The Darling Downs are west of the Dividing Range, extending to a plain reaching to Miles and Goondiwindi. It is a complex region and is described in more detail below. The Downs were encountered by Alan Cunningham 1791-1839 when his expedition crossed the Dumaresq River in 1827. The following year he found a gap in the ranges near Warwick, providing access from Moreton Bay. Cunningham named the Downs after Sir Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales (1825-1831).

The eastern side of the Darling Downs is defined by the Bunya Mountains and their northern foothills, the continuation of the Dividing Range in a south-easterly trend through Crows Nest and Toowoomba, and then in a southerly trend to Killarney and Stanthorpe, ending at the Granite Belt. The westerly foothills of this range enter the undulating, rolling downs and come upon the Condamine alluvial plain. The Condamine River rises near Killarney and trends north-west through Warwick, Dalby and Chinchilla. The river plain and its numerous tributaries (particularly around Allora, and including Oakey, Canaga and Cooranga Creeks) are distinguished by good soils formed by basaltic alluvium of depths of 4-60 feet. The westerly limit of the Condamine plain lies along an irregular line passing near Leyburn, Cecil Plains and Chinchilla. The Western Downs lie beyond that.

By far the larger part of the Darling Downs, the Western Downs, extends beyond Inglewood to Goondiwindi, to beyond Tara, and beyond Miles to Wandoan. In the early 1900s the area of the Darling Downs was expressed as '4 million acres of the richest soil in the world'. Sixty years later the Australian Encyclopaedia described them as fertile black-soil plains and valleys of an area 3.6 million acres. Another source thought the figure was 5.2 million acres, an indication of the difficulty of ascertaining the westerly reach of the Downs.

Toowoomba lay just west of one of the few accessible openings through the range to the Downs. A railway was built from there down the range to Ipswich during 1865-66, from where goods could be transferred to the Bremer and Brisbane Rivers. By then there were vast pastoral estates over the Downs, beginning with the Leslies' Canning Downs estate (1840) near Warwick. The pastoral dominance of the Downs was hard to dislodge. Early farm selections were frustrated by pastoralists' opposition, the vagaries of climate and soils, distance from transport and markets and lack of capital. Stubbornness, and German-Lutheran backbone could surmount some difficulties, and a government network of railways out of Toowoomba and Warwick answered the transport question. The railways accessed the damper, more fertile reaches of the Upper Condamine River system: from Warwick lines went to Stanthorpe (1881), Killarney (1885) and Allora (1897); and out of Toowoomba lines went to Dalby (1867), Miles (1878) and Crows Nest (1886). Warwick had been joined to Toowoomba in 1871, and thus to Moreton Bay.

Populations were concentrated around Warwick and Toowoomba, and a patchwork of shires and boroughs came into being in 1879-80, when the first rural local-government bodies were started. Over the passage of years most have been absorbed by amalgamations, and the process is charted further on. Farm selections were mostly mixed farming, with maize, arrowroot and other cereals, dairying, pigs, calves and other livestock. Many railway stations had livestock saleyards. Some pastoral estates held out longer, but the second wave of railway extensions signified the breakup of the estates: lines were opened from Warwick to Inglewood (1907) and Goondiwindi (1908); and from Toowoomba to Millmerran (1911), Tara (1911) and Cecil Plains (1919), the last accessing a previously enormous pastoral empire. A line from Dalby to Jandowae (1914) passed through the Jimbour pastoral empire, which was resumed for closer-settlement in 1921. Branch lines (mostly uneconomic) to farm localities also went from Toowoomba to Haden (1910) and Cooyar (1913).

The once pastoral Western Downs came under cereals, encouraged by soldier-settlement schemes. Around Dalby, schemes were implemented after World War II, and improved dryland farming techniques led to vast crop expansions. By then the prickly pear infestations had been eliminated for 20 years or more. In the Northern Downs brigalow country (acacia scrub infesting soils usually of average or better fertility) was cleared by mechanisation, accelerating land-management practices that were applauded at the time but came increasingly under question by the end of the century.

