Putting the Illawarra's ghosts on the map

Port Kembla psychic Kerrie Barraclough doesn’t mind sharing her space with kindred spirits from the other side. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Port Kembla psychic Kerrie Barraclough doesn’t mind sharing her space with kindred spirits from the other side. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Stories of ghosts and sightings of the supernatural have filled humans with fear and dread since the beginning of time.

Some swear they see the dead, others claim to hear voices or feel the chill of an unearthly touch.

Most of us have shared haunting tales while staring into a campfire, lapping up that spine-tingling jolt of terror and adrenaline.

Reality television shows such as Ghost Hunters have brought the spirit world to primetime TV, and business is booming for paranormal investigators.

"There's banging when nothing is happening, the water cooler comes on by itself and my clients see people."

In Australia ghost tours are popping up in cities big and small, as people become more curious and open-minded about the unexplainable.

Port Kembla psychic Kerrie Barraclough believes the Illawarra could cash in on its haunted history and its modern-day spirit world by jumping on board the ghost tour bandwagon.

Her Wentworth Street business is populated with colourful characters who have passed.

"We've got a lot of activity in here, there's an old sailor and two females," says Ms Barraclough.

"Things fly off shelves, music turns up on its own.

"There's banging when nothing is happening, the water cooler comes on by itself and my clients constantly see people."

Ms Barraclough sensed the heightened paranormal activity in Port Kembla the very first day she walked along the main street two years ago. She was on the hunt for a suitable location for her business, Mystik Wellness Centre.

"I was walking down the street with a guy from council and he tried to show me another shop and I couldn't concentrate," she explains.

"A spirit came through telling me 'come over here, come over here, this is where I got taken'."

Kerrie Barraclough thinks ghost tours would help people open their minds to the spirit world.

Kerrie Barraclough thinks ghost tours would help people open their minds to the spirit world.

She tried to remain focused on the conversation with the council employee, but couldn't shake the woman and her pleas for attention.

"This prostitute was saying 'come here, come here, this is where I got taken. He murdered me'. She gave me the full story on how she was murdered."

A quick Google search revealed a prostitute had been killed in the vicinity.

Ms Barraclough has many more stories of her own encounters and those shared with her about old houses, buildings, cemeteries and other Illawarra haunts.

She thinks professionally run, well-planned ghost tours would help people open their minds to the spirit world and learn about the region's rich, colourful and sometimes dark history.

"I think the tours are a great idea and judging by what people I've spoken to say about it, they would love to go on a tour."

Witness accounts of spine-tingling ghostly activity vary widely from an invisible presence to sounds and voices, to translucent shapes and lifelike images.

While Balgownie-based historian Carol Herben is no expert on matters spooky, she believes a ghost tour could be a great way to showcase the region's history.

"There are people interested in the paranormal and we have many sites with a lot of history, many old mines, such as Mount Kembla and Bulli, with stories of disaster. A twilight tour that puts the spook in people too, that could probably work well," she said.

"A tour could incorporate other historic events and places, they could open up gardens of older homes, visit museums, even the art gallery could put the old works on display."

Mrs Herben has a ghost tale of her own from her days at the Illawarra Museum.

"School children used to tell us about the little girl mannequin that was dressed in period costume with long, curly hair. She said she moved and she used to giggle a lot.

"We never saw anything, it may have been the children's imagination, you don't know.

"The children were certainly fascinated. They've written in the guest book about the little girl upstairs."

Wollongong City Council has offered a variety of historic tour experiences in recent years, including the Wollongong CBD Heritage Tours, the Botanic Garden's Gleniffer Brae Tours and the "Ghost of Courtney Puckey Tour".

Koonawarra-based history buff Brendan Leach, who has a passion for the paranormal, would love to see something more permanent, like the tours operating in Berrima, Newcastle, Port Macquarie and The Rocks in Sydney.

Koonawarra-based history buff Brendan Leach has a passion for the paranormal and would love to see ghost tours in the Illawarra. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Koonawarra-based history buff Brendan Leach has a passion for the paranormal and would love to see ghost tours in the Illawarra. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

"We have more unreported ghostly happenings than the other locations, which if we all pitched in with our stories and evidence, we could end up being the most haunted region in NSW," Mr Leach said.

The paranormal isn't something to be ashamed of; it proves "our local history is still active", he says.

A stumbling block could, however, be the region's vastness.

"The only thing that may stop us from showing off our historic locations are the distance from one site to the other, unless the tour involved a bus to transport people around."

But with a bit of groundwork, Mr Leach suggests the region could reap the rewards in terms of tourism dollars.

"The many Sydney tours are hugely popular with locals as well as tourists. If it can work for them why not allow Wollongong to follow in their footsteps?"

The Illawarra Mercury put the feelers out on Facebook to gauge community interest in a ghost tour. Responses came in swiftly, with people offering up countless spooky sites to explore.

"'Whether you believe or not, there's a lot of history to be learnt on these tours," one person wrote.

