The fight to protect Australian heritage

By Alexandra Best and Amy Middleton 6 May 2010
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A new government initiative will help to preserve the history of Australia’s iconic heritage sites.

FROM SYDNEY’S COCKATOO ISLAND to Fremantle Prison in WA, Australia is home to thousands of heritage protected properties.

Preserving these sites for future generations may now get a little easier, as the Federal Government last week announced new funding to protect Australia’s icons.

Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, has introduced a competitive grants program committing a total of $14.9 million over the next three years to owners and managers of historic sites.

“Australia’s National Heritage listed sites are the exceptional places that have played a lead role in the development of our national history,” says the minister. “They are places that help tell the story of our unique and diverse heritage.”

Convict heritage

One such property of national significance is the Fremantle Prison in WA. Built in the 1850s, the prison remains a physical reminder of our convict heritage. Another example is North Head Quarantine Station, a series of buildings in Manly known as much for alleged paranormal sightings as a site of rich history.

Bill Bowker, Property Manager at Fremantle Prison, told Australian Geographic that the prison is an increasingly popular site. “As heritage values are being appreciated more and more, people are taking a greater interest.”

Like most heritage-listed properties, the prison is now open to the public, and therefore must maintain a high level of public safety. Conserving original materials in tour circulation areas such as wooden stair treads, timber landings and cast iron handrails is generally slow work, but the wait is worth it. “We’re happy to hasten slowly,” Bill says. “It’s the only way to ensure you get it right.”

After housing some of Australia’s first prisoners, the site was sequestered by the Australian Defence Department during the Second World War as a military detention centre.

Preserving a young country

As well as private owners, heritage sites can be managed by groups or organisations, such as the Historic Houses Trust (HHT) in NSW. Ian Innis, director of the HHT, agrees that interest in history and heritage in Australia is on the rise, as people are become more aware of the value of what remains, even in a relatively young country such as Australia.

“Some say Australia couldn’t possibly have anything worth keeping,” Ian says. “But in our 200 years, we’ve had some pretty interesting architecture.”

Ian, on behalf of the HHT, has his eye on a portion of the grant money for Rouse Hill House in western Sydney. “Rouse Hill is an important early colonial era house, from about 1817,” Ian told Australian Geographic. “It’s in a part of Western Sydney which is being urbanised quite rapidly. Eventually it’ll be one of the largest open spaces in the area.”

Applications for the grant are now open until 31 May 2010. Program guidelines and the application form are at

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