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Issue #1775      May 3, 2017

The beach shacks, an amazing saga

During the Great Depression, parts of the Royal National Park south of Sydney were occupied by unemployed workers, mostly miners from the Illawarra region. Some of the shacks they built remain. Only reached by walking tracks, they provide physical evidence of the historic occupation of the area and rare examples of Depression era housing.

Hotel Depression, Burning Palms, 1930s.

The Park comprises the original southwest area, the former Garawarra Park, and areas adjacent to the beaches, Garie, Little Garie, Era, Burning Palms and Bulgo.

The Dharawal people originally lived there for at least 30,000 years, but within 20 years of the arrival of the First Fleet their numbers had been decimated by introduced diseases, government punitive expeditions and clashes with armed settlers.

The miners who moved to the Illawarra in the 19th century fought industrial battles and struggled to retain the shacks they built as desperation housing during strikes.

The shack-owners’ amazing struggle to preserve the shacks and their unique communities has been extensively documented in historian Ingeborg Van Teeseling’s recently-published book Shack Life.

Interviewed by Van Teeseling, Donna McLaren said her paternal grandparents arrived in Australia from Britain in 1918. They first visited Era in the 1920s, sleeping in tents made from chaff bags full of fleas they had to smoke out.

During the Depression, the “shackies” caught fish and rabbits and grew their own vegetables. According to Donna’s mother Joan Hendry, they helped each other build and maintain the shacks and mended each others’ clothes and shoes. Their cooperation and social cohesion helped them battle through the Depression much more successfully than financially-ruined former business owners.

Nevertheless, life was extremely difficult. There was no regular income, and no doctors. One woman went into labour while digging up worms for fishing. She only made it to Lilyfield station and gave birth in the stationmasters’ house.

After the War the shack owners fought a long and agonising struggle to save the shacks and the community.

Historical objections to the presence of the shacks relied on myopic views regarding the significance of place, whether natural or built, and on contempt for the working class and the Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal activist Marcia Langton pointed out that the terms “wilderness” and “pristine”, used by Myles Dunphy and others to justify removal of the shacks, have colonial and racist connotations.

Van Teeseling commented, “These terms presume that ... Aboriginal people were never there, or that they did not have an impact on the landscape, or that they were not human enough to be considered capable of spoiling it.”

Dunphy also said women bushwalkers would attract “every Tom, Dick and Harry to the place”, and that it would be preferable to restrict visits to the bush to “the educated and appreciative”.

Dunphy detested the campers and shack owners, describing them as “squatters”, “living on a pension” and “not impeded by regular employment”. Totally ignoring their harsh situation, Dunphy wrote with bitter resentment: “The average hard-working citizen had to honour all his economic responsibilities, and could not afford to buy a choice home site beside the sea.”

In researching Shack Life, Van Teeseling interviewed 40 shack owners. Their stories are fascinating. Many were involved in left-wing politics. Donna McLaren, whose parents built their shack in 1946, joined the Socialist Party of Australia in 1974 and is still an active Communist Party member. Her mother was a writer and Donna remembers Frank Hardy, Len Fox, Arthur Boyd, Betty Collins and many other writers visiting the shack.

Donna McLaren’s parents built their shack in 1946.

Dr Helen Voysey, president of the League, who campaigned for a renal clinic at Tennant Creek in 2002 before organising the court battle to save the shacks, commented: “My Mother Eva was a [Jewish] refugee from Austria who fled in 1938. ... She was introduced to my father by John McKay, who also had a shack here. Eva was classed as an enemy alien and was officially not allowed to travel. ... She risked it because she loved [Era] with all her heart. ... One of my earliest memories is going out at night to clean my teeth and hearing the sound of the sea, doing a wee on the grass, looking at the stars and feeling the magic of the place”.

Dora Booth was in Vienna when the Nazis marched in. Her parents were in Australia and 14-year-old Dora had stayed behind to finish her education. Her family was Jewish and she only escaped because she had a British passport. She described Era as “magical, a hidden paradise far from the world’s troubles”.

