Culture and heritage

Heritage of NSW

Italian settlers honoured

One of the most unusual stories in the settlement of Australia is that of the Italian migrants who travelled to a remote region of Northern NSW to establish a thriving Italian village. The significance of this enterprise and the importance of the site to Australia's Italian community was recognized last year with the listing of New Italy on the State Heritage Register.

Italian settlers pose in front of a homestead at New Italy in about 1900. Photograph by Joseph Check, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Italian settlers pose in front of a homestead at New Italy in about 1900. Photograph by Joseph Check, courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Visiting the historic Italian settlement, near Woodburn, south of Ballina, Deputy Premier and Minister responsible for Heritage, Dr Andrew Refshauge, said New Italy had made a massive contribution to Australia's cultural heritage. "We cannot underestimate the contribution of the Italian community, and indeed that of many other ethnic communities, to our rich and varied heritage. This place shows the tenacity and determination of a group of Italian settlers to create a farming community in an unfamiliar and challenging landscape."

The story of this unique group of Australian settlers began in 1881 with the arrival in Australia of 217 Italian migrants, accepted by NSW after a disastrous expedition to settle an island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. Within a year the refugees, principally from the Veneto region, had arrived on the North Coast selection with the aim of creating a new community.

The settlers built houses from materials available on their selections: clay, bark, wattle and daub. Wells, ovens, cellars, a church, school and community hall soon followed. With agricultural skills, and a particular knowledge of vines and olives, the settlers worked their land, planting fruits and vegetables including grape vines, melons, lemons, corn, apple and peach trees. They organised work and social activities and the Italian farming community thrived. Timber felling, and later dairying and wine production, provided additional income.

In 1889 a Government report observed that the little settlement had flourished and was producing wine and fruit - all this on land dismissed by British colonists as barren and unproductive. By the early 20th century the fledgling settlement had also established a small silk industry, winning awards at trade fairs in Chicago and Milan.

But the place was too remote to sustain its early growth and by the middle of the 20th century it had dwindled to a handful of ageing settlers. Grapevines, wells, fences and an enlarged map of the world carved into the schoolyard grounds are all that remain of this Italian village.

"Today New Italy has an important new role as home to the popular New Italy Museum, which holds regular events commemorating the pioneers and their contribution to Australia," said Dr Refshauge.

Dr Refshauge said the NSW Government was providing $5,000 to assist the Museum and the Italo-Australian community in the development of historic tours trails and signs at New Italy.

"This museum stands as a vibrant and living monument to the important contributions made by Italian migrants, past and present, to the identity of NSW, the North Coast and Australia. This funding will help preserve New Italy's history for future generations."

This initial listing encompasses two small parcels of land of what was actually a much larger site originally settled by the Italian group. A recently completed conservation management plan for the New Italy Settlement site will assist the local community manage this place and enable the New Italy story to be told to new generations of Australians.

With plans to further interpret the site for the community and visitors, the story of one of the most unusual settlements in Australia's history will be accessible to all.

Page last updated: 01 September 2012