highlands.nsw.tourinfo Past & Present:

Established 1861.

John Oxley.

One hundred and fifty years ago the area where Bowral now stands was open pasture stocked with sheep and cattle.

Known as 'Wingecarribbee', it was the property of the sons of John Oxley - famous explorer of the early colony of New South Wales.

Ten years later, a road traversed the property and a few rough huts huddled together in the valley proclaimed the birth of the village of 'Wingecarribbee'.

The Oxley homestead, of the same name, stood at the foot of a line of hills to the west.

Built of prefabricated corrugated iron and imported from England, it had been erected in 1857 to replace the bark and slab huts which had been home to the Oxleys since 1825.

'Wingecarribbee', now a private home and no longer in Oxley hands, still stands.

'Wingecarribee House ', late C19th.

Bowral - mid 19th century
Approx. extent of 'Wingecarribee', mid C19th.

The land on which most of Bowral is built today is the eastern portion of a grant of 2400 acres made to John Oxley by the Governor in 1823 in recognition of his services. With later purchases (converted to an outright grant to his sons in 1829) Oxley's holding comprised 5000 acres.

It extended from Mt. Gibraltar in the north and from the Old South Road in the east, to the new line of road between Mittagong and Berrima in the west (today, the Old Hume Highway at Bendooley Hill), and south to the Wingecarribee River at Burradoo - about 5km from Bowral today towards Moss Vale.

John Oxley himself never lived in the area, sending his sons with herds of cattle to graze on the land after it was granted.

The new subdivisions now known as East Bowral lie on 3000 acres of land next to the east, granted to Edward Riley, an early Sydney businessman, whose son George Riley settled there in 1831.

For 30 years Bowral remained a backwater as the main roads bypassed it - the Old South Road to Bong Bong in the east, then the new line of road to Berrima in the west.

To these were added a new road over Mt. Gibraltar in 1852 which followed a line slightly to the east of the present road from Mittagong up the mountain, then the existing road into Bowral on the other side.

This sleepy hollow, nestled at the foot of Mt. Gibraltar (the name Bowral is said to be derived from an aboriginal word meaning 'high place'), began to stir - like many other areas of the Highlands - when the new Southern railway began to approach it from Sydney. The railway not only opened the way to settlement in the south, but provided an opportunity for landowners to cash in on the subsequent development.

Mt. Gibraltar
Mt. Gibraltar.

The first subdivision - a town is born.

In 1858 Henry Oxley conveyed his share of the grant to his brother John, who promptly subdivided 200 acres in the path of the proposed railway.

Although the first lot was not sold until 5 years later, John thereafter stood to make 50% profit on his purchase from only 5% of the land. Smaller farms to the south were also let on 99 year leases.

The town subdivision stood to the left of the present railway line, and ran five blocks from Bowral Street to Bundaroo Street, and two blocks east to Bendooley Street - the area presently occupied by the commercial centre of the town.

Over the next 50 years there were continual subdivisions towards Old South Road to the east, then in the 1990s further subdivisions on the other side of this road (East Bowral) which, when completed, will allow for double the present population.

Bong Bong Street in 1880
Bong Bong Street, 1880.
In fact speculation in land has been one of Bowral's main industries since the earliest days. By 1890 land in the town centre was trading for 10 times its original price, and by 1910 at prices which would have purchased land in the heart of Sydney itself.

One hundred years later, houses were being 'turned over' at intervals of every few years, at quantum leaps in prices, making Bowral one of the most expensive places to purchase land outside the city.

However, to the 133 hardy souls who lived there in 1871 this would have been a dream.

Real growth only came with the arrival of a large tent city of railway workers who spent several years laying track and digging a long tunnel under Mt. Gibraltar. A number of local businesses sprang up to cater to them (hotels, of course, among the first).

The first hotel (Wingecarribee Inn, 1862) was on the corner of Bong Bong and Boolwey Sts - now gone, but hotels still trade on the locations of others - where the Port O Call (1863 earlier building), and the Royal Hotel now stand.