Max Humphreys, whose parents were communists, said “ I got beaten up at school on a regular basis because of my parents’ political views. Down here that would never happen, though. There were lots of different people, but none of the divisions that reigned up the hill. ... In fact, Era showed that the ideal world my parents were advocating was possible.”

Warwick Hilton commented: “The idea of a Protection League was inspired by the way the [Communist] Party organised itself. ... The concept of saying ‘no’, of putting up a struggle instead of taking it lying down, the Party taught us that”.

The shack owners’ struggle demonstrates the potential strength of an alliance between left-wing and progressive political forces. Extensively researched, beautifully written and illustrated, Ingeborg Van Teeseling’s wonderful book Shack Life is recommended reading.

PS: During a memorable long weekend at the Hendry shack at Era in 1966, your reviewer was persuaded to support causes more worthy than the re-election of Mr Menzies.

Era beach. (Photo: Megan Badham)

A Timeline (based on Ingeborg Van Teeseling’s research)

1797 - Coal was discovered at Coalcliff, north of Wollongong.

1825 - Former convicts Andrew Byrne and John Dwyer received permission to graze cattle on Byrne’s area at Era and Burning Palms, and Dwyer’s at Bulgo. By then the Dharawal people and the manicured landscape they had cultivated was gone, and the Illawarra coast was being stripped of its cedar trees.

1831 - Byrne and Dwyer purchased their beach lands. The first shack on the Illawarra beaches was built at Era by Byrne for an Aboriginal stockman.

By 1872 - All the land at Era, Burning Palms and Little Garie was owned by the Collaery family.

1878 - A coal mine was constructed at Coalcliff.

1879 - The Royal National Park was founded. Coal companies sought licences to mine within the park, and in 1883 Henry Collaery wanted to mine the Garie beach area. They were unsuccessful.

1897 - Collaery subdivided the Garie land, but there were no roads and he couldn’t sell it.

1889 - The Illawarra railway line was opened, conveying coal as well as passengers. Some politicians were shareholders in the coal companies, and the original railway route was altered to pass near several coal mine settlements, including Helensburgh. The first miners lived in tents, then built “humpies” and finally small, rudimentary cottages.

1890 - During the economic depression, strikes by miners, shearers and other workers were suppressed by armed force. The Helensburgh miners distributed fish and rabbits they caught at the beaches to the most needy families. They were the last strikers to return to work.

1892 - The Labor Party won the balance of power, and in 1893 plural voting, which entitled big landowners to more than one vote, was abolished.

Between 1888 and 1914 - The ratio of miners dying at work was 1.2 per 1,000. The ratio of women dying in childbirth was 5.76 per 1,000. The assistance the miners received from Friendly Societies was inadequate to cover the costs of medical care or sustenance for unemployed miners and their families.

1909 - Incensed at the jailing of a union delegate on a conspiracy charge, the miners again went on strike. Many people lived full time at or near the beaches, in tents or shacks.

1917 - After the Russian Revolution, Prime Minister Billy Hughes jailed 100 members of the Industrial Workers of the World. He declared the organisation illegal, but many miners supported it, and a strike of 100,000 workers took place in NSW.

1929 - The economy crashed. In two years the number of miners employed in the Wollongong area dropped by half and production fell from 2.3 million tons to under a million. Unemployed miners returned to the beaches, pitching tents or building shacks with natural materials from the bush or salvaged material carried kilometres down the hill by hand.

1931 - The Sydney Bushwalkers club launched an unsuccessful campaign to remove the shacks from the Hacking River.

1938 - The Era shack owners carted 17 tons of timber down the hill to construct a new surf club building. The shacks’ original canvas and bark siding was replaced with corrugated iron or timber boarding, and meat safes and kerosene fridges were installed.

