The old coalmining village of Bulli, now considered a northern suburb of Wollongong, is located 70 km south of Sydney via the Princes Highway.
When Captain James Cook sailed up the eastern coast of Australia in 1770 a number of people aboard the Endeavour recorded their impressions of the shoreline. It is from the journals of the ship's botanist, Joseph Banks, that we have a description of what Bulli looked like before Europeans had even set foot on it:
'The country today again made in slopes to the sea...The trees were not very large and stood separate from each other without the least underwood; among them we could discern many cabbage trees but nothing else which we could call by any name. In the course of the night many fires were seen.
Originally inhabited by the Wodi Wodi Aborigines the first Europeans in the area were escaped convicts. On a more official note, the small sailing boat of explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders overturned at Towradgi just to the south of Bulli in 1796 and they encountered large numbers of Aborigines in awkward circumstances (see entry on Wollongong).
In 1797, the area was traversed by the survivors of the wreck of the Sydney Cove. The ship beached on the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait. Seventeen of the crew set out by boat but were again wrecked at Point Hicks in Victoria and continued the journey by land. Only three survived the arduous trip to Sydney. George Bass undertook an eight-day trip with two of the survivors intended to seek out two crewmen left behind in the Illawarra (their bodies were found, presumed murdered by local Aborigines) and to investigate the survivors' reports of coal south of Sydney which Bass found at Coalcliff just north of Bulli.
The name 'Bulli' derives from an Aboriginal word thought to signify 'two mountains'. It was used from 1815 to describe the area from Bulli south to Mt Keira. That year Charles Throsby opened up the Illawarra to settlement when he hacked a path down the slopes of the Bulli mountain in search of pasture for his cattle.
Cedar-getters had been inf the Illawarra since 1812 and were to be found in the Bulli area by 1815. They cut the timber where it fell and carted it to the beach for shipment to Sydney, or hauled it up the Bulli pass for transportation by bullock train to Parramatta.
The first permanent settler was Cornelius O'Brien who established a farm in 1823 on the land that stretches inland from Sandon Point, now one of the Illawarra's best-regarded surfing spots. He used convict labour and, with the help of local Aborigines, carried out fishing and whaling.
In 1837 O'Brien sold his land to Captain Robert Westmacott who extended his land, bred race horses which he raced in the first local horse races, founded a brickworks (an industry still operative today), co-founded a steamship company which travelled to and from Sydney, cut a superior path down Bulli Mountain which is still in use today as the Bulli Pass, made many sketches and paintings of the local area, helped organise the first local agricultural society and established the first coalmine in the region. He was however ruined by the depression of the 1840s and returned to England.
A mine was opened in 1862. Miner's cottages were built and a tight-knit community developed with hotel, Wesleyan church and shops. By the end of that decade it was the most productive mine in the district employing nearly 100 men. The Bulli Coal Company laid a rail track from the mine to Sandon Point where the coal was conveyed to ships.
For the workers, there was no set weekly wage and no benefits. They were only paid for what they produced. Weekly contributions were paid into a fund to help the men and their families who lost their income as a result of sickness, injury or death. They formed the Illawarra's first trade union in 1879. As a result, management closed the mines, evicted workers and brought in non-union labour.
On 23 March 1887 an explosion killed all 81 men and boys working in the mine, leaving behind 50 widows and 150 children. The mine reopened later that year and the township continued to develop.
With a population greater than Wollongong, Bulli had a railway station, bank, courthouse and other amenities. Slowly it was overtaken by Wollongong so that today it is no more than a northern suburb of the third largest city in New South Wales.
The mine was closed down in 1987 after 125 years of operation. A number of old timber cottages, shops and other buildings survive from the nineteenth century.
Things to see
There is a tourist information centre in Wollongong, tel: (02) 4228 0300.
Bulli Miner's Cottage
About 1 km south from the bottom of the Bulli Pass the highway passes under a railway overpass which bares a sign declaring your entry into the 'Black Diamond Township' of Bulli.
Just beyond the overpass, to the right, at number 200, is The Bulli Miner's Cottage. Built some time before 1842 it provides considerable insight into the typical material circumstances of a 19th-century miner's family. Remarkably seven children and their parents lived together at one time in this small structure. It has been described as "a very rare substantially intact survivor of a building style common to Bulli in the mid to late nineteenth century".
The cottage is of a rough-hewn slab construction with pit-sawn plank walls of hardwood timber. The roof, once shingled, probably with ironbark, is now of corrugated iron. There are a number of mining artefacts and furnishings from the mid to late nineteenth century and, behind the cottage, the memorial wall recalls over 600 men who have lost their lives in the region's mines from 1887 to the present. How many died before then is not known.
Adjoining this building is the Denmark Hotel, built of locally-produced bricks. Sadly run-down but now being restored, the inn was erected by Danish immigrant Peter Orvard. It consists of a central building dating from 1886 and lodging quarters at the rear that were originally extensions made in 1878 to an earlier inn Orvard built in 1877. The 1886 upgrade was to cater to the growth of trade brought by the approaching railway. It ceased to function as an hotel in 1907.
Bulli Uniting Church
On the other side of the road is the district's oldest-surviving building, and the oldest Wesleyan stone church in the Illawarra, the Uniting Church, built in 1865 on land donated by William Somerville.
