March 11, 2013

150 Years in the Southern Highlands: Convicts, bushrangers, heroes and squatters

David Ellis

WHILE bushranger Ben Hall and his lot were getting travellers to throw up their arms and part with their possessions on the roads of the Southern Highlands of NSW back in the 1860s, more law-abiding citizens were throwing up inns, grand mansions and public edifices that would remain a legacy for generations to this day.

And with the towns of Bowral and Moss Vale this year celebrating 150 years of their founding, visitors are flocking to these Southern Highlands, just 1.5hr by freeway south of Sydney, to soak-up a vibrant history and architecture that can be found at virtually every turn.

And to view public gardens and private half-hectare blocks planted to flaunt stunning seasonal flamboyances.

The first ex-convicts-cum-explorers here in the late 1780s recorded the potential for bountiful settlement… and Europeans' first-ever sightings of koalas, lyrebirds and waratahs.

John Oxley and Dr Charles Throsby soon followed – Throsby carving the Old South Road from Picton and being given a 1000 acre (400ha) land grant by Governor Macquarie.

Here he established the settlement of Bong Bong in 1817 alongside the Wingecarribee River between today's Bowral and Moss Vale, but regular floods forced its move further inland in 1831 to what's now Berrima.

The original 27-room Throsby homestead, cottage and stables still stand today, managed by the Historic Houses Trust; the Highlands' first church, Christ Church circa-1845 also still serves there today, having originally been Throsby's family chapel.

In 1868 then-Governor, the Earl of Belmore leased Throsby homestead to escape Old Sydney Town's oppressive (for newly-arrived British) summer heat, establishing a precedent that was followed more grandly in the early 1880s by Governor Lord Augustus Loftus: he had a vast mansion, Hillview at Sutton Forest, purchased purely as a cooler-climate escape that hosted every State Governor until 1957.

Staff included 35 butlers, cooks, kitchen- and stable-hands, and full-time Chinese gardeners – with a Vice-Regal suite built at Moss Vale Railway Station for Their  Excellencies' entourages to await in luxury their trains back to Sydney.

Hillview has been privately restored at a cost of $2m and is today a palatial refuge for discerning holidaymakers.

Throsby also in 1864 subdivided part of his landholdings, naming it Moss Vale after loyal Irish convict-cum-servant at Throsby Park, Jemmy Moss – and giving Jemmy occupancy for life of the land on which he lived with his wife in a bark hut.

Governor Macquarie also gave 2500 acres (1000ha) to explorer Oxley whose sons Henry and John raised sheep and cattle on what was to eventually become Bowral, and with the Old South Road soon being by-passed in favour of the new road further inland to Berrima, the town of Mittagong also emerged.

George Cutter who built the Highlands' first inn, the Kangaroo on the Old South Road in 1827, closed it with the demise of the road, and operated a second Kangaroo Inn in Mittagong from 1834; it traded under different owners and names until 1866, and is today Minnikin Lodge, an art gallery and annual Christmas Shop – with sandstone walls 54cm (21ins) thick.

Other inns and hotels included the 1834 Surveyor General Inn at Berrima that's still trading today in this last, largely-intact Georgian village in Australia, the short-lived Argyle at ill-fated Bong Bong, and nearby the circa-1854 Royal Oak that's now The Briars between Moss Vale and Bowral.

The Prince Albert Hotel at Braemar just north of Mittagong has had a chequered career since opening in 1845, now restored as the Prince Albert Inn motel.

Bowral's first hotel, the Wingecarribee Inn opened on Bong Bong Street in 1862 where the Royal Hotel now is, and the second, the circa-1887 Grand Hotel, also on Bong Bong Street is still trading today.

As the Highlands' popularity increased amongst Sydney's gentry, they established large English-style mansions amid rambling English-like gardens, reminiscent of home, in Bowral, Moss Vale and Mittagong, and numerous small villages and hamlets around them.

20th century residents included Sir Donald Bradman with an oval, museum and Cricket Hall of Honour named after him in Bowral, and Helen Lyndon Goff – who using the name PL Travers, wrote Mary Poppins in Bowral in 1910.

For details of Bowral and Moss Vale's 150th anniversary celebrations and all properties in this article, contact Tourism Southern Highlands 02 4871 2888 or


[] RETREAT for Vice-Regals from 1868 to 1957 – when it all got too hot in Sydney.
   (Hillview Historic Mansion)
[] BOWRAL (unknown date) before motor car was king. (Berrima Historical Society)
[] LETTING off steam – train and passengers alike – at Moss Vale Railway Station.
   (Berrima Historical Society)
[] MINNIKIN Lodge Mittagong built as the second Kangaroo Inn 1827 – walls 54cm
   thick. (Sandra Arrell)
[] AUTUMN leaves: the Southern Highlands stun with seasonal flamboyancies.
  (Southern Highlands Corporate Events)
[] CHRIST Church Moss Vale: first church in the Southern Highlands and still
   serving today. (Organ Historic Trust Australia)
[] PIONEER explorer, settler and visionary: Dr Charles Throsby. (Tourism Southern

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