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Page sections: Land Grants | Early Residents | Early Industry | Early Transport | Historic Buildings | Environment | Timeline | Bibliography


Traditional Custodians of Illawarra Land

Local communities of Aboriginal people were the original inhabitants and Traditional Custodians of Illawarra Land. Their dialect is a variant of the Dharawal language. Before European settlement, the Aboriginal people of the region lived in small family groups with complicated social structures and close associations with specific areas. Suburb boundaries do not reflect the cultural boundaries of the local Aboriginal community. Traditional Custodians today are descendants of the original inhabitants and have ongoing spiritual and cultural ties to the Land and waterways where their ancestors lived.


Koonawarra, or Exmouth, as it was then called, was one of the first five land grants located in the Illawarra. It was a grant of 1300 acres made to Richard Brooks in 1817. The grant faced Lake Illawarra and extended from Brook's Creek to Mullet Creek. Koonawarra was the aboriginal name for the area. "Exmouth" was later secured by Henry Osborne and became part of his central Illawarra estate, extending from Macquarie Rivulet to Mullet Creek, and from Lake Illawarra to the mountains. The name Koonawarra is from the aboriginal word "gkoonawarra" meaning "a high point of land with smooth, round stones". The word has also been said to mean "swan".

Land grants

Richard Brooks and 'Exmouth'

A grant of 1300 acres was marked out by Surveyor Meehan on the 5th of December 1816. This property was granted to Richard Brooks one of the first five land grantees in the Illawarra. The property was known as 'Exmouth' and had a frontage to Lake Illawarra from Brooks Creek to near Tallawarra, extending west to Mullet Creek. Richard Brooks did not reside on 'Exmouth' he employed managers named Neale and Cream to run the property.

William Browne and 'Athanlin'

William Browne (generally known as Merchant Browne) received two grants of 3000 acres and 800 acres. The 3000 acre property known as 'Athanlin' encompassed part of Koonawarra and extended into Yallah.

"'Athanlin' had frontage to the northern entry to Lake Illawarra and for some distance upstream, and to the western shores of Lake Illawarra. It covered all the land lying between Richard Brooks 'Exmouth' and Major Johnston's grant of 1500 acres on Macquarie Rivulet called 'Macquarie Gift'" (Lindsay 1994, p. 14; Dowd,1960; Lindsay, 1994; McDonald, 1976)

Early residents

William Browne

William Browne was the son of an Irish Officer in the East India Company's service and "a Persian woman of high degree, the widow of a Persian Merchant prince." (McDonald 1976, p.11) Merchant Browne as he was known was a member of the firm Browne and Turner Merchants of Calcutta. He was impressed by the climate and the relatively disease-free environment of New South Wales whilst on a trading voyage in 1809 -10.

He bought 2000 acres at 'Abbotsbury' near Cabramatta and removed his household from India to New South Wales, settling in 1816. "In the files of the Sydney Gazette of the year 1816 appear notices by him, intimating his intention to remain in the colony…"(McDonald 1976, p.11). He was a wealthy man and came with recommendations from the Secretary of State and nearly 20,000 pounds with which to embark in mercantile and farming concerns in the colony. He was regarded as a great acquisition to the colony and this may account for the extremely liberal allowance of land made to him in the Illawarra.

Browne, whilst not entirely happy with his grant set to work to develop it mainly through the agency of his three nephews, Henry, Thomas and Cornelius O'Brien. By 1820 both 'Abbotsbury' and 'Athanlin' were overstocked and cattle were transported annually "to the unoccupied country beyond the Blue Mountains" (Lindsay, 1994). William Browne died at 'Athanlin' on 6th October 1833. (Lindsay, 1994; McDonald, 1976)

Richard Brooks

Local aboriginal people knew Richard Brook's 'Exmouth' property as 'Koonawarra'. For more information on Richard Brooks see Kanahooka - History

Early industry

Cattle & dairying

In the early 1830's Alexander Harris visited a cattle-station on the border of the "Yalla - Lake" which was probably either 'Exmouth' or 'Athanlin' where he enjoyed "a good dinner of hot beef steaks, bread and tea." (McDonald 1976, p.12)

"The land itself was described as being chiefly open forest land of good quality, well wooded and watered. "There were very few fences and the cattle were grazed on meadows and mountain sides being rounded up for branding from time to time. At suitable places stockyards were erected one being on the spur of the Illawarra Range, called Stockyard Mountain on that account. Under such circumstances cattle thieving was prevalent." (Cousins 1994, p. 37)

William Browne was a member of the Cattle-Stealing Prevention Association, formed in September 1827.

