The Life And Times Of A Mining Town
Early in the 1800s, settlers started to move into the region from Sutherland to Bulli, an area of coastal ranges south of Sydney.
Settlement around the Helensburgh area began as an offshoot of the discovery of the Illawarra by Throsby in 1815. He was a grazier and as grass was scarce around Sydney he set out to find new pastures. He had heard from aborigines that there was grass in the region of the five islands (latter called Wollongong). So he set out from Campbelltown with Joe Wild an ex convict and within days reached the escarpment of the coastal range and there below he saw lush pastures stretching for miles. He was soon back with a herd and, finding a way down the escarpment, was able to fatten them for the Sydney market.
By 1820, Bulli (at that time covering Clifton to Kiama) was totally used for grazing. Herds also extended north into Little Bulli (Stanwell Park), the Bulgo range (Lilyvale and Otford, in the valleys below Helensburgh) and into what is now the Royal National Park. Hell Hole was even used for a time by a gang of rustlers. In the 1850s, when Port Hacking was being settled, the early pioneers were amazed at the number of wild cattle roaming the area. Only in the valleys was there grazing. The coastal range was far too heavily wooded. The steep sides of the hill country was sub tropical rain forest. This would soon serve as a wonderful source of some of the best cedar trees in Australia. On the high sandstone plateau, where Helensburgh would soon develop, the country was thick with gum trees and heavy scrub.
The first recorded settler in the area was a Mr Gibbon who by 1832 had established a grazing property at Little Bulli (on the coast below Helensburgh). Access was gained by a bullock track through Blue Gum Forest and down Mount Mitchell. The whole area was linked by a saddle track along the coast, up Bald Hill and along the Bulgo Range and through to Bundeena on the shores of Port Hacking. The bullock track through Blue Gum Forest passed through Darkes Forest and out west to Campbelltown. Darkes Forest was named after assistant superintendent Darke who replaced Roderick Mitchell as Surveyor in charge of constructing the Illawarra Road.
To the North, around Port Hacking, the same type of development was taking place. James Birnie in 1815 secured 700 acres of grassland at Cronulla for grazing purposes and by the ‘50s a dozen others had taken up land, although only a few developed it. Grassed areas were scarce while newly cleared land proved poor grazing.
The Government of the day made a move to open up the vast area between Port Hacking and Bulli, while providing a direct route from Sydney to Bulli. Sir Thomas Mitchell, surveyor general and his son Roderick Mitchell, surveyed a new road from Lugarno (the then southern limit of Sydney) to Bulli. In 1843 work commenced using convict labour. It was completed in the 1850s and called the Illawarra Road. When in 1845 the road passed through the fertile region of Bottle Forest (Heathcote), the area was surveyed and settlers soon moved in, set up farms and used the new road to get their products to market. To the south of Bottle Forest the road passed through the Helensburgh region, but at this time the region was still virgin bush. The road was little used and soon fell into disrepair. Most travelers preferred the inland route through Campbelltown or travelled by sailing boat.
Captain Robert Westmacot, who had settled in the Illawarra in 1837, made the first moves to develop coal mines in the region. Soon many mines were in operation, jetties running out to sea, colliers, freighters and passenger ships plying the coast.
With the reopening of the Old Illawarra Road and a new punt service at Tom Ugly’s point, travellers started to use this more direct route between Sydney and Bulli. It was this passing traffic that prompted Thomas Macintosh in 1874 to build his Road House at Helensburgh on a site called “the Dummies”. Today, the new expressway exit passes through the site.
Judge Hargrave, on retiring from public life, decided to establish a grand estate in the Bulli region. He owned a holiday cottage at Coal Cliff, along with a parcel of land. He added Mr Gibbon’s farm of 1,000 acres at Little Bulli (Stanwell Park) to his Coal Cliff property, along with other land he purchased in Bulgo Valley (Lilyvale and Otford). He named the holding “Stanwell Estate” after the prominent politician Sir William Stanwell. Around 1880, with his age against him (d. 1885), he divided the estate among his four children. Ralph, the oldest, received the central “Park” area, part of which was sold in 1888 to pay for the construction of his new home “Hillcrest”. He died on an overseas trip in the same year and left the property to his brother Lawrence. Lawrence Hargrave had been living at Ruschutters Bay in Sydney during the ‘70s and it was there that he carried out his first experiments with box kites. In 1883 he moved to Lilyvale and continued his experiments on Bald Hill, high above the beach at Stanwell Park. From 1888 he carried out his work at Hillcrest, gaining world renown for his experiments. He died in 1915.
