Greening the Silver City: seeds of bush regeneration

2 August 2007-26 April 2010 Powerhouse Museum

This exhibition told the remarkable story of how the denuded landscape of Broken Hill was repaired by a bush regeneration scheme in the 1930s.

When we think of Broken Hill it conjures images of a mining town on the edge of the outback in western New South Wales. Not many have known its significance in environmental history, as a site of one of Australia’s earliest green actions. In 1936, the Barrier Field Naturalists Club led by Albert Morris, an assayer, enlisted the help of a mining company and through the process of native revegetation, defeated the drifts of sand that were swallowing the outskirts of the town, also reducing the effects from dust storms.

Albert Morris, a Quaker and self taught amateur botanist developed a passionate interest in plants from a young age and founded the Barrier Field Naturalists’ Club, named after the nearby Barrier Ranges. Albert Morris believed that the growing problem of sand drift and dust storms in Broken Hill could be overcome by establishing regeneration reserves around Broken Hill to the north, west and south. In 1936 the mines and community led by the Barrier Field Naturalists Club and Albert Morris fenced an initial area and planted trees and local native vegetation. Now known as the Albert Morris Park it was seen as highly successful. In 1938 more sections of land were fenced from grazing rabbits and livestock and left to recover, these are known as the revegetation reserves. The Broken Hill revegatation site was the first example of successful bush regeneration in its broadest sense within Australia. It improved the standard of living of residents as well as conserving plant and animal biodiversity. The regeneration reserves are now National Trust listed.

Albert Morris’s legacy does not limit itself to Broken Hill as he amassed a collection of about 7,000 plant specimens and his collections are represented in several of Australia’s major herbia. More than 1,000 of these are held in the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens. His methods were applied to other mining towns in Australia and the improvement of living conditions in Broken Hill were quoted world wide. Albert also photographed the flowers and landscape of the surrounding area. These black and white slides were hand coloured by his wife Margaret Morris and are represented in the exhibition.

The revegetation also planted a seed for further similar work around Australia. In the 1960s there was the birth of a larger conservation and land care movements in rural and suburban Australia.

A strange and challenging landscape
Australian soils are mostly infertile, old and fragile. Indigenous Australians had adapted the landscape to suit their needs over many thousands of years. Early European colonists were used to the resilient soils of their homeland and often over-cleared, over-stocked and over-cropped the vulnerable land.

The first white colonists measured everything by the English standards they were familiar with. The new landscape seemed alien, ugly and dangerous. With little knowledge of the bush, explorers perished. Colonists imported animals such as rabbits and foxes and plants such as prickly pear – unaware of the havoc they would cause.

The Silver city
Broken Hill is an isolated mining city in the far west of New South Wales. A boundary rider named Charles Rasp discovered silver-bearing ore on a broken hill … and the name persisted.

Broken Hill is Australia’s most enduring mining city. It has been the largest producer of lead-zinc-silver in Australia and had produced 27 million pounds sterling worth of mineral wealth by 1925. Today the population is 20,223.

Shifting sands
The countryside around Broken Hill was originally covered with woody mulga scrub. With the opening of the mines in 1885 the rapidly growing township required vast amounts
of wood for building, fencing, firewood and also fuel for the mines’ steam engines.

Trees and shrubs disappeared and newly introduced goats, cattle, horses and camels grazed the cleared land. Soon the landscape was denuded and desolate.

Without vegetation, big winds blew away the top soil. Major sand drifts on the city outskirts buried fences,threatened homes and forced people to move.

…Helping hands
In the 1880s committed enthusiasts formed a number of naturalists’ clubs and societies around Australia.

In Broken Hill, the Barrier Field Naturalist Club (BFNC)was established in 1920 with Dr W D K McGillivray as its first president. Chairing was the artist E E Gostelow. The secretary and treasurer was Albert Morris. In its first 50 years, over 580 lectures were given, there were study groups and regular excursions which included plant collecting.

The BFNC identified new species of plants, bees and in 1925 pushed for Mootwingee to be protected. It was eventually gazetted as a National Park and in 1998 Mutawintji was placed under Indigenous management.

Albert Morris … green visionary
Albert Morris experimented with a variety of plants suitable for the Broken Hill environment, like these cacti pictured below in his back yard.

He believed that the growing problem of sand and dust in Broken Hill could be overcome. In the 1930s he helped to establish the regeneration reserves that ring Broken Hill to the north, west and south. These reserves were planted with trees and vegetation native to the area, fenced off from grazing rabbits and livestock.

Morris (1886 -1939) was an assayer (analysing the composition of ores) with Sulphide Corporation’s Central Mine. With his wife Margaret he collected, documented and photographed hundreds of botanical specimens from around Broken Hill.

Revegetation and regeneration to the rescue
Zinc Corporation proposed a new mine in 1936 … and was concerned about the dust and sand problems it would encounter. They approached Albert Morris and the Barrier Field Naturalists’ Club. In 1936 work began on 22 acres of barren and overgrazed land adjoining the town. It was protected with rabbit-proof fence. Volunteers planted 1100 Eucalypts, a hedge of saltbush and another 1400 trees; it was irrigated with waste water.

After two years the first reserve (now known as Albert Morris Park) was seen as a success. More fencing was erected, particularly to the south and west. These areas had minimal plantings and are known as ‘regeneration reserves’.

The seeds of regeneration
The Broken Hill revegetation site was the first example of successful bush regeneration in its broadest sense in Australia. It improved the standard of living for the people of Broken Hill as well conserving plant and animal biodiversity. The regeneration reserves are National-Trust listed.

Today there is a much wider awareness and discussion of environmental degradation in Australia’s rural areas, and research is focused on many aspects of sustainability of ecosystems and plant communities.

The Living Desert
The Living Desert is 2400 ha, located north of Broken Hill. It covers many of the ecosystems within the Barrier Ranges,  from open woodlands to rocky gorges. Six kilometres of  predator-proof fencing keeps out dogs, cats, rabbits, foxes  and other feral animals introduced to Australia by Europeans.

Since the sanctuary was established in 1991 by the Broken Hill City Council, the plant and animal biodiversity there has increased.


This was a Powerhouse Museum touring exhibition in collaboration with Broken Hill City Council and community, and supported by Movable Heritage NSW.