The Collinson Index

How many times have you walked past the old timber cabinets in the John Oxley Library Reading Room without noticing the pink labels on the old wooden card catalogue that reads ‘Collinson Index’?

If you pull out any one of these drawers, you will find hundreds and hundreds of carefully-typed and hand-written index cards relating largely to the history of North Queensland, but also to Brisbane and other Queensland towns and ships. The index cards are the life work of a Mr. J. W. Collinson (1877-1966) who spent the first 4 decades of his life in what he called the ‘magic North’.

The cards span the years from the 1888 - 1964, and index a wide range of sources – magazines that Collinson probably subscribed to himself, like Queensland Figaro and Punch, Cummins & Campbell’s Monthly Magazine for Education and Amusement, The Steering Wheel and the Journal of the Historical Society of Queensland; newspapers including The Cairns PostDelta Advocate, Townsville Advocate, Townsville Daily Bulletin, The Queenslander, Cooktown Courier, North Queensland Register, plus sundry interstate papers.

Collinson also combed through the volumes of the Queensland Parliamentary Papers, Hansard and Pugh’s Almanac. There are innumerable book references to classics like Jack Logan’s Northmost Australia (1921) W. H. Corfield’s Reminiscences of Queensland, 1862-1899,  and Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland details of his own correspondence with various Queensland identities and references to his 6 volumes of cutting books which he called "Historical Data Cairns and North Queensland Generally" (also held by the John Oxley Library). A key to the abbreviations used in the cards appears in the first two cards. This is an index card relating to the "Pearl" ferry disaster:

The Collinson Index is thus a unique resource for the study of Queensland history, supplementing early works like the Aldine History of Queensland (1888) and later bibliographies like Margaret Zerner and Ross Johnston’s Guide to the History of Queensland : a bibliographic survey of selected resources in Queensland history (1985).  Collinson’s index also fills in the indexing gaps of the Australian digitised newspaper repository Trove, and the Informit databases like APA Full Text and its hard- copy precursor, Australian Public Affairs Information Service.

So who exactly was J. W. Collinson? This portrait of Collinson appeared in his book Tropic Coasts and Tablelands of 1941:

The initials J. W. stand for James Warren, known by his friends as Jim, a native of Reddish, Cheshire, born 31 May 1877. Collinson set sail  for Australia as a babe in arms on the Saraca  from Greenoch, Glasgow on 26 August 1877.  With him were his parents Charles and Mary, and infant brother Henry, who tragically died of typhoid on the voyage and was buried at sea on 4 November.  The family arrived in Maryborough on the 14th of December of that same year, and after various moves to Pialba, Tiaro and Townsville, moved north to Cairns in 1886. Here Collinson attended the Cairns State School, leaving in his 15th year. He  became a writer and widely-respected chronicler of North Queensland history.

Collinson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the North was gained first hand in the places he lived - Cairns, Atherton, Port Douglas, Cooktown, Townsville as well as  New Guinea and the Torres Strait. He worked in a variety of occupations - gold prospecting, clerk in the Railways Dept Cairns and Mareeba (1899),  journalist and editor for the Tableland Examiner (1910-13) and the Port Douglas Record (1913), clerk for Burns Philp (1916-18). Collinson was transferred to Brisbane in 1919 where he worked for 27 years as Inspector of Stamps in the Stamp Duties Office of the Queensland Treasury Department until his retirement in 1946. He married Annie Hutchinson in 1921.

