Broken Hill, New South Wales
Known variously as the ‘capital of the outback’ and the ‘silver city’, Broken Hill, on the western edge of New South Wales, is an outback Mecca, packed with history, art, and culture.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the area was inhabited by the Wiljali Aboriginal People for over 40, 000 years. The first European to pass through the Broken Hill area was the Surveyor General of New South Wales, Thomas Mitchell. He was soon followed by Charles Sturt in 1844, whose description of a ‘broken hill’ in his diaries would provide a name for the town. Sturt also named the Barrier Range, because it quite literally was a barrier to further exploration for his team. From 1860-61, the expedition of Burke and Wills passed through the area on their way to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The area slowly began to attract pastoralists, but the turning point occurred in 1883, when Charles Rasp, a boundary miner discovered what he thought were tin deposits in the ‘broken hill’. It turned out that what he had discovered was the world’s largest deposit of silver, lead and zinc. Soon after, a rich vein of silver was discovered. In 1885, Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) was floated on the stock exchange, inaugurating what would eventually become the world’s largest mining company.
Thanks to the silver reserves, Broken Hill grew rapidly, with a population of 17, 000 in 1889 doubling to 35, 000 in 1914, making it the third-largest city in New South Wales for a time. Unsanitary conditions, lead poisoning, and diseases such as typhoid and dysentery were common. Mining work proved dangerous, with over 360 men were killed in the mines between 1894 and 1913.
Broken Hill became a centre of Australia’s emerging trade union movement with the establishment of the Barrier Daily Truth, one of Australia’s first labour-run newspapers. Strikes were common, with an 1892 protest against the use of strikebreakers as mine labour seeing the union leaders imprisoned. Unions campaigned for better wages, improved conditions and safety, and in 1920, Broken Hill’s workers were the first in Australia to win a 35-hour week.
Broken Hill’s Trades Hall was the first building in Australia built by unions, from 1898 to 1905, revealing the extent to which the trade union movement was at the heart of the town’s social fabric. Trades Hall today remains open, home to an exhibition displaying the union history of Broken Hill, and worth seeing for the ornate facades, stained-glass windows, and ceiling mural. It has since been listed on the NSW Heritage Register.
In today’s terms, turn-of-the-century Broken Hill was the most multicultural city in New South Wales. ‘Afghan’ cameleers – in actuality from British India, Iran, Turkey, and the Middle East (as well as Afghanistan – transported wool and materials for the Overland Telegraph Line, connecting Darwin and Port Augusta. In 1891, Muslim camel drivers from Afghanistan and India established Australia’s first mosque. Built on the site of a former camel camp, its alcove points to Mecca. It remains in use for worship today, and is open to visits from the public.
Broken Hill was also home to a significant Jewish community, mostly from Eastern Europe, who opened a synagogue in 1910. The synagogue closed in 1862, and was converted into a museum exploring Jewish life in the outback. It is the most isolated Jewish museum in the world, and one of two rural synagogues in Australia (the other being in Ballarat, Victoria).
In 2015, Broken Hill was the first Australian town to be included on the National Heritage List. The town centre, concentrated on Argent Street, is home to a particularly fine collection of late-Victorian public buildings. Highlights include the post office, police station, technical college, court house, and most of all, the Palace Hotel, which was prominently featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
For more outback history, head to the Royal Flying Doctor Service – the Bruce Langford Visitor Centre to learn about the inspiring history of the Royal Flying Doctors, and the Albert Kersten Mining and Mineral Museum, for information on the science and geology of mining.
Broken Hill has been a centre of the arts for thousands of years. The Mutawintji Historic Site in Mutawintji National Park is the traditional land of the Malyankapa and Pandjikali people, and has been a significant meeting place for centuries, where communities perform initiations, rainmaking, and other ceremonies in gatherings of up to 1,000 people. The site is home to rock engravings (one of only three rock engraving sites in New South Wales), carvings, paintings and drawings, some dating back 8000 years. Today, the site remains a place of living culture, used for cultural purposes and meetings by Aboriginal people from around the region. To pay respect, visit with a guided tour.
More recently, Broken Hill became the centre of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush‘ vernacular art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, whose works are displayed in the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery, Pro Hart Gallery, and Jack Absalom’s Gallery.
The nearby Living Desert Sanctuary is home to the Sculpture Symposium, a collection of striking sandstone sculptures hewed in the desert. The artworks date back to 1993, when the city made the decision to invite twelve sculptors from around the world to create works for Broken Hill.
Another worthwhile day trip from Broken Hill is to Silverton, the quintessential outback town and a shooting location for a number of movies, including Mad Max II; Wake in Fright; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Razorback and Dirty Deeds, and television shows such as Royal Flying Doctor and The Dirtwater Dynasty. Despite its rough vibe, today the majority of historic buildings are now used as art galleries and cafes. Make sure to head to the pub, housed in a converted post office, to see the car from Mad Max.