The Town-ship of Berry……..
In recent times Berry has become very fashionable and overtly trendy as Sydneysiders, particularly those living in the southern and eastern suburbs, have found its pleasant rolling hills an ideal location for weekend retreats. Over the past decade, from the humble beginnings of the alternative lifestyle cafe, the Berry Bazaar, it has grown to a town of 1570 people awash with gift and craft shops, coffee lounges and antique shops – although, it should be pointed out that the town’s famous donut shop (a caravan on the main street) has remained unchanged.
Located 142 km south of Sydney via the Princes Highway and 10 m above sea level, Berry, for most of the past century, has been a quiet rural service town meeting the needs of the surrounding farming district. The local Chamber of Commerce named it ‘The Town of Trees’ in 1975 because, towards the end of the last century, the local settlers planted extensive stands of English oaks, elms and beech trees. Many of these still stand today giving the town a distinctly ‘English’ feel.
Once occupied by the Wodi Wodi Aborigines the chief industry of the region, since the timber cutters left in the mid-nineteenth century, has been dairying.
Aside from George Bass, who merely crossed the shoals at the entrance to the Crookhaven in 1797, the first European to officially visit the area was George William Evans. He crossed the Shoalhaven in a bark canoe, climbed Cambewarra Mountain then descended to Broughton Creek on a trek from Jervis Bay to Appin in 1812. In his journal he recorded his impression of the area:
These valleys lead into a small river [Broughton Creek] which takes a north course from the main river of Shoals Haven and runs through .. a most beautiful meadow and loses itself in different branches which are the runs from the mountains and contain such fine cedar: it is my opinion that if the small river is navigable this part of the country would make a beautiful settlement.
From 1818 to 1819 explorers Charles Throsby and Hamilton Hume and surveyor James Meehan also explored the Shoalhaven area, usually in each other’s company.
Berry was originally called ‘Broughton Creek’ but the name was changed by an Act of Parliament in 1890 in honour of the entrepreneurial Scotsman Alexander Berry and his brother David Berry. After studying medicine Alexander became a surgeon’s mate for the East India Company. He decided to quit the profession out of antipathy for the whippings he was obliged to attend and sympathy for the profits that lay in commerce. In 1807 he sailed to NSW as supercargo of the City of Edinburgh , though his stay was brief. He sailed east but was forced to abandon the vessel off the Azores and make his way to Lisbon. It was in Cadiz that he met Edward Wollstonecraft, the nephew of writer and proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and the cousin of Mary Godwin who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and married poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
In 1819 Berry formed a partnership Edward Wollstonecraft, and returned to Sydney. The two men sought a land grant and, after Berry had investigated the Shoalhaven area, they took up a run there in 1822. To allow boats access to the Shoalhaven River, Berry had Hamilton Hume and a party of convict labourers cut a 209-yard canal between it and the Crookhaven River. Completed in twelve days it was the first canal constructed in Australia.
The initial grant on the south side of the river soon expanded to the north with the agreement of the partners to take charge and expense of one convict for every 100 acres of land, extending the property to more than 40 000 acres by 1863. While Wollstonecraft looked after affairs in Sydney, Berry, who married his partner’s sister in 1827, set up his headquarters at the foot of Mount Coolangatta, north of the river.
A self-supporting village began to develop around the homestead. The partners used a combination of convict and free labour to drain the swamps, grow tobacco, potatoes, maize, barley and wheat and rear pigs and cattle, the latter kept for their hides and the production of milk and cheese. These items, destined to supply their Sydney stores, were transported by means of a ship that they purchased and a sloop which they had built . A tannery was erected, the piles of which can be seen on the banks of the creek opposite the David Berry Hospital on Beach Road. Mills and workshops were established with tradesmen engaged in cask-making, building prefabrication, experimental leather treatment, the production of condensed milk and gelatine, and shipbuilding; the first vessel being completed and launched as early as 1824. The town of Coolangatta in Queensland is named after one of Berry’s schooners which was wrecked there in Augus, 1846. The estate also bred thoroughbred horses which were exported to India.
However, it was the cedar in the area, much of it exported to Europe, that was the most profitable resource. In 1828 Berry’s men crossed Kangaroo Mountain to find a million feet of cedar south of Broger’s Creek. By the 1840s a water-driven sawmill was in operation, supplied by an earthen water race originating in Broughton Mill Creek.
Many of the employees were Aborigines. An 1838 census of the estate indicates 242 black employees from seven tribes. Indicative of the passing of tribal life is the fact that the last known initiation ceremony on the coast occurred at Mt Coolangatta in 1890.
By the 1850s Berry was leasing out his Shoalhaven property to tenant farmers and it was this which enabled the true development of the area and of the township of Broughton Creek to begin.
A traveller, passing through the district in 1850, wrote of his journey from Kiama to the property of Alexander Berry in the following terms:
Leaving Kiama, we journeyed onwards due south, intending, if possible, to reach Coolangatta, the residence of Mr Berry, distant sixteen miles, before night. The road was very bad, and cut up by the heavy rain, which still fell; on the left is the sea, and on your right the country is hilly. It is pleasing to pass the number of small farms you see on either side of the road; the possessors of them appear independent men, made so by being industrious, and expending their labour upon fertile soil. Many of them had horses and cattle, besides their farm-steadings; and those who had been any length of time on the land possessed all that was useful and comfortable in conducting the operations of a dairy-farm.
This description, apart from the road which has improved immeasurably over the past one hundred and thirty years, is still a fair description of the area.
The first church service was held in the settlement in 1858. A post office was opened in 1861, being connected to the electric telegraph in 1877. By 1868 there were 300 people in the village, which, besides the post office, boasted a tannery, store and school and an inn opposite on the site of the present Berry Hotel. The area was declared a municipality at this time, much against Alexander Berry’s wishes.
After Alexander Berry died in 1873 the Coolangatta Estate passed to his brother. David Berry nurtured the development of Broughton Creek, donating land for an agricultural showground and for four churches on the four corners of town: Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Catholic and Anglican. In 1882, a survey was carried out on the western side of Broughton Mill Creek and the first town land was sold the following year. The railway arrived in 1893 and the Berry milk factory, described as the ‘largest and most complete in the colony’ opened two years later. 1899 saw the establishment of the Berry Experimental Farm where the Illawarra Shorthorn breed of cattle evolved. Electricity arrived in 1927 and the last ship visited its wharf the following year.
David Berry died in 1889 and by 1912 nearly all of the property had been sold off. Fire gutted the old homestead in 1946.Eventually the site was restored and in 1972, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of settlement, it was opened as the Coolangatta Historic Village.