Baryulgil is a small Koori (Goori) community located in Bundjalung Country, about 75 km north west of Grafton, in far northern New South Wales. The community was founded in the late 1890’s as a small scattering of camps of both non-Aboriginal miners and Bundjalung people. However, its population expanded dramatically in 1918, with the creation of Baryulgil Square.
For many years prior, the local Wehlabul Bundjalung people had been camped several kilometres to the west of Baryulgil, further along the Clarence River and adjacent to Edward Ogilvie’s Yulgilbar Castle. Baryulgil has had a long history of racial segregation. The squatters who had displaced the Bundjalung people from a majority of their traditional lands had done so through years of pitched battles and massacres.There, a number of Bundjalung people had been employed as stockmen and domestic servants, both on the Yulgilbar run (originally 200,000 acres), and other properties in the area. This however was to change, and rather abruptly.
When the Bundjalung people’s services were not longer required by the Ogilvie family they were shunted to Baryulgil, and placed on ‘The Square’, which is named for its approximate shape.
Baryulgil Square was later handed over to the local Bundjalung people by local grazier and stockbroker Sam Hordern, who in 1949 purchased Yulgilbar and handed over control of the property to the Aborigines Protection Board in 1956.
The Square and the overall Baryulgil community consists of a few dozen homes, a community hall, and a primary school. Until the early 1980’s the township had been serviced by a general store which also operated as a fuel outlet and post office.
Despite being a predominantly Koori community, Baryulgil has had a long history of racial segregation. The squatters who had displaced the Bundjalung people from a majority of their traditional lands had done so through years of pitched battles and massacres. Later the cruel blow was compounded by the Bundjalung people being relied upon for their skills as poorly paid slave labour in the cattle industry. The squattocracy built vast family empires on the back of such abuses.
In 1932 the Baryulgil community hall was opened by Edward Ogilvie’s granddaughter, the feminist activist Jessie Street, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the local Bundjalung people were able to access the building.
In 1935 the New South Wales Education Department barred Koori children from attending Baryulgil Public School, citing “objections by the parents of white children”. This was followed in 1938 by actions led by Jack Patten, in having a school house dismantled at Copmanhurst and re-built at Baryulgil for the express purpose of providing an education to Koori children. Patten who was co-founder and President of the Aborigines Progressive Association had come to the area several years prior, having married Selina Avery, a local Baryulgil woman.
Baryulgil became a thriving Koori community in the 1950’s when the local open-cut asbestos mine replaced its predominantly white workforce with the cheaper labour available through employing Bundjalung and Koori people from elsewhere in the state. The asbestos whilst providing opportunities for work, and instilling a sense of pride within the community also became a ticking time-bomb, which slowly began to claim a large number of Koori lives. At first it was the former miners who had begun to be struck down, but eventually it was also their partners and their children.
Corrugated dirt roads were top-dressed with asbestos tailings. Men would come home covered head to toe in grey-white dust, and their wives would inhale the dust when washing their clothes. Children through to the early 1980’s were playing in pits at the local school, filled with asbestos ‘shivers’, rather than sand.
Despite the town’s relative value to the region, Baryulgil was not provided with running water until 1976, and electricity was not available until May 1983. Today it’s one of the largest communities in rural NSW that doesn’t have mobile phone coverage.
In 1984 a Commission of Inquiry into the mismanagement of the Baryulgil asbestos mine and treatment of the predominantly Koori workforce was held, resulting in the closure of the mine. Subsequently, a site free from airborne asbestos was surveyed, and the village of Malabugilmah was established approximately 10 kilometres to the north. Baryulgil residents were provided an opportunity to relocate, however many chose to remain at what had been their homes for many years.
Today Baryulgil still holds a special place in the heart of many Bundjalung people, and is seen as home, even to many of those who were raised ‘off-country’, living in major cities, far from their ancestral homeland.
- Nader, R. 1983, The San Bernardino County Sun, ‘Consumerism in Perspective: Asbestos sufferers point to shame behind name’, Oct 23, P. 62
- Gordon, P. (1933-Current) Oral Histories
- Patten, S. (c. 1927-1981) Oral Histories
- Patten IV, J. (1936-current) Oral Histories
- Gordon, K. (1934-2006) Oral Histories