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The sordid history of Wollongong is next up in our series, a place where might makes right and her boundless plains are not always shared.
In our quest to find the most interesting regional town in NSW, we have today landed in Wollongong.
Beautiful, scrappy, working-class, always slightly dodgy Wollongong. ‘Song of the Sea’ in Dharawal, the language of the rightful owners of this land. By 1827, around 15 years after the first white settlers arrived here, there were, according to some records, only 35 of them left. The first ones to inexorably change the lives of the Dharawal people were the cedar getters.
Before there was gold, or even coal, the local red cedar was one of the most precious commodities in the colony. It was needed to build houses, boats and furniture, so finding and selling it could make you seriously rich. With so much potential wealth so close by, quite a few Sydney convicts and seamen absconded and walked to the Illawarra, where they disappeared into the wilds.
In 1819, Governor Macquarie sent out an official Order to make sure people knew that the timber was ‘Property of the Crown’ and that cutting it down was ‘in direct violation of the Colonial Regulations, and to the Prejudice of the Revenue’.
Macquarie was not only worried about losing money and having men undermine his power. Stories were also emerging about less than morally sound goings-on in the forests. The cedar-getters were described as being ‘of a very disorderly character’, a ‘wild set’, ‘liberally sprinkled with bushrangers’. One of their contemporaries wrote that ‘…often-times, as the night wore on, and the fierce revelry progressed by the blaze of the wind-tossed fire, the sea breaking with harsh, monotonous roar along the pebbly beach, the boats heaving and setting as they rode at anchor within stone’s throw, fighting going on at some times, singing at others, women dancing with their hair streaming in the wind, or lying stretched on the grass in the stupor of intoxication’.
In 1821, Lachlan Macquarie visited the Illawarra just before he left the colony. At the time he lamented that ‘cedar was now very scarce, most of it been already cut down and carried away’. The district had remained intact during tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal stewardship. After the Europeans arrived, it took only a few decades to strip it. And there was nothing that even the most powerful man in the colony could do about it.
As a little sideline I also have to tell you about the man who is considered the first white settler in what is now Wollongong. He was called Charles Throsby and he is only moderately interesting, but a link to a person who is much more so.
Also on The Big Smoke
- Dubbo: A regional hub of bushrangers, notable criminals and the gallows
- Bathurst: A place of guerrilla warfare, unheralded wealth and untold violence
- Braidwood: A town of law, disorder and comparative racial harmony…oh, and Mick Jagger
- Small change: An open letter to the Wollongong residents who bashed a palm tree
Born in 1777 in Leicester, England, Throsby arrived in Sydney as most second and third sons did at the time: as a surgeon on one of the convict ships. Not that he was really a doctor, but as long as you tried to keep the valuable merchandise alive that was enough. Throsby got here in 1802 and after a stint as a superintendent in Newcastle he started to travel, or, as it was called at the time, ‘explore’. This consisted mainly of wandering through the bush, getting lost, being saved by Aboriginal people and then claiming the credits for ‘discovering’ things.
In 1816, he was in what is now Wollongong, where he built a hut (and so became Wollongong’s founding father). By 1820 he was getting a little depressed from all this walking around, so he sent for his nephew, also Charles Throsby, who got here in 1821. Not long afterwards, Throsby Sr. shot and killed himself. Which was horrible, of course, but good for our story. Because the person I really want you to meet is Throsby Jr.’s wife, Betsy. Elizabeth Isabella Broughton was born on Norfolk Island in 1807, but when she was about two years old her mother took her on a trip to England to see the rellies.
Unfortunately, she got mixed up in what is now called the Boyd massacre. The Boyd, the ship young Betsy was travelling on, also carried the son of a Maori chief, who was on his way home to Whangaroa after a year working abroad. On board, he was wrongfully accused of stealing and whipped. This, of course, necessitated ‘utu’, or revenge. So, by the time the ship got into Whangaroa harbour, it was on. In a highly organised retribution, between 60 and 70 people were killed and then eaten. There were five survivors, one of them two-year-old Betsy, who was taken by a local chief who, according to the stories, put a feather in her hair and kept her as his own.
After three weeks, the little girl was rescued by Alexander Berry (now considered the founding father of Berry), who was then a surgeon on a ship en route to Peru. Betsy eventually returned to Sydney in 1812, where he was reunited with her father. The Maori were ‘punished’ by European whalers, who attacked chief Te Pahi, who had nothing to do with it, but died anyway, together with about 50 of his people. Betsy married Throsby Jr., set up home at Moss Vale and had 17 (!) children, none of whom got eaten.
By the time the Depression hit, Dion’s Buses were the best way to get around the Illawarra, especially because the family often waived fares and also didn’t mind if people paid with fresh seafood or recently trapped rabbits.
For our last story about Wollongong, we are going to skip a century or so, because I want to introduce you to Thomas Chong Da-On, who arrived in Australia in about 1880. He came from what is now Guangzhou in China and like many Chinese people at the time decided to try his luck on the Australian goldfields. Not as a miner, but as a peddler, selling food and other things the people on the diggings needed. So, four years later he was in Moruya, where he was granted a government licence for the keeping and sale of explosives and had a general store selling’ drapery, groceries, ironmongery, boots and shoes, tinware, confectionery, fancy goods and all kinds of furniture’.
The shop did well and in 1898 there was enough money for Thomas to marry Australian-born Annie, who also had Chinese heritage. In 1901 the couple, now called Chong, was living in Nerrigundah, where they made a tidy sum a few years later, by finding and selling ’60 ozs’ of gold. But not long after, the mine dried out, the town died, and Thomas decided it was time to move. He bought a market garden at Fairy Meadow, a few kilometres north of Wollongong, and in 1907 the family started a new life there. A new town also came with a new name: Dion, a bit of insurance against the immediate prejudice most Chinese encountered in Australia at the time.
First, Thomas and Annie were beset with problems: their land bordered the Cabbage Tree Creek and then, as now, Wollongong Council did nothing to maintain it. Then, as now, that led to flooding and after more than ten years of having his crop polluted and drowned, while being ignored when he sued the Council, Thomas died, exhausted, leaving Annie pregnant with their thirteenth child, Leslie. With her oldest son Tom, she ran the business, quickly also branching out in a new, self-built store in the centre of Wollongong.
Then, in 1923, the family put in an application to run a motor bus, something that the area didn’t have yet. Mostly, horse-drawn carriages ferried people around, so this was an enormous innovation, linking Wollongong to the surrounding villages and later even Sydney and Kiama.
From the start, it was immensely popular, especially amongst the coal miners and their children who had so-far walked to work and school. By the time the Depression hit, Dion’s Buses were the best way to get around the Illawarra, especially because the family often waived fares and also didn’t mind if people paid with fresh seafood or recently trapped rabbits.
Over time, Dion’s became a feature in the lives of most people in the Illawarra. When children weren’t at the bus stop at their normal time, one of the Dion brothers at the wheel would drive past their house to pick them up. When there were union strikes, the family supported the people with food and money. And during WWII. Dion’s drove recruits and families to and from the Liverpool training camps. Dion’s Buses still exists after almost 100 years, one of the oldest still operating bus services in the country.
At the moment, Wollongong Art Gallery has an exhibition on the company. On the Move runs until 23 February.