Walkers Limited began its impressive history of heavy engineering manufacturing in 1867 when John Walker, a successful Ballarat foundry owner, travelled to Queensland in search of new market opportunities.
The discovery of gold at Gympie in the same year, together with the fledgling sugar industry in the region, persuaded him and three friends to open a branch foundry in Maryborough. The business flourished as these industries grew and Maryborough established itself as a commercial centre and port through which gold, sugar and timber were shipped.
In 1873, Walkers Limited built Queensland’s first steam engine and went on to become a major manufacturer of railway rolling stock. It produced over 550 steam powered, 12 diesel electric and 144 diesel-hydraulic locomotives. These were widely used in Queensland, as well as in Victoria and South Australia.
As the mining and milling industries spread throughout Queensland in the 20th century, demand grew for Walkers Limited equipment and engineering expertise. Walkers Limited ultimately became a world-class exporter of heavy manufacturing machinery to countries including the Caribbean, Indonesia, Thailand, South Africa and the USA.
For nearly 100 years, Walkers Limited was a significant Australian ship-builder, constructing 68 ships in total. Contracts with the Royal Australian Navy saw the production of 31 naval vessels such as Frigates and Corvettes, until international competition forced the ship yard to close in 1974.
The diversity and growth of Walkers Limited’s activities ensured that it became a major employer in Maryborough. Its workforce grew from 200 in the late 19th century to 1200 at its peak. This was a remarkable achievement for a city the size of Maryborough.
From its establishment in 1868 until its merger with Evans Deakin Ltd in 1980, Walkers enjoyed almost uninterrupted success largely due to a well-qualified, stable workforce and a succession of outstanding leaders. These were visionaries and entrepreneurs who continually adapted the company’s heavy engineering manufacturing capacity to new products, new markets, and emerging opportunities. Among them, Dr Walter Hughes CBE (C) was preeminent through his 41 years of distinguished service to the company, and his commitment to its workforce and the community.
Walkers Limited grew to become a national asset and was unquestionably one of Queensland’s greatest companies. After 150 years, its activities in Maryborough continue to this day as part of Downer Rail.