Blackberrying the Illawarra escarpment

Camps at the scene of operations

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 Sydney Mail reported on the blackberry industry in the northern Illawarra on Wednesday 16 February 1910:

With the South Coast blackberry pickers

THE blackberry, looked upon in most parts of the State as a pest, has proved a harvest for those out of work in the Illawarra district as a result of the coal strike. It has only been during the past few years that the blackberry has come into prominence on the South Coast, and it has now established a firm hold of the northern end of the district, between Otford and Bulli.

The mountain slopes are covered with the dark-green vines, which clamber over other vegetation, and run riot over pastures laden with luscious fruit. Year by year the areas covered with these vines increase, extending their dark-green feelers, tender at first, but developing later on into a firm grip upon fresh territory. Shortly we shall probably hear the property-owner crying out against their rapacity with as much vehemence as we hear the settler in the north-west declaim the prickly pear at the present day.

Sooner or later it will be thoroughly realised by the man on the land what a pest the blackberry is, and when all attempts to eradicate it fail the tenants on Illawarra’s fertile slopes will no doubt deplore the monotony of black berry pie, and sigh for a cultivated patch with a few potatoes and cabbages.

A squad in attack

About the only reliable way to combat the growth quickly is to dig the vines out by the roots, and burn them — burning off or cutting down is useless. Even now it would appear practically impossible to thoroughly get rid of the pest in the northern part of the district, but further south in the vicinity of Wollongong, where it has not such an extensive hold, the task could be accomplished, and would save a deal of labour and anxiety in years to come.

For the past month the blackberry season has been at its height, and the picturesque undulating slopes on the mountain side were invaded by pickers equipped with billycans, buckets, kerosene tins, and all sorts of receptacles for the annual harvest. In the season whole families seem smitten with the blackberry fever, devoting their whole time to the pursuit. It is a pleasant recreation, provided one can pick from the fringe, but mechanical means have to be resorted to, add the risk of a good scratching taken to secure them.

Ladders and planks are secured, and after climbing to the top of the vines the planks are thrown out, and the more nimble and reckless pickers quickly fill tins. Occasionally, however, an extra choice bunch tempts an avaricious spirit to lean over just a little too far, and he topples into the dark-green entanglement of vines below, which hold him in a firm thorny embrace. He dare not move, for every movement means a fresh bayonet charge by the enemy. After much cutting away of the outskirts, and many injunctions to keep steady, he is extricated by his friends, and then he runs away to the bush to pick the thorns from his anatomy, after which he resumes operations at a more accessible and less treacherous interesting sight to see those engaged in the industry wending their way home in the evenings, often in tattered raiment, and a smile on their purple – stained faces at the success of their day’s work. What a spirit of rivalry there is as to who picked the most!

A veteran

The price paid — 1d per lb — is scarcely commensurate with the labour entailed, but in ordinary seasons, when the mines are working, the juvenile is the chief dealer, and he never studies this aspect of the business. He is not precocious enough yet to organise a union and strike for a higher rate. Four or five shillings for a day’s work looms large in his eye, and it can be readily understood that a family of five or six can considerably augment the father’s earnings by taking advantage of the blackberry harvest.

Some good pickers have been known to earn as much as 10s and 15s per day; others, of course, who are less expert, do not average 2s 6d per day.

Mrs. Mott, of Woonona, has held the contract for supplying the Sydney jam factories for the past seven years.

In the first year the total quantity despatched to Sydney was 25 tons. This year the quantity of berries gathered in by the 400 or 500 pickers engaged amounted to between 100 and 125 tons, thus proving that the vines are becoming more abundant every year.

As blackberries make delicious wine and excellent jam and jelly, there is now such a demand for the fruit that Mrs. Mott finds it necessary to launch out into fresh fields, and next year operations will be extended as far south as Mount Keira, and on the north to Scarborough.

Robertson will also be invaded by the pickers, so that the quantity to be gathered in will no doubt constitute a record. The harvest on the present occasion provided work for the pikers for a period of six weeks, and proved a veritable God-send to the many families whose bread-winners have been out of employment for some three months as a result of the unfortunate coal strike.

Naturally a great number of people look forward to this picking season, which lasts about six weeks. They enjoy immensely the change amidst such picturesque surroundings to the cottage life in the villages. The camping out, for one thing, is a novelty they enjoy to the full. Here and there one may see whole families in the tents hired or bought toy the occasion.

The pickers are exceedingly well behaved. To the English man their occupation is reminiscent of the hop-pickers, without the hooligan element. There is no doubt about the change being a healthy one for the hundreds of children who thus get into the open air for a season, as well as the womenfolk, who are more or less shut indoors during the rest of the year.

At the beginning of the industry some of those employed began to practise trickery with the buyers by placing stones in the bottom of the cans in order to get increased weight. Of course, such a practice could not last long undetected, and as a result of the refusal to buy from any caught at the game the scheme was quickly abandoned.

An early start on a bright summer morning [This photograph is likely taken on Rixon’s Pass, Woonona].

Besides the large quantities of the berries which find their way to the four jam factories in Sydney, a great number are gathered for local use.

There is scarcely a family on the South Coast about the coal mines which does not every year put in a supply of blackberry jam. So that the pest is at least put to some profitable use, and therefore is, unlike prickly pear, lantana, and hawthorn bush, sweet briar, and many other imported vegetables which have rioted out or control in Australia.

Apart from the method or rooting out the blackberry with mattock and adze, which costs money, and does not entirely get rid of the evil, as it soon sprouts up again, the best plan to clear paddocks of it is to utilise the Angora goat as a decimating machine.

The goat is a browser naturally, and he displays a great partiality for this creeping bush. But, of course, the land carrying it would need to be paddocked before even that plan would be a great success, as the goat must be kept closely at the work of nibbling without any distraction, such as young shoots adjacent herbage offer.

There is no doubt that it is time the prodigalities were checked in their career by adequate legislation. The longer the public sleep over the foe’s incursions the greater will be the ultimate cost of eradication. Besides that, if allowed to spread as it is doing poor land will eventually cost much more to clear than it would be-worth when ridded of the pest.

Great areas of third-rate land, to say nothing of good country, are already under it, or are threatened by its encroachment from adjoining spaces. It is one of the evils of having too much land, or of land that is not profitably employees, because there is so much of a better quality available.

The attention of Parliament has been frequently called to the many insidious evils which are yearly getting a deeper grip of enormous tracts of country throughout Australia.

More pictures and history of the blackberry industry in northern Illawarra: Collecting Bulli’s famous berries


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