"I've been to a few and they are very informative ... more of a history lesson with ghost stories and urban legends thrown in. I can't see why Wollongong can't benefit from something like this, done properly of course."

Another post reads: "Illawarra has so much to offer but we have a hard time backing ourselves. Our history is not only extremely interesting, it's bankable."

Amigo's Restaurant in Keira Street. Picture: amigosmexican.com.au

Amigo's Restaurant in Keira Street. Picture: amigosmexican.com.au

And this: "There is a story about a little girl she was hit by a train and now haunts St Luke's[Church]. Amigo's Mexican Restaurant[used to?] claim to have a resident ghost on their menus."

Another contributor was not so keen on the idea.

"Couldn't we do historical tours of these points of interest? ... Ghost Tours ... how degrading to these places and Wollongong in general."

But Mr Leach thinks even the paranormal sceptics should open their mind to the possibilities.

"Even those who are sceptical should look at it as a way to boost the local economy and tourism. What better way to make history come alive?

"It's way better than sitting in a boring room reading about something when you can get to an actual location where the historic event took place.

"I guess the only way we will know for sure if people support a ghost tour is for there to be a poll and people to vote."

Renata Daniel runs the award-winning Newcastle Ghost Tours and says the key to success is "doing your homework".

Renata Daniel, who runs the award-winning Newcastle Ghost Tours, says the key to success is doing your homework. Picture: RYAN OSLAND

Renata Daniel, who runs the award-winning Newcastle Ghost Tours, says the key to success is doing your homework. Picture: RYAN OSLAND

She is researcher, photographer, tour guide, events organiser, promotions person, liaison officer and accountant at the awards-winning business, founded in 2010.

"Thank goodness I have the ghosties on my side," Mrs Daniel said.

The professional psychic grabbed the opportunity before someone else "cottoned on" to the fact Newcastle was the second oldest settlement on the Australian mainland.

"It is filled with terrific stories and ghostly activity," Mrs Daniel said, "so this was just too good an opportunity to miss out on."

It took about 18 months to do the groundwork.

"As I am not a trained historian I spent many hours, days and months in libraries and talking to people about their experiences," she said.

"I also approached the local council for all my permissions and made sure I had appropriate insurances and coverage and worked in with the local tourism organisations."

The business won the 2012 Hunter and Central Coast tourism award for Outstanding Achievement in Heritage and Cultural Tourism and was named a finalist in 2013 and 2014.

"I work at this every day either by researching, writing articles, creating a thriving Facebook following and making people aware that our past and heritage are vitally important to our future," Mrs Daniel said.

"I not only do tours, I also create events and hold fund-raisers to give back to the community ...

"I do love what I do, every single minute of it and therefore I am truly one very lucky ghost hunter."

Spooky spots of the Illawarra

The Ghost Bridge under repair circa 1906, where a modern bridge now sits.

The Ghost Bridge under repair circa 1906, where a modern bridge now sits.

Mount Pleasant Lane circa 1900, now part of Cabbage Tree Lane. Picture: From the collections of WOLLONGONG CITY LIBRARY and ILLAWARRA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Mount Pleasant Lane circa 1900, now part of Cabbage Tree Lane. Picture: From the collections of WOLLONGONG CITY LIBRARY and ILLAWARRA HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Balgownie historian Carol Herben says it’s hard to go past Ghost Bridge when pinpointing sites of spooky significance in the Illawarra.

The bridge was at the foot of Geard’s Hill near where the Princes Highway passes over the freeway.

During the 1830s, the convict stockade was located at the crossroads and Lieutenant Otway was the officer in charge of the men guarding the convict road gang.

It seems the lieutenant was fond of liquor.

As legend has it, Lt Otway returned to the stockade after consuming an excessive amount one night. When he refused to comply with regulations, the guards confined him to the barracks.

On April 7, 1836, Lt Otway held his prayer book in one hand and a pistol in the other and took his own life. It was presumed at the time that he was suffering from temporary insanity.

‘‘For the next 40 years or so, Lt Otway was blamed for the manner in which humans and animals became spooked when travelling that stretch of road late at night,’’ Mrs Herben wrote.

‘‘Many a horse would baulk when approaching the bridge. There were stories of travellers who would see a ghostly image standing near the bridge.’’

Ms Herben, who grew up in Balgownie, heard as a child that Cabbage Tree Lane was also referred to as Ghost Lane, with reports the   bridge just west of the Vereker Street intersection was haunted by a ghost.

‘‘Residents reported that regularly pigs escaped at night under the bridge from nearby Dawson’s slaughter yard and that was the image people saw at night,’’ she said.

Other scary areas - or not?

  • Illowra Battery
  • Helensburgh Tunnels
  • Oxford Tavern
  • A stretch of road in Dunmore
  • Windy Gully
  • Mount Kembla Pub
  • Bulli Hotel
  • Amigos Mexican Restaurant
  • Annex to Wollongong Town Hall
  • Wombarra, Albion Park and Shellharbour cemeteries
  • Garrawarra Centre
  • Berkeley’s crematorium
  • Bulli hospital
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