March 04, 2013


David Ellis

WITH this the 150th year since Bowral and Moss Vale were founded side-by-side in the NSW Southern Highlands in 1863, the folk there reckon they've plenty to celebrate.

And they're doing it with twelve months of festivities commemorating memorable Highlands' "firsts," and of tales of convicts, characters and explorers, the more nefarious like bushranger Ben Hall, and of Lucretia Dunkley the only woman ever hanged in Berrima Gaol.

And of Don Bradman – and even Mary Poppins.

Today and next week we'll share some of these tales with you, as well as highlights of this year's celebrations in a region that began life as cattle-country and a summer retreat for the elite of old Sydney Town to their cool mountains' mansions amid vast home-country English-style gardens – with even the State Governor having a summer bastion here.

And of how the Highlands, at 690m above sea-level yet just 1.5hrs drive south of Sydney, at every turn brings with them another post-card-pretty small town, village or hamlet connected to the past.

How many know that in January 1798 ex-convict-cum-explorer John Wilson led two other explorers into the now-Southern Highlands, one of them, John Price recording in his diary the first sighting and description by white man both of a koala and a lyrebird? His diary, given to Sir Joseph Banks, is now in the Mitchell Library.

Or that it was in the Southern Highlands that Europeans first recorded flowering Waratahs – and that in the underground car-park of Woolworth's Highland Marketplace at Mittagong, you can see remains of the first smelting plant in Australia, the Fitzroy Iron Works named after then-Governor Sir Charles Fitzroy?

When these remains were found during ground preparations in 2005, Woolworth re-designed the complex around them so what little was left of the 1840's rolling mills, furnaces, boilers and chimney bases could forever remain on public view.

And next to the Mittagong RSL Club see where residents in the 1800s drew from a spring whose health-giving mineral waters were also fed into an adjacent bathhouse; that bathhouse has long since gone, but the spring still flows today.

Sir Charles Fitzroy also gave his name to the Fitzroy Inn in Mittagong; Australia's first lawn tennis court was installed here in 1875 when it was temporarily a school, and today it's a hostelry again with its tennis court having an artificial surface. In-house guests can also marvel in the cellar here at "Australia's finest example of a convict-era kitchen," complete with the water-well dug in the middle of the floor when the Inn was built in 1835.

And a cell in the Inn still has iron shackles and bars on the walls that harshly detained convicts while their guards slept comfortably overnight upstairs on the way by coach to the new Berrima Gaol – where Australia's first trial by all-civilian jury was held in 1841.

Opposite that now-closed Gaol is the Surveyor General Inn built by freed convict couple William Harper and Margaret Morgan in 1834, run by their son James and today the oldest continuously-licenced inn in Australia; up the road James and wife Mary's fine circa-1834 Georgian-style mansion and garden maze is now owned by the National Trust and open weekends and public holidays.

Lucretia Dunkley was the only woman ever hanged in Berrima Gaol, alongside her young lover Martin Beech in 1843 for the gruesome axe murder of her sleeping husband who was 20 years her senior. A witnessing reporter wrote: "Both prisoners exhibited apathy upon the scaffold and died as they had lived, hardened and unrepentant."

Take the original Old South Road into the Southern Highlands and you'll pass historic Mittagong Aerodrome built in 1944 to bolster air defences of Wollongong and Port Kembla's steelworks; it's now leased by the Berrima District Aero Club, and as you drive south past it, opposite is the site of George Cutter's (or possibly Cutler's) circa-1827 Kangaroo Inn and windmill-driven flour mill – the first inn in the Southern Highlands.

Cutter sold the 789ha site to explorer Captain Charles Sturt in 1835 as a private residence after the Old South Road became obsolete.

A William Bradley built a second Kangaroo Inn in Mittagong in the 1830s – and leased it to George Cutter.

(Next week: more tales of the Southern Highlands and this year's 150th anniversary celebrations.)



[] BOWRAL's main street in the days of horse and cart. (Berrima Historical Society)

[] THE railway comes to Moss Vale in the 1860s. (Berrima Historical Society)

[] SPECTACULAR NSW Southern Highlands Autumn colours. (Tourism Southern Highlands)

[] HIDDEN surprises: Fitzroy Falls in the Highlands Morton National Park. (EnvironmentNSW)

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