Nothing escaped Collinson’s attention. One imagines evenings and weekends preparing his lantern slides for his illustrated lectures, clipping from piles of newspapers and magazines and puzzling at how best to reference each item in the days before computers. Each entry was given an author and title entry and carefully cross referenced under subject or geographic location. Three of these cards record the drowning deaths at different times and places of his three siblings who had been born in Australia: Daisy who was barely 2 years old; Robert, 12 and Walter, 13 - the brevity of these entries poignantly express the impartial professionalism of the indexer:

Collison was not just an indexer of others' work. He wrote 5 books of his own, as well as many journal articles, book chapters and lectures.  The most autobiographical of these writings can be seen in his Tropic Coasts and Tablelands (1941) about life in Cairns - the ‘magic’ place where he had his "bare leg days". He was scrupulous in gathering every review and mention in the press of his publications. Many, now yellowing, appear affixed to his index cards and pages in his Cutting Books:

This considerable body of work was acknowledged by a Diploma of Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (Queensland branch, 1946) and an honorary life membership of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland (1963). Collinson was also a Justice of the Peace -not bad for someone who left school at 15.

Collinson employed his hard-earned postnominals at every opportunity – in any journal in which he published or in any news item which mentioned him. The FRGSA  also embellished his bookplate which is fastened to several of his volumes of Cutting Books Data relating to Cairns and North Queensland:

At the base of this bookplate in bold capital letters appears the motto Sic Vos Non Vobis  which translates from the Latin as 'Thus do ye, but not for yourselves' –a reference to the unselfishness of the indexer whose labour is largely for the benefit of others, without personal gain.

James W. Collinson died at age 89, on the 31st May, 1966 in Brisbane.

We, the State Library of Queensland and all those interested in the history of this state, are the beneficiaries of that long life of inquiry and selfless industry.

Below is a list of Collinson’s books and journal articles. Many of the articles that were published in the Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland can be read via the UQ eSpace Library:


Early Days of Cairns Brisbane. Brisbane: Smith & Paterson, 1939

Tropic Coasts and Tablelands. Brisbane: Smith & Paterson, 1941

More About Cairns Volume: 1. The second decade; Volume 2. Echoes of the past.;
Volume 3, Recollections of a varied life : the autobiography of Joseph Greetham Eastwood (with appendices)  Brisbane : W R Smith & Paterson, 1942-1946.

Key-tapping in the tropics : early days of the electric telegraph, Australia. Brisbane : Post Office Historical Society, Australian Postal Institute, Queensland Division, 1953

Journal articles:

Cairns: its rivers and mountains Queensland Geographical Journal Vol 49 No. 35 1944-45: 59-63

The Origin and Growth of the Sugar Industry in the Cairns District JRHSQ Vol 3 No. 4 Feb 1945 : 260-264

From the Downs to the Don and the Dee: The Story of the Brothers, Leith-Hay  JRHSQ Vol 3 No. 6 Dec 1947 : 466-471

Cardwell, a gateway to the west JRHSQ Vol 4 No. 2 1949 :182-189

'The goldfields of Queensland', in: Gold in Australia; edited by Charles Barrett. London, Cassell, 1951. pp. 41-55.

Rise and Decline of Port Douglas JRHSQ Vol 4 No 4 Dec 1951 : 559-567

Innisfail JRHSQ Vol 5 No. 1: 804-819

Those Roads and Bridges: Genesis of Local Government in Queensland JRHSQ  Vol 5 No. 2 1954  :930-935

Rockingham Bay River System JRHSQ   Vol 5 No. 2 1954 : 947- 952

Building the Cairns Range Railway JRHSQ  Vol 5 No. 3 1955 : 1069-1075

Economic Development, North Queensland JRHSQ  Vol 5 No. 4 1956 : 1192-1200

Brief synopsis of the life of Albert Charles English JRHSQ  Vol 6 No. 3 1961 : 580-593

Given the importance of Collinson's index the State Library's Queensland Memory and Resource Discovery teams plan to index these cards as a future digitisation project.

Jennifer Freeman
Reference Librarian - State Library of Queensland


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This is such an interesting article, Jennifer. My husband is a descendant of the other Collinson family from Cairns whom JW mentions in the article provided. Our Collinson family were also prominent in early Cairns history and it seems the two families were often confused with each other.

Rhona, I thought you'd like to know that there are 3 card references to the 'other' Collinson - William Hunter Collinson, the first butcher in Smithfield. If you like I can send you the references.Jennifer

Wonderful to see FNQ articles included in your blog.