More importantly, steps were taken in the earliest days to consolidate amenities for the town.

The town grows.

A church school (1861) was built on 43 acres set aside by J. Oxley as a glebe (extending approximately three blocks east from St.Jude's church to Glebe Park, where the Bradman Museum is today).

A glebe was an area of land attached to a church and clergy house and intended to be a garden or farm large enough to support the clergyman.

The school soon had over 100 enrolments - mostly children of the railway workers, and a permanent stone building was erected for it (1863 - demolished 1899).

original school
Original church school at Bowral, c.1860s.

Tannery, Bowral 1886
The tannery, Bowral, 1886.
There were several stores in the town, a blacksmith, bakery, general store, newsagency, and a butchery, and more substantial houses were being built every year.

In the 1880s a tannery operated at the corner of Bong Bong and Wingecarribee Streets, behind where the Comonwealth Bank stands today.

The Land Rushes of 1865.

In the meantime, the Robertson Land Acts (1865) resulted in the opening of the 'Yarrawa Brush' to the east of Bowral, from north of the Wingecarribee Swamp towards present day Robertson. Soon 30,000 acres had been snapped up, and 1200 settlers had moved in to farm the land.

It was a delegation of 300 of these from around the Kangaloon area who petitioned the government to have a railway station built at Bowral so that they could send their produce to the Sydney markets. A rough road (Kangaloon Road today) had already been built to Bowral.

The first fresh milk was shipped from Bowral station only in 1876, and a cheese and cream factory established later. (The current 'Old Milk Factory' in Station Street dates from the 1930s.)

the station in 1880
Bowral Station, 1880.
The railway arrives.

In 1867 a small station was built at Bowral when the railway line from Mittagong to Moss Vale was opened.

The station was originally called Burradoo, but later changed to Bowrall (a name first used by the post office at the station); the modern spelling was adopted in 1888.

Although the railway workers moved on, ten years later the population of Bowral had tripled and its people were displaying a strong civic presence.

A vibrant civic life.

A School of Arts (a combination of social and adult education centre) was held from 1873 behind where the Grand Hotel was later built (1888), until moved to a permanent home in Bendooley Street (1884); a second storey was added in 1913.

The building for many years housed a library, and was used for theatre performances (eistedffods and musical recitals being popular up to the middle of the present century.)It has recently received a face lift.

original school of arts
Bowral School of Arts, c1884.

In 1870 an independent parish for the Church of England was established with its own rector, services previously having been held at Oxley's home, then the school house, the minister travelling from Berrima.

St Judes, 1874
St. Simon & St. Jude's, a Blackett church, 1874.
St. Simon & St. Jude's Church.

In 1874 the first Church of St. Simon and St. Jude was completed, to a design by Edmund Blackett, the famous architect. It housed 140 people.

Unfortunately it was deemed too small for the growing town, and was demolished in 1887, only the bell tower and an angle of the original building remaining and incorporated into the new church.

A hall and schoolroom was also built next to it (1886, extended 1924).

Thus was lost an important piece of Victorian colonial architectural heritage.

Blackett would have been amused to hear the cries of anguish from local parishioners when other (not so historic) buildings were demolished further down the street in the 1980s for a Mall, or to know that the founders of 'Whelan the Wreckers' - the company which changed the face of old Sydney, and other cities, came from the Bowral area.

In 1880 the present Rectory was built by the first Rector, Rev Stanley Howard. It was a copy of his father's vicarage in England, and cost so much it almost bankrupted the parish. Today it stands as a fine monument to the very 'Englishness' of the early C of E in Australia.

Although built at a time (like many new parishes and dioceses in the inland) after the Oxford Movement, St. Jude's - as it is commonly known - reflects none of those elements of the catholic revival in the Church of England, remaining in the dour Sydney evangelical tradition. (Compare the Cathedral at Goulburn, the next diocese to the west.)

