The small rural town of Merriwa is located at the western extremity of the upper Hunter district beside the Merriwa River. It has an easy rural charm being primarily a service centre for the surrounding properties. The town has a number of historic buildings and the Goulburn River National Park and Battery Rocks offer excellent bushwalking.
Merriwa is located 312 km north west of Sydney at the western extremity of the upper Hunter district.
Merriwa is a Wiradjuri word which is thought to mean ‘grass seeds’ or ‘flour made from grass seeds’. The area was initially known as the Gummum Plains district, after the river, which was then known as Gummum Creek.
Merriwa Historical Society Museum and Visitor Centre
Located on the corner of Bettington and Bow Streets is the Merriwa Historical Cottage which houses the Merriwa Tourist Centre and the Merriwa Historical Society Museum. The sandstone cottage was built in 1857 as a private residence. It is thought that a series of banks operated from the cottage between 1871 and the early 20th century. It was dedicated as a museum in 1967.
The Museum and Visitor Centre also includes a large area where local crafts are sold and there is the Slab Hut which started its life as the kitchen on a local property known as Riverview. From the 1930s to the 1950s it was used by the local mail contractor, Eli Pottinger,as his overnight accommodation when to took the mail from Merriwa on a horse and dray.
The Museum is open Monday and Tuesday from 9.30 am – 1.30 pm and Friday and Saturday 9.30 am – 12.30 pm. For more information tel: (02) 6548 2673 or check out https://mgnsw.org.au/organisations/merriwa-colonial-museum which has a series of photos indicating the contents of the museum. There is an unusual corrugated iron mural on the wall next to the Cottage. Look carefully it includes a bullock team and herding the sheep.
Merriwa Town Walk
There is a brochure available at the Visitor Centre (if you tel: (02) 6521 7046 they will email it to you) which lists a total of 27 places of interest around the centre of Merriwa of which the most interesting include:
2. Bottle Museum – The Bottle Museum in Vennacher Street has over 5000 bottles of all shapes, sizes, modes of construction and functions, dug up from local properties. Some date back to the early 19th century. There is also a rock and mineral display and a collection of pre-decimal currency. They are open from 8.30 a.m. – 5.00 p.m. weekdays.
3. Britannia Steam Engine – Opposite, beside the pool, is a Brittania Steam Engine, imported from England in 1890 to power a Wolseley sheep-shearing machine at Charles Blaxland’s Cullingral station. The first large-scale mechanical shearing in Australia took place here in 1888.
5. Merriwa Central School Primary – Near the intersection with Vennacher Street is the primary school, opened as a public school in 1850. The gate posts and the stonework come from the homestead of explorer William Charles Wentworth. He was a member of the first European party to find a route across the Blue Mountains in 1813. The sundial in the schoolyard belonged to Charles Blaxland, brother of explorer Gregory Blaxland and one of the first land grantees in the area.
6. Classroom and Principal’s Residence – In Mackenzie Street near the end of the road is a sandstone building which was originally a classroom of the town’s first National School (1878). Adjoining it is the headmaster’s residence (1878) which still serves as the home of the school principal.
7. Holy Trinity Anglican Church – Continue along Bow Street to the Holy Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1899-1900 to replace the original 1855 timber church which was consecrated by Bishop Tyrrell. Anglican services began in Merriwa in 1848. The tower is a memorial to Reverend William Wilson who once rode 1300 km on horseback around his vast parish.
8. Church Graveyard – The old graveyard behind the church contains the tomb of James Roper who accompanied Ludwig Leichhardt on his famous overland expedition from Brisbane to Port Essington in 1844-45. Roper was the first European to see the Roper River in the Northern Territory which Leichhardt named in his honour. He became government stock inspector at Merriwa in 1868 and was prominent in local affairs. The monument was erected from a fund started by the Sydney Daily Telegraph upon his death in 1895.
13. Fitzroy Hotel – the Fitzroy Hotel (1892) was built for James Ell, then co-owner of The Royal Mail and Passenger coaches which departed from the hotel on a daily basis for Gungal, Muswellbrook and Denman. The hotel was noted for its excellent stabling of horses and the quality of its accommodation.
14. Old Sandstone Cottage – Located on the corner of Bettington and Bow Streets is the Merriwa Historical Cottage which houses the Merriwa Tourist Centre and the Merriwa Historical Society Museum. The sandstone cottage was built in 1857 as a private residence. It is thought that a series of banks operated from there between 1871 and the early 20th century. It was dedicated as a museum in 1967. It is open Monday and Tuesday from 9.30 am – 1.30 pm and Friday and Saturday 9.30 am – 12.30 pm. For more information tel: (02) 6548 2673 or check out https://mgnsw.org.au/organisations/merriwa-colonial-museum which has a series of photos indicating the contents of the museum. There is an unusual corrugated iron mural on the wall next to the Cottage. Look carefully it includes a bullock team and herding the sheep.