In 1907 the Government resumed the beach front and lagoon area of Stanwell Estate for public use. In 1908 the Estate was subdivided and auctioned on Anniversary Day, by H. Halloran & Co. All the existing roads were put through for the subdivision and a shopping centre laid out adjacent to the original railway station.
So it was that by 1880 “Sylvania” South to Stanwell Estate consisted mainly of small farms centered on Miranda (Sutherland Shire), Heathcote, Stanwell Park, Darkes Forest, with Helensburgh virtually undeveloped. All this was to change with the building of the Southern railway and the discovery of coal at Helensburgh.
The development of the southern coal fields and intensive farming in the Illawarra prompted the government to link the area to Sydney with a rail line. So it was in the 1880s that the Illawarra rail line reached the district. As construction moved south, gangers’ camps were set up and soon became the nucleus of villages along the line. Como, Sutherland, Heathcote (Bottle Forest), Westmacott (Waterfall), Cawley (now deserted) and Camp Creek (Helensburgh). The line reached Helensburgh in 1884 and the station was opened in 1889, with the first train leaving for Sydney in 1890. The line continued to Lilyvale, Bulgo 1885 (Otford) and Stanwell Park. “The Park” quickly became a popular picnic spot with a subdivision of land in 1908 and a railway station completed in 1909. Sydney people came for the day. It was a one and a half hour trip costing three shillings second class.
Helensburgh took on a more permanent character with the discovery of coal in 1884 by Charles Harper. Charles, until his death at the mine in 1888, played a big part in the development of the town. He is credited with naming the town after his daughter Helen. There is still debate over this question as quite a few of the oldies claim the town was named after Helensburgh in Scotland. The Primary school still holds the British flag sent to the town from Helensburgh Scotland early last century, and a number of associations had links with their sister community in Scotland. There is though a difference in pronunciation. The Australian Helensburgh is pronounced “berg” rather than “bura”. Dr F. H. Cox who practiced from 1910 till 1942 would always correct people, often at public meetings, with the “correct” pronunciation. From the back of the hall all could hear him growl “bura”.
When the mine commenced operations in 1888, it and the new township of Helensburgh did not have a resident doctor to look after medical needs. A doctor at Bulli, Dr Sturt, visited Helensburgh once a week and was “on call” for emergencies, though attending them was often delayed, as he had to travel by train from Bulli to Helensburgh. Dr Sturt suggested the recruitment of a resident “medical practitioner” for the mine and town. This suggestion was taken up and an advertisement subsequently placed in the Sydney Morning Herald in the spring of 1989. It was reported at the time that 18 people applied for the position which was won by Dr. Richard Trindall from Campbell’s Hill, Maitland. Dr Trindall’s stay was short-lived. His position was re-advertised in August 1891 resulting in the appointment of Dr John Malcolm in 1892. Four years later, action was again underway to find a replacement doctor – amid considerable angst and debate in the town. Over the next 15 years, resident doctors came and went. Dr Joseph Park from 1898 to 1903 and Dr William Kerr from 1903 to 1910. On 29 June 1910, the Sydney Morning Herald reported the appointment of Dr Cox. For serious injuries requiring hospitalisation, there was an ambulance station with a hand cart up from the original Post Office Shop next to where the Band Hall was later constructed. The injured were taken to the railway station on the hand cart and then to hospital. The miners soon organised a hospital fund which they paid into each week to cover hospitalisation. Dr Cox built his mine surgery in Robertson Street, next to his home. After Dr Cox’s death from stomach cancer, Dr Condon set up a practice in town, building a home on the corner of Walker and Lilyvale Streets. He stayed about 3 years and then sold the practice and home to Dr Gardiner who stayed a further 4 years. Dr Hickson then took over the practice and built a combined Doctor’s and Dentist’s surgery on the land next door, the original site of the Paragon hall. He stayed about 8 years, selling his practice, home and surgery to Dr Crossley Meates who still practices in town to this day (2014).
