This is a story about an old and long-disused shearing shed, and the remarkable grazing property it once serviced.
The shearing shed in itself is not remarkable – a run-of-the-mill four-stand shed built early last century of timber and corrugated iron, and extended by later owners in the 1930s.
What is remarkable is the fact that this shed for more than 50 years hosted annual shearings of 7000 to 10,000 sheep, in a wild and remote location just over 100 kilometres from Sydney.
It was the woolshed on a property called “Jooriland” in the Upper Burragorang Valley, fronting the Wollondilly River in a restricted area now jointly managed by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and WaterNSW as part of the Warragamba Dam catchment.
My interest in the shed, and the property, was sparked by an art exhibition in Katoomba a few months ago titled “Burragorang, the Lost Valley”, featuring paintings by acclaimed Blue Mountains artist Robyn Collier.
Among these was a striking work entitled “The Old Jooriland Shearing Shed” which, I am delighted to say, now hangs on my wall, and which motivated me to delve into its history.
RELATED READING: How ‘Jooriland’ joined pastoral pyes’ stable
I was familiar with the name Jooriland (an Aboriginal word describing “rocks and waterholes”), having walked some years ago through this wild area of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, where one finds a Jooriland Range, and Jooriland River.
But I was unaware of there ever having been a Jooriland pastoral station in this unlikely area, visited today only by wild dogs, feral pigs, long-distance bushwalkers and NPWS rangers.
Yet for the better part of 150 years it was a substantial grazing property of some 2000 hectares, stocked first with cattle, then sheep, and later cattle again, until it was finally ceded to NPWS in 1993.
Ringed in, as it is, by the sandstone bluffs of the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands, the Upper Burragorang wasn’t settled until the 1840s, and then by small holders of mostly convict or Irish origin.
But from the 1850s pastoralists began moving into the area, consolidating small holdings into larger stations to run cattle.
A heritage study prepared in 2006 for the then NSW Department of Environment and Conservation shows John Wild – a former government cattle herdsman at Camden – as the first grantee of land that would become “Jooriland”, in the early 1850s.
Following Wild’s death in 1857 the 12ha riverside block was held by his family until 1875, when it was bought by Edward Moore from Oran Park, who by then had already established the Colong pastoral run in the Upper Burragorang.
The station homestead, dating back to the 1890s, is today just a fragile shell, boarded-up and unused for occupation since the 1960s.
He obtained additional grants to build “Jooriland” to its final size and erected the timber homestead that still stands, before selling in 1902 to George and Amelia Egan, who held the property until 1925.
Then ensued the first of the property’s two tenures by prominent pastoral families, when it was acquired by Denzil (later Sir Denzil) Macarthur-Onslow – a descendant of Merino pioneer John Macarthur - for the family-controlled Camden Park Estates.
As his son, Lee Macarthur-Onslow, points out, the Upper Burragorang would have been a familiar stock route in earlier times for the Macarthurs, linking “Camden Park” with their substantial holdings around present-day Taralga.
Camden Park Estates held “Jooriland”, which they ran primarily as a sheep station in conjunction with their Camden dairy interests, until 1936, when it was bought by a Sydney property dealer, Frank Thurecht.
Whatever plans Thurecht might have had for “Jooriland” were cut short by his death near Orange in a car accident the following year, and in 1939 the property again changed hands, this time to a sibling partnership of the Pye pastoral family.
Henry Ward Pye and his brother Richard James Pye by that time already owned the vast (about 16,000ha) “Ghoolendaadi” property at Gunnedah, along with “Branga Plains” at Walcha and the 750ha “Cecil Hills” (today a suburb) near Liverpool.
They were also partners – along with their older brother Fred – in Gingie Station at Walgett, at that time a noted Haddon Rig daughter stud.
It’s more than likely that the Pyes already knew something about “Jooriland”, owing to the family’s social and polo connections with its former owners, the Macarthur-Onslows.
The Pyes took over “Jooriland” at a time when it was heavily infested with rabbits, and much of their management for a number of years was directed at bringing this problem under control.
Largely because of the labour demands of rabbit eradication, the property for much of the Pye era employed two or three station hands in addition to the manager, plus seasonal workers.
Most of the property by this time was lightly-timbered, undulating to hilly grazing land of native pastures, but below the homestead was a large alluvial flat where corn and other fodder crops were grown.
In 1947 Henry and Richard Pye sold “Jooriland” to another brother, Walter Pye, a prominent Sydney businessman and philanthropist (who later donated his historic home, “Lindesay” at Darling Point, to the National Trust).
