highlands.nsw.tourinfo Industry through the ages


Given our previous description of agricultural land use, we should not neglect other activities on the land.

Whereas the earliest settlers were engaged in agricultural pursuits, entrepreneurs in what we would today call the service industries followed rapidly in their footsteps.

Reports of one of the earliest large landholders suggest he employed: maids and domestic servants, stockmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, builders, timber-fellers, butchers and cooks.

Most of these would have been assigned convicts, but freemen and women were also employed.

The first indication of industry after declaration of a village was usually an inn or tavern.

This is because they had to be licensed, although there is indication there were plenty of shanty sly grog shops before the law enforcers came.

The inns served as way-stations and refreshment stops for visitors to, and passing through, the Highlands.

Commercial Inn Berrima
Commercial Inn Berrima 1845
Now a restaurant.

It must have been either a lucrative or precarious existence for the owners, because records show that inns in the Mittagong and Bong Bong areas changed hands rather frequently in the early days.

Some of these formerly licensed buildings remain to this day, though they have not received the attention of the heritage trustees that lesser buildings in other places have.

Little evidence is obvious of other earlier enterprises - hardware and generalstores; blacksmiths; carpenters; builders; barbers; lodgings; seamstresses and tailors; butchers; bakers: though they must clearly have existed.

The first churches, elementary schools, "schools of arts", agricultural and other cultural societies, are reasonably well documented, because they came under gubernatorial or other official scrutiny.

Similarly, the lives of the elite (the "bunyip aristocracy", as critics of W.C. Wentworth would have called them) are well documented, but not the lives of the ordinary people.

Apart from this, what do we know of the early non-agricultural use of the land in the Highlands?

Timber getting and sawmilling was an important occupation. Timber was used for almost everything we use other materials for today. Although convicts were put to this work for public projects, free individuals were able to make a living from it. Especially when thousands of metres of cedar were discovered near Kangaroo Valley. They were also employed clearing scrub, and providing fuel for charcoal production.

Timber mills are reported in Mittagong, and other areas, from the early nineteenth century on. One still exists in Mittagong, not far from, but not related to the earlier ironworks there, and one at Robertson - being in the same family for generations - recently closed.

There was no goldrush in the Highlands (except for a strike near Exeter in the 1890s), but other important minerals were found.

Although established earlier, Mittagong largely grew around the Fitzroy Iron Works established in 1848. Another was established not long after.

The Iron Works had a chequered history for the next 100 years. It closed down and reopened a number of times, before it was finally abandoned in 1886.

In 1941, it was again reopened for some months when14,000 tons of ore were extracted by BHP.

Fitzroy Iron Works
Fitzroy Iron Works c.1911

Erith Coal Mine
Erith Coal Mine, Bundanoon 1867-82
Coal was discovered and mined at Black Bobs Creek, Medway, Exeter, Bundanoon (Jordan's Crossing), and north of Mittagong - some of which fueled the blast furnaces at Mittagong.

Other production was used for the railways, although no major contracts were received for the Great Southern Railway, which helped to lead to their early demise.

The photo at left shows how coal was extracted from the side of a cliff and raised to an incline leading up towards Jordan's Crossing (Bundanoon). The remains can stiil be seen today.

Shale oil was discovered near Joadja in the 1840s, but was not exploited - for one reason or another - until the 1870s.

For some 30 years it produced kerosene - a valuable commodity in those days, until it closed down. Parrafin was a byproduct, processed into candles, and petroleum jelly was extracted. Interestingly, in the days before cars, petrol was burned off as waste.

Deposits still remain, but little attempt has been made to mine them in recent times.

Joadja town and shale processing plant.

Quarry, Mt. Gibraltar 1920s
Stone has been quarried off and on since the convicts cut the sandstone at Berrima in the 1830s to build the court and gaol. Evidence of this quarrying can be seen if you take the walk above the creek behind the Old Bakehouse.

From the 1880s to the 1920s basalt and gravel were quarried at Mt Gibraltar; this activity produced considerable income for its owners during this time. Sandstone has been quarried at Bundanoon, and marble at Wombeyan Caves for the last quarter of a century - the marble quarry recently being closed.

Brickmakers were in demand from the earliest days of the colonies, and some buildings still stand in the area made from local bricks. Commercial brickmaking was established near Bowral in the 1880s, and is still carried on there today (Bowral Brickworks).

From the earliest times meat has been processed in the area, and there is evidence it was salted for sale in Sydney, and even exported. There was also an early industry tanning hides, but this seems to be of lesser significance.

More unusually, when the great rabbit plague hit the area in the 1880s, hundreds of people were reported to have been involved in trapping, tanning, and processing the meat.

Tannery, Wingecarribee St. Bowral 1886

During this time rabbit carcasses by the millions were exported from Australia, frozen, to England. The mind boggles at the thought of the English eating imported frozen rabbit while their counterparts in Australia ate fresh beef and mutton!


Malt House
The Malt Works, Mittagong.
Built 1898, extended 1907.
At the turn of the century a maltworks was established in Mittagong to malt barley for the production of beer.

This plant provided malt for beer making at Tooths Brewery in Sydney up until the 1970s, when it closed.