In 1886 Charles Harper organised a petition for a post office. This was unsuccessful as it was felt that Gibson’s saddle mail service between Cawley and Otford was quite sufficient. The town centre developed on the plateau above the mine. It consisted initially of tents and humpies. Charles fought side by side with his workers for better conditions, a school, hotel and miner’s cottages, but all was slow in coming.
Drilling for coal began on the plateau above Camp creek in 1883, but the drill stuck before they reached the coal seam. Charles Harper and his team then moved down to the lower bed of Camp Creek in 1884 and this time were successful, discovering a 6ft. seam of coal at a depth of 1100 feet.
The township also developed just above the railway station. A number of shops were opened and a town green dedicated. The building that once housed the local butcher still exists. The road access to the village turned off the Illawarra highway just past Waterfall, passed through Cawley, across the railway line and into Helensburgh. Cawley Road still exists but is rarely used. This centre was soon bypassed as a more permanent village developed on the tablelands above the colliery. In 1886 Mr Horan’s shop was given the post office agency, and a police station was built on the opposite corner. The temporary school was moved from Cawley to Helensburgh and a new school building built in 1887 up from the post office and police station. A brick building with 3 class rooms was build in 1891 during the head mastership of Mr Edward Byrnes.
Yet it was the mine that was to bring permanency to the newly established village. A 16 ft. shaft was sunk in 1886 and by 1888 ten trucks of coal were being extracted each week.
By the late 1880s West Helensburgh was opened up when the main road (Parkes Street) was driven through the cutting and extended to the Illawarra Highway. Darky Gill soon established a number of shops around the Walker Street, Parkes Street junction. There was a butcher, baker, draper and general store. This soon became the main shopping centre.
As workers moved into town they either purchased acre lots of land or just camped on Crown land. Tents soon turned into humpies and these were either replaced or rebuilt into what is commonly called in Helensburgh, a Miner’s Cottage. Many of these cottages were little more than rough bush shacks, but some were built by tradesmen, and all have the same look – the double fronted workmen’s cottage, open front verandah with four rooms.
Naturally, these were rough and tumble times, renowned for violence and drunkenness. To the boom towns along the Illawarra line, Churches were established to bring some light into the darkness. “The gentlemen who have been lately holding religious services, will, it is thought, soon reduce things into some order amongst us.” In 1887 St. Hallows Church of England was built at Otford, then 1892 the Church of the Holy Redeemer was built at Helensburgh. Then followed the Roman Catholic church, Methodist and Presbyterian.
By 1900 the town of (West) Helensburgh had become well established. A post office had been approved in 1889 and a new building constructed by George Ricketts in 1900. This building still serves as the local Post Office. There was a brick Court House and Police station, still in use today. There were two hotels, the Paragon (now demolished) and the Centennial. Mr Henley’s Centennial was originally a small structure, but he soon built a brick building which stands today as the local pub. The Centennial Hall (destroyed by fire) used for balls, etc., a billiard saloon (demolished), school of arts on the site of present Community Centre (later the RSL hall – destroyed by fire), along with numerous shops – fruit market, emporium, baker, news agent, printer, confectioner, barber, bank, butchery, produce store, bulk sore, soft drink factory …… A workmen’s club was founded in 1896 and the club house was built in Walker Street in 1898. It had 129 members listed on the original register. The club remains a central part of the social life of the town with restaurant and gaming facilities. In 1891 a new brick school of 3 rooms was built while Mr. Edward Byrnes was the headmaster. The Methodist chapel, Presbyterian, Anglican and Roman Catholic churches were now well established. There was a Progress Association, Parent’s and Citizen’s association, cricket and football clubs.
The town even had a coach line running from the shopping centre to the station. This operated from Mr Perk’s livery stable on the corner of Sawan and Boomerang Streets. Later in 1927 Tom Bennett operated a Cherabang (12 seated car) and then a bus. The run was taken over by Selby’s motor garage (the present Ampol Service Station) and then Mr Fehrenbach. Mr Garner and Mr Edwards operated the run from 1954 with three buses. In 1977 Mr Everingham and Laurie Hill took over the run and based it at the Ampol Service Station again.
