Towns in Australia

Exploring Australia, town by town

Burnie TAS


Postcode: 7320

Burnie is a port city on the north-west coast of Tasmania, originally settled in 1827 as Emu Bay. The town was renamed for William Burnie – a director of the Van Diemen’s Land Company – in the early 1840s. The city boundary usually includes the outer town of Somerset. Burnie is governed by the City of Burnie Local Government Area and is home to the Cradle Coast Campus of the University of Tasmania, and Hellyer College.

Like most of the north coast of Tasmania, the area surrounding Burnie was first explored by Europeans when George Bass and Matthew Flinders circumnavigated Van Diemen’s Land in 1798. As they passed the current-day Burnie area, they named Round Hill Point and described a ‘peak like a volcano’. Bass and Flinders did not land on the coast, and it was left to a party from the Van Diemen’s Land Company to climb this peak on 14 February 1827, and name it, appropriately, St Valentine’s Peak.

Later in 1827, a small settlement was established at the western end of Emu Bay, near the present city centre. The name ‘Emu Bay’ was chosen because the Tasmanian sub-species of emu – which was smaller than its mainland counterparts – roamed the district at the time of settlement. This sub-species became extinct sometime in the 1850s.

The settlement of Emu Bay was initially used as the base for all the Van Diemen’s Land Company operations in the district. For the first one hundred years of settlement, its progress was modest. The first permanent settlers of Emu Bay arrived from England in the vessel Caroline on February 2, 1828.

Emu Bay’s initial lack of growth was due primarily to two crucial mistakes. The Van Diemen’s Land Company settled the town to serve three of several land grants it took up on the North-West Coast. The grants in the current Burnie area were 50,000 acres (200 km²) at Emu Bay bounded by the Emu and Cam Rivers, and to the south, 10,000 acres (40 km²) at Hampshire and 150,000 acres (600 km²) at Surrey Hills.

The first mistake was that of the company’s chief surveyor, Henry Hellyer. Hellyer’s misjudgement was that the land selected would provide good natural grazing for fine-woolled sheep. The second mistake was that the company’s chief agent, Edward Curr, accepted Hellyer’s judgement without first inspecting it himself. Unlike the older sheep districts in eastern Tasmania, the land around St Valentines Peak was sub-alpine, featuring long, wet and bitterly cold winters. The native snow grass lacked nutrition and in the first few winters more than 5000 merino sheep and their progeny died of cold and malnutrition. The surviving animals were taken to the milder coastal climate of Circular Head and Woolnorth.

Those initial mistakes resulted in a disastrous beginning for the Van Diemen’s Land Company and condemned the isolated port settlement on the shores of Emu Bay to years of inertia while much younger centres to the east – namely Latrobe, Port Sorell, Formby, Torquay, Don and Forth – achieved steady growth.

During the lifetime of these first settlers Burnie was little more than a Van Diemen’s Land Company-owned town that existed because of, and mainly for, the company. Indeed, those first settlers, and others who were to follow in the next two decades, literally carved out a village from the rain forests and tea-tree swamps. The town was renamed Burnie – after Van Diemen’s Land Company director William Burnie – in the early 1840s. Villagers established their own tracks to and from the company store, and there existed no semblance of a street until the first town survey in 1843. Indeed, after the first fifty years of settlement, Burnie’s population failed to exceed 200.

From the earliest days of the settlement, Burnie was a timber port. The timbers of the hinterland were felled and a sawmill was established near the port. Timber was exported across Bass Strait to Melbourne, to the new settlement at Adelaide and to Launceston along the coast. It was used for everything from roof shingles to road paving, from house building to ship building.

However, its fortunes changed dramatically in the 1880s with the discovery of significant mineral deposits on the west coast of Tasmania. In 1878 the Van Diemen’s Land Company constructed a wooden horse-drawn tramway to serve Mount Bischoff, which was then the richest tin mine in the world. The tramway was a remarkable timber construction that stretched over 75 kilometres and used horses to pull the tin laden carriages. The tin industry ensured the continued growth of the town, and by the late-1880s, the railway had been converted to steam locomotives and the port facilities were greatly expanded. Burnie became the sole port for the Mt Bischoff mine and its support-town of Waratah, resulting in a trebling of its population to more than 1000 by 1891.

With the late-nineteenth century mineral boom on the west coast, which saw the towns of Zeehan, Queenstown, Dundas, Renison Bell and Rosebery grow rapidly, the railway was taken over by the Emu Bay Railway and extended to Zeehan in 1900. Thus, Burnie became the major port for the shipping of silver from Tasmania. This saw record growth in Burnie’s business district and the further development of outlying farms. Banks, churches and schools were established, and by 1901, when the railway arrived from Launceston, the town’s population had grown to over 1500.

The claims of Mt Bischoff and the mines at Zeehan that were served by the Emu Bay Railway line began to decline by about 1915, and Burnie – although its population had grown and its port facilities had been substantially developed – once more found itself almost wholly reliant on its outlying farms and forests for its existence.

In the inter-war period, it appeared obvious that some form of secondary industry was essential to adequately employ Burnie’s existing workforce and would be fundamental if the town was to develop beyond its role as the centre of export and commerce for a rural area. The industry which was so badly needed and set Burnie on its path to gaining city status came in 1938 when Associated Pulp and Paper Mills Limited (APPM) began production.

The paper industry’s impact on the town was astonishing. The rate of building in the pre-APPM era was a lethargic 20 houses a year. In the year ended June 30, 1938, when the South Burnie mills were being erected, 262 houses were built. When the paper industry arrived in Burnie the municipality had a population of about 4000. By 1945, it had reached 10,000, by 1965 it was about 18,500. In 1948 Australian Titan Products (now known as Tioxide Australia Pty Ltd) began operation. The town continued to grow. The port was expanded, the paper mill grew larger, and container facilities were built.

While APPM was not the sole industry responsible for Burnie’s post-war development and others established since have contributed substantially to the town’s economy and growth, there is no doubt APPM was the industry that prompted industrial development. Indeed, Burnie’s development history can be clearly and sharply divided into two eras: the 109 years before APPM, and the APPM years.

According to Burnie historian Kerry Pink, there were three reasons big industries located in Burnie: the deepwater port, cheap electricity and an ocean that was able to absorb effluent. And, in the case of APPM, the Van Diemens Land Company’s vast hardwood stands at Surrey Hills. With these factors in mind the local community considered pollution a small price to pay for job security. However, job security proved a faithless mistress.

Downsizing at APPM began in the 1980s and the autumn of 1992 saw an incredibly bitter industrial dispute that lasted three months. In 1998 “The Pulp” finally ceased operation and the last 200 workers lost their jobs. Paper making continues at the plant using imported pulp, but this move marked the beginning of the end of Burnie’s industrial heartland.

However, Burnie is now entering a third era in its development history: the post-APPM years. The paper mills – now owned and operated by Australian Paper – have scaled back in both production and its workforce, and Burnie is no longer able to depend on one key industry to provide employment and economic growth. Nonetheless, Burnie remains the major deepwater port for the north of Tasmania, with two permanent container ships making daily crossings between it and Melbourne.

Although Burnie was declared a city in 1988, with a population exceeding 23,000, that figure has since decreased, and today the City of Burnie has a population of 19,030 (2004). Burnie is now a city in transition. Driven by the need to renew its economic base, it is actively campaigning to bolster tourism, attract new investment and build the capacity of residents to develop businesses of their own.