The rise and rise of Lost Wollongong

It was started by two friends on the spur of the moment three years ago and now more than 18,000 people follow Lost Wollongong's Facebook page. And it's only going to get bigger, writes GLEN HUMPHRIES

It’s one of Lost Wollongong’s co-founder David Bottin’s favourite photos – and he’s not even in it.

He didn’t take the picture of a 1980s family in their backyard at Towradgi either. It’s not even his family and, while he grew up a street away, he didn't really know them 

But it’s not really the people – who appear to be working on a compost heap – that connects with Bottin.

David Bottin, one of the co-founders of the popular history site Lost Wollongong. Picture: Adam McLean

David Bottin, one of the co-founders of the popular history site Lost Wollongong. Picture: Adam McLean

It’s the view of the Corrimal cokeworks in the distance behind the Dalton Street backyard. And it’s also the wide strip of bushland in front of it that is today is known as Memorial Drive.

But back then, it was a grassy playground – for both Bottin and the kids in the photo. It’s a photo that contains the ghost of memories for Bottin.

“That’s a photo I connect to because that’s my chidlhood - growing up in the Towradgi that existed before [Memorial Drive] was built,” Bottin says.

It’s one of about 20,000 images Lost Wollongong has collected, whether it be from the Wollongong City Library, one of the site’s administrators or one of the 18,000 “Losties” who keep tabs on the Facebook page.

Mates hanging out at Wollongong Beach in the early 1970s. Photo: Ray Mills, via Lost Wollongong

Mates hanging out at Wollongong Beach in the early 1970s. Photo: Ray Mills, via Lost Wollongong

And it’s an example of what makes a popular picture on Lost Wollongong – one that triggers memories that may have been dormant for years.

“We have photos going back to the beginning of Wollongong, back to the early 1800s through to the 1990s,” he says.

“But we often find it’s the photos that are within people’s lifetimes, from about the 1960s to the 1990s, they’re the photos that are popular because people can connect with them. That’s in their memory, that’s the Wollongong that they connect with.”

Bottin and his friend Brendan Brain co-founded the Lost Wollongong Facebook group in May 2013 after going online one night and finding history sites for the likes of Newcastle and Sydney but nothing for their home city.

Someone's parents in Lake Heights wouldn't have been too happy to find their Vauxhall had smashed into the backyard toilet. Picture: Sheree Williams

Someone's parents in Lake Heights wouldn't have been too happy to find their Vauxhall had smashed into the backyard toilet. Picture: Sheree Williams

Rather than wait for someone else to get around to it, the pair got things rolling that night.

“We started Lost Wollongong on a whim,” Bottin remembers.

“Within a week we had our first thousand members. It became rapidly apparent that we’d hit on something  by the sheer growth that we experienced.

A year later they launched the Facebook page and the Lost Wollongong website.

Another year after that came the Twitter and Instagram profiles.

While the Facebook page tends to attract an older crowd who likes to be reminded through photos of their own childhood, Instagram draws a younger crowd, many of whom are discovering fresh things about their city through those photos. 

“The younger generation are going ‘whoah, whoever thought that was there once upon a time?’,” Bottin says.

“It opens up a whole new world for them and gets them interested in something that they may never have thought about. Hopefully it’ll start them on an adventure to find out more about the heritage of their area.”

Mark Bransdon at the Towradgi Roller Skating Rink in 1974. Picture: Mark Brandson

Mark Bransdon at the Towradgi Roller Skating Rink in 1974. Picture: Mark Brandson

That’s now part of the Lost Wollongong ethos – to gently prod at least some of those 18,000 Losties to delve a bit further. To that end, Bottin has been involved in developing the Wollongong Museum Trail and the Mountain2Sea Festival.

Remember this?: The Warrawong waterslides were located on the site where the suburb's library now stands. Picture: Pasquale Coppolaro

Remember this?: The Warrawong waterslides were located on the site where the suburb's library now stands. Picture: Pasquale Coppolaro

Lost Wollongong will also point people in the direction of other heritage pages on Facebook like Shellharbour History in Photos, Wollongong Heritage and StoriesDapto History in Photos, Kembla Jottings and Thirroul History in Photos.

Lost Wollongong and similar sites are examples of the recent surge of interest in local history. As far as Bottin is concerned, that surge is all down to the internet.

No longer do people have to spend hours in dusty archives looking for information. Now the internet brings it to them – and kindles an interest that may otherwise quickly die out.

“I know people have an interest in heritage but it’s usually fleeting,” Bottin admits.

“People like reminiscing but it’s amazing how, with the power of social media, with the internet, the ease of access people have to be able to share their memories of friends, families and strangers. It opens it up for them.

“The old waterslides at Warrawong, I had someone recently tell me they’d totally forgotten that they existed until they saw the photo on Lost Wollongong.

“They shared it with their friends and they also started talking about their waterslides, which they hadn’t thought of in 20 years.”

Despite being a co-creator of Lost Wollongong, Bottin is keen to draw attention to the range of admins who volunteer their time to look after the various online forums – while holding down full-time jobs.

One of them is Janet Rogers, who is in charge of collating those 20,000-plus photos in the Lost Wollongong archives.

“I had experience in running various forums for several years and noticed that there were hundreds of photos that would have been eventually lost down the groups page,” Rogers says.

“The photos were amazing, most at that time were personal photos from members. It would have been a tragedy if they were eventually eaten by Facebook, so I approached David and Brendan and the rest is history, so to speak.”

Rogers grew up in Wollongong but now lives in Noosa. She’s an example of a “Lostie” who uses the site to reconnect with memories – and people.

“The overall appeal is seeing the thousands of members enjoying what we have on offer, the memories that a single photo evokes is incredible, and then there’s the reconnections with their old school friends and friends and family they haven’t seen in decades,” she says.

Bottin says the site doesn’t make any money and it never will be a commercial venture. What really powers the site is love, not money.

“We have an amazing group of admins who are enthusiastic about doing what we do,” he says.

“It’s like anything you volunteer for, you do it because you’re enthusiastic about it.  You do it because you enjoy it and you want to see it work.”

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