1931 - The Sydney Bush Walkers, founded by nature conservationist Miles Dunphy, campaigned against shacks in the Park. He had previously objected to shacks in the Park on the Port Hacking River. He believed national parks should remain as idealised pristine wilderness, free of people – except for bushwalkers.

1933 - Bushwalker Marie Byles campaigned to have the government resume the area between the original National Park and the beaches and remove the shacks and tents.

1934 - The government created a new park named Garawarra, but it excluded the Byrne and Collaery beach estates and adjacent farms, and only included a small part of Burning Palms, where the shack owners moved up the beach out of reach. The government also decided to build a new road to give the public access to the area.

1938 - The National Parks Trust asked the government to incorporate the Byrne and Collaery land into the Park, and remove the shacks. The shack owners, who now included many Sydney people, formed the Era Campers League.

Laying the foundations for shack at Era, 1940s.

1943 - The Parks and Playground Movement applied unsuccessfully for the government to remove the shacks and take over the beach areas for use in the National Fitness Campaign.

1944 - A bush conservation club offered to buy the Collaery land at Little Garie and give it to the government, providing the shacks were removed. The Campers League, now named the Era-Burning Palms Protection League, offered the government 2,650 pounds for the Era land, on condition that the shacks remained and were maintained by the League.

1950 - The number of shacks had risen from 76 to 200. As Helen Voysey noted, “There were gay people here, communists, miners, trade union members, policemen, artists.” They included Hal Misingham, director of the NSW Art Gallery, and Gordon Andrews, who later designed the new Australian decimal currency.

1950 - The Byrne family offered the Era and Burning Palms land for public sale but not the shacks, which they treated as the property of the occupants. However, the government immediately resumed the land. The shack owners could remain rent-free until the Trust arranged permissive occupancies or rental arrangements, and the shacks could remain, but the owners would receive no compensation for the resumption.

1953 - The government surveyor recommended that on “termination” of the leases the shacks should be demolished.

1953 - The bushwalkers failed again in an attempt to have the shacks removed, and the next year the beach areas were formally added to the Park.

1959 - Most of the coastal shacks had been demolished, apart from those at Bonnie Vale, Bulgo, Burning Palms, Era and Little Garie.

1964 - The newly-elected Liberal government opposed the presence of the shacks, and subscribed, with some qualifications, to Dunphy’s concept of pristine wilderness. As Van Teeseling observed, “In order for it to be pristine, all evidence of human past needed to be removed, and the shacks were part of that evidence”.

1965 - The government introduced permissive occupancy licence agreements, which effectively cancelled ownership rights and allowed the government to demand removal of any shack at any time. If they did so, the owners would have to remove it themselves, or pay someone else to remove it. Meanwhile, a coal mining company applied for permission to mine 40,000 acres of the park, which had an estimated potential of 200,000 tons of coking coal. The Trusts resisted the move and argued that the beach shacks should remain.

1966 - The government introduced the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), dismissed all the NSW national park trusts and took full control of the parks. They proceeded to demolish the Hacking River shacks. As soon as a shack owner at Era, Burning Palms or Little Garie died or failed to pay the highly increased rents, the shack was demolished, with no compensation to the owners. The following year a Helensburgh miner, who had occupied a riverside shack for 40 years, committed suicide just before it was due to be demolished.

1969 - The NSW Crown Solicitor’s Office advised the NPWS that the shack owners were in effect tenants, had a right to occupy the land, and could not be expelled at the whim of the NPWS. The Protection League was never informed of this advice.

1971 - Only 171 shacks remained at the three beaches. The government ignored the role of shack-owners in providing surf rescue services, but in 1974 one of them initiated Australia’s first helicopter service, which rescued two people on its first day of operation. The government then doubled the shack rentals.

1976 - The new Labor government handed control of national parks to the new Department of Planning and the Environment.

1979 - Australia ICOMOS, the Australian division of the UN International Council on Monuments and Sites, signed the Burra Charter, which aimed to conserve places of cultural significance, including historical and social significance.