St Judes Rectory, 1880
St. Jude's Rectory, 1880

St Judes today
The present St. Simon & St. Jude's,1998.
St. Jude's today remains a vibrant centre of the community, and is very popular as a place to be wed for the social set from as far away as the city.

Its very Englishness reflects the atmosphere Bowral has cultivated for over a century.

The glebe itself, also an English tradition, lasted until 1921 when it was subdivided for housing and Glebe Park (1909 - now the home of Bradman Oval and Museum) was handed over to the community.

(This explains the anomaly of Church Street, opposite the museum, which has no church in it.)

The church school was transferred to the NSW Council of Education in 1868, apparently when the newly appointed teacher refused to take up his post unless this was done.

This was in consequence of the Public Education Act, whereby the State undertook secular responsibility for education.

The growth of Education.

Up to this time education was largely run as private businesses (many dozens of small schools had operated in the Highlands, the first at Throsby's own homestead), although the most substantial were those run by the churches.

Subsequent to the legislation, most church schools (with the exception of the "great public schools", and those of the Roman Catholic Church) were handed over to the state.

This explains why many old schools (and new ones built in the 1880s and 1890s) have an 'ecclesiastical' or neo-gothic look to them. The older buildings at Bowral Primary today reflect this.

New school buildings were added (Bendooley Street opposite the St. Jude's) in subsequent years as enrolments increased, and a two-storey addition was added in 1898, which also housed the Intermediate (Secondary) school until Bowral High School was built in 1930. (There is a museum at the Primary School which visitors to the area should see.)

Bowral High School
Bowral High School, 1930.
After World War II students were bussed to Bowral High from all over the Highlands.

Bowral High was the only school between Picton and Goulburn preparing students for the Leaving Certificate (matriculation) until Moss Vale Central School was upgraded to a high school in 1964.

Today students can also complete their secondary education at Chevalier College (co-ed since amalgamated with the convent school in the 1970s), Oxley College, and Southern Highlands Christian School.

The Methodist Church.

Primitive Methodists and Wesleyans (denominations also exported from England) were amongst the earliest settlers. Services were held in private buildings from the earliest days, the Primitive Methodists buying a building in Bong Bong Street for worship until a wooden building was erected for the purpose in 1885.

The Wesleyans meanwhile had built a chapel in Bendooley Street ((1864), and built a new church in 1881. Both branches amalgamated in 1903, and the present building (corner Bendooley and Boolwey Street) was opened in 1926 (now the Uniting Church of Australia).

Uniting Church, Bowral
Uniting Church, 1926.

The Salvation Army made a spectacular entrance to Bowral in 1883, preaching and performing in the main street, and meeting in various buildings until they opened their own meeting place in 1925 (now in Bundaroo Street).

Original Catholic Church
Original Catholic Church, Banyette St. 1891.
The Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church was banned in the earliest days of the Sydney colony, and although Catholic Churches had previously been established in Berrima and Sutton Forest, the first church in Bowral was only built in 1891 (Banyette Street and Argyle Lane - now owned by an evangelical church).

It was customary to build Catholic churches on the highest location within a town, yet this is the lowest in the subdivision.

The existence of a number of 'masonic' and other lodges since the earliest days (foundation dates 1863, 1882, 1887, and 1904) attests partly to the fact that Bowral was a 'protestant' town.

Nonetheless, the Catholic Church later prospered in the Bowral area. Nuns from Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Kensington, purchased property in Centennial Road in 1904 and established a convent school.

The buildings were later extended for a boys' college (1924), and again in subsequent years - on a grandiose scale. O.L.S.H., which still exists, but no longer as a school, is today a Retreat Centre.

In 1943 St. Thomas Aquinas School was opened off Bendooley Street, with a new presbytery for the priest built in 1950.

A new church was built on this property in 1986 in post Vatican II style, and the original church sold off to an evagelical protestant sect.

The Missionaries of the Sacred Heart purchased a property in Burradoo and in 1946 opened Chevalier College, a day and boarding school for boys.

