A very brief history
The Wiljakali people traditionally occupied the lands around Broken Hill visiting the Barkindji people on the Menindee Lakes each year.
Charles Sturt named the Barrier Range (named appropriately because it impeded his progress) when he explored the area near Broken Hill in 1844-45, referring to a "broken hill" in his diary.
Edward Giles explored the Mootwingee area in 1861 and 1863.
Australia’s first (and only!) heritage-listed city, Broken Hill has essentially four main pillars to its rich history since its beginnings….
The union history
Broken Hill is a pioneering city in many ways and none more than its proud union history.
Workers’ rights that are standard today were the subject of courageous struggle in Broken Hill in the early 1900’s.
Today, the Miners’ Memorial looms over town on the line of lode. It is a sobering stroll to say the least, listing the names of more than 800 men alongside their cause of death. “Smothered by slimes”, “buried in ore” and “caught in machinery” appear a lot.
When an accident happened, a whistle blew. “Mining communities are different to cities or farming communities because of the constant thought: ‘Dad might not come home’,” says Margot. “A lot of women were widowed multiple times. A whistle would blow and they’d rush up and say ‘Is it my man?’ It was always on my mind when that whistle blew.”
For many who survived the perils underground, lung disease awaited, caused by breathing in dust.
Bitter industrial clashes in 1892 and 1909 rocked the town. “No other Australian city has endured the industrial strife of Broken Hill,” reads a pamphlet at Trades Hall, the heritage-listed building that’s been home to the city’s labour movement since 1905.
It was the 18-month lockout of 1919-1920 - the longest in Australian history - that saw tides turn the way of workers.
The unions’ central claim was that conditions underground were disastrous to health. And when a humble x-ray machine arrived from Sydney to prove their point, mine managers started giving ground. Common-sense measures were implemented, such as ‘no man underground when firing explosives’ and, later, improvements such as protective clothing and sprinkler systems to water down dust.
The most widely-reverberating victory, however, was the 35-hour week. Until then, men could be compelled to work a 72-hour week with their employer’s stance: “Work under our conditions or don’t work at all”.
The amalgamation of unions into one governing body – the Barrier Industrial Council – followed, with the new conditions enshrined in Broken Hill’s unique and pioneering Workers’ Compensation Act. “Before that, if you were injured it was ‘no work, no pay’,” says Margot. “It was only through their solidarity that workers found the power to fight their powerful employers.”
The mining history
The Broken Hill Proprietary Company – BHP or “The Big Australian” as it was known – was formed two years after the mining industry commenced in Broken Hill in 1883. BHP would go on to become the world’s biggest mining company but its relationship with the city where it was born was a turbulent, at times love-hate arrangement, which ended in 1939.
BHP owes its foundation to boundary rider Charles Rasp who discovered the “broken hill” – a narrow coat hanger-shaped body of ore that runs for some eight kilometres through the centre of Broken Hill.
With the support of Mount Gipps Station manager George McCulloch, Rasp formed the famed Syndicate of Seven to test the low broken-backed ridge, but when the first shaft sunk provided disappointing results some original syndicate members sold out.
The core members decided to raise the capital necessary for further investigation by floating a public company and BHP issued its first prospectus in 1885.
Easily accessible high-grade ores, low labour and equipment costs, and high silver, lead and zinc prices made the first 15-year period to the end of the 19th century extremely profitable for BHP.
Broken Hill’s Line of Lode would change Australia from an agricultural to an industrial nation – but it came at a cost. The dangerous conditions in which the miners worked and the squalid circumstances which their families had to live put BHP on a collision course with unions.
BHP closed its Broken Hill operations in 1939 and an unremarkable stone chimney, which was part of as hut built on the mining lease in 1885 to house the first manager of BHP (William Jamison), now stands as a lonely monument to mark the site of the birthplace of BHP.
All up, Broken Hill has produced 200 million tonnes of ore. Based on today’s metal prices there has been approximately $300 billion taken out of Broken Hill.
The pastoral history
The nation of Australia was born on the back of pastoral life.
The rural life that once saw Australia 'ride on the sheep's back' is no longer what defines us, yet it is largely our history as a pastoral nation that has endured in heritage places and is embedded in our self-image as Australians.
You just scratch the surface and a story appears.
A thriving film & art scene
Because of the town’s remote landscape and quintessential outback ambience, more than 35 feature films have been shot in the region, including Mad Max 2 (potentially a visit to the Mad Max Museum is on the cards!) and the 1994 movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (with most of the film taking place at the Palace Hotel). The coming feature film Strangerland, starring Nicole Kidman, was also recently filmed in the area.
Broken Hill also has a rich visual arts culture, with more than 30 galleries. The Living Desert Reserve, about 9km from the town, is home to the Sculpture Site, featuring 12 sandstone sculptures (completed in 1993 by artists from around the world) standing tall against the skyline.
The colours emerging from the rocky outcrops just outside Broken Hill have been inspiring painters for decades and it’s easy to see why this semi-arid city on the edge of the outback is a magnet for painters and art lovers including artists like Pro Hart and Jack Absalom.
Many of those artists, some of them former miners or their descendants, were inspired to pick up paintbrushes by the example of Pro Hart, the ebullient miner-turned-art celebrity whose irreverent images of gamblers, drunks and local characters are famous around the world. Like Hart, who died in 2006, most of these artists are self-taught and welcome visitors to their own galleries - often the front room of their homes.
Jack Absalom's gallery is a headline attraction on the Broken Hill art tourist trail. He is the only surviving member of the Brushmen of the Bush still resident in the town.
The five Brushmen - Hart, Absalom, Hugh Schultz, Eric Minchin and John Pickup - painted landscapes in the Broken Hill area and gained fame in the art world in the 1970s, exhibiting across Australia as well as in London, Rome, New York and Los Angeles.
But Pro Hart's gallery is the most popular art attraction in Broken Hill. It’s an opportunity to meet his widow, 73-year-old Raylee Hart, and his son, John, also a painter. She tells me Hart put Broken Hill on the map and opened visitor's eyes to the history of the mines, which dates to the discovery of silver ore in 1883.
"There is a lot of living history here," she says. "The mines are still here and the little miners' cottages made out of corrugated iron are all still here. Everyone is restoring their awnings and verandahs in heritage colours.
It's not just an artist's paradise; there is so much history here that we're proud of."
(Trains, Planes and Automobiles)
Getting there is half the fun!
Broken Hill is the nearest true Outback region to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide and is well serviced by air, coach and rail connections to these capital cities.
Broken Hill is a 5½ hour drive from Adelaide, a 9½ hour drive from Melbourne and a 13 hour drive from Sydney as your main departure points.
There are regular flights from Sydney and Adelaide (Regional Express Airlines)
There are buses from Adelaide and Mildura, visit Buses R Us for timetables and bookings.
There is also train access; visit Countrylink or Great Southern Rail for timetables, fares and online bookings.
Our team is here to help you get there any way we can, please contact us for any assistance or questions.
What to expect from the Weather in Broken Hill
The weather in Broken Hill is generally mild with only 8 to 10 days a year exceeding 38 degrees. Winter weather can get quite cold but generally the city experiences a mild winter.
Monthly AVERAGE temperature & rainfall
MONTH Max ° C Min ° C Rainfall (mm)
September 21 8.8 20.8
October 24.9 11.7 25.1