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Wilcannia, NSW

Historic port on the Darling River

It is impossible to write about Wilcannia without discussing what white visitors describe as "the Aboriginal problem". There has long been a perception, fuelled by newspaper reports and images of groups of local Aborigines standing around outside the pubs in the main street, that the town is a hotbed of violence, dysfunctional behaviour and "problems". It is not uncommon to hear, in White Cliffs, Cobar or Broken Hill, people declaring that they drove through Wilcannia and did not stop because it looked so dangerous. And it is very common to hear locals advising visitors not to stop in Wilcannia because it is a dangerous town.

This assessment is simply not true. Historically there was a major problem because very ignorant government officials used Wilcannia as a dumping ground for Aborigines from surrounding areas with no thought (or knowledge) that they belonged to different language groups and were not necessarily going to all live happily ever afterwards. It was not dissimilar to creating a camp in the Balkans and putting a mix of Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Greeks together because they all look white and surely they will all get along with each other. The potent mix of the local Barkindji with Wangkumara, Danggali, Barindji and Malyangapa people from surrounding areas was deeply divisive and racially insensitive.

Sadly very few travellers get out of their cars, have a look around this genuinely fascinating historic port town and talk to the local Aborigines, who are, almost without exception, very friendly and only too happy to chat about this interesting township on the banks of the Darling River. After all, many of them are Barkindji people who have been living in this region for 40 000 years.

Location

Wilcannia is located 948 km north west of Sydney via the Great Western, Mitchell and Barrier Highways. It is only 78 m above sea-level and the average rainfall is 252 mm per annum.

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Origin of Name

Wilcannia reputedly means "a gap in the bank where the flood waters escape" in the Barkindji language of the local Aborigines.

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Things to See and Do

Historic Wilcannia
When the paddle steamers from South Australia managed to traverse the Darling River and reach Wilcannia the town became an important river port. By the 1880s it was an impressive collection of buildings, many built from local sandstone, ranged along the streets above the river. To experience the town: spend time, read the placards outside the buildings, and explore the Heritage Trail which comprises eighteen sites (with two more in Tilpa) all of which are of genuine historic interest. Some of the buildings that are particularly impressive and interesting include:

Wilcannia Bridge (1896)
The bridge that crosses the Darling River at Wilcannia is an unusual centre–lift construction (if the paddlesteamers were too high it could be raised to allow them safe passage) which is now classified by the National Trust. It replaced a punt which was capable of moving 4,000 sheep a day across the river. The town's wharf, dating from the 1870s, can be seen from the bridge. Sheep were often unwilling to cross the bridge and locals made a lucrative income by hiring out poddy lambs or pet sheep to lead the herd across. The best views of the bridge are from the banks of the river below the Court House and Police Station. The Heritage of Australia records: "The central span lifts vertically on wire ropes, balanced by counterweights in corner towers, which are portal-braced and connected across the span. It is a classical example of the bridges built over western rivers when barges, often highly laden with wool, were the main means of transport."

Post Office (1880)
On the corner of Reid Street and the Barrier Highway is the elegant Post and Telegraph office and its attached residence. The buildings have been well maintained with restoration work in 2010 and a reopening in 2013. The residence, a handsome home for the postmaster, is a two storey dwelling with fine ironwork on the upstairs veranda.

Club Hotel (1879)
The Club Hotel on Reid Street was built on the site of the town’s first hotel. It was nicknamed the "Five Alls" after an English aphorism:

First - The Clergyman - I pray for all
Second - The Lawyer -I plead for all
Third - The Doctor - I heal all
Fourth - The Soldier - I fight for all
Fifth - The Farmer - I pay for all.

A suitably rural joke about the unfairness of life for the farmer.

Knox & Downs Store (1890)
Once the ultimate country general store, the Knox & Downs Store, diagonally opposite the Post Office, was where locals and travellers could buy literally anything. It was burnt out in 2002 but there is an active movement to find someone who is willing to develop and reopen it.

Wilcannia Athenaeum (1883)
Further along Reid Street is the Athenaeum Library now the Wilcannia Athenaeum Pioneer Museum. Like so many of the buildings from the 1880s it is made from local sandstone and reflects the solidity and confidence which the thriving town had at the time. The Athenaeum's original committee included Edward Dickens (Charles Dickens's son).

