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George Leonard Board (1852–1932)

by Peter Holzworth


The contribution of two men closely involved in the setting up and management of government forestry in Queensland is outlined in this chapter from professional and personal perspectives. The two men are George Leonard Board, the first Inspector of Forests in the Queensland Forestry Branch and Philip MacMahon, his successor as Director. The period primarily covers the first decade of forestry in the twentieth century but has references to the establishment of a Forestry Branch of the Queensland Department of Public Lands in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The personalities and work achievements of both men are outlined and their contributions to the organisation are explored and acknowledged.

George Leonard Board was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1852, the son of George Board. George senior owned a cotton mill in Geelong at the time but left the area and moved to Pimpama in Queensland to try his hand at growing cotton for the mills, but was unsuccessful. He travelled to America to see how it was done and never came back!

George Leonard Board, the subject of the first part of this paper, attended Geelong Grammar School. Some years later, on 23 May 1877, he married Sophia Deighton, daughter of Edward Deighton of Deighton Estate, Highgate Hill, at St Andrew’s Church, South Brisbane. George and Sophia had nine children, two of whom died in infancy. Another child, a daughter, drowned at Lowood in southern Queensland (Bourne 2001, pers. comm.). The following comments by Mrs Bourne serve to introduce some personal information of her grandfather, George Leonard Board.

My mother, Marjorie Board, married a World War I returnee who was advised to move to the country for his health, being shell-shocked and wounded. They lived at Bald Knob near Maleny, and I, being the first child, was sent to my grandparents to attend school in Brisbane. I lived with my grandparents from the age of six, and was seven years old when my grandfather (George Leonard Board) died. I can only remember a nice, quiet old man who used to sit in a squatter’s chair on the verandah reading the paper and smoking a pipe, He passed away in 1932.

A man of peace, it appears, in his declining years. Later testimony serves to corroborate and enhance the above sketchy view.

There is some confusion over the correct given names of the first subject of this paper. It is currently thought by his family that George Leonard Board was referred to as Leonard, rather than George, in order to avoid confusion between the son and the father. The younger man was called Leonard by his wife and associates and indeed this appellation appears at the end of many public documents under his tide. But, according to family sources, his name appears as George Leonard Board on the certificate of birth of his eldest daughter and those of his marriage and death. It would seem from the overwhelming evidence of the certificates that his two given names, in order, were George Leonard and this paper will refer to him as such.

Early days in the Department of Public Lands
George Leonard Board became the first Land Commissioner of the Nanango Lands Office in 1877. Subsequently he acted in that position in Gympie, Maryborough, Bundaberg and Gladstone. In 1884, Board reported to the Queensland Government about increased timber revenue and the issuance of various licences in his Gympie district. He also recommended further reservation of land as timber reserves, solely for timber production. He also argued that proper restrictions be placed on timber-getters in regard to mature trees to allow them to be cut before they became over-mature and useless to the timber industry. In the same report he announced the appointment of a ranger to take charge of the Kin Kin Reserve, and besides carrying out his ranger’s duties, he is to take steps to form Forest Nurseries on that reserve...’ Board went on to mention the freeholding of property by selectors throughout his Gympie region (DPL 1884). His 1885 annual report made reference to the importance of reservations.

Several new reserves have been made during 1885, and several others amended so as to include within their boundaries large tracts of good timber country; and although this may lock up the land from settlement, yet it must be borne in mind that it is due to the State to protect and foster the growth of young timber and to guard against the evil apparent in the other colonies – dearth of available timber.

In the following year he again warned of overcutting and suggested that the introduction of ‘a system of forest conservation as the country becomes denuded of timber’ would be in the interests of both the public and the Department of Public Lands. At this stage, business in the timber industry was buoyant and the revenue derived therefrom amounted to £988 being £460 from licence fees, and £528 from sales of standing timber (DPL 1886).

Steps towards forest conservancy in Queensland
Board’s push for forest reservation as a bulwark against over-cutting the commercial forests in Queensland was not the only move in this direction (there had been concerns raised in the State since the 1860s by men of conscience and a Select Committee on Forest Conservancy took evidence on the issue in 1875) but also a small step on the road to conservancy.

