Wiradjuri people were the original inhabitants and
custodians of what is now the Bathurst district, and a much greater
area beyond, encompassing extensive reaches of three rivers - Wambool (Macquarie),
Kalare (Lachlan) and Murrumbidjeri (Murrumbidgee). With a population
of about 12,000 spread across their nation, the Wiradjuri were one of the
largest language groups in New South Wales. They had a semi-nomadic
existence, moving across the landscape to exploit sources of food and other
Near starvation pushes Sydney's boundaries
After its founding in 1788 as a penal settlement, the early years
of the colony at Sydney Town were at times desperate, as people faced
the vagaries of climate, drought alternating with flood, and a severe shortage
of fertile arable land close to the settlement. When new fleets
arrived, their main cargo was more convicts with more mouths to feed,
rather than desperately needed supplies of food and farming equipment.
The colony was constrained on the coastal Cumberland Plain, measuring
about 65km (40 miles) north-south and barely 30km (20 miles) east-west.
It was bounded on its landward side by immense and deeply dissected
sandstone plateaux extending from the Hunter River in the north to
the Shoalhaven in the south. To the west the plateau was known
as the Blue Mountains for the haze produced by the oils of its eucalypt
Repeated attempts to cross these mountains had been unsuccessful,
as explorers followed watercourses upstream only to be blocked by massive
vertical sandstone walls. Despite this record, many desperate convicts
took to the bush believing the stories that they had heard about China
lying on the other side, but there they found only lonely deaths.
Within about fifteen years most arable land of the Cumberland
Plain had been exploited and was declining in fertility from overuse.
Then the colony suffered a series of setbacks – in 1809 severe floods
destroyed the previous year’s harvest as well as the growing crop, in 1810
a plague of ‘caterpillars’ wiped out the crops and native pastures, followed
by a drought in 1811 and another plague in 1812. Grain production
slumped and grazing herds were greatly diminished.
After nearly a quarter of a century the colony had not achieved
subsistence, had no real capacity to expand, had no marketable raw materials
and was becoming increasingly expensive to run. Back in England,
faced with the demands of the Revolutionary Wars against the forces of
Napoleon, some thought the colony would best be abandoned. In the
colony itself, many feared that it already had been.
On the other side, a new frontier
In 1813 Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson, landholders in search
of more grazing land, succeeded where many others had failed in finding
a way across the Blue Mountains. They were most likely assisted
by Aboriginal people to find their way onto a narrow 'causeway' which lay
between the deep gorges. On the western side they reported extensive
The explorers were followed by Surveyor George Evans, the first
European to cross the Great Dividing Range, and road builder William
Cox. At the end of the road over the mountains
from Sydney, in May 1815 the Governor, accompanied by Mrs Macquarie and
a band of notable citizens, proclaimed the town of Bathurst, named for
Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1812 and 1827.
As the new frontier of the colony, the Bathurst district became
the jumping off point for prodigious expeditions by John Oxley, Allan
Cunningham, Charles Sturt and Thomas Mitchell. Their explorations
dramatically advanced knowledge of the interior of the continent and
paved the way for inland settlement in the decades to follow.
For more about this story see the page on Crossing the Mountains.
First inland settlement
Macquarie had established a small outpost of soldiers and convicts
at the end of Cox’s road, the Governor had been extremely conservative
in allowing settlement in the Bathurst district, suggesting that not
more than about 50 settlers be given grants of land. Some would
go to gentlemen of means, and some small allocations of 50 to 100 acres
to what the Governor called ‘the Middling Class of Free People’, who
would also receive supplies from the Government stores and would be assigned
convict labourers and help.
In this policy, Macquarie was pushing the boundaries of convention
by expanding the prospects of small settlers and emancipated convicts.
The first settlers arrived in 1818, and by 1820 there were 114 Europeans
settled in the district (not counting military personnel and their families).
Of these, 75 were serving convicts. Large grants of 1,000 acres
each had gone to William Cox and William Lawson, while of the first
ten small settlers two had come free to the colony, two were born in
the colony, and the rest were emancipated convicts who had been transported
By the 1828 Census the district had a settler population of nearly
two thousand - again about two thirds were serving convicts, but emancipists
now outnumbered free settlers.
Bathurst itself, on the western side of the Macquarie River was
almost entirely official buildings, the seat of authority known as ‘the
Government side’, while Kelso lay on the eastern side, with farms, hotels
and shops, known as ‘the free side’. The absence of a bridge over
the river favoured early development of Kelso as an important support centre,
with most of the smaller settlers located at Kelso on the alluvial flats
along the Macquarie.
It was on the Kelso floodplain that a misunderstanding over potatoes
arose between a small settler and some Wiradjuri people in March 1824.
This led to declaration of martial law, which masked some appalling
massacres of native people.
For more about this story see the page on Windradyne and 'The Black War'.
With the local Aboriginal population subdued, wool and cattle
raising drove the local economy, although there were experiments with
wine-making, cheese-making and flour miling. Bathurst became the site of one of Cobb & Co’s
main factories, having had a regular coach service from Sydney since 1835.
Regardless of attempts at diversification,
the district was hit hard by drought and depression in the 1840’s,
and by 1848 it had a population of only 1,833.
of heavy metal
the colony of New South Wales changed forever, and Bathurst was completely
revitalised, by the discovery of gold at Ophir near Orange in 1851.
For more about this story see the page on The Great Australian Gold Rush.
By 1854 Bathurst had a population of more than 7,000 and was providing
services to thousands more in surrounding settlements engaged in mining
gold, silver and copper.
by far the most important settlement west of the mountains, through
the following decades Bathurst became a major centre of commercial activity,
with a rail link to Sydney from 1876. Rail travel had reduced travel time
to just eight hours (compared with the previous 24 hours by coach). The wide streets of Bathurst
boasted imposing public buildings, cathedrals, a major gaol, the largest
hospital outside Sydney, and notable educational institutions.
Bathurst achieved the status of a
city in 1885, and by 1899 it was also connected to Sydney by telephone
line. Just three years earlier, in 1896, Bathurst had hosted the
First Federal Convention (‘the People’s Convention’) to bring together
views on the proposed Federation of Australian States and to assist drafting
of the necessary bill. Fired with enthusiasm, Bathurst was also mounting
a strong campaign to be selected as the site for the new Federal Capital.
The city was not only moving with the times but trying to shape them. Its
because it was considered by the State of Victoria to be too geographically
close to Sydney.
20th century dawned, Bathurst was a progressive and optimistic city.
At the census in 1901 the population was more than 9,000, with the railway
the biggest employer, but the citizens of the city also found work with
three flour mills, four tanneries, four carriagemakers, two foundries and
forty hotels (the latter served by a number of breweries), generating significant
In the 1938 significant redevelopment
of an old motor racing track on what is now Mount Panorama paved the
way for an annual event which captures national interest and has put Bathurst
on the map for many Australians.
about this story see the page on Mount Panorama.
became an important regional base for housing and training Army infantry
in the Second World War, and receiving tens of thousands of post-war migrants
from Europe. It was the birthplace of Ben Chifley, the son of a
railway worker who became Prime Minister in the post-war period, and spearheaded
significant nation-building efforts.
about this story see the page on Ben
Chifley and 'The Light on the Hill'.
1970s the same attributes which favoured establishment of Bathurst led
to a program to develop a major regional growth centre at Bathurst and
its neighbour Orange, some 56km
to the west. Although this initiative foundered due to financial
constraints, it led to decentralisation of significant government establishments
such as the Central Mapping Authority, enlargement of a number of tertiary
education campuses, and upgrading of transport links.