London Standard Chartered Bank (1887)
Further along Reid Street, over Byrne Street, is the London Standard Chartered Bank, a reminder of how in the 19th century, a bank could look more like an elegant house than a business building. There is some very fine ironwork on the veranda. It is now used as the Central Darling Shire Council Chambers.

Court House (1880) 
Located next door to the Police Station in Reid Street is the impressive courthouse built of locally quarried sandstone and designed by Colonial Architect, James Barnet. On 25 April, 1885 the courthouse was the scene of a very unlikely legal argument over the issue of cruelty to animals. It wasn't the case but the people involved which make the scene so memorable. One of the police magistrates was Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens, the son of Charles Dickens, and one of the prosecution witnesses was Frederick James Anthony Trollope, the son of the novelist Anthony Trollope. An unusual meeting of the sons of two of the great literary figures of the day.

Police Station (1881)
The Wilcannia Police Station in Reid Street is a two storey building designed in the classical manner, the building has a heavy appearance with a two storey colonnaded veranda which looks like it could be an addition. Constructed in locally quarried sandstone with rendered brick columns, it was designed for use as a jail by James Barnet. Given Wilcannia's remote location, the large size of the gaol is probably a comment on the town's administrative importance for the district.

Wilcannia Central School (1874)
On the corner of Cleaton Street and Hood Street as part of the school complex, is one of the town's oldest buildings, the sandstone Wilcannia Central School. While visiting, check out the murals on the side of the school which are a celebration of local Aboriginal culture.

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Other Attractions in the Area

Tilpa
The tiny township of Tilpa (it comes from a Barkindji word "thulpa" meaning "flood waters") lies 145 km north east of Wilcannia on the Darling River. It is located on the Wilcannia-Bourke Road. It proudly declares itself "the village on the floodplain" adding "with the shortest Heritage Walk in Australia" (there are only two heritage plaques in the town) but, interestingly, the Heritage Walk is a useful insight into life along the Darling River at the end of the nineteenth century with stories of riverboat captains and the way the barges were loaded with wheat which was taken down to the ports in South Australia. Today Tilpa is little more than the Royal Hotel. A good place to stop for a drink. The population varies but, at the moment, in 2007 it was 6.

The Royal Hotel has been operating since 1894. In the early days it was both the pub and the post office although this was stopped when a local complained in a letter that argued "1. That the present situation is unsuitable owing to there frequently being drunken men hanging about the premises for days at a time. 2. That frequent rows occur at all hours days and night as at most roadside inns. 3. The annoyance and interruption caused to the Postmaster by the aforementioned disturbances." The post office was moved shortly afterwards.

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History

* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the Barkindji had been living on the banks of the Darling River for an estimated 40,000 years.

* The first European explorer in the area was Major Thomas Mitchell who, in 1835, travelled down the Darling from Bourke to Menindee. Mitchell was confronted by Barkindji warriors near present-day Wilcannia. In the ensuing battle he killed at least two people.

* The settlement of the area by pastoralists began in the 1850s.

* By 27 January 1859 a steamer, the Albury, had traversed the river from South Australia to the current site of Wilcannia which was known as Mount Murchison Station at the time.

* Wilcannia was officially proclaimed a town in June, 1866 and was incorporated as a municipality in 1881.

* In 1879 the Red Lion brewery (it is no longer standing) was built at the northern end of Reid Street. Its great claim to fame was that it was the first brewery which the famous beer entrepreneur Edmund Resch built in Australia.

* By the mid-1880s Wilcannia was a booming port with 13 hotels, a population of 3,000, and a local newspaper - the Wilcannia Times.

* By the late 1880s Wilcannia was the third-largest port on the Darling River. At the time it became known as "Queen City of the West".

* In 1887 222 steamers passed through the port.

* The discovery of gold at Mount Browne saw traffic and trade increase through the port.

* When opals were discovered in White Cliffs in the 1890s the river trade increased. Wilcannia became the supply depot for the opal miners. Eventually, as road and rail traffic increased the steamer trade, the town's importance, declined.

