A Hidden Gem Amongst The Bush
The small town of Helensburgh in NSW is known as the gateway between the cities of Sydney and Wollongong, as it is located roughly halfway between the two (45km south of Sydney’s CBD and 34km north of Wollongong).
Helensburgh is the northern-most suburb governed by Wollongong City Council, and marks the northern end of the Illawarra region. It also borders the southern end of the Royal National Park and the western side of the Garawarra State Conservation Area, which adds to the town’s isolation from its neighbours. Many travellers will drive straight past Helensburgh on the Southern Freeway or Princes Highway without ever even knowing the town is there.
Helensburgh was originally known as Camp Creek, in reference to the creek that runs through the area, but after coal was discovered in 1884 and a mining town sprang up around it, it was renamed Helensburgh by Charles Harper (regarded as the founding father of the town) after his daughter Helen.
Helensburgh owes its existence to the coal mine that is still in operation today, and is notable for being Australia’s oldest working mine. The job opportunities provided by the mine in those early days meant that Helensburgh continued to thrive after the neighbouring villages of Cawley and Lilyvale slowly dwindled and disappeared, eventually reclaimed by the bush. The expansion of the railways to the south throughout the 1880s and 1890s also provided employment for many and added to the area’s population.
The town was a mostly poor community of working class families, but it continued to grow and expand outwards to the west of the mine. Upgrades and deviations to the railways provided more work and attracted more business to Helensburgh throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The Depression in the 1930s could very well have shut the town down, as coal just wasn’t in demand like it had been, and the mine laid more and more people off, driving people away from Helensburgh. But the construction of the Woronora Dam brought workers back to the area, before WWII and post-war reconstruction in the 1950s kept the area kicking along. The ‘50s and ‘60s also brought a migrant population boom to the ‘Burgh, and a level of affluence the town had never seen before.
Helensburgh became more easily accessible with better roads and more affordable cars, and Helensburghers could seek entertainment outside of town, as well as attract more outside visitors. The Sydney suburban sprawl reached Helensburgh in the 1970s – real estate prices went up, more land was cleared and developed, and the population boomed throughout the 1980s, despite the difficulties the mine was now facing. Helensburgh was no longer reliant on the mine to keep it afloat, and easily weathered the several temporary closures of the mine that occurred through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The mine did eventually bounce back though, and is still going strong today.
Helensburgh currently has a population of almost 6,000 and is continuing to grow as more families move here for the peaceful village atmosphere and close-knit sense of community.