What a great blog entry/article you've written. I really appreciated the tone of the article, the mix of what is in the index, what went into making it and who this man was - it's fascinating stuff. You're entry made me think about lots of things. One of my great-grandfathers came over as an engineer for building the Kuranda railway line - now I'll know where to start.Another grandfather came from Greenock to the Glasshouse Mountains after WW1 and his younger brother drowned in the river in Scotland. You can see why learning to swim has been so important in our community ...Looking forward to more from you

You can imagine my excitement and surprise when I stumbled across your article today. I am one of J W Collinson's great granddaughters. He was truly an inspiring man and I am so lucky that he is a part of our family history.I am also lucky enough to live in North Qld and can familiarize with many of the landmarks and locations that he mentions in his books. I hope to visit the John Oxley Library one day soon. Thank you for placing such a wonderful commentary on the web about my Great Grandfather.I will be sure to pass this link onto other descendants of J W Collinson.

I am the grandson of J.W. Collinson and I witnessed a display of some of his books within the Cairns Library approx. 30 years ago when I was working up there. I also have the full collection of his works, some with the original leather bindings.I also have a book writen by Charles Kingsford Smiths' sister who asked J W Collinson to write the Forward as he and Smithy were apparently quite close.

As a Grandchild of JW Collinson and knowing of his works in the early days of Cairns and visiting our Grandparents in Brisbane in the 50's and 60's, I remember many stories told to us and it is absolutely wonderful it is all preserved at the John Oxley Library. Many thanks for the wonderful blog.

I also am a grandaughter of James Warren Collinson and also hold a copy of one of his books. I remember as a child my mother maiden name Ida Warren Collinson married name Ida Warren Taylor going to the Mitchel Library and asking for his books to be displayed on the shelves. That makes 2 libraries. This was after the death of James Warren Collinson after the estate was being settled. I remeber the excitement my mother had when she received the reply that they would accept the books. The Collinson family was quite a large one when they arrived in Maryborough in the 1800's and settled. Many Collinsons still live in Maryborough and its surrounds.

I believe I may be a relation of yours. My grandmothers maiden name is Flora Collinson and I know that she had a sister named Ida Warren Collinson (married Taylor). I am trying to track down any photos of her sister whilst she was in the defence force, if your mother is in fact my Great Aunt, perhaps you could help me out?

I am the eldest grandchild of James Warren Collinson and the holder of original letters written by his mother from Kuranda on her selection there to her son, including those to him when he married. also photos taken of his mother, the only ones ever taken. I have given the 5 books written to my youngest daughter to look after, this set was signed and given to his wife. I also have other letters that may be of interest. I have given a copy of these to Cairns Historical Society.

I am also a great grandaughter of J W Collinson, my mother being Shirley Anne Dakin, from a very early age I was wowed by my family history, and have had great pride in knowing how important my great grandfather was in putting the past on paper. I was very suprised a few years back to find the bowen library to have 4 of his books, it renewed my interest in doing a little more research into his history.

Maryborough Family Heritage Institute is holding a reunion for descendants of the passengers of the Saraca which arrived in Maryborough 140 years ago. The Collison family were immigrants on this ship. Any descendants who would like information about this reunion can contact us through our web page or facebook site or email to Thank you.

Apologies for incorrect email address. It should be heritageresearch@bigpond.comPaula Hill President.

HOWARD MAXWELL MILLER, (Collinson) My grandmother was his youngest sister, Flora Collinson. I lived with my grandmother for some years as a child in the 1950's, for family reasons, so I am well conversed with and have a signed copy by the author of "Early Days of Cairns", If any of my distant family would like to contact me, I can be reached at email. Mark the email "family matters" and expect more than a few surprises. There have been many little, "Collinson additions" on my side of the family. I especially seek knowledge of the "Collinson Family Bible", which was brought out from Scotland with the family and went back to family on the death of my grandmother.? in the late 1950's.

Just to mention an email address in case any distant family wish to contact?