Burnie: History and Heritage

Burnie Population Timeline

1861: 50
1881: 305
1891: 981
1901: 1,500 (approx)
1937: 4,000 (approx)
1941: 10,000 (approx)
2001: 18,095
2011: 18,111
2016: 19,385

A City is Born

Burnie: The first fifty years

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Burnie Then & Now

The history of Burnie in photographs

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Reflections on life in Burnie in yours gone by.

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The Port of Burnie

Emu Bay was developed to provide port services to the inland tracts of land. Since the mid-late nineteenth century the Port has evolved and developed as one of Tasmania’s and Australia’s most important deepwater ports.

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Railway Heritage

Burnie Railway Station was the terminus for a regional railway network for both commercial and passenger trade. Built railway infrastructure is increasingly rare in Tasmania, and the Station building is a very good example of its type.

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Burnie: A Brief History

Oakleigh Park, close to Burnie's business centre is regarded as the birthplace of Burnie and cradle of the north west coast because the Van Diemen's Land Company's chief surveyor, Henry Hellyer camped there beside Whalebone Creek in 1827. With the company chief agent, Edward Curr's later agreement, Hellyer decided that Burnie's Emu Bay, which Oakleigh Park overlooks, should be the port servicing the company's tracts of land at Hampshire and Surrey Hills fifty kilometres inland around St Valentine's Peak. Hence, part of Oakleigh Park's cultural significance is historical.

Henry Hellyer memorial fountain, Oakleigh Park

In 1828, John Helder Wedge, a surveyor appointed by the Government to report on the VDL land concessions, advised the Government to reserve land at Emu Bay for an official township as Emu Bay, Circular Head and Cape Grim were the only possible shelters for shipping on the northwest coasts. The report was not adopted and the VDL Company occupied the area.

Later that year, the Emu Bay settlement consisted of a store, small jetty, sawpit and a few huts. A narrow dirt road was cut through dense rainforest to Company settlements in the hills. Oakleigh (as it was known before it was made a park) was quickly cleared to cultivate potato and wheat (6 acres). It became the site of the Van Diemen's Land Company's headquarters from 1875 to the early 1950's and the centre of early port activity when Burnie became the headquarters for the road and rail system in this part of Tasmania.

Map of Burnie, 1846

Burnie was not settled peacefully. In 1828, Tarerenorerer (or Tarenorerer), a Punnilerpanner woman who had escaped from sealers, became the leader of the Emu Bay people (Plairhekehillerplue) and led a war band of the tribe against the white settlers. The Black War in Tasmanian from 1828-32 was marked by a disproportionate imbalance in weapons; however Tarerenorerer managed to secure muskets and conducted attacks on VDL employees until her eventual capture.

The attempt to use the Surrey Hills native grasslands for grazing sheep proved a colossal blunder, with thousands of expensive imported sheep dying from cold. By 1833 the blocks were virtually abandoned and only a few cattle stockmen remained at Emu Bay. In the 1840s the Company began leasing bush blocks to tenant farmers, but there were few takers. It started selling its land in and around the settlement, renamed Burnie after a Company director in 1843. Sales were slow and Burnie stagnated. In that year the township was surveyed by Nathaniel Kentish.

In 1853, there were 200 or so people living in this area, extending from the sea to about 4 km inland. In those days the nearest doctor and clergyman was at Port Sorell, and the nearest banker or lawyer at Launceston. Port Sorell was also the centre for registration of births and deaths. There were no metal roads or wharves in Emu Bay. The first four birth registrations made at Burnie (when facilities were established there) were those of Catherine Atkinson, Tom Atkinson, Hugh Dempster and Richard Hilder.

A well-known resident of the day had a dispute with the registrar, and when his fourth child was born refused to register the birth locally. So he rode a horse through the bush to Launceston to do so. The route he took was from Burnie to Hampshire, on to Middlesex, over Gadd's Hill to Chudleigh, and then to Launceston. The trip took a week - just for the satisfaction of not paying the local registrar a 2/6 fee.

The telegraph line reached Burnie in 1876, and the telephone in 1879.

The first school in the district was opened in 1862 by Mrs. Mary Morris, at West Burnie. The ages of her scholars ranged from 6 to 20. Subsequently she received from the Government £30 a year for teaching 30 pupils. The first Government school stood on the rocky hill off Wilmot St., which later became Cumming's timber yards.

The first road or track on the North West Coast was what is now known as the Old Surrey Road. It was cut by V.D.L. surveyor Hellyer in 1827. It began from the South Burnie beach. Road development began when the V.D.L. Co. built a road from its Surrey Hills block to Waratah. About 1876 a tramway (horse-drawn) on wooden rails was in use between Burnie and Waratah. In 1882 the V.D.L. Co. decided to borrow £100,000 to build a light railway from South Burnie to Mt. Bischoff. That finally became the present line, which runs to Zeehan. The railway station was originally near "Oakleigh," until the Government railway extension from Ulverstone to Burnie was opened on April 15, 1901.