Many notable men of the nineteenth century voiced their disquiet at the lack of some form of control over forest exploitation. A motion for the creation of a Forestry Department was raised in the Queensland Legislative Assembly in 1889 and carried, but no action immediately ensued. Nevertheless, the notion of setting up a forestry administration and accompanying conservancy had at least gained high level recognition and approval in Parliament and in 1890, at the request of the government, a number of reports were prepared (Powell 1998). Commissioners involved in recommending on the reports included P. McLean, Under-Secretary for Agriculture, P. MacMahon, Curator of the Botanic Gardens, A. McDowall, Inspector of Surveys and former District Surveyor at Maryborough, F. Byerley, Mining Surveyor Rockhampton, C.H. Barton, school teacher of Maryborough and George Leonard Board, Land Commissioner at Gympie. Board and MacMahon were destined to become respectively, the first and second Heads of Forestry in Queensland. It was left to MacMahon (aged 32) to espouse the utilitarian view of forests in the wash-up of that 1890 meeting, a decade before the inauguration of the first Forestry administration and some fifteen years before MacMahon himself became Director of Forests in Queensland:

The basis of conservancy in Queensland for some years to come, and indeed its backbone for all time, must be the management of sufficient portions of her natural forests in such a way as, while allowing them to be used for the purposes of life, will secure a perpetual succession of mature, healthy and marketable timber… It cannot be too clearly known that over-reservation is in its effects nearly as bad as no reservation at all. When a tree reaches a certain size good forestry requires that it be cut; so that the idea is not to lock these forests up (MacMahon cited by Frawley in Powell 1998).

This is an impressive statement, coming from a young Irish botanist who had been in the country only two years. Surely he was moved by the arguments of committee members such as Archibald McDowall, a keen advocate of forest conservancy; and Board, the Land Commissioner who favoured forest reservation.

The Commissioners recommended a plan of forest management emphasising forest conservancy, regeneration and the extension of forests into treeless areas. They also advocated the setting aside of five types of forest reserves. But the recommendations were not immediately acted upon.

Later, in 1896, George Leonard Board (now Land Commissioner of Maryborough and Gympie) in his report to the Government, re-stated his support for forest conservation throughout the State; reinforcing the recommendations of the Commissioners some years earlier (DPL 1896). In an 1897 report from the same Department a further step was mentioned:

It is worthy of consideration whether the time has not arrived when it is desirable to appoint an experienced officer as Conservator of Forests for the purpose of inspecting and reporting as to the best means to be adopted for the preservation and prevention of waste of the indigenous timbers and the profitable disposal of same.

A Forestry Branch was created in 1900 in the Department of Public Lands and an Inspector of Forests, George Leonard Board, was appointed to the position along with two forest rangers in supporting field roles. From a forestry viewpoint this was a fitting conclusion to the nineteenth century and to the beginning of government-approved forest conservancy.

Board’s controversial appointment
The appointment of Board in 1900 to the position of Inspector of Forests was not without controversy. There were many applicants from ‘many generally capable men’, according to The Brisbane Courier (circa May 1900). One was Philip MacMahon, Curator of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens.

In the country centres where Board had held the position of Land Commissioner, he was generally lauded. The Maryborough Chronicle (circa May 1900) was pleased for his attaining promotion because ‘he is without doubt one of the most experienced and capable men in the Lands Department… and will make it a most serviceable and important office’. In the Wide Bay and Burnett News (circa May 1900), similar sentiments were espoused but unintentionally he was damned with faint praise in some respects because the column referred to Board as ‘a model civil servant, hardworking, obliging, and always courteous. He is one of the few men in Maryborough who is naturally polite’. Board was seen by The Gladstone Observer (circa May 1900) as able and most reliable, adding:

He invariably conducted the business that came before him without fear or favour, and his uniform impartiality and the courtesy he extended to all won for him the respect and esteem of those who had business dealings in his office, or for that matter outside of it… That he was an officer not easily to be replaced may be concluded from the fact that his removal to Brisbane as Inspector of Forests has provided openings for the appointment of three or four other gentlemen who as far as can now be ascertained will have to do just what has been done singe-handed [sic] by our departing Land Commissioner.

The Gympie Times (circa May 1900) congratulated the Government for having made a wise selection, stating that Board’s new position was another example of his being ‘the right man In the right place’.

But there were supporters of his main rival, MacMahon, as well as detractors. The Public Service Board originally supported MacMahon, a move that the then Queensland Minister for Agriculture, the Hon, J. V. Chataway described as ‘a very strange choice’. Chataway owned the Mackay Mercury and acted as Brisbane correspondent to his own newspaper, or ‘rag’ as it was described by a journalist of a rival press. On 12 May, three days after the appointment of Board, Minister Chataway wrote a letter to his newspaper.

The Board went, not for the other Board, but for the Curator of the Botanical Gardens—a very strange choice considering recent events, but it seems that Mr. M’Mahon claims a special knowledge of forestry, and writes on the subject. Even were this knowledge of practical value, there was surely enough in recent events to condemn the proposed appointment, yet so thoroughly did the applicant rely on the recommendation of the P.S.B., that he considered himself as good as appointed.