Life in the town revolved around the mine. In 1895 the work force in the mine was 403, the town’s population was around 1500. So the mine was the life-blood of the community. The mine was quickly mechanised, coal was dragged to the shaft by draught horses and raised to the surface in cages driven by steam power. Later, as the working extended further from the pit head, a 2 mile drag line (endless rope) was installed, again driven by steam engines. Skips of coal were taken from the face by horses and brought to the drag line. The line took the skips the rest of the way. Miners were paid 2/8 a ton in the early 1900s. All work was carried out under oil lamps of a half candle power. It was a nine hour day for six days a week.
With the departure of the railway gangers, the other villages in the area settled down to a quiet existence. Heathcote consisted of small farms. Waterfall was a small village consisting mainly of railway workers. Cawley was the centre for a number of small farms, but as with Lilyvale, these were later absorbed into the Royal National Park. Lilyvale was now a small village consisting of the railway station, a village shop, the Metropolitan hotel and a number of small farms. Both these centres have now returned to the bush. Otford consisted mainly of small farms, saw mills, with a local shop continuing up till the 1970s. The Otford area was rich in Australian red cedar, a highly prized timber. The original pews in the Anglican Church were constructed from red cedar planks taken from the local forest. Darkes Forest consisted of a number of small farms on the rich black soil of the Forest.
Other than the beach front at Stanwell Park which had been resumed by the Government for public use, the Park was privately owned by the Hargrave family. No longer used for grazing, the land was subdivided in 1908, roads constructed, park rail fencing and trees planted, shopping centre laid out and there were even plans for a hotel. A small local population took root, although many cottages were built as holiday retreats. An Anglican mission church was built in 1914 and through to 1928 it was used during the week as the public school. Strangely, the church was not initially given a name. It was not until some years later that it was called St George’s. Mr Surtees was the first teacher at the school.
As the years passed there was some development in cultural activities in Helensburgh. A brass band was formed and in 1907 it won the Illawarra Band Contest. In 1908 it was first in the State. It played at many engagements, including the opening of the Stanwell Park Estate in 1908. The band regularly played at Cronulla on Sunday. In 1916 Mr John Sharp Robertson (who was surface mine manager at Metropolitan Colliery for a few years) lent the money for the construction of a Band Hall. A mighty Bazaar was held, and over the weekend enough funds were raised to pay off the debt. The Hall was constructed on land opposite the mine, next to the Emergency First Aid Station. This ambulance shed housed a hand push cart to transport injured miners to the railway station. The band folded in 1957 and the hall was then used for community activities. Sadly it burnt down at the turn of the century. Many towns folk remember the penny dances where, for a penny, school children were trained in the art of ballroom dancing in preparation for the “coming out” ball. Other cultural activities in the town included a male voice choir (1915) and orchestra, the Helensburgh Eisteddfods (1914-16), Protestant Alliance Friendly Society, Cadet Corp, Militia, Lodge, etc.
A major event in the life of the town was work on the Helensburgh deviation. The original single train line had become congested with traffic. There was also a problem with the Otford rail tunnel running through to Stanwell Park. Passengers were regularly asphyxiated in the tunnel when the trains stalled on the 1 in 40 grade. So in 1908 the track was re-surveyed to give a grade of 1 in 80. Thus the railway gangers returned, camping in Baker’s Camp next to the old cricket field (now the pony club field). The first section, Waterfall to Helensburgh, was completed in 1914, the second, Helensburgh to Otford, 1915. The work was undertaken by a team of 1,200 men who completed the work in three years. The third section was to be delayed until after the war, and completed in 1920.
When work began on the deviation in Otford, around 1914, Mr James’ shop lay in the way of the new line. A new shop and residence was constructed for Mr James by the railways and the old shop moved and used as a site office. At the completion of the deviation. the building and land was handed back to the community as a local hall. It became the centre for Sunday church services and the Progress Association until it was burnt down some 50 years later. The Progress Association constructed a tennis court in front of the hall. It had the name Mr James’ hall. Interestingly, Mr James himself lived in part of the original St Hallows Anglican Church. His house was constructed around the remaining back wall.
Some people say it’s boring to live in a small town, but there was plenty to do. The churches provided spiritual food. The Workmen’s Club (just called the “Workers”) offered a great range of activities from cultural to sporting. Lectures, lantern slide and Edison music nights, quoits, etc. There was soccer, cricket, choral society, band, scouts, orchestra, etc. There was hiking in the bush to some of the most beautiful scenery in Australia. A person could stroll on the weekend up the “red road” (Illawarra highway) and out to Mr Shultz’s farm for some fresh fruit and vegetables. Families would hire one of the Helensburgh coaches and go for a picnic out of town, or even just walk up to the “Dummies” for a picnic, opposite the “Teapot Inn” on the corner of the highway and Lawrence Hargrave Drive.
