Cnr Church & Market Streets Wollongong
Phone: 02 4226-7899 Fax: 02-4226-7745
Wollongong Major steel city south of Sydney. The third largest city in New South Wales.
Wollongong, with a population of over 250 000, is the third-largest city in NSW and the tenth-largest in Australia. It is situated 81 km south of Sydney via the Princes Highway within a district known as the Illawarra, from an Aboriginal word, ‘allowrie’ or ‘eloura’ meaning ‘white clay mountain’ or ‘high place near the sea’ or even ‘between the high place and the sea’. ‘Wollongong’ itself is said to be onomatopoeic, from ‘Wol-Lon-Yuh’, an imitation of the sound of breaking waves and ebbing surf, hence ‘the sound of the sea’, although ‘five clouds’ and ‘hard ground near the water’ have also been proposed. Taken together these two names reflect the fact that the region is a relatively narrow strip of land hemmed in by mountains to the west and the ocean to the east.
There is a perception about Wollongong which bears no relation to the delights of this remarkably charming and beautiful city. It’s hard to pinpoint when people started thinking of it as big, industrial, smelly, smoky, and very ugly. Maybe it was all those school excursions to the BHP Steelworks at Port Kembla. Maybe it was just the knowledge that Wollongong was a major iron and steel producer. Maybe it was the image of mountains of coal and of huge smokestacks belching pollution into the air. Whatever created the image it did Wollongong a great disservice. When you think of Wollongong you really need to think again. It is a great place to go for a day out or for a holiday. It offers the traveller a sophisticated shopping area, excellent beaches, some of the most spectacular scenery on the NSW coast, sites of great natural beauty and some ideal fishing spots. The city’s Botanic Gardens are a wonderful respite. Situated near the remarkable Gleniffer Brae they are cool and beautiful with extensive displays. The port and Wollongong Harbour are both genuinely interesting places to visit and the town’s history, particularly its coalmining background, is fascinating.
History of the City
If it hadn’t been for a heavy surf Captain Cook would have made his first landing in NSW within the Illawarra, though he did note, in his log book, the attractive appearance of the shore and the presence of Aborigines – the Wodi Wodi tribe, who had been in the area for at least 20 000 years. He also named ‘Red Point’ (Port Kembla) and ‘a round hill top of which look’d like the Crown of a hatt’ (Mount Kembla), subsequently called ‘Hat Hill’ by Flinders. Cook continued north and landed at Botany Bay the following day.
The first Europeans to officially set foot in the vicinity and to meet the Aborigines of the Illawarra (who claimed that there were already several whites, presumably escaped convicts, living amongst them) were explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders and their servant William Martin in 1796. Sailing south in the tiny Tom Thumb their boat was overturned at Towradgi Point.
In search of fresh water and a place to dry their powder and mend a broken oar they stopped at what is now Port Kembla where they were approached by two Aborigines who led them to Lake Illawarra. There numerous others gathered on the shore and during an encounter Flinders gave a number of the locals a shave in an attempt to play for time and defuse hostilities.
The small islands off Port Kembla they named ‘Martin Islands’ in honour of William Martin’s baling efforts, which kept their bark afloat at a crucial moment. However, the name did not stick and ‘Five Islands’ was the title bestowed not only upon them but upon the entire region in the early colonial days. The party then camped at a point probably just north of Bellambi Point before returning to Sydney.
The following year the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove passed through the area. The ship had developed a leak and beached on the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. Seventeen of the crew set out by boat for help but were wrecked at Point Hicks in Victoria and continued the journey by land. Only three survived the harrowing trip to Sydney, thereby becoming the first Europeans to make an overland trip in Australia of any duration.
Bass initially made an eight-day trip with two of the Cove’s men intended to search out two crewmen left behind in the Illawarra and to investigate the survivors’ reports of coal. This Bass found at Coalcliff and elsewhere at the northern end of the Illawarra, though it would be fifty years before the seams of the Illawarra were exploited. Later that year , in another voyage, Bass visited Wollongong Harbour.