17. Royal Hotel – the Royal Hotel was erected in 1914 on the site of the old Cricketer’s Arms Inn which dated from the 1850s. When it was built it was recognised as having some of the best service of any country hotel in the state.
18. Police Station and Court House – Located in Vennacher Street is the sandstone courthouse, built in 1858 with additions made in 1866 and 1885.
20. Roman Catholic Complex – St Anne’s Roman Catholic Church was built in 1879-81 to a design by J.W. Pender, with extensions in 1938. The first Catholic church in town dates from 1858. The attractive sandstone building with a fine veranda is St Joseph’s Primary School, established as a convent by four Sisters of St Joseph from Lochinvar in 1885. A wooden building served as their residence until the present stone building was erected in 1918.
27. National Australia Bank – located in Bettington Street this prominent building, an example of early 20th century commercial architecture in country towns, was built in 1916 for the Commercial Bank. It is now used as a bed and breakfast.
Festival of the Fleeces
Since 1990 the town has held the Merriwa Festival of the Fleeces on the June long weekend. The website explains: “With over 100 market variety stalls and 35 family attractions, the Festival is focused on community, affordability, and promotion of the Upper Hunter Shire and it’s rich agricultural history. From its humble beginnings, the Festival now attracts in excess of 5000 visitors to Merriwa and the Upper Hunter Shire to enjoy traditional country hospitality.
“Other events that can be seen during the festival include; high dog jumping, working sheep dog demonstrations, sheep dog yard trials, team penning championships, whip cracking competition, fireworks display, Australian wool fashion parade, laser tag, live music and performances, vintage vehicle display, shearing demonstrations and lots more.” Check out http://www.festivalofthefleeces.com.au for details.
Located 15 km east of Merriwa, on the Muswellbrook Road, is the Battery Rock Picnic Area. The area is characterised by a remarkable rock formation created by lava that has cooled to form cylindrical columns which cluster along the cliff face like a series of organ pipes or pencils. The phenomenon is known as columnar jointing and is described by the Geological Sites of NSW as “an amazing example of polygonal basalt columns also known as columnar jointing. The columns are nearly horizontal (not like those at Bald Hill Falls which are vertical). Around 35 million years old the basalt lava erupted at a temperature estimated to be about 1,200 degrees. The jointing is caused by shrinkage as the lava slowly cools; normally columns like these are vertical as the lava cools from top to bottom when the flow of lava is horizontal. In this case the flow must have been nearly vertical and the flow has cooled from the outside face causing the jointing to form inwards from the outer face in a near horizontal plane.” For additional information and photos check out http://www.geomaps.com.au/scripts/batteryhill.php.
Goulburn River National Park
The Goulburn River National Park is located to the south-west of the town. It covers 72,300 ha and runs for 90 km on either side of the river. The river flows past sandstone cliffs, caves and gorges which contain numerous Aboriginal stencils and paintings. There are also axe-grinding grooves, campsites, scarred trees and quarries. It is thought that the abundance of cultural material (a total of over 300 sites) is a result of the area being on a major trading route between the coast and the western plains. The park is home to eastern grey kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, wallaroos, wombats, goannas, water dragons, turtles and numerous bird species, including lyrebirds, wedge-tailed eagles, parrots and emus. River oaks, narrow-leaved ironbarks, narrow-leaved stringybarks and rough-barked apple dominate the riverbanks and river flats.
The major access road is Ringwood Road which lies to the west of the town and runs south from the Golden Highway. 9 km down Ringwood Road is a sign indicating a gem fossicking area to the right. Bushwalking is another obvious attraction. The most easily accessible trail is that to Lees Pinch Lookout. A signpost 13.5 km down Ringwood Road indicates the starting point of the walk. It is a short distance to some panoramic views from the escarpment to the eastern section of the park. Mount Dangar (670 m above sea-level), in the south-eastern corner of the park, is equally impressive. It was sited in 1824 by Henry Dangar who named it Mount Cupola but renamed by Allan Cunningham who became the first European to climb it the following year. Beyond Cassilis, on the western edge of the park, is The Drip – a unique highlight of the Goulburn River. For more information on the park and the campsites check out https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/goulburn-river-national-park.
It is not easy to find but it is hugely rewarding. Follow these instructions carefully: Drive west to Cassilis and then south on the road to Ulan (it is a total of 73 km) and 2.3 km beyond the Hands on the Rock turnoff, just before you reach the Goulburn River, there is a signposted turnoff to the left which leads to a car park. There is a walking track which begins on the northern side of the parking area and follows a cliff face adjacent the Goulburn River. Follow the rock face and you will cross a small bridge, a tumble of rocks and Curra Creek. Walk through the ferny glade then you will pass a large rock to the right. To the left there are rock orchids and ferns on the cliff face. The track then heads around to the sandy riverbank and through a hollowed arch rock. A sign indicates a left turn back to the honeycombed cliff face which you follow to the end. Cross over the grassy bank and a sharp left brings you to the Drip where the river flows over a rock platform.
