A Heritage Lost

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It is now over 50 years since the wild rivers of the Burragorang Valleys were captured and tamed. The Warragamba dam was built to provide the growing city of Sydney with a reliable source of water following sporadic series of droughts. The Oaks Historical Society holds many stories, archives, photographs and objects relating to the people who called this beautiful area home. The current exhibition at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre and Museum at The Oaks features the dispossession of these families, beginning with the Aboriginal families. Their attempts to keep some of their traditional lands in the face of increasing demand from European settlers has been documented in such Books as ‘Sacred Waters” by Dianne Johnson and “From Invasion to Embassy” by Heather Goodall. The exhibition traces the effects of losing their lands. Some families moved to the Gully at Katoomba others to Salt Pan Creek in Sydney and La Perouse mission. The families who selected the Gully as their new home had to move again when the Blue Mountains City Council bulldozed the houses for a tourist development! Others remained in the valley, many marrying into local families.

The experiences of the European families settling into this remote area are also described in photos maps and objects. The ex-residents of the Valley have spent many years researching the locations of their drowned farms and heritage. Old maps and family memories and have been used to create albums of photos with maps to show their descendants today. Their dispossession was by the demolition of their homes and farms and destruction of the bush. The rising waters of Warragamba Dam obliterated all evidence of their occupation as well as the tangible evidence of Gundungorra occupation.

A recent article on the Valley on Back Then (The Burragorang-Paradise Lost by Janice Johnson) seemed to indicate that these were a people defined by their remoteness as uncivilised; living without books or newspapers or the advantages of any cultural life. Yet our archives tell a different story. These valleys were popular destinations for travellers from Sydney in the same way the Blue Mountains are today. The difficulty of access was a challenge to horse drawn transports and early motor cars as well as to bushwalkers. These visitors needed accommodations so beautiful guest houses provided memorable holidays which are still talked about today; Mountain View, The Knoll, Burragorang House and many more.

Burragorang House 1920c

Burragorang House, Burragorang Valley, 1920c

A chain of primary schools soon brought modern culture to the Valley. A cursory reading of the books the children studied does not indicate a primitive society. A legacy of literature was created in the valley from writers such as Bernard O’Reilly with his stories of the Valley in Green Mountains & Cullenbenbong which are still in demand today.

A new generation of film makers also discovered the Valley and such luminaries as Charles Chauvel and Ken Hall made films such as ‘Bush Christmas’, The Sons of Matthew, Rangle River. They are now icons in the history of film. Photographers such as Charles Kerry were also inspired by the beauty of the scenery and dignity of the people as well as painters such as JH Carse (1818-1900) whose landscape is in the NSW Art Gallery collection, WR Bennet (1893-1989) and Robert H Johnson (1890-1964).


Artefacts from the Burragorang Valley homes in displays at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre Museum in the exhibition Dispossession

In addition to donations from local people, the Wollondilly Heritage Centre Museum holds a unique archive created by historian Ron Mills over a 15 year period known as the “The Burragorang/Yerranderie Scrolls” which contain a unique history of these areas, rendered in Indian ink on draftsman’s paper in a series of 168 scrolls, containing records, stories and illustrations. Cynthia Collison, the archivist at the time, created a comprehensive Index to the Scrolls which have now been digitised and are available to be viewed by contacting the Research Officer on 4657 1796 Or by email: tohs1988@bigpond.net.au.

The museum is open every weekend and public holiday from 10am – to 4pm or by arranging a group visit on the website: www.wollondillymuseum.org.au

Doreen Lyon