Towns of the Avon Valley: York, Northam and Toodyay

Article about the colonial settlement of the Avon Valley, Western Australia for mature and senior travellers interested in history when joining a small group tour as a couple or solo traveller.

19 Jun 21 · 8 mins read

The Avon Valley

By Marco Stojanovik

The Avon Valley region, less than two hours’ drive east of Perth City, Western Australia, offers rolling green hills, gentle streams, picturesque scenery and and historic towns brimming with heritage. With endless options abound, the region makes an ideal destination to potter through craft shops and museums, enjoy a meal and drink at a historic pub or restaurant, picnic on the banks of the Avon River, hot air balloon at dawn, or set out on heritage trails and bush walks. With festivals and events held all year long, it’s never a dull time visit.

This article explores the colonial history of the Avon Valley, as well as the attractions of its three highlight towns – York, Northam and Tooday. It is intended as background reading for a number of Odyssey Traveller tours in Western Australia. These tours are designed for senior and mature travellers who would like to learn about the history and culture of destinations with like-minded people in a small group setting (participant number is typically 6 to 12), using the knowledge and expertise of our tour leader and local guides.

Eastern Railway, Avon Valley / Nachoman-au / CC BY-SA 3.0

Original Indigenous Inhabitants of the Avon Valley

The Avon Valley is part of the traditional lands of the Ballardong Noongar people, which extended from the Woongan Hills and beyond in the north to beyond Pingelly in the south. The Ballardong are a specific language group of the Noongar people who have occupied the South West region of Western Australia for up to 120,000 years, living in harmony with the land.

Aboriginal society held strong spiritual beliefs, with mythical creatures and Dreamtime stories often linked to geographical features of their landscape. The Avon River, for example, was a key site for the Ballardong not only for the supply of food but also as a location along the route taken by the river serpent, the Wagyl.

Avon River in the Avon Valley National Park / Photograph by Gnangarra… / CC BY 2.5 Au

British Settlement

Parts of the Avon Valley were amongst the earliest settled areas in Western Australia. This came about due to the need for suitable land beyond Fremantle and Perth. Ever Increasingly more space was required for the growing of crops to meet the continuous and heavy influx of settlers to the Swan River Colony, established in 1829.

In the winter of 1830, Ensign Robert Dale, a young officer still only in his twenty-first year, acting on the instructions of Lieutenant-Governor James Stirling, set out to cross the Darling Range. By this stage, all that had been examined was near the sea, with no attempt yet made to explore the district over the mountains. After a three-week arduous journey through dense forests and over flooded streams, Dale and his party encountered a verdant plain which sloped down to a small rivulet, its soil fertile and easy to cultivate.

View to Perth City and suburbs from Darling Scarp with native bush and trees in the foreground.

Delighted with the promising report, Lieutenant-Governor Sterling announced by Government Notice on 11 November 1830 that a large area should be thrown open for selection in Avon Valley. This was quickly taken up by colonists, many of whom had had farming experience in England.

Among them was J. S. Clarkson who, observed a resemblance between the valleys and his own country of Yorkshire. It was thus decided by Lieutenant-Governor Stirling that the district be named Yorkshire and that York should be the name of the first town.

York was gazetted in 1831, and further exploration led to the reservation of two other townsites, Beverley and Northam. Dale was then again responsible for the expedition which led to the discovery of the rich valleys of Toodyay and Culham. Settlers in the district immediately set about the construction of huts, and the preparation required for their livestock and the cultivation of new land.

Difficult Beginnings

By 1936 York, the main town of the district, still only consisted of two horses, a barn, an army barracks and some out-houses, with about 50 acres of cleared lands. The town grew slowly at first due to several tremendous difficulties.

Both droughts and floods were common, and in the absence of fences, shepherds had to be constantly in attendance. Even with the utmost diligence, though, sheep were lost in the limitless bush, poisoned by unknown plants, or destroyed by native dogs. Problems also arose associated with using English farming techniques in an unfamiliar climate, and kangaroos constantly competed with the sheep for grass. And unsurprisingly, the Ballardong Noongar people and European settlers also clashed repeatedly in these early days of settlement.

Nevertheless, many of the problems were soon overcome and the district began generally to flourish. The townships soon took shape as mud houses were replaced by substantial private and Government buildings constructed from brick and stone, of which there was an ample supply.

Convict Labour

An important development in 1840 was the establishment of the York Agricultural Society for the sale and show of stock and wool. The more enterprising of York settlers had decided that farming interests would benefit from its formation, and solutions could be found to the problem of labour shortages during harvesting time and difficulties faced in taking stock over the hills to Perth from the Avon district.

The society was influential enough to induce Governor Fitzgerald’s application to the Home Government in 1848 for convicts to be sent out to the Colony. The application successful, the first convicts arriving in 1851, and depots were established at York and Toodyay.

Their labour was used for public works which had been urgently needed for a number of years. Immediately they were put to improving the roads, many of which were in a shocking state. During the 1950s the convicts cut a more direct route from the district to Perth, reducing the journey by twelve hours. And they constructed many of the district’s early public buildings.

The Region Prospers

The region prospered during the second half of the 19th century due to its importance for sheep and grain farming, sandalwood, cattle, goats, pigs, and horse breeding.

