Heritage: Tales from the Illawarra

Illawarra Mercury history columnist Michelle Hoctor uncovers the history of the region, from scandalous tales and brushes with the law to the development of our towns. 

Farce halted council work

A dispute between the Mayor of Wollongong and his fellow aldermen in November 1878 resulted in the extraordinary situation of the civic leader holding court with the Town Clerk on one side of Crown St while the rest of council operated on the other.  

Coalminers united for security

Formation of the Illawarra's first coalminers' union in 1878 was a proud affair, preceded by a march of 300 people through the streets of Bulli.  

Miners show their solidarity

Illawarra's first union movement - organised by coalminers at Bulli - originated in 1878 in response to the very real threat of a Chinese labour invasion.  

Illawarra's sale of the century

In the history of land development in the Illawarra, none was more unprecedented than the sale of the Smith Estate in 1879. 

A way over the escarpment

The necessity for opening road communication between Albion Park and the "rich agricultural lands of Wingecarribbee and thence to the Great South Rd" was felt as early as the 1860s.

The early history of leprosy

Until the 1880s, reports of leprosy in Australia were infrequent, and largely confined to the Chinese in the Victorian goldfields.  

Early roads often impassable

One of the Illawarra Mercury's first editorials in 1856 was dedicated to one of the locality's most enduring concerns, the condition of the roads. 

A South Coast 'aristocrat'

Samuel William Gray was a descendent of Irish farmers who went on to live the Australian "aristocratic" dream, representing in government and owning a large Illawarra property, on which lived 150 people including tenants and their families.

Perils of falling down drunk

The magistrate of Wollongong’s Court of Petty Sessions reached the limit of his patience in April 1878 when an old regular, John Murphy – alias “Donkey Jack”, appeared on charges of drunkenness and obscene language.

Bulli's prosperity revealed

The rapid development of Bulli continued throughout the 1870s as a result of the Bulli Coal Company's works, the flow-on effects leading to the village being placed on a par with Wollongong in terms of population and commercial enterprise.

Lives ruined in an instant

The death and terrible maiming of children through innocent accidents continued to plague families during the 1870s.

Just what the doctor ordered

In January 1878, an emergency meeting was held at Bulli as residents worried that despite living in a growing mining community, they had only one general practitioner who visited once a week.

Coach and team overturned

Bulli Mountain Pass was built in 1867 as a safer, shorter alternative to Rixon's Pass, but within 10 years a series of serious accidents resulted in calls for its urgent upgrade.

Illawarra hero died a pauper

Ben Rixon was an Illawarra identity who turned his hand to many trades including dairy farmer, coach driver, mail contractor and road builder.  

Horse ride to church man's last

In 1877, the Illawarra was shocked by the drowning of Michael Foley, of the Five Islands Estate, who had previously served as an alderman on the Central Illawarra Council.

Patients survive treatment

When Dr W. Bland, Esq, surgeon of Sydney, reported on his observations following the treatment of a patient for snake bite in 1844, it provided an insight into colonial first aid. 

Dairymaid, lady of town riches

Formation of the Shellharbour Co-operative Steam Navigation Company in 1866 provided liberation for local farmers who had grown tired of the region's steam traffic bypassing the Shellharbour port.

Dream destroyed by long, dry days

When an Illawarra dairyman decided to seek his fortune "on the arid prairies of California" in the early 1870s, he discovered that the US grass was far from greener.

Ships succumb to stormy seas

Shipping accidents were an unfortunate fact of life during the colonial era, the timber construction making vessels vulnerable to the elements.

Industry not always clean cut

A letter published in the Illawarra Mercury in June 1877 provided interesting insight into the commercial butchery industry in Wollongong, but the picture was not entirely one of hygiene.

Blacksmith escapes death plot

An attempt to murder an Albion Park blacksmith in 1877 caused community outrage, not only for the method used, but the fact that an innocent passerby became an unintended victim.

Mt Kembla kerosene works hard toil

When the Pioneer Kerosene Works was launched at American Creek near Mt Kembla in 1865, it bore all the hallmarks of success for its proprietor, John Graham.

Rape cases: a match, a knife, then terror

"Great excitement" prevailed in Kiama in March 1871 when a Jamberoo man named Thomas appeared before the court on a charge of raping 16-year-old Christina Blackwood.