In the 1970s, with the closure of the convent school in Moss Vale, girls were admitted, and today Chevalier is one of the largest schools in the Highlands.

The great Country Houses.

By the 1880s Bowral had become a fashionable retreat for the Sydney 'gentry'.

The Governor had been in the habit of visiting the Highlands as a summer retreat for some years, and an estate (Hillview) in Sutton Forest was purchased for his use in 1882.

Many of Sydney's elite flocked to the Highlands in his wake and many of the great estates of Bowral were established during this time.

These include:

An early Tourist Resort.

Bowral itself flourished during the 80s with new buildings being erected in the main street, and new subdivisions being sold off almost every year - train loads of prospective buyers being brought from the city to attend the auctions.

In 1886 there were 2 hotels and 20 boarding houses to cater for the burgeoning tourist trade.

Bong Bong Street in 1880
Bong Bong Street, 1880.

The Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel, 1887.
In 1887 the Grand Hotel was erected, with 35 rooms (still at the corner of Bong Bong and Wingecarribee Streets, although gutted and turned into shops a hundred years later; the Grand Bar & Brasserie continuing the tradition.)

Today there are 4 hotels, several registered clubs, and a large number of resorts, guesthouses, and smaller B&B accommodation houses.

Tourism today attracts more visitors than even in Bowral's early hey days.

The first Hospital.

As a mark of the importance of the town, one Jacob Ward, doctor, established a presence as early as 1863.

His timber slab and bark home served as a surgery and hospital for many years.

In 1889, with local subscriptions, the Berrima District Cottage Hospital was opened - the only hospital at the time between Sydney and Goulburn.

first hospital
The first Hospital, 1889.

The Cottage Hospital served the community for a generation, with increased ward space, an operating theatre, and nurses quarters being added.

The present main hospital building was built in 1935 - again with local subscription; and a new wing was added in 1959.

The hospital, the only one remaining in the Highlands, has been supported by local residents in Bowral and surrounding villages for many years who have raised the money to extend it and purchase important equipment. For over 100 years it was the lifeline to the local community.

Today, with the diminished funding provided by state and federal governments to regional areas, and the proximity of the city, its services have been reduced. A portion of land next to the hospital in Bowral Street was sold off in the 1990s for a private hospital.

Bowral Hospital became such an important focus of community health in the Highlands, that a public meeting in 1929 led to the introduction of a district ambulance service.

In 1938 the present Ambulance Station in Bong Bong Street was built to house modern ambulance vehicles.

Today the Ambulance Service has much more sophisticated equipment and vehicles, but the station outwardly remains as it was when it was built.

The civic centre.

Over the years Bendooley Street, although not planned so, has become the civic centre of Bowral.

A Police Station was built in Wingecarribee Street in 1887, and a court house (of local trachyte stone) on the corner in 1896.

The Town Hall was built in Bendooley Street in 1890, in the grandiose facade style of municipal buildings of the Victorian period.

The School of Arts (as mentioned) was built in 1884.

Bowral Courthouse,1896
Bowral Court House,1896.

bendooley street in 1980
Bendooley Street, 1980.
The three public buildings (plus the school and churches) must have made an impressive display to visitors of previous times, albeit against an Australian bush background - seen well in the photograph of 1980 when the land opposite was cleared for a Mall.

Today the Council has built what it hoped to be discreet new buildings to the rear of these in modern pseudo-classic Southern Highlands style, and the civic buildings facing Bendooley Street are receiving a face lift.

Civic improvement schemes.

Like most towns of the Highlands, Bowral started as a private village. No thought was given to providing civic spaces or recreation areas (as in the original design for state-planned Berrima).

Hence like most Australian rural towns it lacks cohesion and a focus; for a century its centre was the dreary ribbon development of the main street (although in this case, it was not one-sided and facing the railway line.)

However, the citizens over the years have attempted to alleviate this, a tree planting enterprise beginning in 1887 (300 planted ten years later.)