The middle course was perhaps steered by The Brisbane Courier (circa May 1900) which was of the view that the final choice for the position of Inspector of Forests was based on securing ‘a man conversant not only with the timber lands of the colony, but with all the conditions under which the lands are held or worked, rather than a scientist…’

The Public Service Board, appointed by Parliament to make non-political appointments, initially favoured MacMahon but was forced to appoint George Leonard Board. In trying to make a non-political decision, the Board had fallen foul of the government, the Minister for Agriculture, the Minister for Lands and the country press, at least. The Mail (circa May 1900) in Bundaberg aggressively stated that ‘the P.S.B. were [sic] decidedly eccentric on this interesting occasion—it is to be hoped they are not often taken that way—and wanted to give the appointment to one who seems to have done nothing of late calculated to enforce his claim’. Board won the day and was appointed on 16th May 1900 at a salary of £500 per annum.

Inspector of Forests
George Leonard Board took up duties as Inspector of Forest; of the newly created Forestry Branch of the Department of Public Lands on 1 August 1900. He had limited staff that included the Crown Land Rangers: F.W.H. Lade, appointed to oversee North Queensland from Cairns, and Gilbert Burnett assigned to southern Queensland, based in Nanango.

On the last day of 1900, the area of timbered lands set aside in temporary reserves in Queensland was 1 622 855 acres (656 770 ha) and this was declared inadequate to meet the needs of the State’s inhabitants, it being considered there was a pressing need ‘to make further reservation of well-timbered lands where necessary and to ascertain what timbers the Department will retain’ (DPL Forestry Branch 1900). Revenue for the first year of establishment of the tiny Forestry Branch was only £7607.

Ringbarking was prevalent throughout the State and Board requested Land Commissioners within the wider Department to inspect large areas of Crown land whose lessees had been granted approval to clear for pasture production or other reasons, with a view to preventing the destruction of valuable timbers. Attention was also given to proclaiming reservations near railway lines of lands containing good quality hardwood suitable for railway timbers. Inspections of Fraser Island plantations, originally established by McDowall several years previously, were carried out; but the results were disappointing due mainly to neglect. Progress in forest administration however was slow due to the size of the timbered estate and the ridiculously low staff numbers.

The investigations of the State’s forests provided reports of some massive trees. A Martintown cedar with a volume of 28 330 super feet (85 cu. m) and a girth of 35 feet 4 inches (10.7 m) some five feet (1.5 m) from the ground was discovered. It was valued at £77. (The whereabouts of Martintown is unknown according to the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines. There was a railway township called Marton just to the west of Cooktown during the early 20th century, but the forests around Cooktown aid not support wet tropical rainforests). A kauri pine was found on a Kin Kin reserve with a girth of 28 feet (8.5 m) and a volume of 30 000 super feet (90 cu. m). But there were also reports of the immense waste of red cedar. Mention also was made of problems with lantana and prickly pear in the forests.

In 1902, Queensland relied chiefly on imports of hardwood and pine from New South Wales and kauri pine from New Zealand. However the State exported red cedar to New South Wales and Victoria, some hoop pine and silky oak to New South Wales and sandalwood to China.

In order to understand fully the nomenclature and physiology of Queensland forest species, collections were made of the State’s timbers—80 during 1902—which were housed in a Forestry Museum. In the previous year some specimens had been donated by Messrs Wilson Hart and Co., the Land Commissioner of Goondiwindi, and others interested in the project.

Concern was still being felt at the destruction of trees and there was talk of extensive ringbarking and timber waste in north Queensland where in previous years over sixteen million super feet Hoppus (48 052 cu. m) of timber could not be utilised because it was not possible to ‘fresh’ it over the Barron Falls. During this period, consideration was given to replacing timber licences with a system of purchase based on royalty. This way, individual timber removals could be regulated rather than having timber cut and removed on a broad area basis irrespective of the volume removed, simply by paying a license fee with no restrictions on the extent of extraction.

During 1902, cedar saplings from scrub roads were transplanted into a north Queensland State Forest reserve at East Barron using sites along both old and freshly opened tracks. There were also experiments with red cedar cuttings at Kamerunga State Nursery in Cairns. Seed of hoop, bunya and cypress pine as well as red cedar was supplied to private nurseries (DPL Forestry Branch 1902).

The patterns set in the years since inauguration were followed in 1903. There was increased reservation of lands for forestry purposes and recommendations made for a National Park at the Bunya Mountains. The timber display increased in size and was exhibited at the Queensland National Association Exhibition and later at a venue in Melbourne. Discussions with timber-getters on the need for artificial regeneration of forests were also the order of the day. There were trial shipments of mangrove bark to Germany to test the suitability of the material tor tanning and, oddly enough, experiments on obtaining rubber from mangroves!

