999), canegrower, sugar industry leader, company director, and shire councillor, was born on 23 September 1924 at Stanthorpe, Queensland, elder son of Irish-born James Harvey Long Watson, orchardist and retired Indian Army officer, and his Queensland-born wife Edith Mary, née Crawford. Senator Thomas Crawford (1865–1948) was his maternal grandfather and Sir Bruce Watson (1928–2008) his brother. Don attended Stanthorpe State Rural (1935–37) and High (1938–40) schools and the Queensland Agricultural College, Gatton, at which he gained a diploma in agriculture (1942).

In 1943 Watson joined his maternal uncles Hugh and Charles Crawford on Brie Brie estate at Mossman, a historic sugar cane farming property co-owned by his mother’s family. On 11 February 1944 he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force for service in World War II. By the time he qualified as a navigator, in Canada, the war was nearly over, and he was repatriated and demobilised as a temporary flight sergeant on 11 September 1945. He returned to Mossman, becoming the assistant general manager of the family’s sugar property. At the Methodist Church, Mossman, on 12 February 1948, he married Margaret (Peggy) Reid Harper, the drapery manager of the town’s Jack & Newell general store. On the death of Hugh Crawford in 1958, he took over as manager of Brie Brie Estate Pty Ltd, a position he would hold until his retirement in the early 1990s.

Although failing in his first attempt to gain a place on the board of directors of the canegrower-owned Mossman Central Mill Co. Ltd in 1956, Watson was elected in 1958 to fill the vacancy created by Hugh Crawford’s death. In 1963 he became deputy chairman and in April 1972 he took over as chairman, which post he would occupy until 1995. Throughout his tenure, he ‘fostered understanding and trust’ between the mill, the canegrowers’ organisation, and the local council (Paterson 1999, 11).

Determined to modernise the company, Watson restructured its shares to reflect their true value and extend proprietorship to all Mossman canegrowers. He oversaw growth in the mill’s annual cane supply from some 250,000 tonnes in the 1950s to over a million in the 1990s, a result of the expansion of the area under crop to new localities: Daintree (1964), Julatten (1981), and Mareeba (1991). His understanding of the financial vagaries of sugar production prompted a strategy of diversification. He presided over the company’s investments in tourism, such as mill tours and the Bally Hooley Steam Train attraction (1981–2002), and prawn farming, despite local opposition to the aquaculture venture. His disapproval of rural residential subdivisions that threatened the mill’s cane supply did not prevent him from excising part of Brie Brie to provide town allotments for Mossman. During the centenary (1994) of the founding of the mill, he expressed optimism about the future of local sugar, despite the district’s isolation.

Watson’s leadership of the industry extended beyond the local level. He had served as vice-president (1972–78) and then president (1979–86) of the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association, an organisation promoting the interests of both canegrowers and millers. As part of the ASPA’s seventy-fifth anniversary, he delivered an address on its achievements at a meeting of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland in March 1982. Ironically, the industry was shortly to begin a difficult period, with rising anti-protectionism in politics, declining international sugar prices, and escalating attacks on the nutritional value of the product and its over-consumption in Australia. He believed, however, that higher prices would return, and that Australia could remain a leading raw sugar exporter. Meanwhile, he urged the industry to examine its operations and structures, and he argued for short-term government financial assistance to support canegrowers and mill owners during the price downturn.

The ASPA wound up in 1987, but Watson’s service to the industry continued. Successive Queensland governments made use of his knowledge. In 1989 he was a member of the Matthews committee of inquiry (pooling system)—established by the Ahern National government—which investigated how mill owners were paid for their product. A year later he served on the Goss Labor government’s sugar industry working party. Its members considered ways to further restructure the industry following the Commonwealth’s removal of protective measures in 1989. Between 1992 and 1995 Watson was a director of Sugar North Ltd, which represented the then four canegrower-owned northern mills.

In 1979 Watson had been elected as a Douglas Shire councillor, holding the position of deputy chairman from 1988 to 1994. He was a member (1982–90) and deputy chairman (1988–90) of the Cairns Port Authority. From 1987 to 1990 he served as a director of the Queensland Tourist and Travel Corporation. His qualities were recognised nationally when he was appointed as a member (1980–84) of the Australian Bicentennial Authority; concurrently, he served as deputy chairman of the authority’s Queensland council. He was associated with the Mossman Uniting Church, Boy Scouts, Junior Soccer Club, and sub-branch of the Returned Services League of Australia. Furthermore, he was the last president of the Drumsara Golf Club and then an executive member of its successor, the Mossman Golf Club.

For his services to the sugar industry and the community, Watson was appointed OBE (1985) and was awarded the University of Queensland Gatton gold medal (1990). In addition, the Far North Queensland Youth Assistance Foundation (charter patron 1981), together with the Mossman Central Mill Co. Ltd and the Douglas Shire Council, established a special fund of the FNQYA Fund in his name (1994) to support disadvantaged and isolated students in the shire.

Watson was fair complexioned and of medium build and height. Conciliatory, generous with his time, and philanthropic, he derived his values from a strong Christian faith and regular church attendance. He declared: ‘The great lesson in life is to be able to move with change’ (Port Douglas and Mossman Gazette 1994, 16). Barry Murday, an industry colleague, said Watson was ‘a man who had that rare ability to deftly balance leadership, vision and compassion’ (Paterson 1999, 11). He died at Mossman on 12 February 1999 and was buried in the town’s cemetery. His wife and one son had predeceased him; his daughter, Susan, and two other sons, Gregg and Andrew, survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Canegrower. ‘Death of Industry Leader Mourned.’ 21, no. 4 (1 March 1999): 2

  • Far North Queensland Youth Assistance Foundation. ‘Donald Crawford Watson O.B.E.’ Unpublished brochure, 1994. Extract held on ADB file

  • Griggs, Peter D. Global Industry, Local Innovation: The History of Cane Sugar Production in Australia, 1820–1995. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2011

  • Grimley, Scott. ‘Sugar Industry Moderniser.’ Australian, 5 April 1999, 14

  • Kerr, John. Northern Outpost. 2nd ed. Mossman, Qld: Mossman Central Mill Co., 1995

  • National Archives of Australia. A9301, 440725

  • Paterson, Duncan. ‘Sugar Industry Farewells Leader.’ Cairns Post, 17 February 1999, 11

  • Port Douglas and Mossman Gazette (Qld). ‘Chairman Sees a Bright Future for Mill.’ 1 December 1994, 16

  • Watson, Donald. ‘The Australian Sugar Story, 1907–1982: Achievements of the A.S.P.A.’ Historical Papers (Royal Historical Society of Queensland) 11, no. 3 (1981–82): 88–106

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter D. Griggs, 'Watson, Donald Crawford (1924–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2024, accessed online 20 June 2024.

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