Discover inspiring stories of early European explorers, Chinese gold-diggers, bushrangers, eminent scholars and generations of pastoralists.
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 her fertile high plains.
SETTING UP CAMP
In 1818, English explorer John Oxley ascended the ranges 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 sprouted.
Hamilton Collins Sempill took up the ‘Wolka’ sheep run in 1832 and claimed fame as the first 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.
Remarkably, several of the pastoral holdings in the region remain in the hands of the original families, who continue their forebears’ tradition of producing some of the finest wool, lamb and beef in Australia.
BUSHRANGERS AND BAD BOYS
Back in the old days, bushrangers were notorious for disrupting the bucolic 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 Rock Art, Mt Yarrowyck 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 heyday and wool industry history.
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 just south-west of Armidale in 1851 and soon 3400 miners were there searching for the precious ore. By 1855, this number had grown to 5000. Another goldfield north-east of Glen Innes, with a population of 400 miners including many Chinese settlers, was active throughout the 1850s.
Valuable minerals and metals, including tin, were discovered 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 Armidale’s heritage architecture, in particular, reflects the grand ambitions of those late 19th century settlers.
The Anglican and Catholic cathedrals were among the earliest buildings to grace the town centre, along with the stately post office, State 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 you’ll find Deeargee Woolshed, which was built in 1872. Originally part of Gostwyck Station, Deeargee Station and its unique octagonal woolshed gained their name from the old Gostwyck wool brand, DRG, which stood 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.
In the countryside just outside Armidale stands Saumarez Homestead, a 30-room Edwardian mansion built between 1888 and 1906.
With most of its original furnishings still intact, Saumarez Homestead offers a remarkably authentic glimpse of 19th-century family life on the land. Kindly donated to the National Trust by the White family descendants in 1984, the homestead is now open to the public.
Situated on a 10-hectare grazing property, Saumarez was first inhabited by British settlers in the 1830s, led by Henry Dumaresq.
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 White family homestead designed 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.