By MICK ROBERTS ©
ARMED with kerosene tins, protective clothing and old sugar bags, hundreds would head for the Illawarra escarpment during the months of January and February early last century for the annual blackberry harvest.
Blackberry vines had become a troublesome pest, smothering the escarpment foothills and valleys late in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Although a major problem to farmers the vines provided a welcome income for unemployed miners and their struggling families inhabiting the villages of the northern Illawarra.
Pickers, some professional, some just after a few bob, or some simply collecting for their wife to make a blackberry pie, were a regular sight in the gullies and foothills of the escarpment during summer. Bulli blackberries became famous and were much sought after.
Also known as the English bramble, blackberries were first introduced into Australia from Britain in the 1840s for their fruit and as a hedge plant.
William Dumbrell introduced the plant into the Illawarra during the 1870s when he used the prickly scramblers as hedges on his property at Sherbrooke on Bulli Mountain.
The Illawarra’s climate suited the plant perfectly and they quickly spread through the subtropical forests of the Illawarra escarpment. The Sydney Mail reported in 1887 that they were ruining “acre after acre of agricultural and pastoral lands” and that “the popular and profitable English pastime of blackberrying is now indulged in to the full, the neighbouring mountains and vales literally teeming with fruit of fine size and flavour”.
Blackberries joined with ‘black diamonds’ as an industry in the region during the 1890s. The escarpment became a-buzz with pickers trying to earn extra money during the depression years.
Starting as a cottage industry, the tasty fruits were soon in demand and Sydney jam manufacturers pressured for more of the famed ‘Bulli Berries’.
Bulli storekeeper, G. S. Turnbull became the chief contractor to supply the Sydney market and bought from the local pickers. Landowners charged 2 shillings per hundred weight for the privilege to pick on their land, while pickers received 1 penny per pound of berries from Turnbull, who supplied the jam factories.
The South Coast Times, interviewing a typical picker in 1904, reported “none but those needing money would take the work on and none but the really industrious could make it pay.”
Reporting on “one man who combined both characteristics”, the newspaper reported the going-ons of a blackberry picker.
“He lives by taking any farm or labouring work that comes to hand, and is in and out of work, as the case may be, all the rest of the year. But during the two months named he is in full work, is his own master, can utilise the help of all his young family, and makes a fair weekly income. The familiar kerosene tin is the article mainly chosen for conveyance of the fruit, which is too soft and juicy to be carried in cases or baskets. These hold on an average a little over 30lb., and are reckoned as three to the cwt. Last year the price, delivered at the railway station, was 3 shillings per tin – a little over a penny per lb., but the man referred to could pick, unaided, during most of the season two tins per day, while wife and children filled another tin, and sometimes two. The family, therefore, realised in the neighbourhood of three pounds per week at best, and seldom less than two pounds at worst – an income which made them for the time independent and happy. And there are scores of families doing the same every year.”
The local railway stations became a hive of activity with the 9pm milk train from Bulli becoming known as the “blackberry train”. Trade rose from four tons in 1894 to 35 tons in 1898, 120 tons in 1907 (valued at £120) to 200 tons in 1912 (valued at £800).
The professional picker’s life was difficult with some camping out on the escarpment for the six-week season. “Difficult of access, too, are many of the best spots, even when found, and to succeed one must be a good rock climber as well as an unwearying pedestrian,” the South Coast Times continued.
“Often a wide-reaching ‘clump’ is found, being an entangled mass of thorny vegetation. After the outer and lower parts of this are picked the top and middle have to be reached, and a light ladder allowed to fall on and press down the mass is the best assistant. But most pickers are unable to load themselves with ladders, and invade the swaying, springing mass by means of a sack thrown on to it on which they, greatly daring, climb. To the novice this looks more dangerous than it is, and a practised hand with a couple of sacks can climb all over a vast clump”.
Blackberry vines were declared a noxious weed and a massive eradication program undertaken. After World War II the blackberry industry was in decline with one of the last contractors being W. H. Newman.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014