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History of Armidale

Armidale has a rich Indigenous and European history

The Indigenous Anaiwan people hunted and gathered on the Northern Tablelands for thousands of years prior to British colonial settlement.

In 1818, English explorer John Oxley ascended the ranges on horseback and camped near Apsley Falls. He noted the ‘parkland’ he found on the plateau in his diary, and the march of European pioneers that followed changed the region forever.

Oxley recommended the region for grazing, and soon early pioneers set up small farms in the locality. With the release of vast pastoral leases in the 1830s, squatters arrived and townships sprouted. Hamilton Collins Sempill took up the ‘Wolka’ sheep run in 1832 and claimed fame as the first settler in the district. Remarkably, several of the pastoral holdings in the region remain in the hands of the original families, who continue their forebears’ tradition of producing some of the finest wool, lamb and beef in Australia.

Armidale was named after Armadale on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The Scottish Armadale was the ancestral home of George James McDonald who was the Commissioner for Crown Lands in the late 1830s.

Armidale Post Office opened on 1 April 1843. The town, which was surveyed in 1848 and gazetted in 1849, was established to provide a market and administration for the regions farms, but soon after came the arrival of the railway and the discovery of gold at nearby Rocky River, Gara Gorge and Hillgrove. A gold rush population and building boom ensued enlarging the town rapidly in the 1850s.

The gold mining settlement of Hillgrove about 40 km east of Armidale was the site of Australia's first hydro-electric scheme, remains of which are still visible.

In the same period valuable minerals and metals, including tin, were discovered at other sites around the region and hundreds of Chinese joined the workforce, adding another dimension to the growing cultural mix. Bushrangers and highway robberies became common headlined by Captain Thunderbolt - outlaw Fred Ward - who caused trouble in the area in the 1860s. As with Ned Kelly, the locals have adopted him as a larrikin hero and make the most of him as a tourist attraction.

Armidale was proclaimed a city in 1885. It was a prosperous few decades to this point and Armidale’s heritage architecture, in particular, reflects the grand ambitions of those late 19th-century settlers. The Anglican and Catholic cathedrals were among the earliest buildings to grace the centre of town, along with the stately Post Office and Courthouse to mention but a few which are still in use today. The local countryside also conceals many architectural and historical gems such as Saumarez Homestead and Booloominbah both built in the 1880’s. Booloominbah is now the administrative heart of the University of New England, the first rural university in NSW (established as a college of Sydney University in 1938 and proclaimed an independent university in 1954).

From raw and humble beginnings Armidale is today a sophisticated cosmopolitan city nestled in the beautiful New England High Country of New South Wales half way between Sydney and Brisbane on the Northern Tablelands. With a population in excess of 26,000 it grew to support the surrounding agricultural industry, particularly fine wool, sheep and cattle, before developing into a major educational centre. The home to the University of New England, as well as a number of highly regarded private, independent and public schools, it is this standing as a centre of education which differentiates Armidale from other regional centres.

With a highly educated workforce, perfect climate, abundance of water and being the first fully fibred city on mainland Australia under the National Broadband Network rollout has positioned Armidale beautifully to add to its extraordinary and colourful past.