In 1904, scenic reservation was suggested at Mowbullan and Mount D’Aguilar. By then, Beauty Spots had been declared at places such as Tully Falls. Timber Regulations were gazetted on 6 October 1904 and were scheduled to come into force on 1 January 1905. There was continuing need for permanent reservation of commercial forest land to combat pressure from other land uses such as dairy farming. The Annual Report of the young Forestry Branch for 1904 outlined a fundamental purpose for the organisation: ‘To most jealously guard against the alienation of our timber reserves from which our future supplies are to be provided.’

In 1905, Board’s final year as Inspector of Forests, Queensland boasted 338 reserves covering a total area of 3 606 709 acres (1 459 635 ha). Royalty systems were re-established, abolishing the old licensing system and there were new strictures placed upon timber-getters. Prescribed minimum girths were set for the cutting of trees, other than for mining or railway timbers, and no timber was to be removed from the point of cutting until measured and crowned by a Land Ranger. One person in thirteen was directly dependent on the timber industry for a living.

Philip MacMahon was appointed Director of Forests on 2 November 1905, replacing George Leonard Board who remained in the Department of Public Lands. On 24 August 1911, Board, then Chief Clerk, was promoted to Chief Clerk and Inspector in that Department. He retired in 1921 and moved to 40 Ekibin Road Annerley, possibly to be near his wife’s cousins. Board died on 17 May 1932. He was 80 years old at the time of death (Bourne 2001, pers. comm.).

Some personal details
Board, in his youth, was a keen Australian Rules football player and cricketer. In his mature years, he was seen as an experienced and capable officer who well knew the timber lands he presided over in his District rotes. He was objective in his decisions on land dealings and was perceived by most as a polite and hardworking civil servant. The Gladstone Observer (circa May 1900) regarded him as urbane and even-handed. The Maryborough Chronicle (circa May 1900) described him as a man of ‘tact, kindly advice and never-failing courtesy’.

At a send-off in Maryborough at the Royal Hotel, Board was the recipient of a silver salver on which was inscribed: ‘Presented to L.G. Board, Esq., by Maryborough friends on his promotion as Chief of Queensland Forestry Department’. The officiating Mayor said that Board:

had carried out his duties unostentatiously and fairly in this district… If impartiality, consistency and gentlemanly demeanour were qualities that were called upon and bound to respect, then Mr Board dserved well of the people of Maryborough and district. (The Maryborough Chronicle, c. May 1900)

There were several other speakers at the send-off, all in praise of Board; so much so that he was moved to respond that ‘they would make him vain before they had finished with him’; that would have been a most unlikely outcome.

My thanks to Mrs Marguerite Bourne for her most useful correspondence and information in regard to the Board family and in particular Mr. George Leonard Board. Thanks also to Mr. Ian Hatcher of DPI Forestry for providing me with much needed material on the appointment of Board; and other papers. Jennifer Harrison was helpful for her assistance in providing photographic material for this paper and for her useful comments on MacMahon. Thanks are also due to Kathy Ross, librarian at the Mount Cootha Gardens in Brisbane for providing information on MacMahon; and to staff at the State Library, Brisbane for help in accessing suitable photographs and microfilm. Finally, many thanks to Peter Kanowski Snr. for his comments on the manuscript and to Dr Margaret Kowald for her presentation of the paper at the Australia’s ever-changing forests V conference in Hobart, February 2002.

– Bourne, M. 2001. Personal communication—letters and other information.
– Bundaberg Mail, 1900.
– Department of Public Lands, 1884–1910. Annual Reports Brisbane.
– Harrison, J., 1994: ‘An Irish Horticulturalist in Queensland: the Philip MacMahon Story’. Presented at the Royal Historical Society Conference, 6th August 1994, Brisbane.
– MacMahon, P., 1905: The Merchantable Timbers of Queensland (Australia) with Special Reference to their Uses for Railway Sleepers, Railway Carriage and Wagon Building, Engineering Works.
– Obituary, The Gardeners’ Chronicle, p 358, June 3, 1911.
– Powell, J., 1998. People and Trees — A Thematic History of South East Queensland with Particular Reference to Forested Areas, 1823-1997. Brisbane. Queensland and Commonwealth Governments’ report.
– Queensland Select Committee on Forest Conservancy. ‘Report from Select Committee on Forest Conservancy together with the proceedings of the Committee and the Minutes of Evidence’. 1875. Government Printer. Brisbane. 55pp.
– Brisbane Courier, 1900, Brisbane.
– Gladstone Observer, 1900.
– Gympie Times, 1900.
Mackay Mercury, 1900.
– Maryborough Chronicle, 1900.
– Wide Bay and Burnett News, 1900.

Citation details

Peter Holzworth, 'Board, George Leonard (1852–1932)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 April 2024.

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