The cover photograph for my blog was taken by my husband at Hill End, a designated ‘Historic Site’ in country New South Wales. It’s a fascinating place, well-known to anyone who grew up in Sydney and traipsed out there on a school excursion. The township sits high in the Central Tablelands, 300km northwest of Sydney. We visited Hill End for the second time a couple of years ago, and I wrote this review as an assessment for my Masters unit ‘Making Histories Public.’
Hill End Historic Site owes much to the Holtermann Collection—the photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin and and his assistant Charles Bayliss, who were later employed by the successful gold miner Bernhardt Holtermann. Merlin and Bayliss’ work has been compared with Google’s Street View; they travelled through Victoria and New South Wales in the 1860-70s systematically photographing every building in towns “of any importance.”(1) In 1872, Hill End was reputedly NSW’s largest inland settlement, boasting a population of over 10,000.
The starting point for a visit to Hill End is the Museum & Visitor Centre, housed in what was once the Hospital. From the Museum, visitors can either follow the signposted walk into town down Hospital Lane, and along tree-lined Byers Avenue to the centre of the township, or make the short drive there. Parking is easiest outside the Royal Hotel at the top of Clarke Street, and the large map is a good starting point for the walk around town. Clarke Street was the commercial hub of gold rush Hill End and is the focus of the displays; few buildings remain on either side of the street, but there are plaques placed along its length, each with a photograph of the building which stood on that spot in 1872. In some cases nothing remains, but in places the outline of foundation stones peek through the weeds, or occasionally an entire building remains (as in my cover shot), usually in a state of disrepair. There’s very little interpretative labeling on the plaques, which simply contain the photograph and name of the establishment. The handful of plaques with more information are written in a light tone, such as this outside a hotel,
“It’s true…there really was an oyster salon here in 1872. Fresh (?) oysters were brought up from Sydney in lead lined cases…would you have been game to try them?”
While the photographs successfully bring to life the short boom period in Hill End’s past, the fact that the visitor experience to the town is so bound up with the photographs tends to highlight above all else the sense of loss associated with the boom and bust story. What of the sense of loss of the original Wiradjuri inhabitants? The over-riding narrative at the Site reflects the historiography of Hill End—that of the short-lived gold rush and the subsequent sense of loss when the rush moved elsewhere.(2) But Hill End’s history is more complicated than simply telling one story. The Site misses the opportunity to tell the other stories.
A walk around Hill End today is an evocative experience. The fact that the exhibition is the town means the visitor walks around in the outdoors, exposed to the elements just as the gold-rush miners were, with the soundtrack of buzzing flies and the occasional dog barking. The almost eery quiet of the town accentuates the sense of loss evident from juxtaposing photographs of a bustling, booming town with vacant blocks and derelict buildings. Visitors are not roped off from the exhibit—free to tramp over foundations, or to pick up a rusty nail that once held two beams together. It was this raw quality which attracted Australian post-war artists including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. Drysdale’s “The Cricketers” (1948) sets three figures against the backdrop of Hill End; it was a thrill to round a corner in the town and come across this most famous of brick walls!
A trip to Hill End is well worthwhile. It’s an immersive experience for adults and children alike, plus there’s the added bonus of a nearby river where it’s still possible to pan for (specks of) gold.
(1) Alan Davies, “The Greatest Wonder of the World: Exhibition Guide”, State Library of New South Wales, 2013.
(2) Alan Mayne, Hill End: An Historic Australian Goldfields Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 39-43.
For more information on Hill End or the Holtermann Collection:
Keast Burke, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1973.