In 1914, the local Anglican minister, Rev. Smee founded the Helensburgh Scout Troop which met in the Anglican “School” church hall through ‘till 1938. A scout hall was then constructed further up Parkes Street, opposite the present Uniting Church. A new building was constructed in the early 1980s. The Anglican ministers that followed Rev. Smee, namely, Peat, Creighton, Gee and Kennedy were all active Scout masters, and consolidated the Rev. Smees initial efforts to build a viable and effective Scout Troop in the Burgh. The Scouts are active to this day in the town.
The First World War touched the town, as it did every town in Australia. The Illawarra recruiting march came through the town and many of the young men joined up. The honor role of those who lost their lives hangs in the Anglican church and the Uniting church (formerly the Methodist church). Numerous auxiliaries were formed to help in the war effort – The Red Cross and The War Auxiliary. Special concerts were held in aid of the war effort, even school concerts portrayed the theme, “rule Britannia.” There was trouble in the mines during this period. Conditions were very poor and the miners terribly discontented. To this situation came the hope of Socialism. There were marches through the town with the miners singing “solidarity for ever”, and of course there were the inevitable strikes. Finances were stretched thin for all in the town.
Mrs Hulme-Moir, the daughter of the Helensburgh clergyman at the time, Rev. Smee, wrote of her experiences during these difficult times. She remembers her father was a convinced royalist and when the marchers came past the Rectory her father went out on the side of the road waving the Union Jack. Thankfully, it was all good humoured since everyone was suffering together. She remembered a time when there was not a scrap of food on the table. “My first thought was what’s dad saying grace for? then I thought, yes, we should thank God for being a family and for our many other blessings. There was a knock at the door, but father went on with his prayers. He interrupted them for nothing. When he finished he went to the door and someone had left us some food. Father was exhilarated. ‘There you are Maude, faith’, he said. The incident left a lasting impression on me.”
It must be remembered that Helensburgh was a very poor community. Work in the mine was hard and poorly paid. School photographs of the time show most of the children without shoes. An example of the limited funds available in the community is born out by the stipend of the local Anglican Clergyman. He received $400 per year, of this $300 was provided by the Church Society. The congregation, although strong, could only provide $100 per year. This was a very poor community.
In November 1918 services of thanksgiving were held in the local churches to celebrate the end of the war. It was a time of national joy. Then in February 1919 the influenza epidemic struck and all public gatherings were canceled. On Sunday November 14, the church services in town were held in the open. The epidemic did not strike Helensburgh in force until June. The school was turned into an emergency hospital during the months of the epidemic. The resident doctor, Frederick Cox, was run off his feet.
By 1920 the village and farming communities of Cawley and Lilyvale had all but disappeared. The formation of the Royal National Park and its continued acquisition of land East of the railway, had reduced the viability of both areas. At the turn of the last century both communities were large enough to warrant regular church services, usually held in private homes. All such services had by now ceased. Lilyvale kept its railways station and even got a new one with the construction of the deviation. This was demolished with the electrification of the line in the 1990s. A small shop continued to function beside the station through to the Second World War. As well as servicing the remaining farms, hikers would alight at Lilyvale and walk through to Burning Palms. In the early part of the last century it was a very popular train stop and walk. In late 1928 the depression started to take its grip throughout Australia and by 1930 it was in full swing. Any town that gained its livelihood from mining was to bear the brunt of the industrial slow down. Coal was just not needed. So slowly production was lowered and shifts laid off. 800 men had been employed in 1927, but by 1930 this was drastically reduced. There was no local employment. Some families moved out to the city to get employment, but there was little hope. Many of the young men had to leave home so they could collect the dole. Others just moved down to the coastal beaches of Bulgo and Watomolla (Marley), built humpies and lived off the sea. Some of those huts still exist today. Collecting wild blackberries for a 1d a pound was one of the few ways to make a little spare money. In 1930 there were 350 children in the Helensburgh school, but by 1949 there were only 160. The local population was on the decline and both houses and shops began to fall into disuse. Many of the rough miner’s cottages were abandoned and left to rot away. The only joy in the work department was for some of the local miners to get jobs on the new Woronora dam being built in the valley behind Helensburgh.