The Downs' first secondary industry was sawmilling, and the cleared land gave rise to another secondary industry, butter and cheese-making. By 1912 there were butter (B) and cheese (C) factories at: Allora (B), Cambooya (C), Clifton (B, C), Crows Nest (B), Dalby (B), Goombungee (C), Greenmount (B, C), Inglewood (C), Jandowae (B), Leyburn (C), Oakey (B), Pittsworth (B, C), Tannymorel (B), Toowoomba (B) and Warwick (C) to name only the better known places. In the late 1930s the Downs' dairy industry peaked at 6500 farms and over 200,000 milking cows. In 1976 the number of farms was 3113. In 1912, however, the Darling Downs had some impressive agricultural statistics.

Darling Downs, Selected Agricultural Products (1912)
 Milk
(millions of gallons)
Cheese
(millions pounds weight)
Butter
(millions pounds weight)
Wheat
(millions bushels)
Darling Downs25.33.77.81.87
Queensland83.03.828.21.97

Manufacturing industry has mostly been at the service of the agricultural and local economies: railways workshops, agricultural machinery, building and fabrication, electricity and gas.

In 1992 the total area of the Darling Downs was put at 9,007,000 hectares (22,256,693 acres), taking in the Northern and Western Downs to Taroom and to nearly the Moonie River. However, allowing for this overstatement, 82% of the area was assessed as being occupied by agricultural establishments (no doubt including uncleared lands). Grazing lands carried 1.9 million beef cattle, 69,000 dairy cattle, 1.7 million sheep and 258,000 lambs. There were also 306,000 pigs, supplying meat processing works in Toowoomba. Cereals were grown on 709,500 ha, and other crops (including fodder) on 313,000 ha.

In 2008 the Darling Downs were locally-governed by four regional councils. Before the amalgamations there were 19 councils, and in 1994 there were 22. Most were clustered around Toowoomba and Warwick. The history of local government in the Darling Downs was as follows.

Local Government, Darling Downs: Formation and Amalgamation
First townsFirst rural bodiesOther rural bodiesOther rural bodiesAmalgamations  
 1879-801887-891909-17194919942008
Toowoomba (1860)  Cambooya Shire from Clifton,Cambooya absorb Drayton--
Drayton (1862)Clifton DivisionDrayton DivisionCrows Nest fromCrows Nest absorb Highfields-Toowoomba Regional Council
 Highfields Division   - 
 Gowrie Division   -12,973 sq km
 Jondaryan Division Jondaryan absorb Gowrie - 
 Middle Ridge Division   -Population 151,283 (2006)
    Millmerran shire from Jondaryan- 
    Pittsworth Shire from Jondaryan- 
 Rosalie Division---- 
Dalby (1863)Murilla Division----Dalby Regional Council (name changed to Western Downs Regional Council in 2009)
 Taroom Division---- 
 Wambo Division-Chinchilla Shire from Wambo--38,039 sq km
   Tara Shire from Wambo  Population 30,018 (2006)
Allora (1869)   -Warwick absorb Allora, Glengallen, Rosenthal 
  Rosenthal Division from...   7120 sq km
 Stanthorpe Division    Population 36,610 (2006)
Warwick (1861)      
Goondiwindi (1888) ----Goondiwindi Regional Council
 Inglewood Division----19,294 sq km
 Waggamba Division----Population 10,720 (2006)

*The regional council took the southern third of Taroom Shire

The locations of most of the shires can be deduced where their names coincided with their main towns, but for those that did not:

  • Gowrie Division, west of Toowoomba
  • Middle Ridge Division, South of Toowoomba
  • Murilla Division, Miles
  • Wambo Division, entirely surrounded Goondiwindi
  • Glengallen Division, Killarney, east of Warwick
  • Rosenthal Division, west of Warwick
  • Waggamba, entirely surrounded by Dalby

The census populations of the Darling Downs, excluding any part of Taroom, have been:

Census DatePopulation
188131,480
191184,640
192193,778
1936*115,230
1947116,069
1961142,397
1976155,313
1991182,487
2001200,733
2006228,631
2012*190,571
*estimated.
Further Reading: 

Maurice French and Duncan Waterson, The Darling Downs: a pictorial history 1850-1950, Toowoomba, Darling Downs Institute Press, 1980

R.H. Greenwood, The Darling Downs, Melbourne, Longmans Green, 1957

Darling Downs Queensland: the garden of Australia, Brisbane, Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, 1908

Doreen O'Sullivan, Dairying history of the Darling Downs, Toowoomba, USQ Press, 1992