331 Princes Highway Bulli
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Bulli Former coalmining village which has retained its identity despite its suburbanisation.
The old coalmining village of Bulli, now considered a northern suburb of Wollongong, is located 70 km south-west of Sydney via the Princes Highway.
When Captain James Cook sailed up the eastern coast of Australia in 1770 a number of people aboard the Endeavour recorded their impressions of the shoreline. It is from the journals of the ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks, that we have a description of what Bulli looked like before Europeans had even set foot on it:
‘The country today again made in slopes to the sea…The trees were not very large and stood separate from each other without the least underwood; among them we could discern many cabbage trees but nothing else which we could call by any name. In the course of the night many fires were seen.
Originally inhabited by the Wodi Wodi Aborigines the first Europeans in the area were escaped convicts. On a more official note, the small sailing boat of explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders overturned at Towradgi just to the south of Bulli in 1796 and they encountered large numbers of Aborigines in awkward circumstances.
In 1797, the area was traversed by the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove. The ship beached on the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. Seventeen of the crew set out by boat but were again wrecked at Point Hicks in Victoria and continued the journey by land. Only three survived the arduous trip to Sydney. George Bass undertook an eight-day trip with two of the survivors intended to seek out two crewmen left behind in the Illawarra (their bodies were found, presumed murdered by local Aborigines) and to investigate the survivors’ reports of coal south of Sydney which Bass found at Coalcliff just north of Bulli.
The name ‘Bulli’ derives from an Aboriginal word thought to signify ‘two mountains’. It was used from 1815 to describe the area from Bulli south to Mt Keira. That year Charles Throsby opened up the Illawarra to settlement when he hacked a path down the slopes of the Bulli mountain in search of pasture for his cattle.
Cedar-getters had been in the Illawarra since 1812 and were to be found in the Bulli area by 1815. They cut the timber where it fell and carted it to the beach for shipment to Sydney, or hauled it up the Bulli pass for transportation by bullock train to Parramatta.
The first permanent settler was Cornelius O’Brien who established a farm in 1823 on the land that stretches inland from Sandon Point, now one of the Illawarra’s best-regarded surfing spots. He used convict labour and, with the help of local Aborigines, carried out fishing and whaling.
In 1837 O’Brien sold his land to Captain Robert Westmacott who extended his land, bred race horses which he raced in the first local horse races, founded a brickworks (an industry still operative today), co-founded a steamship company which travelled to and from Sydney, cut a superior path down Bulli Mountain which is still in use today as the Bulli Pass, made many sketches and paintings of the local area, helped organise the first local agricultural society and established the first coalmine in the region. He was however ruined by the depression of the 1840s and returned to England.
A mine was opened in 1862. Miner’s cottages were built and a tight-knit community developed with hotel, Wesleyan church and shops. By the end of that decade it was the most productive mine in the district employing nearly 100 men. The Bulli Coal Company laid a rail track from the mine to Sandon Point where the coal was conveyed to ships.
For the workers, there was no set weekly wage and no benefits. They were only paid for what they produced. Weekly contributions were paid into a fund to help the men and their families who lost their income as a result of sickness, injury or death. They formed the Illawarra’s first trade union in 1879. As a result, management closed the mines, evicted workers and brought in non-union labour.
On 23 March 1887 an explosion killed all 81 men and boys working in the mine, leaving behind 50 widows and 150 children. The mine reopened later that year and the township continued to develop.
With a population greater than Wollongong, Bulli had a railway station, bank, courthouse and other amenities. Slowly it was overtaken by Wollongong so that today it is no more than a northern suburb of the third largest city in New South Wales.
The mine was closed down in 1987 after 125 years of operation. A number of old timber cottages, shops and other buildings survive from the nineteenth century.