* In 1892 Wilcannia was hit with a rabbit plague so severe that a man was employed to remove the rabbits which had been killed by children on their way to school.

* By the 1920s, with the arrival of reliable road transport, the town's importance as a port declined.

* Today 65% of the town's population are indigenous.

* In 2012 the Lowitja Institute established an Adult Aboriginal Literacy Campaign in the town. At the time it was estimated that 40% of the town's Aboriginal community were illiterate.

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Visitor Information

Wilcannia Tourist Information, Post Office, tel: (08) 8091 5000. After hours try Bill Elliott, 0429 915 467.

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Useful Websites

There is an excellent and useful local website - http://wilcanniatourism.com.au - which provides advice on local road conditions and other relevant information.

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Got something to add?

Have we missed something or got a top tip for this town? Have your say below.

25 suggestions
  • Thanks for this site. Just one correction please: The phone number for Tourist information is now 08 8091 5000 which is the Post Office. Outside these hours Bill Elliott, president of the Tourist Association can be contacted on 0429 915 467.

    Chris Elliott
  • Reading about Wilcannia, I started laughing. Who is telling these tales about this beautiful place and the beautiful people? Non Aboriginal people who have a lot of skeletons in their closet? Working there for two years, I found out a lot of stories from the Aboriginal people re. Housing there is none, families are living five families in one house, no house to rent or buy, the shop is so costly that black and gold flour 2kg is $8.35 loaf of bread is $5.50 eat it that day or it will go mildewy, no fresh veggies. Alcohol is a problem for the white people too, not just the Aboriginal people. Most of the Aboriginal people work, they are kind, helpful, and lot of fun, they live a very hard life. I take my hat off to the people for surviving in a harsh place, with so many knockers who are racist and have no idea of Wilcannia and it’s people. They don’t want to get out of their car or stop for petrol because of what they heard about the place.

    Delece Manton
    • Thanks Delece. That is my perception of the town, too. Always friendly and wonderfully generous. You have added to our understanding. It is definitely a town worth stopping in.

      Bruce Elder
  • I recently passed though Wilcannia and found the boarded up houses and shops to be a beautiful sight. The drunken mob gathered around the service station was also a treat, especially the pregnant girl that looked about 14 who was also clearly pissed.Leaving town I saw a burnt car which was pretty much the highlight of Wilcannia. Where the average life expectancy for a male is 37 and woman is 42 anyone who supports the current system of handing out $ to this community should be ashamed. Remove welfare, grog and have its inhabitants live off the land and I would bet life expectancy would increase, as would the self worth, health and happiness of the people.

    Mick
    • This is precisely the problem I have written about. Apart from the fact that I had to correct Mick’s spelling of both “Wilcannia” (he spelt it with a single “n”) and “inhabitants” (he spelt it “inhabitance”) there are a set of assumptions that have no basis in fact and lots of ill-disguised bigotry. “boarded up houses and shops” exist in every small country town. It is the problem of distance and the nature of change. It would help to look at the beautiful 19th century buildings – the Court House, the Athenaeum, the fascinating old bridge. “Drunken mob” – have another and more careful look. This is a wonderful new approach. Don’t stop. Assume everyone is drunk. Whenever I stop I find the so-called “mob” friendly and generous. “A burnt car was the highlight” – only because you didn’t bother to look at the historic buildings. Your prejudices were well established by the time you got there. “The pregnant girl that looked about 14”. well, “that” should be “who” and what evidence do you have that she was (a) about 14 or (b) that she was pregnant. And then we have the old solution to Aboriginal problems. Interesting. The best minds, both black and white, have grappled with this problem for over 200 years (ever since Europeans stole the land which had been occupied for up to 60,000 years) and Mick knows how to sort it out in 30 words. I find this post deeply depressing … but then I am not surprised. I have heard it all before … and it is just not correct.

      Bruce Elder
  • Thank you for you well written information. My partner and I are off on see see our beautiful country and after reading this I would love to visit your lovely town.