Prior to 1872, potatoes grown in the Emu Bay district for sale were bought by captains or owners of small trading schooners visiting Emu Bay or the Cam River - in most cases, the Cam River. Pioneer of the potato trade to Sydney from Emu Bay was William Byrne. He chartered the schooner Annie Beaton, and loaded her with 160 tons in 1871. He received £3 a ton for the potatoes, but freight and other charges reduced his profit to mere shillings a ton. The trip took five weeks.

In 1887 Mr. R. W. Stokell surveyed the town of Burnie in two separate plans. The first took in the area from Alexander St. to Bricknell St.; the second, the area from Bricknell St. to Reeve St., South Burnie. The V.D.L. Co. reserved all the land from Spring St. to Edwardes St., including the area between the railway and Mount St. All the land extending from Alexander St. to Mooreville Road at one time was owned by Alex Shekelton. He sold it for £40, and gave in a buggy with the deal.

When the Bank of Australasia opened a branch at Latrobe in the middle seventies, many Emu Bay people opened accounts there. In May 1879, a branch was established at Burnie in what was then known as Miller's building. The number of accounts was 40, and the first manager was Mr. Whittle.

In 1880 its population was only 300. Burnie's fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better in the 1880s with the discovery of the west coast mineral deposits. Like Burnie, Emu Bay's first licenced tavern (established in 1847), Burnie Inn, began to boom after the discovery of rich tin at Mount Bischoff.

Mt. Bischoff came into prominence in December 1871. At first tin was carried to Burnie on packhorses (2 cwt. to each animal); the first lot arrived on New Year's Day, 1872. Soon, bullock-drawn drays were used, the 60-mile journey taking seven to ten days. The cost was £5 a ton. Usually three teams travelled together, so that, if a dray became stuck, other bullocks would be available to help pull it out.

The Hilder family began carting to and from Bischoff on January 3, 1874, with a team of bullocks. Stores were loaded at Munce's store, on the site of the present day milti storey car park. Mr. Munee was Customs officer, postmaster, shipping agent, storekeeper, and agent for the Mt. Bischoff Co. Transport for mails in those days was by wheelbarrow.

The young man who dried the first lot of tin at Mt. Bischoff was Mr C. H. Hall, of Burnie. He worked 10 hours a day for 7 shillings a day - and no Saturday afternoons off. Later he represented Burnie in Parliament for many years. The first load of tin was smeltered at Wynyard and shipped from there.

In 1878 the VDL Company built a horse-drawn wooden tramway – later upgraded to iron and steam – through its lands to the Mount Bischoff tin mine. Burnie became the port for the mine and its town of Waratah, and the population had trebled by 1891. With the west coast mineral bonanza exploding further south, the railway was taken over by the Emu Bay Railway Company and extended to Zeehan in 1900. This brought unprecedented growth of Burnie's business district and development of its outlying farms.

T. Wiseman’s motor coach to run between Burnie and Stanley, 1904

By 1900 the town's population exceeded 1500. Back then, before its paper mill was built, Burnie was a pollution-free, quiet community. People promenaded along the foreshore at Oakleigh Beach under the sturdy Norfolk pines. Neighbouring farmers prospered tilling the rich red basalt soil in what is among the world’s richest agricultural regions with a climate that aided and abetted this. Sport and religion flourished. In the years leading up to the Second World War Burnie maintained steady, though not spectacular, growth.

No reference to early Burnie would be complete without mention of Captain W. Jones. He began life by going to sea at "a shiling a month.' Joining the schooner Dove he later became its master. Then he built the schooner Onward in Emu Bay. Tiring of the sea, he settled in Burnie, and became landlord of the Ship Inn. He built the (first) Bay View Hotel in 1874 and after some years sold it and took up other interests, including brickmaking, cordial factory, ham and bacon curing works, sawmills, agencies for shipping companies, and the farming of about 1000 acres in the vicinity of Burnie. He was chairman of the Road Trust for 18 years, and first chairman of the Town Board when it was formed in 1898.

Capt. Jones built a reservoir behind "Menai" and laid on water to the Bay View Hotel. Another venture was to build a skating rink. In other years Burnie missed many opportunities for development. Around 1913, directors of the E.Z. Co. came to Burnie to look for a site for zinc works. At the time sulphur fumes from Mt. Lyell were killing vegetation at Queenstown. When it was rumored that a site at Wivenhoe or at the "Three-Mile" was likely to be chosen for the zinc works, the small population of Burnie arose in a body and protested because of fear of something similar happening. So Risdon was chosen as the site of the zinc works, although Burnie would have been the logical choice, because the ores from Rosebery and Williamsford have had to be railed to Burnie and sent on to Risdon ever since 1916. Zinc is now being produced at Risdon at the rate of 100,000 tons a year.

Another fatal error was in relation to the West Coast road. For years West Coast people had been agitating for a road outlet. An appeal was made to public bodies at Burnie for their support. A deputation from Zeehan and Queenstown, however, was informed that Burnie could not support the proposal because of the effect on the Emu Bay railway. The West Coast deputation then went to Hobart, got the backing of the Hobart Chamber of Commerce and the interest of the Government, and the Hobart-Queenstown road resulted. Thus an enormous amount of trade was lost to Burnie.

