Childers, a rural town of 1350 people, is 60 km west of Hervey Bay and on the Bruce Highway north-west of Maryborough. A fire in the Palace Hotel in 2000 brought it to national prominence.
The origin of the name is obscure. It has been customarily ascribed to the politician Hugh Childers who served in the Victorian colonial government during 1851-58 and in British politics from 1860 until his death. Any physical connection to Queensland is unknown. An alternative explanation comes from the Isis River, south of Childers, as there once was a village named Childers near the Isis River in Oxfordshire, England, and there is little doubt that the Queensland River was named after England's. It is possible that the village's name was also transferred to Queensland.
Childers was established near the centre of the former Isis scrub, a 360 sq km area of fertile soil. At first exploited for its timber, the scrub was cleared for agriculture during the 1870s. Rudimentary tracks were formed, chief among them one which followed a ridge. In 1885 the town of Childers was established along the ridge track, which constitutes Childers' main street. By then settlement was quickly gathering pace. Settlers on the Isis scrub were emboldened in 1886 to petition for separation from the Burrum local government division (extending from the coast to Biggenden), and moves were afoot to push a railway through to Childers. Both separation and the railway happened in 1887.
Childers was a railway terminus until the line's extension to Cordalba in 1896, encouraging the creation of a commercial centre. Delaney's hardware business - connected to Buss and Turner's in Bundaberg - opened in 1892. Gaydon's pharmacy opened in 1896, and 90 years later it became a pharmacy museum with the Childers tourist information centre. The buildings were substantial, along with a school (1889), Methodist church (1895) and court house (1896). Childers was described in 1903 in the Australian Handbook:
The description was compiled before a fire destroyed much of the town in 1902. The fire coincided with the formation of a pastoral, agricultural and industrial society. It held its first show in 1903 and the showground became a venue for carnivals and cycle races.
The sugar industry intensified in the Isis district, with a large central mill west of Childers. Labour unrest was endemic over pay, working hours and accommodation. A breakdown in negotiations between mill owners and the union in 1911 led to a strike, and 'scab' workers were hastily brought in by train. A violent riot broke out at Childers railway station, leading to 75 police officers being dispatched and distributed among mills as armed guards. A silent picture show opened in 1912, and in 1928 the proprietors opened their 1200 seat Paragon Theatre in the main street.
By the 1920s Childers' population was about 1300 people, and the figure remained at one or two hundred over that for the rest of the century. The building stock that survived the fire and the replacement stock were kept in service, and by the 1980s Childers was recognised as an historic town. Gaydon's pharmacy was identified as a museum, and was a National Trust award winner in 1989. Four hotels, Royal, Federal, Grand and Palace were noted for their historic and architectural qualities, the last mentioned including an antiques centre, and the Paragon Theatre was another main-street attraction. The Isis historical society created a complex incorporating an old Central Mill cottage. The shopping centre, labouring under several vacant frontages, had no vacancies within a year or so. Tourism had arrived as a timely economic supplement, but by car and bus as the railway had closed in 1964.
Backpacker tourism, with Childers well located on the Bruce Highway, became significant, and the Palace Hotel was turned into a hostel. A deliberately lit fire and inadequate escape facilities claimed 15 lives at the Palace in 2000. The tragedy gained national headlines and the burnt-out shell was a constant reminder while rebuilding was negotiated. Childers showed a determination to respond, and part of the hotel has been turned into a memorial for the victims.
Childers was the administrative centre of the Isis Shire, and has a cultural centre as well as the former council chambers. There are State primary and high schools (1889, 1961), a Catholic primary school (1926), golf, swimming and bowls venues, a showground (1903), a hospital, the Isis Town and Country newspaper, several churches and a court house. There are 23 sites in Churchill Street listed on the Queensland heritage register, including several shops, four hotels and the Paragon cinema. Childers' census populations have been:
B.W. O'Neill, Taming the Isis, Childers, Isis Shire Council, 1987
Diana J. Beal, ed, Shire handbook, Isis, Brisbane, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, 1974