Continue along the highway to the traffic lights at the Park Rd intersection. The restaurant on the north-eastern corner was designed by noted architect William Wardell. It has recently been restored and looks much as it did when it opened in 1888 as a bank. Inside are photographs and ornamentation dating from the late nineteenth century.
Bulli Family Hotel
Just past the lights, to the right, is the Bulli Family Hotel, undoubtedly the most impressive building in the district. Opened in 1889 this huge three-storey High Victorian public house is one of the township's most prominent landmarks. At the time of its construction it was common for visitors to the area, most of whom arrived via the newly completed railway line or down the bush track known as Bulli Pass, to stay at both Bulli and Wollongong. Customers included two governors-general and noted politician Henry Parkes who addressed a public meeting here in 1893. Classified by the National Trust in 1977, the Bulli Family Hotel remains largely in its original condition. The beautiful cast-iron balcony, fluted iron columns, elaborate moulded trim and frosted bar windows with original inscriptions have been preserved and the 'Bulli bricks' with which it was built are still intact.
Park Rd and Bulli Mining Disaster Memorial
East along Park Rd are some old cottages, a shop and, to the right, just before the railway bridge, the old station master's residence, all dating from the late 19th century. On the far side of the bridge, to the left, is a small park wherein lies an obelisk erected by the government in the wake of strong public sentiment over the Bulli Mine disaster. It bears the names of the dead.
St Augustine's Church of England
Continue along Park Rd to St Augustine's Church of England. 62 miners were buried in this brick building with leadlight windows, designed by Edmund Blacket in 1882. Unfortunately, later extensions encroached upon the old graveyard which was eventually displaced by a columbarium. The parish hall was built in 1899.
Park St East
Further along Park Rd are a number of more substantial buildings with iron lacework verandahs erected for the middle class in the early twentieth century. Near the end of the road is St Joseph's Catholic Church (1900) and convent (1904). The school was built in 1882. It was originally situated adjacent the first Bulli Catholic Church (on the highway) and moved to this site in 1906.
Black Diamond Heritage Centre
Return along Park Rd and turn left into Franklin Ave. To the right is the eastern platform of Bulli railway station which was built in 1887 and saved from demolition in 1989 by the community. For those interested in the history of the area and its buildings the Black Diamond Heritage Centre is open here on Sundays from 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m.
Historic Buildings - South Bulli
There are a number of historic buildings along the highway south of Park Rd, including some old cottages and parapet-fronted shops on the eastern side of the highway, the Masonic Temple (1885) and, if you turn right into Hospital Rd, Bulli Hospital (1893). Farrell Rd which runs out to the sea contains some beautifully restored federation houses and further south along the highway is the former police station, originally a courthouse which was built in 1882 to avoid the long trek to Wollongong Court.
After visiting Bulli head north along the highway to the bottom of Bulli Pass. If you turn right here you can visit Thirroul and return to Sydney via Lawrence Hargrave Drive. This road hugs the impressive coastline and allows you to wend your way through some attractive old coalmining villages (see the entry on Stanwell Park).
Alternatively you can return to Sydney via Bulli Pass. It is hard, when it only takes a few minutes, to imagine how slow and precipitous the trek up the Pass once was. One thing that can be appreciated, as you rise above the coastal plain, is the beauty and density of the sub-tropical rainforest which stood densely on either side of the original track. The views are magnificent but are most safely contemplated from the lookouts atop the Pass.
Bulli Pass Scenic Reserve
When you reach the top of the Pass, take the second right, signposted for Helensburgh, Campbelltown and Bulli Pass Scenic Reserve. You will be quickly confronted with a choice between a road to the far left (the Old Princes Highway) and one that more or less goes straight ahead (signposted for Campbelltown). Make sure you take the branch to your left (signposted for Helensburgh and Bulli Pass Scenic Reserve). This curves around under the Appin Road and through a cutting. Immediately at the end of the cutting a sign directs you to turn right to Bulli Pass Scenic Reserve.
As you turn off the highway you can either drive straight ahead into the carpark of Panorama House or turn right along a track that leads, after 500 m, to the Scenic Reserve where there is a cafe and a lookout perched vertiginously at the edge of the escarpment, furnishing spectacular views over the Illawarra coastline spread out below. It was here on October 19, 1920 that a ceremony was held to officially name the new coast road from Sydney to Melbourne the Princes Highway, after the then Prince of Wales.
Walk back along the driveway to Panorama House. Adjacent the carpark is a clearing. At its eastern edge, near the cliff, is the start of a 1.5-km bushwalking track to Sublime Point Lookout.
From this quite stunning vantage point you can see a massive sweep of coastline with the Illawarra stretching out below on the flatlands between the mountain and the deep blue of the sea. Experience it and realise that few places on Australia's east coast can match this scenery which compares with the Carmel-Monterey region of California.
Governor Lachlan Macquarie wrote of 'this grand prospect' when he stood near this spot in 1822 during a trip to the Illawarra:
'On our arrival at the summit of the mountain, we were gratified with a very grand magnificent bird's eye view of the ocean, the 5 Islands, and of the greater part of the low country of Illawarra...The whole face of the mountain is clothed with the largest and finest forest trees I have ever seen in the colony'. However, he also noted that most of the red cedar had already been 'cut down and carried away to Sydney'.
Today there is a kiosk, toilets, picnic and barbecue facilities and two walking tracks at the southern edge of the clearing which lead down the precipitous escarpment or back to Bulli Pass Scenic Reserve.