After William Browne's death in 1833, 'Athanlin' was bought by Henry Osborne and added to his property 'Marshall Mount'. Parts of the property included good dairy land such as 'Penrose' which was the home of the Evans family well known in the Illawarra as expert dairymen.

Henry Osborne was one of the aristocracy of early dairying in the Illawarra. In the 1840's he had a good herd of dairy cattle and because he owned his farm he was able to secure the best breeds for his property. (McDonald, 1976; Cousins, 1994)

Early transport

Major Mitchell's South Coast Road

The first road through Koonawarra was marked out in 1834 by Major Mitchell, the Surveyor General. It ran southward two miles west of Wollongong it continued in nearly a straight line across 'Charcoal Creek' keeping a short distance from 'Mullet Creek' crossing that creek one hundred yards lower than the present ford. It continued in a straight direction across level ground so as again to fall in with the road at a mile and a half beyond 'Mullet Creek'. The line was then marked along some rising ground nearly in the same direction as the present road until a cut of two miles was made through William Browne's land. This avoided a considerable detour in the road and a bad swamp crossing near its head.


Dapto Railway Station opened in 1887 with the extension of the railway line to North Kiama. On the 12th December 1895 a private branch line with the dead-end exchange sidings at the junction was opened for the Australian Smelting Company.

The Illawarra Harbour and Land Corporation Railway Line was commenced in 1895 in an attempt to link the proposed Lake Illawarra Harbour to the "Ocean Seam Colliery". The line was to be six and three quarter miles long from Elizabeth near Lake Illawarra to the colliery half a mile west of the Old West Dapto Public School site.

Work on the railway commenced in September 1895, the line was to commence at Tallawarra Point and go westerly for two miles before crossing the main road and the Illawarra Railway line. This new line would have run right through Koonawarra, however it was never used. It was never placed into service over its whole length because the coal deposits when tested were found to be unsatisfactory. The quality of the coal was poor, presumably due to faults in the seam.

Only the northern end of the Illawarra Harbour and Land Corporation railway, apart from the Dapto Smelter section, was ever used to haul paying loads. There are some physical remains of this line still to be seen in Dapto. (McDonald, 1976; Reynolds, 2001)

Koonawarra - Historic buildings

See Dapto - Historic buildings + Kanahooka - Historic buildings

Koonawarra - Environment

The environment of Koonawarra is largely influenced by its location on the western shore of Lake Illawarra.

Lake Illawarra is the main water body in the Illawarra catchment area and has been subject to high levels of sedimentation from stormwater discharges, sewage overflows, run-off from crop and dairy farms, influx from industry and sand deposits from the ocean.

Since 1896 it has been estimated that more than 40cm of sediment has accumulated in the lake. The sediment composition of Lake Illawarra's bed consists of 54% soft black muds, 26% lithic sandy deposits and 20% quartzone deposits.

Lake Illawarra is now almost completely surrounded by residential development and is subsequently showing signs of environmental stress.

Past agricultural development in the Dapto/Koonawarra area has lead to significant reduction in the type and amount of native vegetation which protects the landscape. There are no large areas of native vegetation remaining in Koonawarra.

