Nambucca Heads Lions Club

District 201N1 New South Wales Australia

History of Nambucca Heads

History of Nambucca Heads

Nambucca Heads is essentially a coastal holiday and retirement centre in a subtropical climate which is popular with those inclined to such activities as fishing, walking, boating, swimming, surfing and sunbathing on the lengthy local beaches. The town is located on a ridge which runs out to a headland at the mouth of the Nambucca River, 36 metres above sea-level and 513 km north-east of Sydney.

Just inside the estuary is Stuart Island which contains an Aboriginal burial site. It is now home to an 18-hole golf course connected to the mainland by a causeway.

The current population of Nambucca Heads is around 6000. The major local industries include tourism, abattoirs, timber and primary industries such as beef cattle, dairying, bananas, forestry, fishing, oyster farming and the retail and service sectors. There is also a growing engineering and small manufacturing sector.

Before European settlement the Nambucca area was inhabited by the Gumbaynggir and/or the Dainggatti peoples. Although details are unavailable it seems clear that the incompatibility of cultures, aims and practices triggered conflict fatal to members of both groups although it is readily apparent which party came off worst in the long run.

The first Europeans to encounter the Nambucca River were probably a party who, in 1818, set off from Sydney in search of convicts who had stolen a boat from Sydney Harbour. Explorer John Oxley surveyed the estuary in 1830. 

The word 'Nambucca' derives from a Gumbaynggir word said to mean 'entrance to the waters' or 'crooked river'. In 1886 Baillier's Gazette described the river as 'a fine mountain stream flowing through low swampy country, well timbered with cedar and other valuable woods. It falls into the ocean by a narrow rocky channel about fourteen miles north of Trial Bay and is navigable for small vessels that trade there for cedar, the only export'.

Cedar-getting was under way on the Nambucca River by 1843, although the dangerous sand bar at the river mouth caused major headaches until the end of the century for those seeking to transport their produce to markets. There were a number of shipwrecks, and vessels were sometimes left stranded at the harbour for months at a time. Consequently, in the early days, logs were floated down-river by raft then hauled along the beach by drays to the Macleay River where they were picked up by ocean-going craft.

The first settler on the town site appears to have been a fisherman named Lane who, by 1867, had built a bark humpy on the northern headland. He established a ferry service across the river. At that time there were about 50 people on the river. Most were timber getters although some maize was under cultivation.

Lane lived on the land that is now traversed by Wellington Drive which runs along the foreshore from the breakwater to the tennis courts at Gordon Park. It is along this riverside area, known as the 'Inner Harbour’ that the original village developed. The town later moved to the top of the hill. The first of several sawmills was built adjacent the 'Inner Harbour' in 1870. It supplied timber to a shipbuilder who went to work nearby a few years later.

A survey of the town site was carried out in 1874 but no buyers could be found at the initial allotment sale of 1877. However, all four blocks were sold in 1879 - the year a wharf was established at what is now the Gordon Park Boatshed. In 1884 Robert Gordon opened the town's first hotel (the Commercial) and a shop on the land now occupied by the Golden Sands Hotel/Motel in Back St. A school was also established in 1884 where the Miramar Motel now stands (the Old Pacific Highway). A building called 'The Bethel', erected in the 1880s, doubled as a site for church services and fortnightly dances.

It is a comment on the changes which have occurred on the New South Wales coast that virtually all remnants of the old town have disappeared to be replaced by parks, apartment blocks and holiday homes. The only survivor appears to be a building called 'The Ranch' on Wellington Drive (overlooking Gordon Park) which was built in 1890 as the Victoria Hotel.

The village of Nambucca was proclaimed in 1885 and local government was established in 1915. To amend the on-going difficulties created by the sand bar, work commenced on a breakwater in 1895, enabling ships to travel upriver as far as Macksville. The Vee Wall was added in 1930.

With the clearing of the land, dairying emerged, although it was not until paspalum grass was introduced in the 1890s that the balance was tipped in the favour of success. Separators were introduced and the first butter factory in the valley opened at Macksville in 1903. However, the industry declined in the 1930s due to soil depletion, the economic depression and a shift to beef cattle.

Tomato, banana and carrot-growing developed in the Nambucca Valley during the 1930s, particularly with the arrival, in 1933, of the railway. The mining of arsenical pyrites, molybdenite and antimony was carried out in the interwar years.

The railway also encouraged the emergence of Nambucca as a holiday destination. Furnished cottages were let to holiday-makers from 1936 and this tendency was greatly accelerated by the development of highways in the postwar years. Thus the first private caravan park on the North Coast was opened at Nambucca Heads in 1953.