    Kim
  • We have been travelling and went through Wilcannia early on in our trip. We stopped and had a coffee in the garage cafe after we purchased fuel. The coffees were expensive $7.50 each but they were hot and most welcome. We drove around the town to try and get an idea, for ourselves about the town. I am only sorry now, having read this article,that we didn’t stay longer. The local aboriginal people we saw were all were quiet, behaving in a perfectly acceptable manner. The town itself did look a bit neglected and sad, but as Delece said, that is the reality for the people here who cannot get housing and live in harsh conditions in this part of Australia. Alcohol is a terrible problem for anyone who abuses it no matter what colour their skin might be. I am ashamed that in my research for my trip, I read and listened to the advice of ill informed and predudiced people. I am quite determined now to return at some point and find out more about Wicannia from the people who live there.

    Glynis
    • Thanks, Glynis. I have been saying that Wilcannia is both fascinating and not frightening for years. So glad to see someone else having a similar experience. The buildings above the river are quite remarkable and the bridge is a reminder of the early history of the Darling.

      Bruce Elder
  • My daughter and I stopped, on our way to Broken HIll, and enjoyed a good walk around and a coffee and cake in the cafe. It was lovely. Such beautiful old buildings, just sad that they need so much repair. I’d recommend all travellers interested in history to stop and spend time in Wilcannia.

    Lynne van Veen
    • We passed through last year and yes we heard stories but just like what we were told about at Bourke found it false. As for Wilcannia I think if the progress association got together and did what lots of other out of the way towns have done and set up a free camp close to town for the caravanning crowd they might find more visitors stop and stay and spend a dollar or two in town. Surely this would help, we loved the very few places where we could go on a guided tour and gain knowledge of the customs and bush tucker of the local Aborigines.

      Robert
  • Hottest temp of 50 degrees Celsius in Wilcannia, sometime in the 80s I think.

    Tas
  • I am from Melb. and am a keen amateur photographer. I have an almost new family size sedan and am considering driving into and around your region on a 4 or 5 day trip. I know I sound like the typical city slicker but I would prefer not to traverse lengthy stretches of dusty gravel roads. I would like to know what the road surfaces are like between the main towns, eg Balranald to Deniliquin, on to Hay, then to Wilcannia. Would definitely prefer sealed roads. Am looking for interesting rural, outback landscape type photography. Any advice would be grateful. Thank you.

    Reply from Aussie Towns: I have driven around the areas you are talking about and the simple answer is “There are plenty of sealed roads and there are plenty of rather ordinary dirt roads”. So, for example, the road from Cobar through Wilcannia to Broken Hill is a good quality sealed road. The road from Milparinka to White Cliffs is a pretty awful dirt road. The road down the Murray-Darling from Bourke to Wilcannia is dirt and it continues as a dirt road for another 100 km. You can drive sealed roads by simply ensuring you choose a sealed road when there is an option. I would suggest that you get a Cartoscope Map of the area – http://www.cartoscope.com.au/maps/outback/outbackregion.pdf. It tells you exactly which roads are sealed and which are unsealed. And it is up to date.

    Neil Roberts
  • The old Queen’s Head Hotel in Wilcannia is being refurbished by Andrew to make it a place for locals to gather and produce their art work. He has been working hard on this worthwhile project with the help of a few friends and local people. I look forward to visiting the town after April to see this transformation. I also look forward to staying at the caravan park 3 klms out of town, called Warrawong, which has cabins as well as camping sites by the river. I have heard very good reviews from friends who have stayed there.
    If the food store in town could be improved, that would be an added incentive to stay awhile.

    Helen Reich
  • I visited Wilcannia for work as we drove from Broken Hill that morning. Upon entering the town, it looked deserted with only a few people around, mainly Aboriginals who have lived there for a while. Later that day, our organisation, along with the local council and other community service providers had a family fun day in the park next to the Post Office. The whole town showed up, around 130 people. We had jumping castle, face painting, games for kids, dancing competition and a barbecue as well. It was plain to see there was nothing for the kids in relation to job prospects in the town. I felt sorry for them as I knew most of them may not leave the town as they were disadvantaged. My company subleases houses out there and attends to repairs and maintenance of the properties. I was advised the handy man in the town also owns the take away shop, the petrol station, and the local independent grocery shop which has limited stock at 3 -4 times the price you pay in city areas. Its a beautiful town but its like going back to the 1800’s where the town is left neglected and no job prospects for locals who reside there. Since the guy who owns these establishments and has no competition, he is making a tidy sum so there is definitely a need for more shops there but from a business point, it would only be one of the locals from neighbouring areas who would set up shop in that tiny town of Wilcannia. I hope the youngsters stay in school and then move out under Employment related accommodation to other towns, say Broken Hill and then flourish from there as there is no future for young kids in the town.