14 November 1912: the annual motor vehicle reliability trial run from Launceston to Burnie, leaving Launceston on the Saturday, staying at Burnie on the Sunday and returning to Launceston on the Monday. The route taken was via Black Forest to Latrobe, then from Latrobe via Spreyton to Devonport and onwards through Ulverstone to the Bay View Hotel at Burnie. There were 20 vehicles in the trial in addition to seven motorcycles.

Mill and workers' huts, Associated Pulp and Paper Mills Burnie, Tasmania. Photo: Libraries Tasmania.

The year 1936 and the area of South Burnie were both significant for the town’s modern-day history because of the construction then and there of a new factory; a pulp and paper mill. The mill commenced operation in 1938, producing 15,000 tonne of fine – printing and writing – papers. In 1939, an edition of The Advocate was produced on paper from the mill and this marked the first occasion in the world that paper had been made from 100% eucalypt pulp. Most importantly for the town, the presence of the mill brought about a great surge in employment: In the 1950’s the mill itself employed 3,500 people and the town grew rapidly to accommodate this demand. In the 1980’s, Burnie officially became a city, with population in excess of 20,000.

APPM's continuing expansion increased its workforce to about 5,000 by the 1960s, and by then other major secondary industries, pigment producer Tioxide and North West Acid, had been established. These industries put Burnie on the road to city status in 1988, but there were serious pollution problems.

The UK-run Tioxide factory employed up to 450 people at its peak but was closed for the last time in 1998. Photo: Peter Stokes

The Tioxide Australia paint pigment factory at the Blythe River, known locally as the Titan, produced titanium dioxide, an intense whitening compound used in paints, plastics and more. Part of the process produced iron salts effluent - ferro-sulphates - which were pumped out to sea, colouring the sea rust-red for several kilometres east and west of the factory.

Burnie was dubbed by many as Tasmania’s dirtiest town, ironically it was only ninety minutes drive from the cleanest air in the world at Cape Grim. The celebrated Australian band Midnight Oil, long associated with social and political critiques, were performing at the Menai Hotel in Burnie in the late 1970’s, when lead singer Peter Garrett reputedly looked out his hotel room window and saw a pile of woodchips on the waterfront framed by smoke belching from the stacks of the pulp mill. He wrote a song called Burnie which shone an unflattering light on the town.

Burnie had been largely built along the coast in a narrow strip of land enclosed by sheer escarpments which rose to a plateau and that supported many farms and small settlements like Upper Burnie. Post-war Tasmanian labor governments bought up large tracts of farm land or sometimes bush land on the outskirts of towns around Tasmania, including Burnie, and created housing estates to cheaply house workers in support of the big heavy industrial companies. Suburbs like Montello, Terrylands, Hillcrest and Acton Estate were created at this time, some of the houses being built directly on the sheer escarpments.

These were boom times for Burnie - workers had money in their pockets, free universal education flourished and everybody had work. It was normal for youngsters to graduate from school and walk straight into their first job. The money stayed in the town and the flow on effect was immediately apparent in the bars, the taxis, the electrical shops and the banks.

The rationalisation of Industry in the 1980s and 90s hit most Australian small cities and towns, and Burnie was hit particularly hard. Though it reached city status in 1988, pollution had become a major concern and Burnie had a reputation as a dirty town. It was known for its smoke-belching pulp mill, its sea-staining paint factory and its acid plant; that was all about to change, but Burnie had first to go down before it could rise back up.

The city's survival seemed threatened in the 1990s when that same pulp and paper mill was downgraded to a papermaking plant and jobs were slashed. The Burnie Paper Mill eventually closed in 2010 after failing to secure a buyer. When 200 manufacturing jobs went with the closure of the Caterpillar mining machinery factory, the once proud paper town knew it was in for the fight of its life.

Lion cheese-making factory

The Lion cheese-making factory, which has undergone a $15 million expansion, is one of the last big employers left in the city. But though the unemployment rate in the Burnie region is above the average and there are numerous empty shops in the CBD, the former industrial capital of the North-West is reinventing itself. The city is now beginning to realise its potential as a holiday destination and the perfect base from which to explore the North West and Central Tasmanian Coast.

It boasts clean beaches and is on the annual cruise ship itinerary. It is increasingly being recognised as a city of artists and "makers", not to mention the gateway to the Tarkine forest. In terms of other industries, new mines are coming on stream, fish farms are expanding, old orchards are being used as fish processing facilities and niche agricultural operations are growing rapidly.

Burnie is still Tasmania’s major seaport, its gentle hum in the background seems in tune with the air of confidence Burnie now has. When containerisation revolutionised international freight transportation, Burnie was able to embrace this change with barely a hiccup, such that it positioned itself to be Tasmania’s premier container port and helped it survive the effects of huge factory closures. It did however largely destroy the wharfie culture with its quaint customs that have largely disappeared into history.