In 1803 a Captain Nicholls shipped cattle into the Shellharbour district when the Sydney area was in drought. In 1804 Captain Kent was authorised to explore the South Coast and botanist Robert Brown also visited the region some time between 1800 and 1805.
In 1805 surveyor James Meehan noted the tremendous stands of huge red cedar trees in the area. The (illegal) pillaging of the South Coast’s timber reserves to feed the demand in Sydney for softwoods appears to have commenced around 1810.
In 1815 Charles Throsby and party hacked a track from Liverpool to the Illawarra escarpment and down through an area near Bulli Pass to confirm what his Aboriginal guides had told him: that here was excellent pasturage. He soon returned with his livestock and set up the first stockman’s hut at what is now the corner of Smith and Harbour Streets, Wollongong.
Others followed and Governor Macquarie sent John Oxley down to survey the area and negotiate free land grants with the graziers. However, few of the landowners initially took up residence, instead leaving stockmen in charge, who lived in crude makeshift dwellings.
Conflict arose with the local Aborigines and, in 1826, a contingent of soldiers was sent to reinforce the claims of the settlers and perhaps to assert order amongst the unruly timber-getters. They established themselves at Port Kembla (the first land grant being made in that area in 1817) but moved on to Wollongong in 1829. Their presence represented the effective founding of townships at those two sites. Cases were initially heard in the commandant’s tent and in a slab hut from 1830. The first church services were held in 1831 and the first hotel opened c.1833. Although the land was originally set aside for grazing, agriculture (mostly grains and potatoes) soon asserted itself.
The town plan was gazetted in 1834 and the first regular steamship service to Sydney began that year. Convict labour was used to cut a path down Mt Keira in 1835-36 and to carve a safe harbour out between 1837 and 1844 so that passengers could step rather than wade ashore. Dairying developed in the region in the 1840s as cedar supplies were trailing off. The first government school opened in 1851 and the newspaper the Illawarra Mercury was established in 1855. Henry Kendall, one of Australia’s most-noted 19th-century poets, lived in what is now Fairy Meadow or Corrimal in the 1850s and wrote a number of poems about his experience of the area.
In 1856 the population of Wollongong was recorded as 864. The Bulli Pass route, investigated in 1844, was opened to wheeled traffic in 1868. The railway arrived in 1887.
More importantly, the region’s first coal mine commenced operations at Mt Keira in 1849. As steam power developed and was applied to shipping and manufactures the demand for coal increased and, by 1880, there were ten mines along the Illawarra escarpment, giving birth to a string of mining villages which now constitute the northern suburbs of the City of Greater Wollongong. As exports accelerated there was a need for improved transportation, processing and port facilities. Tramways were laid from two of the mines to Wollongong Harbour to transport coal skips which were drawn first by horses and later by locomotives.
In the 1860s Belmore Basin was constructed at Wollongong Harbour. However, even this proved inadequate. By 1885 1600 ships passed through the harbour every year.
Work commenced on the establishment of a smelting works on the western shore of Lake Illawarra in 1895 and harbour facilities were developed at Shellharbour. However, the smelting operation ran into financial trouble and was transferred to Port Kembla in 1906, which soon emerged as the main port. Its shipping history began in 1883 when a jetty was erected to service the output from the Mount Kembla mine, the source of the port’s name.
Work on the inner and outer harbours commenced at Port Kembla in 1898. A coke works was followed by copper refining in 1908, metal manufacturing in 1918, fertiliser production in 1921 and, most crucially, in 1928, Hoskins Iron and Steel transferred its operations from Lithgow to Port Kembla. This led to considerable expansion of operations and of the fledgling township of Port Kembla. BHP purchased the venture in 1935 and immigration after World War II fed the labour needs of what has become the largest steelworks in Australia and the largest steelworks owned by BHP anywhere in the world.
The influx of migrants caused a rapid population increase and fostered a highly multicultural community. World recession and rationalization in the 1980s led to significant unemployment in the region. Today, fishing, manufacturing, textiles, clothing and tourism supplement the income provided by the steelworks, coalmining and dairying.