    Jeffrey
    • Thanks for that. There is so much negativity about Wilcannia from people who are not prepared to stop and experience this remarkable and historic river port. I love it. Thanks again for a great write up. Bruce Elder

      Bruce Elder
    • Interesting Comments, Jeffrey. Couple of errors. Service Station (Liberty) owned by a Broken Hill Family
      BP owned by family lived in the area for generations. IGA and Pub owned by one person. He is NOT the handyman.
      Population around 650. Unfortunately, another case of mis-information

      Paul
  • Elizabeth Peter was the Licensee of the Punt Hotel in the 1890s I think, followed then by William Peter. Can anyone give me some added information re these two people.
    I know that there is a headstone in the Wilcannia Cemetery for a Elizabeth Paterson Peters. She is my Great-G. Grandmother.

    Denis McIntosh
  • I am very interested in Wilcannia. I can trace my family back to it where they lived at least from 1980 to 1909. I am trying to find out if they were aboriginal. I have read a few of the comments here about Wilcannia, and I don’t know about the person criticising “a 14 year old girl” for being pregnant. How judgmental is that? Some middle-class white person passing their white perceptions on to others sucks. One thing I have learnt in this lifetime is that judgmental people are the ones with something to hide. I am hoping to touch base with someone who can tell me about my family. I really need to find out if I have aboriginal blood.

    Shaz
  • Dear Sir,
    Emily Shand married John Gass in Wilcannia in 1880 at which time I don’t think that there was a church,( the date on St James Anglican church being 1883) but they were married by a minister. Is there anything known about him or the witnesses?
    While the usual residence is shown as Wilcannia, it is presumed that as he worked at Little Boss mine, they would have lived in Silverton, possibly in one of the miners cottages similar to those later transported to Broken Hill by bullock cart. I was wondering if I could get a floor plan of a typical cottage to see what the accommodation was. If you do not have one perhaps you could provide a reference.
    I doubt if it is possible to locate where in Silverton they might have lived- I have a road layout of the town from R H B Kearns booklet.
    Nobody seems to know of Little Boss mine but it may have also been primitive and may not have been registered.
    In the Wikipedia reference to Silverton reference 11 gives a list of those buried in the cemetery and John Gass is included.
    Any information that you could provide would be appreciated.
    Thank you
    Robert Shand

    Robert Shand
    • We have missed this town so very much. I have been wondering if you could tell me the street where the Drop In centre is located?

      I don’t know the address but here is a little bit about it: “The WINGS Drop-in Centre – Safe Aboriginal Youth program provides youth development activities in Wilcannia including school holiday programs, after school programs, support for the Far West Academy of Sport including the junior rugby league program and community cultural activities.”

      alison
  • I enjoyed my time in Wilcannia as a teacher about 15 years ago. My family loved there time there too. Yes it is remote and a little rough, but hey it is in the middle of nowhere. We used to shop at Broken Hill. Cycling and running the tracks around the town and when the Darling dried up I would run the dry river bed. An easy drive to White Cliffs and other gorgeous and interesting surrounds. The local Aboriginal people were mostly very friendly, helpful and offered insight to their ways. I would hate to have missed those times. Heading back out there soon with family for a road trip down memory lane. Take a canoe too.

    Gary Barton
  • I find it strange and disappointing that in your history of Wilcannia, you have one line dedicated to the history of people who lived here for more than 40,000 years, and the rest is a history of what has occurred since European settlement.
    A completely uninformed and biased history.

    teresa
    • If anyone can add to the history of the area before the arrival of Europeans, please let me know. I would be happy to include that information.

      Bruce Elder