Still, the town survived. To the passing traveller coughing their way South through the red dust of the Illawarra highway, there was little to see of Helensburgh. At the junction of the highway and Parkes Street there was Mr Selby’s (the man who shot Santa Claus!) multi gas service station, a haven for broken axles, fan belts and windscreens. The highway was rebuilt in 1920 and this made things a little easier. It was renamed the Princes Highway. Then in 1928 tar was laid, well only one mile of it, but it was a start. It was called the “mad mile” and was just after Tom Ugly’s punt. Just down from Selby’s garage (in later years a Shell Service Station) there was a picnic ground to lure Sunday drivers from the teeth rattling corrugations of the highway. There was also the Teapot Inn, opposite the Dummies, at the turn off to Stanwell Park. The inn had a large teapot on the roof so you couldn’t miss it. Another spot to take a rest from the drive South was the boarding house which, after the War, became Peter and Meg Allardice’s “Wagon Wheels” restaurant and guest house. Situated on Lawrence Hargrave Drive, it was a popular weekend retreat.
Little changed in the town. The second Paragon Hall burnt down on the 29th April 1923. Dr Meates surgery is built on the site. The Centennial Hall burnt down the following year. The first Paragon was originally built and owned by the local builder, George Rickets, and rented out for general use. It was purchased by the publican of the Centennial Hotel, dismantled and moved to Parkes Street almost opposite the Centennial Hotel, and renamed the Centennial Hall. The publican of the Paragon Hotel, not to be outdone, built a new Paragon Hall on the site of the original one. Both hotels then used the halls as dance and entertainment venues to compete for patronage. In 1924, “The Empire” Theatre was built in Parkes Street almost opposite the Post Office; movies and all that (later replaced by a supermarket). A new Workmen’s Club was built in 1925. Other than these events, the town slept on.
For entertainment there were the dances in the Band Hall, euchre nights and picnics to Lilyvale and the Park. Bike racing became a popular local sport with regular races on the Parkes Street, Walker Street, Lawrence Hargrave Drive, Princes Highway circuit. One of the accepted pastimes for courting couples was a walk down to the railway station on a Sunday evening to watch the trains go by.
In the early ‘30s Henry Halloran developed Stanwell Tops as a tourist centre. The “Pleasure Park” consisted of cricket ground, swimming pool, kiosk, dance hall, cabins, lookouts, walks. Bill Powers built the rock monuments, walks and lookouts. The mineral pool gained a reputation for its therapeutic value. The Park stagnated as the area was settled in the 1950s. An attempt to redevelop the site into a caravan park was successfully opposed by the new residents. The site became a spiritual healing centre in the 1980s and ‘90s – “The Garden of Peace”. In 2000 it was sold on to become a restaurant and motel site after spirited opposition by those who wanted it to continue as a site for new age spirituality.
The depression years were marked by a number of local activities. With the slowdown in the mine, many families moved down to the beaches in the Royal National Park and lived off the sea – Bulgo, Burning Palms (near Garie), Era (Blue Hole, named after the deep water at the South end), North Era (Clarie’s Beach, named after Clarie’s cattle that grazed in the gully), Tin House beach (after the tin house that was once built there) and Garie (Far Garie, because it was the furthest from Helensburgh). Huts were built out of the local Cabbage Tree Palms. They were cut down the middle cleaned and used as if long Spanish tiles. Most of the beaches had fresh water springs and so as the residents used to say, “we lived like blackfellers.” Blackberries by the 1930s had taken hold of much of the Illawarra. Even in 1907 the Sydney Jam producers would pay 1d a pound for blackberries. So this became one of the few money earning opportunities for the hut dwellers.
During the 1930s work commenced on the Woronora Dam, a dam designed to further supplement the Sydney water supply. A village was established at the site with a shop and community hall. Church services were even regularly held in the community hall along with film evenings and dances. Many of the local men were able to gain employment at the new works. A bus ran daily from Helensburgh, taking workers to the dam site. Stanwell Park soon felt the impact of the construction work on its environment. Sand trucks started to remove the sand dunes that once stood in front of the recreation area. Life returned to normal with the completion of work in 1941.