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Walter Pye only held “Jooriland” for a year, before on-selling to yet another sibling, Fred Pye, who held the property until 1955, when it was acquired by the Sydney Water Board for reservation as catchment area for the Warragamba Dam then under construction.
Fred Pye, apart from his one-third interest in “Gingie”, also owned at that time “Morendah” at Cumborah and “Cardington” at Molong.
A former pilot with the Australian Flying Corps in the First World War, he owned many other properties during a lifetime of pastoral dealing, including “Calga West” at Coonamble, “Carwell” at Quambone, “Pembroke” at Merriwa and “Geraldra” at Stockinbingal.
Painting revives history
When “Jooriland” was resumed in 1955 by the Water Board, Fred was able to organise a lease of the property for his overseer, Mervyn Thurkell. Completion of Warragamba Dam in 1960 resulted in water backing up to form the vast reservoir we now know as Lake Burragorang, in the process cutting off “Jooriland” and other properties from their traditional eastern exit route from the valley to Oakdale and Picton.
It was a traumatic time for the valley, as its flooding displaced some 200 residents, many of long standing, and involved the inundation of fertile market gardens as well as farms and coalmines. Not that it was altogether unexpected: the idea of damming the Warragamba River to capture the flows of the Wollondilly, Nattai and Coxs rivers and thereby secure the future water needs of fast-growing Sydney had been under consideration for at least 40 years.
Opponents of the dam raised doubts about the quality of the water it would contain, given that the effluent of several cities and large towns would flow into it. But in the end, the unique suitability of the Warragamba Dam site won the day, enabling one modest wall to trap the flows of three major rivers and impound a volume of water equivalent in capacity to more than four Sydney Harbours.
If the NSW Government proceeds with its plans to raise the Warragamba Dam wall .., the resulting back-up of water along the Wollondilly River could condemn what’s left of “Jooriland” to a watery grave.
Once the die was cast, all structures below the dam’s projected high-water level were demolished and removed, including two popular guest-houses, three churches, post offices, a school and many homes. Most landholders opted to leave, selling their properties to the Water Board, but a few like Neville and Val Lang, whose “Bindook” property is to the west of “Jooriland”, decided to stay on. This meant creating an alternative route (apart from the rough 4WD track that was then their only access) out of the valley – a challenge to which Neville responded by joining with a neighbouring family to bulldoze 28km of new road linking with a main road to Oberon.
It meant that the distance to Sydney from his “Bindook” property was now some 130km further than by the previous route via Camden, nearly trebling the freight on a bale of wool, but at least now they were no longer marooned.
That done, the Langs in 1964 entered into a lease of “Jooriland” from the Water Board, running that property in conjunction with “Bindook” and another leased property, “Twin Peaks”.
Initially they ran sheep, as the Pyes had done, until the mid-1970s when mounting losses from dogs and eagles forced a switch to cattle, thus rendering the shearing shed redundant. After Neville’s death in 1987 management of “Jooriland” was taken over by Val’s brother, Philip Scarlett, until 1993 when the lease expired and the property was absorbed into national park.
Since then, trees have been planted along the Wollondilly flats where corn and other crops were once grown as livestock fodder, and a heritage grant has enabled the NPWS to undertake remedial works in an attempt to stabilise some of the historic buildings.
The station homestead, dating back to the 1890s, is today just a fragile shell, boarded-up and unused for occupation since the 1960s when it was vacated by Fred Pye’s former overseer.
When Neville and Val Lang later leased “Jooriland” from the Water Board, they used another cottage on the property, and yet another was reconfigured to serve as shearer accommodation. A short distance from the homestead is the split-log hut that housed the engine and generator, a reminder of the fact that the Burragorang Valley was never connected to the electricity grid because of the decades of uncertainty about the proposed dam.
READ PART TWO HERE: How ‘Jooriland’ joined pastoral pyes’ stable
Apart from the shearing shed, other structures still remaining from the property’s long history as a working station include the shearers’ huts, a set of timber cattle yards, remains of old sheds and the sheep dip. But if the NSW Government proceeds with its foreshadowed plans to raise the Warragamba Dam wall by 14 metres as a flood mitigation measure, the resulting back-up of water along the Wollondilly River could condemn what’s left of “Jooriland” to a watery grave.
The author acknowledges the assistance received from WaterNSW, NPWS, the Wollondilly Heritage Centre, the Taralga Historical Society, John Wylie and Jim Smith.