Tragic end, worker turned away

When groom William Stewart broke his neck after falling from a mail coach in May 1877, it became the first of his problems.

Brothers argue boat ownership

There was no love lost between brothers Frank and David James when they appeared in Wollongong Court in January 1877, arguing over possession of a boat.

Efforts to keep Gong green nothing new

Moves to enhance the Wollongong Common, located between the town and Tom Thumb Bowers, as a place of public recreation were advanced in January 1875 when a trust was established to manage the precinct.

The flying machine that never took off

In 1876, Dover man Ralph Stott "caused great wonderment" with his claims that he had invented "a flying machine".

Hospital staff decision starts war

The Albert Memorial Hospital became embroiled in a public feud in 1877 when the hospital board decided to cut the number of its medical officers from two to one – but not out of financial expediency.

Persecution, violence in the Illawarra

The Chinese, like many other nationalities, populated Wollongong from its earliest days, largely engaged in fishing and operating village market gardens.

Woman found guilty over baby's death

When a housemaid at Wollongong's Queens Hotel inspected the wooden chest of her roommate in 1877, she made the grim discovery of a dead newborn baby inside.

The dangers of road travel

Be it a horse and buggy or a humble dog cart, the annals of the Illawarra Mercury are filled with road accidents involving colonial modes of transport that often proved fragile when put to the test.

Parsons gave back to Illawarra community

Alfred Parsons was a much-respected Illawarra resident whose community service included 41 years as captain of the Wollongong Fire Brigade.

Shellharbour rails against Kiama

In 1858 Shellharbour residents took action to avoid being "enslaved" by Kiama.

Town rocked by scandal

As with today, scandals during colonial times often made for the most riveting reading in newspapers, with few details spared.

Brighton Beach mermaid causes a stir

On a hot summer's day on the New Year of 1857, Wollongong’s Brighton Beach came alive with the spectacle of a small shed on wheels being drawn into the ocean.

Towns mourned lost livestock

Reliance on quality livestock during the colonial era cannot be underestimated, with the death of a good draught horse or bull sometimes tantamount to loss of livelihood.

Tales of fishing tragedy

Fishing in the Illawarra was once stuff of legends, the region’s newspaper filled with stories about remarkable hauls when fish literally flew into the back of fishermen’s boats.

Wollongong's founder 'a man of character'

Charles Throsby Smith was "the father of Wollongong", the town's first resident and influential in most movements that helped establish a new community.

We've come a long way

Omnibuses, or buses, were operating in the Illawarra from its early days, the Mercury first reporting their existence in November 1856.

Travelling performers hit for licence

In November 1875, Wollongong had the ignominious honour of being a killjoy to a world-class travelling act.

Death and danger out on the water

By the mid-1870s, greater numbers of Illawarra colonials were taking to the water in recreational fishing boats, but with the influx came with an escalation in mishaps, and even tragedy.

Macquarie River cattle breeder earned respect

Andrew McGill was not only a pioneer of the Macquarie River district, he helped develop the Australian Illawarra Shorthorn breed of cattle, for which the region is nationally known.

Forty people killed in SS Dandenong disaster

The wreck of the SS Dandenong off Jervis Bay on September 11, 1876, was one of the worst early shipping disasters to strike the NSW coast, resulting in the deaths of 40 people.

Aboriginal community celebrated boat christening

When a fishing boat was christened on Fairy Creek in September 1876, it provided not only a cause for celebration for the region’s Aboriginal community, but a reason for lament.

Mt Pleasant family's war with the neighbours

Mt Pleasant's Looney family appeared to be prodigious in the art of warring with neighbours, repeatedly appearing before the court for backyard disputes.

Unhappy marriage ends in murder

When police were called to a home at Bellambi that had been burned to the ground in May 1877, they could not have imagined the horrendous sight that awaited them.

Hairdresser's brush with the law

In August of 1876, Crown Street hairdresser William Harrison faced Wollongong Court charged with having "violently assaulted, ravished and carnally known" a female client.

Workers faced tough conditions

The early tradition of Illawarra businesses taking a "half holiday" on Wednesday dates back to 1876, when a letter writer to the Mercury defended the worker's right to a break from the grind.