Noted British novelist D.H. Lawrence lived in the Illawarra in 1922 while writing Kangaroo.
Local festivals include Seafood and Sail at Wollongong Harbour in mid-February and Harbourfest, held in May at Port Kembla Harbour with a street parade, fireworks, live entertainment, street theatre, children’s activities, a water skiing display and a circus. Folklorica in June is a multicultural celebration with parade that centres around Wollongong’s city centre. The Wollongong Visitor Centre has a comprehensive cultural services and facilities directory.
Crown St – City Mall and Historic Buildings
Adjacent the information centre is the post office (1892). Next door, at 87 Crown St, is a terrace shop with decorative facade and verandah – one of Wollongong’s last remaining commercial structures of the nineteenth century.
Opposite the information centre is the eastern end of the City Mall which encourages lingering, lunching, playing with the children on the swings or watching performances on the stage.
If you start walking through the mall, you will soon pass, to the right, Wollongong Uniting Church (1882) which replaced the original Wesleyan Church (1843).
Historic Buildings of Market St
From the church it is possible to gaze eastwards straight down Market St to the ocean. At the top of Market St, diagonally opposite the church, is the Italianate Court House, built in 1886 and designed by colonial architect James Barnet with a turret clock added in 1890. Extensions were completed in 1951 and, in 1970, the original courtroom was restored.
Walk east down Market St. Cross over Kembla St and to the right is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the Illawarra, the Congregational Church. Dating back to 1857 it counted John Fairfax and David Jones amongst its original benefactors.
Historic Meeting Place
Continue to the end of Market St, turn left into Harbour St and follow it to the Smith St intersection. A small bronze plaque commemorates a meeting which took place at this very spot on December 2, 1816 between the first European settlers and John Oxley.
Oxley had been sent by Governor Macquarie to survey the area and to negotiate free land grants with the graziers who had ventured into the area after Charles Throsby had introduced the first cattle in 1815. This site was chosen as the meeting place because Throsby’s stockmen had built their hut here.
Continue on to the T-intersection where Harbour St meets Cliff Rd. At this corner is a distinguished sandstone building (1858) that served as a courthouse until the Market St premises were opened. It is now the naval cadet headquarters.
The Boat Harbour and Lighthouse
Opposite the former courthouse is Wollongong Harbour which was once the centre of all activity in the Illawarra. The presence of a reasonable natural harbour, to facilitate the transportation of people and produce to Sydney, was, after all, a major cause of settlement. It is hard to imagine that, until the railway arrived and Port Kembla was developed, most of the wealth of the Illawarra was shipped from this modest facility.
Remnants from this heyday include the concrete base of a crane, which juts from the waters of the outer harbour, and the first lighthouse. Made of cast iron and riveted boiler plates, it was erected in 1871-72 after numerous wrecks on offshore reefs. Its acetylene gas-lamp was replaced with electricity in 1916.
The second lighthouse is visible atop Flagstaff Hill – the headland which encloses one side of the harbour. The hill was named after a flagstaff placed atop a stockade in the 1830s to warn incoming ships of harbour conditions. The concrete lighthouse was built in 1936. A walk or drive to the crest of the elevated headland, via Endeavour Drive, is highly recommended.
Today the harbour, with its small fishing fleet and flotilla of pleasure craft, is part of the character and appeal of Wollongong. It is a delightful place for a picnic. There is a restaurant and a Fishing Co-op which supplies fish straight from the waters offshore. The information centre has a map of the area marked with the historic sites.
If you walk northwards a short distance along Cliff Rd, you can see (or walk through) a cutting which has been gouged out of the cliff adjacent the Olympic Pool. Now a pedestrian track it was originally part of the tramline route from Mt Pleasant mine to the harbour.
1 km north of the harbour, along Cliff Rd, is Battery Park. The two cannons and the partially-excavated underground fortifications are the remnants of a fort built in 1890 to guard the approaches to the harbour. An earlier battery was established in the 1870s on Flagstaff Hill. Also buried are some coke ovens. Built in 1875 they were amongst the area’s first industrial enterprises.