The original glory of the Park was now no more. The two subdivisions in 1907 and 1914 had opened the area up for development. Many of the great stands of Eucalypts were long gone, cut out for mine shoring timber. Many of the noted Cabbage Tree palms had been uprooted and tree ferns, etc. removed by Sydney nurserymen. The masses of Lily Pily trees on the flats died out with a grub infestation. Even the few Eucalypts beside the lagoons were cut out by some far sighted official. “The Garden of N.S.W.”, as it was once called, had now lost much of its innocent charm.
During the ‘40s Australia was mainly absorbed with the War effort and post-war reconstruction. Stanwell Park beach was littered with concrete tank traps and coils of barbed wire. The old rail tunnel to Otford was blasted. Some installations were constructed and a small RAAF force settled in to await the attack. Naturally a number of the local men joined the services and the ladies auxiliaries set to for the war effort. Knitting, collecting old aluminum pots and pans became the order of the day. Otford served host to a group of Aboriginal evacuees from Crocker Island north of Australia. The school was enlarged to handle the influx of children. The Helensburgh branch of the Red Cross was reinstituted and set up shop in the Anglican Church Hall. Soon homes and public buildings alike had their windows covered with “black out” paper. Wartime want, rationing and the like, was thrown aside on 19th August 1945. It was “Victory Sunday”. Services of thanksgiving were held in all the local churches to celebrate the end of the War.
During the post-war reconstruction a clothing factory was built in Walker Street providing some local employment to the women of the town. The old rail tunnels were used for mushroom production, another useful local employer. On the political scene the Bulli Shire amalgamated with Wollongong in 1947 to form the Greater Wollongong region. It was a controversial move and can still start a good debate.
The ‘50s were the boom years of migration, production and home building in Australia. The first sign of change in Helensburgh was the construction of Nissen huts (Igloos) in West Helensburgh by the Navy. The huts were war surplus and were originally used in the islands. Navy personnel and later British migrants were to make them very comfortable homes. The Council tended to have a strange aversion to the huts and demanded their demolition when the owners left. The last hut was demolished in the early ‘90s. Later in the ‘50s, the Housing Commission opened up a new housing area in West Helensburgh and this served to boost the local population. Many British, Dutch and Slavic migrants were to move into town and try their hand in the Metropolitan Colliery or at the steel works at Port Kembla. The days of tank water finally came to an end with the supply of town water in 1951. It was probably this that saved the town in the tragic bushfires of 1952. A number of houses were destroyed, but disaster was averted.
With the post war boom came a degree of affluence that the town had never known before. Helensburgh up till this time was a depressed coal mining community. Wages were never high and work was intermittent, particularly with the increasing automation of the mine. Families were now able to properly clothe their children. Hand-me-downs were out and the common complaint of stone bruised feet disappeared as children now got to wear shoes to school and for play.
With the coming of TV in 1956 and the greater use of the car the town started to change its character. Local social groups started to wane as entertainment was sought out of town. A growing number of people started to shop out of town. The Empire Theatre closed its doors for the last time. The building was used as a supermarket until destroyed by fire. A new complex of supermarket and shops was developed by Cec Lumb.
By 1966 Helensburgh’s population had reached 2,334 with Darkes Forest at 32. The growing suburban style of the town finally saw the demise of the Co-Op store in 1967. A Chamber of Commerce was formed the same year and set out to publish a local newspaper – The Helensburgh News. The life of the town still focused on the Workmen’s Club. The club extended its facilities with the addition of the concert hall in 1955, the games room in 1956, and a modernising project during the ‘90s. Otford and Stanwell Park remained much the same, although the squatters’ cabins at the Park were bulldozed away in 1965
In the early 1970s Helensburgh began to see an influx of new residents. The Sydney suburban sprawl had started to reach the Burgh (pronounced “the Berg”). In 1975 a miner’s cottage could be had for $15,000, well below a comparable land package in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Prices began to move to around $50,000 in 1982. The Department of Lands released subdivided land by lot and later at auction, in Hume Drive and Rajani Road. In 1980 Boral sold redundant mine land in West Helensburgh for $27,000 per block. More government releases of land in the early ‘90s allowed more young couples to make Helensburgh their home.