These were of course European deciduous trees, to make Bowral look more like England; the oaks in Station Street at the entrance to the main street today date from this time.

In 1883 a park was set aside for public use in Centennial Road, purchased by the local people. 24 acres of the glebe were leased and opened as a public park in 1909 (now Glebe Park, home of the Bradman Museum).

Glebe Park, 1909., with Bradman Museum.

Tulip Time in Corbett Gardens
Tulip Time in Corbett Gardens.
Corbett Gardens.

In 1911, Corbett Gardens (home of the famous Tulip Time Festival of later years) was purchased; it was named after Mrs. Ada Corbett, who was largely instrumental in organising the purchase.

Although central to the town, and faced by its public buildings, Corbett Gardens today fails to be the architectural focus of the town.

However, it attracted local people on weekends, a band rotunda being a feature of the park when it opened. This was dismantled in the 1950s, but a replica rebuilt in the 1990s and gifted to the town by Mr. Ted Springett, long an active citizen and benefactor of Bowral.

In 1923 Robert Loseby gave ten acres of his property to the town for a park, and it became a major sports ground with two ovals and later, a greyhound racing track.

Today, (corner Sheffield and Ascot Roads) it remains a forlorn example of neglected municipal parkland.

Mt. Gibraltar Reserve.

In 1919 an area of 60 acres on Mt. Gibraltar was purchased, and after many years of dificulties, declared a park after a road was driven into it (1937, renamed Oxley Drive 1951.)

Despite residential development on the Mittagong side of Mt. Gibraltar, it largely remains as it used to be before European settlement, and affords spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.

bowral from the air, 1926
Bowral from the air, 1926.

Bowral as Municipality.

The good burghers of Bowral took fright in 1881 when it became known that citizens of Moss Vale were seeking to incorporate as a municipality under the 1858 Municipalities Act, whereby any rural district or hamlet could petition to be incorporated on petition of 50 residents.

Bowral Town Hall 1890
Bowral Town Hall, 1890.
A Bowral Vigilance Committee was established (no relationship to vigilantes), and commenced the public works outlined above. It also agitated strongly to establish a Bowral Municipality (gazetted 1886) so as not to be incorporated in Moss Vale (gazetted 1888) - a rivalry which was to last for over 100 years.

The Bowral Municipal Council (in which the large local landowners were strongly represented in the early years) soon set itself to improving the local amenities.

This job was made easier by the small area over which it had jurisdiction - some 1600 acres in 1886 and population of 1000 people.

Larger areas surrounding it were administered by Moss Vale (1888) and Mittagong (1889) Municipalities.

When shires were established after 1906, the country around Mittagong and Bowral were incorporated into the Nattai Shire (Mittagong), and around Moss Vale, the Wingecarribee Shire.

The progressive town.

With lesser responsibility, the Bowral Municipality was able to prosper. Bowral was lit by gas street lamps in 1889 (previously kerosene).

A private gasworks was opened in 1890 (purchased by the Council in1892) - the only one in the Highlands).

A reticulated water supply was established in 1922, and electricity brought in from Port Kembla in 1925, and main streets illuminated.

Bong Bong Street, 1909
Bong Bong Street, 1909.

Bong Bong Street in 1926
Bong Bong Street, 1926.
A sewerage system was installed in 1935, well in advance of the rest of the Highlands, which only caught up almost 40 years later.

Bowral Municipality also spent its money on paving its streets, macadamised surfaces being laid down in the main streets early in this century, and the first 'hot mix' bitumen in the area over 50 years later.

Despite being off the main highway, Bowral prospered during the motoring age and became the retail and service industry centre of the Highlands.

With the amalgamation of the municipalities and shires in the 1970s, in which Bowral as a separate entity was effectively swallowed up, it appeared as if it might suffer the inevitable decline of all country areas in the modern age.

But that is another story.

Bong Bong Street in 1940
Bong Bong Street, 1940.

To be continued........

Last updated 20/6/07