Rich gold discoveries at Southern Cross in 1889 and at Kalgoorlie later in 1893 then brought an era of even greater prosperity to York. Since it was one of the last rail stops before the walk to the goldfields and road transport usually passed through the town, various businesses flocked to the town. Stores popped up to supply the goldfields and blacksmiths and harness makers were required by the thousands of hopeful miners who passed through.

Construction of the railway to the eastern Goldfields in 1894, however, caused Northam to expand tremendously at the expense of York, becoming the major departure point for prospectors heading east. As a result, it soon became the principle agricultural centre of the district.

Highlights: York

Straddling the Avon River, backed by the Dyott Ranges and surrounded by rolling agricultural hills, present-day York is a pleasant place with an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity. Wildflowers and birdlife compliment the open gardens and there’s a wide range of experiences on offer including food and wine festivals, country racing, local produce and plenty of arts and crafts. Declared a “Historic Town” by the National Trust of Australia, York is also home to more heritage buildings in than any other town of its size in Western Australia.

Its main thoroughfare, Avon terrace, contains most of the heritage public buildings, remaining exactly as it was in 1911. Meander along to encounter various examples of 19th century Victorian and Edwardian architecture, including Sergeant’s Pharmacy, Castle Hotel, Settlers House, the Old Post Office, The Policy Station, the Old Gaol and Courthouse and the York Town Hall. Behind the main street lie a wealth of old dwelling-houses and cottages, and on the opposite side of the Avon River the fine, hand-made Anglican Church built in 1854 still stands.

York Co-Op, Post Office, Courthouse / Michael Lewi / CC BY-SA 4.0

Other places well worth a visit include the York Motor Museum, the Residency Museum, the Suspension Bridge, Faversham House, the several available heritage walking trails, and the giant straw sculptures of endangered animals.

Highlights: Northam

Northam is the largest inland rural town in Western Australia which is not dependent on mining, and is known for its vineyards, cafes, restaurants, boutique and craft shops, and the popularity of hot air ballooning.

The town is home to over 185 heritage listed buildings, a number of which still serve the community, including Northam Flour Mill, Byfield House, Mitchell House, St John’s Church, Northam Post Office, Northam Police Station and Court House, and the Town Hall. Many of the buildings can be viewed along the heritage walking trails listed in the very detailed Northam/Katrine Heritage Trails booklet (available at the Visitor Information Centre).

Northam Town Hall / Michael Lewi / CC BY-SA 4.0

The Avon River also flows through the town, its banks edged by attractive parks and waterways. It is a popular pastime to picnic beside the river and watch the elegant white swans which, introduced to Northam by settlers over 150 years, are unique in Western Australia to the town.

Highlight: Toodyay

Toodyay is nestled in a valley between scenic, undulating hills, on the banks of the Avon River. The town boasts some of the finest examples of nineteenth century architecture in the state, with over one hundred places of historical significance listed by the Heritage Council of Western Australia. These include cottages, homesteads, shops, churches, parks, and railway infrastructure.

Connor’s Mill, an 1870s steam driven flour mill, is a fine surviving remnant of the region’s colourful colonial history. Explore inside to witness historical machinery demonstrating the antiquated flour milling process. You can also visit the intriguing Old Gaol built in the 1860s, which now houses a museum dedicated to the varied history of the region. Other attractive heritage buildings include the Toodyay Post Office, the old Toodyay Fire Station, the Freemasons Hotel, Urwin’s Store and Butterly’s Cottage, among others.

Stirling Terrace, Toodyay, Western Australia, with the former Unwins Store at left and the Freemasons Hotel at right / Bahnfriend / CC BY-SA 3.0

In town there are large numbers of veranda-clad pubs, alfresco cafes, gift shops and places to eat, as well as fine examples of locally worked art, pottery, woodwork, and photography. Spend the night at one of the many charming and luxurious bed and breakfasts in and around the town, or underneath the stars at a caravan park or camping ground.

Tour of Western Australia Wildflowers

Odyssey Traveller is giving you the opportunity to join us on a wildflower tour of Western Australia this spring. Our wildflower trail focuses on the south west region of Western Australia. We begin by heading north to the wheatbelt town of Moora, from where we visit Lesueur National Park, home to several species of Western Australia‘s unique wildflowers. The national park is home to acacias, hibbertias, leschenaultias, melaleucas, gastrolobiums, and several species of orchids. The wheatbelt is home to significant amounts of leschenaultia macrantha, a species unique to Western Australia. Nearby, our tour joins the ‘wildflower way’, joining at Mullewa, and stopping off at 15 spots on the way to Wubin. After this, our wildflower tour heads west into the outback, stopping at the Avon Valley centre of Merriden, and the ‘wild west’ town of Kalgoorlie, before heading to the wildflower hotspot of the south west.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving global travellers since 1983 with educational tours of the history, culture, and architecture of our destinations designed for mature and senior travellers. We specialise in offering small group tours partnering with a local tour guide at each destination to provide a relaxed and comfortable pace and atmosphere that sets us apart from larger tour groups. Tours consist of small groups of between 6 and 12 people and are cost inclusive of all entrances, tipping and majority of meals. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Western Australia:

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