highlands.nsw.tourinfo Past & Present
Moss Vale - History to 1860

If you had travelled along the Old South Road some 150 years ago, you would have passed through the area which was to become the largest town in the Southern Highlands.

Starting at the corner of what is now Eridge Park Road, and travelling south, there would not have been much to see then.

Briars Inn
Royal Oak Hotel. 1845. Now Briars Inn.
On the rise before the Wingecarribee River was the new Royal Oak Hotel (now Briars Inn. The hotel was a favourite stopping place for the few Cobb & Co. coaches which travelled this road.

Down the hill behind the Royal Oak can be seen the remains of the earlier line of road, and the famous Argyle Inn (c.1827) - its owner William Bowman having already moved on to the new settlement at Berrima.

Continuing towards the new bridge which replaced the ford further downstream, you could see on the left a few huts - all that is left of the first settlement in the Highlands, Bong Bong (1817).

Built on the edge of Dr. Charles Throsby's large land grant, it was for just a few decades the administrative centre of settlement, with a police barracks, post office, and a few scattered dwellings.

Bong Bong was replaced by Berrima in 1831, built to be the centre of government for the whole County of Camden, and the remaining settlers moved on after the post office was transferred there too in 1837.

Crossing the river, we are now entering the land on which the future town of Moss Vale would be built.

Just over the river can be seen the new Christ Church Bong Bong, and imposing sandstock brick building (rendered and painted white a hundred years later in a misguided attempt to preserve its fabric) erected by the main landholder, Charles Throsby, nephew and heir to the pioneer.

The first church in the Highlands, Christ Church served as the focus of worship for settlers and visitors, and many of the earliest pioneers are buried in its graveyard.

Further to the west can be seen the fine homestead of Charles Throsby, Throsby Park, now restored and open from time to time for inspection by its new owners NSW Parks & Wildlife.

As we continue up the hill, down through the next valley, and onwards to Sutton Forest, the road passes the extensive landholdings of Throsby Park to the left, and on the right those of John Waite ("Browley" c.1828), James Atkinson's ("Oldbury" c. 1822), and just before the creek at Sutton Forest, John Nicholson's ("Newbury" c.1822).

Christ Church Bong Bong
Christ Church Bong Bong, 1845.

Much of what is now Moss Vale is built on former Throsby and Waite land. Most of Moss Vale is built on land subdivided from Throsby Park; the area to the right and behind the Public School, "Browley".

All that existed then of the future centre of the Highlands was a few slab and bark huts along Waites (now White's) Creek, near where the current railway overpass crosses the main street.

Kalaurgan House
Kalaurgan. c.1848.
A few years later, a boarding school was erected on part of Browley Farm ("Kalaurgan" House c.1848) on land granted by Waite (now Broulee Street, next to the Public School).

Apart from that, there were few other substantial buildings in the area apart from the big homesteads.

Such was the extent of settlement at the time, further development only to come with the arrival of the railway over 20 years later.

The majority of inhabitants were the large landowners, their domestic servants and agricultural labourers, and a few craftsmen and tradesmen who serviced them.

(A large number of these latter, former convicts assigned to the landholders, and some of whom became small landholders themselves.)

Despite the massive influx of population following the discovery of gold at Bathurst, and then Ballarat in Victoria, in the 1850s, rural areas like the Highlands languished as able-bodied men and women went off to make their fortunes.

The Highlands did not suffer as much of a population decline as other areas.

However it was not until a decade later that the profits made from this enormous upsurge in the colonies' economies was available for more widespread investment, and the large number of ex-prospectors began to look for land on which to settle.

Our story of Moss Vale recommences in the 1860s, when like many other towns in the Highlands, development was spurred by both the coming of the railway, and the Robertson Land Act of 1861, which did much to open up land in the interior for new settlers.

Lynton House
Lynton House, c.1860 - built on Throsby estate.

The Great Southern Railway project, designed to open up the interior and connect the two main colonies of New South Wales and Victoria, was originally fuelled by speculative investment made available by the new found wealth of colonial governments, and English venture capital.

Built by thousands of labourers, it reached Mittagong in 1867, bringing with it large temporary shanty towns with inns and tradesmen's businesses, providing new work for hundreds of timber-getters who felled forests to lay the railway sleepers, and leaving behind new subdivided vilages in which settled many of the workers.

Amid a storm of competing local interests, first Berrima, and then Sutton Forest, were bypassed, and the new permanent way followed an easier gradient south through what were to become Moss Vale, Exeter, and Jordan's Crossing (Bundanoon).

Station Master's House
Station Master's House, 1874.
Although the railway station in Moss Vale ( originally called Sutton Forest station) was not opened until 1867, subdivision of land for a new town had commenced in 1864 on land owned by Charles Throsby.

The subdivison was called 'Moss Vale', after Jemmy Moss, a faithful servant of Throsby Park, and whose bark hut stood near the present station. Moss was given occupancy of his landholding for life by his gracious employer.

At the same time, the Yarrawa Brush to the east was being cleared, and a thousand new settlers began to move into the area which is now Kangaloon, Robertson, Burrawang, and Avoca.

In 1865 a road was cut from Robertson towards the new rail head; further subdivisions took place from 1867 onwards, and after such an unpromising start, Moss Vale came into existence.

It is at this point that we should stop and reflect on the two main influences which were to mark Moss Vale's future: the presence of the great landholding families (in particular, the Throsbys); and the railway.

To this we might add the intense and fiercely coveted rivalry which was to continue to mark relationships between the settlements of the Highlands, and which was not largely overcome until over 100 years later when responsibility for the local government of the entire Highlands was subsumed under the Wingecarribee Shire Council.

Most of Moss Vale stands on land formerly part of Throsby Park, once over 8000 acres - now reduced to a small holding on the Illawarra Highway a few kilometres from the town centre.

Argyle House
Argyle House. 1878. Designed as inn, but opened as bank.

Interestingly, most of the early subdivisions of Moss Vale from this estate were sold on 99 year leases. Being a private village, like most original settlements in the Highlands except Bong Bong and Berrima, this was possible, though unusual, and designed to keep the property ultimately in the hands of the owners.

Old Town Hall
Old Town Hall. 1890.
In the short term it allowed for alienation of family land; in the long term it no doubt discouraged purchase by the landed gentry from Sydney who flocked to the new settlement of Bowral later, and further development of the town later in the twentieth century.

Descendants of the well-connected Throsby family played a prominent role in the later history of Moss Vale: the Town Hall bears the name of a Throsby mayor, and other descendants still live in the area.

The Throsbys also played a role in attracting the Governors of NSW to make the Highlands their summer residence, thereby indirectly influencing other part time visitors among the Sydney gentry.

The railway also infuenced development of the town. Being half way between Sydney and Goulburn, it became a refuelling point for locomotives - and passengers.

Although a refreshment rooms was added to the Mittagong station for this purpose, the decision by the Governor to make Moss Vale his stopping-off point for his new residence at Sutton Forest led to the building of more elaborate refreshment rooms and a private vice-regal suite at Moss Vale, clinching its importance.

The building of a connecting line to Robertson and the South Coast in the 1930s helped to make Moss Vale an important railway town, which it was to remain until the demise of the steam engine in the 1960s.

The civic life of Moss Vale revolves around these and the third of our considerations.

(to be continued)


Last updated 12/8/00