In the 1920s a cement works was established near Berrima, a new town founded - New Berrima, and a private railway built to serve it. Limestone quarries were re-opened at Marulan for this purpose, and both industries continue until this day.

Meanwhile, the dairying industry supported a number of secondary industries, from butter and cheese factories, to seed and grain suppliers, and agricultural implement suppliers.

The dairy factories were mostly owned by cooperatives of farmers, but aggregation, and the growth of marketing boards saw them all closed by the middle of the century.

A major local abattoir was established in Moss Vale in 1963 which processed meat for the local market and for export, although a smaller killing works existed at Bundanoon, and no doubt other areas before this. It closed down in 1997, a victim of economic rationalism.

Cheese Factory
Wingecarribee Cheese Factory c.1920

The major non-agricultural industry for almost 80 years - from the 1870s to the 1950s - has been tourism.

Once the railway came to the area (see Climate) weekend and day-trippers flocked to the Highlands for a "holiday" from the city. This trickle became a flood to rival that of the popular Blue Mountains to the north after the Governor at the time decided to establish a "residence" in the Highlands near Sutton Forest.

What was once a sleepy, almost non-existent hamlet, became a magnet for the traveller. Its tiny Anglican church sported the vice-regal flag (on the strength of infrequent visits), and Bowral, Burradoo, and the surrounding countryside, became the favoured country residences of the Sydney gentry.

Daytrippers at Bundanoon
Day trippers at Bundanoon, c.1912
The common people followed in their wake, and helped to establish a tourist industry which would help to drive the local economy for decades.

Whereas Bowral was the preferred resting place for the gentry, Bundanoon - with its spectacular gorges and views - became the destination for ordinary people ( a bit like Katoomba, but not so grand!)

At one time there were over 50 guesthouses in Bundanoon, which managed to remain a sleepy hamlet despite the foreign incursions.

In the late 1950s steam trains were still delivering their load of tourists on day trips from the city, and people booked regularly into local accomodation for their holidays.

A primitive local festival in honour of the native and unique pink boronia used to greet these tourists in the spring, and grease the local wheels of commerce. (Other small towns also had festivals and parades in honour of one excuse for celebration or other from early in the century - the modern famous one in Bowral is a recent phenomenon.)

There is no indication any locals made a fortune out of this - tourism being a seasonal thing - but the advent of the motor car in the 50s and 60s brought this industry to a standstill, with a corresponding decline in employment and services (not to mention the guesthouses, most of which have disappeared). The boronia itself, once so prolific, has also disappeared, the victim of numerous devastating bushfires.

Thereafter, tourists were mainly day trippers in their new Holdens, often stopping by the road to picnic, zipping around the local sights in minutes where they would have formerly spent leisurely hours, or travelling further on into the hinterland.

One enterprising local business actually flourished in this climate - the legendary "Everything Shop" at Sutton Forest, which was the forerunner of the modern secondhand and antique shop, and which was so famous the gilded political and diplomatic 'aristocracy' used to make a point of diverting to it on their way from Sydney to Canberra.

As rural industries declined in the 1960s, largely due to greater competition and more efficiencies of scale elsewhere in the country, attempts were made to boost the flagging economy of the Highlands. This also coincided with the collapse of the local tourist industry.

Moss Vale, for almost a hundred years, was a town based on the industry of the railways. It was junction of the line to the coast, and had railway workshops.

It had also usurped the role of official Railway Refreshment Rooms after the Governor had decided that he would prefer to be refreshed at Moss Vale, closer to home, rather than Mittagong - where a special building had previously been erected for this purpose.

(This building can still be seen next to the small station building in Mittagong. An enterprising person has also recently reopened the refreshment rooms at Moss Vale.)

In the 1960s Moss Vale was declared an outpost of the City of Wollongong, and received a branch of the steel mills.

This was not taken well by the locals at the time, the Highlands not being a traditional heavy manufacturing area - New Berrima notwithstanding (out of sight, out of mind), and New Sheffield and Joadja a thing of the past - but it was timely for that town, with the downgrading of traditional railway services with the advent of diesel locomotives.

Not long after, the Mittagong Shire Council attracted their own heavy industry - Tyree Industries, which is still in operation.

Various towns have set up "industrial areas" in the years since, which contain mostly tertiary and service industries - not the big employers their originators hoped for.

Corbett Gardens
Tulip Time in Corbett Gardens, Bowral
In an attempt to win back the tourist dollar, enterprising people in Bowral inaugurated "Tulip Time", a horticultural festival based on massive displays of that beautiful flower.

Over twenty odd years this has been a great success, now attracting tens of thousands of people to the Highlands.

It has also reinvigorated the tourist accomodation industry, as more people - just as they did in the past - seek to escape the city to a more attractive environment.

Now that the freeway has diverted the main southern highway from Berrima, that town has been revitalised as a preferred tourist destination. Tourist facilities have opened, and a sensitive preservation order has been placed over the town which magnifies its traditional buildings and heritage.

Today, the main industry of the Southern Highlands is again tourism, but now it is more evocative and faithful to the past than it has ever been.

Perhaps challenging it is the ever increasing development of residential, retirement, and dormitory accomodation for people from the city, which is now closer than ever before.

Luckily, the environment of the Highlands bends them to its will, and not vice versa.

Last updated 12/8/00