Toowoomba's history can be traced back to 1816 when English botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham arrived in Australia from Brazil where he had been searching for native trees and plant life that would be suitable for the Australian climate.
In June 1827, he was rewarded for his many explorations when he discovered 4 million acres (16,000 km²) of rich farming and grazing land bordered on the east by the Great Dividing Range and situated 100 miles (160 km) west of the settlement of Moreton Bay (later to become Brisbane). Cunningham named his find Darling Downs after Ralph Darling (later Sir Ralph), then Governor of New South Wales.
It was not until 13 years later when George and Patrick Leslie established Toolburra Station 56 miles (90 km) south-west of Toowoomba that the first settlers arrived on the Downs. Other settlers quickly followed and a few tradesmen and businessmen settled and established a township of bark-slab shops called The Springs which was soon renamed Drayton.
Towards the end of the 1840s Drayton had grown to the point where it had its own newspaper, general store, trading post and the Royal Bull's Head Inn which was built by William Horton and still stands today. Horton is regarded as the real founder of Toowoomba, although he was not the first man to live there.
Early in 1849 Horton sent two of his men, William Gurney and William Shuttlewood, to cut away reeds in a marshy swampland area a few miles away that nobody from Drayton ever visited. When Gurney and Shuttlewood arrived they were surprised to find a pitched tent among the reeds. The tent's owner was bush worker Josiah Dent who was the first man to live in "The Swamp". This extraordinary news was the main talking point in Drayton for weeks and people became interested in developing The Swamp as useful farming land.
Plans were drawn for 12 to 20 acre (49,000 to 81,000 m²) farms in the swamp (later to be drained and become the foundation for the establishment of Toowoomba) in the hope of attracting more people to the area to support the land and build up the town. Two years later people began purchasing the land but not new settlers. The new farm holdings attracted buyers from Drayton.
1851 saw the establishment of a National School at Drayton, which later became Drayton State School.
On 29 August 1852 the town's only churchman, the Rev. Benjamin Glennie who had lived in Drayton since 1848, christened both children at the Alford home. It was the first Church of England service held in Toowoomba and the first day the word "Toowoomba" was written on a public document.
How the name Toowoomba was derived is still a point of argument. There are several theories, including:
- that it derived from the aboriginal word for swamp which is Tawampa as the Aborigines had no "s" in their vocabulary.
- that the aboriginal interpretation for "reeds in the swamp" Woomba Woomba was used as the original source
- that the word Toowoomba was taken from the aboriginal term for a native melon "Toowoom" or "Choowoom" which grew plentifully in the township.
Drovers and wagon masters spread the news of the new settlement at Toowoomba. By 1858 Toowoomba was growing fast. It had a population of 700, three hotels and many stores. Land selling at £4 an acre (£988/km²) in 1850 was now £150 an acre (£37,000/km²).
On 30 June 1860 a petition of 100 names was sent to the Governor requesting that Toowoomba be declared a Municipality. Governor Bowen granted their wish and a new municipality was proclaimed on 24 November 1860.
The first town council election took place on 4 January 1861 and William Henry Groom, who had led Toowoomba people in their petition for recognition, polled the most votes.
On 12 August 1862 Alderman Groom was elected to State Parliament as Member for Drayton and Toowoomba. Also in August 1862, telegraphic communication was opened between Toowoomba and Brisbane.
In 1864 Toowoomba Gaol was opened. After closure in 1900, it became the site of the Austral Hall (1904), a woman's reformatory and laundry (1883-4), Rutlands Guest House, and various other modern sites, including a motel, a restaurant and a town house block.
In 1865 Toowoomba South State School opened, the first State School in Toowoomba itself.
In April, 1867 Toowoomba's rail link with Ipswich was opened.
In 1870 Alderman Spiro replaced William Henry Groom as Mayor.
In 1873 Council was granted control of the swamp area and offered a prize of £100 for the best method of draining it.
The Toowoomba Gas and Coke Company was floated in 1875 and the Council pledged to erect street lamps to assist with the establishment of the fledgling company. Due to its financial situation Council leased part of the swamp to town brickmakers and also approved construction of the Toowoomba Grammar School. The school's foundation stone was laid in this year.
In 1892 the Under Secretary of Public Land proclaimed Toowoomba and the surrounding areas as a township. By 1898, the existing Town Hall was inadequate for the demands of a growing community. In July, Council agreed that new municipal buildings and a Town Hall should be constructed on the site of the School of Arts which had been destroyed by fire earlier that year, pending the sale of the old Town Hall for £2,000 to the Roman Catholic Church.
Council offered a prize of 25 guineas for the best design. Architect Willoughby Powell's design was awarded first prize and the contract to erect the building at a cost of £10,000 went to Alexander Mayes who later was elected Mayor. The new building was opened in 1900 and still stands in Ruthven Street today. At noon on 20 October 1904 Toowoomba's status of a township was changed to a city and every bell and horn was sounded for half a minute to celebrate the event. A refurbishment program was completed in 1996 at a cost of $3.4 million and Council meetings are once again held there.
A suburban rail motor service commenced in May, 1917, running to Wyreema, 10 miles (16 km) away. It was extended to Cambooya and to Willowburn in 1918. They ceased around 1923.
The Second World War saw an invasion by American and Australian troops who took over the parks and major buildings for recreational, hospital and training purposes. Downlands College was opened in 1931.
Since the 1950s, Toowoomba has added the provision of tertiary services, military installations, public service departments to its traditional role as a commercial, agricultural and educational centre.
A tertiary education centre, the QITDD, was established in Toowoomba in 1967. It became an autonomous college of advanced education, the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (DDIAE) in 1971; a university college (UCSQ) in 1990 and subsequently the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).