With the arrival of new blood into the district a new sense of community involvement began to emerge. Existing organisations such as the Bush Fire Brigade, Surf Life Saving Club, Scouts, Guides, Masons, P and C, Sporting groups and the local churches began to exude a new enthusiasm. The scouts undertook to build a new hall and by 1982 they were powering along with over $10,000 in the kitty from paper drives. Increased community enthusiasm prodded a rush of new clubs, and community projects. The new Community Hall in 1978, Helensburgh Community Pre-school in 1977 and the Helensburgh Sporting Complex , commenced in 1979 and completed in 1982, again through the tireless work of the town’s local MP, Rex Jackson. The Pony Club was formed in 1977, with their first competition ground on Cemetery Hill established in 1980 and later moved to beside the Burgh Track to Burning Palms. The C.B. Club 1977, Hotel Alpha. The Lions were established in 1979. The new Chamber of Commerce was established in 1979. Historical Society formed in 1979. This group grew out of a local history study undertaken at the Helensburgh Primary School by John Derry. Tony DeCorte increased local interest in history through his historical snippets in the Park Parade. He finally called a public meeting to form the new society. Other new groups were Nursing Mothers, BMX Club, and a welter of sports, arts and crafts groups now function out of the new Community hall.
Helensburgh saw the building of a new Commonwealth Bank in 1978, a Squash Centre in 1980, Newsagent and takeway in 1981. A new Westpac bank in 1982. The long awaited sewarage system for Helensburgh began in 1980 with a completed cost of $14 million.
At Otford, Mr Jame’s hall had been burnt down and this was replaced in 1979 with a new community hall and tennis club. Stanwell Tops community action stopped the subdivision of the land adjacent to the mineral pool in 1978 and the old Stone Monument at the entrance of Stanwell Tops was saved from Council road widening to become the local War Memorial dedicated at a public service in April 1982. At Stanwell Park the swimming pool committee fought on to release the funds held by council and raised by the local community for the building of a swimming pool. The pool never eventuated and the funds disappeared. The CWA, Surf Club, Art Classes, Tennis Club, Sewing Classes, Physical Culture and the Bush Fire Brigade flourished. To protect the Park from development SONS (Save Our Northern Suburbs) and the Stanwell Park Community Association were formed in 1979 and successfully stopped further home unit development in the Park. In 1973 Steve James commenced the Park Christmas Festival, out of which grew SPAT – the Stanwell Park Amateur Theatre. With grants and local fund raising, SPAT added a stage and back rooms to the CWA hall in 1978. In 1977 Wayne and Freda Lawrence, the local help, revived “The Park Parade”. It was published by Tony DeCorte, who in 1978 became the editor. This paper was a valuable sounding board for community action. The Stanwell Park Hang Gliders Club was formed following the discovery of Bald Hill as a wonderful hang gliding site. The club played a big part in Heritage week 1981 and in 1982 instituted the Lawrence Hargrave International Hang Gliding Competition. In 1978 Council redeveloped the beach park with a new toilet block, parking facilities and picnic sheds. Happily the old kiosk remained. The old surf club also remained for a time after the completion of a new club house in 1980.
Helensburgh is now part of the Sydney urban sprawl which pushes past the Burgh and into the Illawarra. Yet because of its position it remains an enclave protected from overdevelopment and preserving much of its past history. Even the mine is still in operation, although only just. The high quality of the coal keeps it alive. The township has a population of around 5,000, with some 1,000 homes. There is the full range of sporting clubs: soccer, league, bowls, cricket, horse riding….. The town boasts some great sports fields and a swimming pool. The community centre houses a full size basket ball court. The public school and Catholic primary school handle the education needs. Pub, Workmen’s Club, and Bowling Club provide a full social life. There are five churches, along with a full range of shops. We did have two banks but they have headed for the hills, so we now use the credit union since the banks don’t want our business. The railway station still operates and the service is now electrified to Sydney and Wollongong. So life ticks on at the Burgh.
This article is an extract of a local history published by Bryan Findlayson in 1985. Numerous sources were used, but in particular Bryan would like to mention Bill Simpson, whom he knew well. When it came to local history, Bill was a mine of information. Sadly Bill is now deceased, although his little work “The History of Helensburgh” lives on. We should also mention Laurie Hill who was also a mine of information. Laurie, with his mate Geoff Cox, was the founder of the Helensburgh & District Historical Society in 1979. He passed away in 2001, but he has left the local historical society a box full of notes and photographs.