Peripheral dredging of the lake has occurred at Koonawarra Bay with general bay deepening and tree de-snagging to improve the waterway for water-based activities also occurring. "Koonawarra Bay, particularly in the north west corner, was a lost resource as far as commercial fishing was concerned. It was extremely degraded and extremely silted. That area of the lake in 1991 after cleaning up and dredging, removing the silt, produced prawns for the first time in 20 years. Something that had never happened before. Now if you go there and have a look it is a seagrass meadow that has never been there before either. Seagrass in that area increased by 30%." (New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Assembly. Standing Committee on Public Works, 1996, p. 45)

Bird species prevalent on Koonawarra Bay include:

  • Pelicans
  • Black Herons
  • Black Cormorants
  • Seagulls
  • Black Swans
  • Ducks
  • Spoonbills
  • Plumed Egret
  • Marsh Crakes

 Koonawarra - Timeline

Richard Brooks was granted 1300 acres in 1816 known as 'Exmouth' also known by local aboriginal people as 'Koonawarra'
William Browne was granted 3000 acres, the largest grant given to any one person by Governor Macquarie. The property was known as 'Athanlin' and extended from Koonawarra into Yallah.
William Browne's nephews Henry, Thomas and Cornelius O'Brien had developed 'Athanlin into a productive beef cattle property.
William Browne was a founding member of the "Cattle Stealing Prevention Association"
Alexander Harris visited 'Athanlin' or 'Exmouth' on the border of the 'Yalla Lake'
William (Merchant) Browne died on the 7th October 1833 and was buried at Wollongong. Athanlin was bought by Henry Osborne.
Parts of 'Athanlin' were developed by Henry Osborne into a dairy. Osborne established a fine dairy herd and was one of dairying's aristocracy in the 1840s.
Major Mitchell, Surveyor General marked out a road southward crossing Mullet Creek and through the land of William Browne thus avoiding a considerable detour and a bad swamp crossing
Brown's flour mill at Dapto was converted for use as a butter milk factory with two laval separators to process milk from local dairies.
The railway line to Dapto opened
Koonawarra was a dairying community
The Housing Commission bought significant acreage at Koonawarra to build an estate which would cater for public housing needs for the next three years.
The Illawarra's newest Housing Commission settlement was established in Koonawarra.
Koonawarra Public School was opened reflecting the population growth in the area.
Wollongong Council unofficially identifies park at end of Gilba Road as "Hector Harvey Park".
Koonawarra Community Centre was officially opened
Koonawarra Bay is dredged and cleared of silt and waste deposition
Koonawarra Bay boating facilities opened, these included a timber jetty, pedestrian paths, landscaping and picnic facilities.
Koonawarra Public School celebrates its 25th anniversary on Sept 16.  (Wol. Advertiser 13/9/1995)


City of Wollongong Heritage Study, Council and McDonald McPhee Pty. Ltd., [Wollongong, N.S.W. : Wollongong City Council], 1991

Cousins, Arthur, The Garden of New South Wales : a history of the Illawarra & Shoalhaven Districts 1770-1900, [New ed.], Wollongong, N.S.W. : Illawarra Historical Society, 1994

Dowd, Bernard Thomas, First Five Land Grantees and their Grants in the Illawarra, Wollongong, N.S.W. : Illawarra Historical Society, 1960

Lindsay, Benjamin, Organ, Michael & Doyle, Peter, Early Land Settlement in Illawarra: 1804 - 1861, Woonona, N.S.W. : Illawarra Historical Publications, 1994

Local Studies Cuttings File

McDonald, William Graham, Nineteenth Century Dapto : notes on the history of Dapto and its neighbourhood, Wollongong, N.S.W. : Illawarra Historical Society, 1976

New South Wales. Parliament. Legislative Assembly. Standing Committee on Public Works, The Lake Illawarra Authority : Report, Sydney : The Assembly, 1996

Reynolds, D.K. The Railways of West Dapto : a history of the railways of the Illawarra Harbour and Land Corporation, The Dapto Smelting Works, The Wongawilli Colliery and Coke Works and Fleming or South Kembla Colliery, Wollongong, N.S.W. : BHP-Billiton, 2002

Secomb, Nicole, Dapto thematic history : Dapto Community Heritage Project : December 1999, Wollongong, N.S.W. : Wollongong City Council, c1999








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