1988 - The new Liberal government wanted the shacks removed but favoured development within the parks. It also gave a licence for offshore coal mining opposite the National Park and sand mining between Port Hacking and Garie.

1990 - Shack-owner and town planner Malcolm Garder wrote a heritage study of Era. The Heritage Council of NSW recommended a moratorium on further demolitions and requested an assessment of the cultural significance of the RNP shacks. The NPWS commissioned a study of the shacks in all the national parks.

1994 - The Australian Heritage Commission entered the beach shacks on the Register of the National Estate, and the Wollongong and Sutherland Councils included them on their heritage registers.

Heritage architect Geoff Ashley’s study for NPWS confirmed the significance of the place, recommended preservation of all the shacks and recommended that some should be used for public rental, with one serving as a history museum. However, the NPWS said the Bonnie Vale cabins had to go, misquoted Ashley as saying that only some shacks should be preserved, and distanced itself from his conclusions.

1995 - The Burning Palms and Little Garie shacks were added to the Register of the National Estate. The Nature Conservation Council asked new Premier Bob Carr to demolish the shacks immediately, but the Protection League pointed out that in five years the surf clubs had rescued 377 people and given first aid to another 720.

1996 - A new NPWS report recommended that only the shacks at Era and Bulgo should be preserved. The League pointed out that because many of the shacks at Burning Palms, Bonnie Vale and Little Garie had asbestos linings their removal would cast taxpayers $3.3 million.


2000 - The Department promised to “seek to retain a substantial number of cabins along the coast”. The NPWS demanded a 444 percent increase in rentals. This was later dropped to 302 percent, but new draft licences said shack owners would only get five year licences, and only then if they could prove to NPWS they were bona fide owners. Other renters were classed as “caretakers” and could only get a one-year licence.

Each shack owner also had to take out $10 million insurance, costing $800 annually. The shack owners refused to sign the new licences. The NPWS then claimed the shack occupants were not owners but licensees even though they were responsible for maintaining and repairing the shacks.

2002 - The NPWS told shack owners the current licences would expire in May the next year. Wollongong council objected strongly and was told, in effect, to mind its own business.

2003 - The Minister offered to permit two names on the licences but was overruled by Premier Bob Carr. The NPWS then claimed the Solicitor General had advised that the shack occupants were not in fact owners, even though private ownership of the shacks had been the very basis of the government’s objections to their presence.

2004 - The NPWS announced that some of the shacks were to be advertised for lease to the general public, but the League than discovered in a heavily redacted copy of the Solicitor General’s report that Crown ownership of the cabins was legally challengeable.

2006 - A conservation plan prepared by architect Graham Brooks for NPWS on the shacks and their communities made no reference to agreements made between the shack owners and the government between 1957 and 1963, and contradicted the National Trust and Heritage Commission assessments of the significance of the sites.

2005 - The NPWS said all licences were to be terminated in seven months. However, Helen Voysey and Bob McClelland discovered documents indicating that a previous government had acknowledged ownership of the shacks by the occupants and also acknowledged the government would be liable for compensation claims if they were demolished.

Greens member Lee Rhiannon used Parliamentary Standing Orders to obtain the former Solicitor-General’s advice and other documents which revealed the government had pressured Brooks to change his report.

A week before the licence expiry date, the League took the government to court. The NPWS withdrew the termination notices and referred the matter to the Land and Environment Court.

The shack owners won. All would receive boa fide licences, four people would be accepted as owners and the minister could renew expired licences. Rents would increase, but not by as much, and after five years any increases would be CPI-based. The NPWS and the Protection League were to make a joint submission for entry on the state heritage list.

The court case had cost the shack owners $250,000

2012 - The shacks were listed in the State Heritage List.

2013 - The National Trust presented the Protection League with an award for the best advocacy campaign in the country.

Next article – On the repression in Turkey

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