There is an excellent description of the location at http://www.mudgeebusiness.com/the-drip—ulan.html which includes such useful information as “water runs down the surrounding hillsides and seeps through the high rock gorges and drips into the pools below”. The result, as the name suggests, is a cliff that drips into the river. It is particularly beautiful because the place where the seepage occurs is covered with weeping ferns and grasses. The track is relatively flat and easy. It is a 2.4 km return walk where you have to cross the river a number of times and dodge everything from overhangs to wombat holes and rock caves. There is rarely anyone there. It is a genuine bush paradise.
The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith
In 1972 the novelist Thomas Keneally took the story of Jimmy Governor and turned it into the fictional, although closely following the story of Governor, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith. It was a tragic tale of a young Aborigine who was rejected and racially abused because he had the audacity to marry a white woman. The story of Governor, who lived from 1875 until his execution on 18 January 1901, is intimately tied up with events in the Merriwa district.
Governor worked as an Aboriginal tracker and lived behind the Police Station in Cassilis. He was married to Ethel Page. They had a child and Ethel was pregnant with a second child when Governor, outraged at the treatment he received from the Mawbey family, sought violent revenge.
Governor was contracted by the Mawbeys to build a fence. Contemporary records show that Governor was hard working. He wanted to succeed in white society. Initially Governor was on good terms with his employers but things took an ugly turn when Governor’s wife, who worked in the Mawbey house, was belittled for marrying an Aborigine by Mrs Mawbey and Helena Kerz, the local schoolteacher who was living with the Mawbeys.
Furious at the humiliation, Jimmy and Jacky Underwood on 20 July, 1900 confronted the women. Jimmy claimed that Mrs Mawbey called him “black rubbish” and told him that he should be shot for marrying a white woman. No one will ever know the precise details. What is known is that Governor and Underwood were so incensed they murdered Sarah Mawbey, three of her daughters and Helena Kurz with clubs and a tomahawk. In the melee Sarah Mawbey’s sister was badly injured.
Jimmy, his brother Joe, and Jacky Underwood then went on a three-month, 3,200 km rampage, during which they murdered five more people, wounded another five, committed seven armed hold-ups and robbed 33 homes.
At Poggy Station near Merriwa the Governor brothers, killed Elizabeth O’Brien and her baby son. They hid out in what is now Goulburn River National Park where armed parties conducted a search.
A massive manhunt involving hundreds of policemen and trackers and 2,000 volunteers failed to capture the men who ridiculed their pursuers by advertising their whereabouts and sending satiric letters to the police.
By October, 1900 a £1000 reward for their capture had been posted and later that same month they were outlawed, meaning they could be shot on sight. By the end of October Jacky Underwood had been captured; Joe Governor had been shot and killed near Singleton; and Jimmy was eventually captured by a group of farmers near Wingham two weeks after being shot in the mouth. Jimmy and Jacky were hung in January, 1901. In his last days Jimmy sang native songs, read the Bible and blamed his wife.
* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area was home to the Wiradjuri Aboriginal people.
* The first European in the vicinity was Allan Cunningham who made a camp here by the river in the 1820s.
* The first runs were taken up around 1824. An early pastoralist was Charles Blaxland who established Cullingral station to the immediate south and south-west of town.
* The townsite was surveyed in 1839 with the streets being named after early settlers.
* The town was gazetted on 22 January, 1840. That year saw the opening of a private school with 21 students.
* By 1840 there was a doctor, Dr Michael Macartney, regularly servicing the area
* Merriwa Post Office opened for business in 1845.
* A national school was opened in 1850.
* The Holy Trinity church was consecrated in 1855.
* By 1858 the town had three inns and two blacksmiths.
* A wooden court house was completed in 1858.
* By 1866 the population had reached 200.
* When the railway was built to the east in the 1870s (it did not arrive in Merriwa until 1917) the popularity of the route declined.
* In 1885 a convent was opened for local students.
* In 1888 the town’s first bank, the Australian Joint Stock Bank, opened.
* The Merriwa and Cassilis Standard was first published in 1895.
* At nearby Poggy Station the Governor brothers, killed the Mawbey family on 24 July 1900.
* In 1906 the first hospital in the town was opened.
* The first train from Muswellbrook to Merriwa ran on 29 October, 1917.
* Passenger trains stopped in 1973.
* Today Merriwa is at the centre of a mixed farming area focusing principally on cattle, sheep, wheat and horse studs.