History and Heritage in New England High Country

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With a name like New England, it comes as little surprise this cool-climate region was a strong drawcard for early European explorers, who sought to make their livelihood from the fertile high plains.

Setting up Camp

In 1818, English explorer John Oxley ascended the ranges around the present day Walcha on horseback and camped for a while near Apsley River. He noted the ‘parkland’ he found on the plateau in his diary, and the march of European pioneers that followed changed the region forever. 

With the release of vast pastoral leases in the 1830s, squatters arrived and townships soon became established. 

Hamilton Collins Sempill took up the ‘Wolka’ sheep run in 1832 and claimed fame as the first European settler. His timber-slab hut dwelling – a similar slab structure to Walcha’s rustic Pioneer Cottage museum building – was allegedly sited near where the gracious Edwardian mansion ‘Langford’ now stands outside Walcha. 

Throughout the rich agricultural lands of New England High Country, several of the pastoral holdings in the region remain in the hands of the original families, who continue the tradition of producing some of the finest wool, lamb and beef in Australia.

Bushrangers and Bad Boys

Up until 1870, bushrangers were notorious for disrupting the rustic pastoral scene. 

The antics of Frederick Ward (alias Captain Thunderbolt), for instance, are legendary. Ward’s stellar career in highway robbery came to an end when he was shot by police at Kentucky Creek in 1870. Or was he? Controversy about who was actually killed on that day has been hotly debated ever since. 

On display at McCrossin’s Mill Museum in Uralla, a fine example of a late 19th century commercial building,  is a fascinating collection of Thunderbolt memorabilia that reveals stories about the area’s gold-mining and wool industry history.

Gold Boom

Historic ‘Homeleigh’, Irish Town, Walcha and Armidale were officially declared towns in 1846. A few years later, the arrival of the railway and discovery of gold at Rocky River and Hillgrove heralded a population and building boom. 

Gold was discovered at Rocky River, near Uralla, in 1851 and soon 3400 miners were there searching for the precious ore. By 1855, this number had grown to 5000. Another goldfield at Timbarra, near Tenterfield, with a population of 400 miners including many Chinese settlers, was active throughout the 1850s. Other gold deposits  such as at Glen Elgin, east of Glen Innes, and Bingara near Inverell added to the fortunes of the high country.

Valuable minerals and metals, including tin, were discovered in the 1870s at other sites around the region, and hundreds of Chinese joined the workforce, adding another dimension to the cultural mix. 

It was a prosperous few decades and the heritage architecture of New England High Country reflects the grand ambitions of late 19th century and remains a feature of Armidale and each of the principal towns of the region.

The Anglican and Catholic cathedrals were among the earliest buildings to grace the Armidale town centre, along with the stately post office, bank and courthouse, all still in use today.

On the Sheep’s Back

Since the 1830s, the undulating, fertile wonderland of New England has been renowned for growing some of the finest wool in the world.

Near Uralla, 11 km down the Gostwyck Road, you’ll find Deeargee Station and its impressive octagonal woolshed, Deeargee Woolshed, built in 1872. Deeargee Station was originally part of Gostwyck Station and the name ‘Deeargee’ comes from the old Gostwyk wool brand ‘DRG’, standing for ‘Dangar, Gostwyck’.

The industry still thrives today and throughout New England High Country some of the world’s highest quality merino wool continues to be produced.

Rural Grandeur

In the countryside just outside Armidale stands Saumarez Homestead, a 30-room Edwardian mansion built between 1888 and 1906. Originally some 40 thousand hectares, the Saumarez property was held by Colonel Henry Dumaresq in the 1830s and named his estate in Jersey in the Channel Islands.

With most of its original furnishings still intact, Saumarez Homestead offers a remarkably authentic glimpse of nineteenth century family life on the land. Following Dumaresq’s death, the White family purchased Saumarez in 1874 and ran the property for a century before donating 10 ha of property to the National Trust in 1984, and the homestead is now open to the public. 

Today, visitors can explore the property’s extensive gardens, the fully furnished homestead and 15 farm and other buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, complete with collections of early farm equipment.

Also of historic note is beautiful ‘Booloominbah’; the 1880s homestead designed for Frederick Robert White by noted architect John Horbury Hunt, who also designed the Anglican cathedral in Armidale. 

The building is now the administrative heart of the University of New England, the first rural university in NSW (established as a college of Sydney University in 1938 and proclaimed an independent university in 1954). 

Visitors can enjoy Booloominbah over lunch or a coffee while taking in the historical ambience. 

The University campus and many charming heritage buildings across the region are home to museums and collections that reveal a myriad of colourful stories about the history of New England High Country.