Lost Wollongong: Documenting the rich history of Illawarra
In Australia, if you take Robert Frost’s words literally and opt for the road less travelled by, you will be rewarded in rich history lessons and spectacular natural sights. Far from the well-documented attractions of Sydney’s Opera House, Adelaide’s vineyards and Melbourne’s charming streets lay Australia’s smaller towns- its hidden gems.
The continent is home to more than 15,000 towns, villages, and cities. Though some places, with the collapse of the mining industry, have become ghost towns, many continue to flourish. But due to the absence of a proper documenting mechanism, their stories, histories and legacies have gone mostly unrecorded.
Fortunately, the efforts of two local residents have ensured that Illawarra, a coastal region located south of Sydney, comprising Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama, will not suffer the same fate. In 2013, David Bottin and his friend Brendan Brain co-founded the hugely popular Facebook page Lost Wollongong, after realising that like Lost Sydney and Lost Newcastle, there weren’t any social media page or website that chronicled the rich history of the Illawarra region.
In conversation with TAL, Bottin speaks about the motivation behind the inception of the page, its consistently growing popularity, and the challenges faced by the admins in the initial days.
What prompted you to start the Facebook page, how many people currently manage it?
The Lost Wollongong Facebook group was created by Brendan and me on a whim after discovering that the Illawarra region didn’t have a dedicated local history Facebook group or a proper website. I’ve always had an interest in local history, which was also a motivating factor. We started the Facebook group in 2013, and in less than a week we had 1,000 members, which increased to 10,000 in the following 12 months.
In 2014, we started the Facebook page, and given its popularity, we created a website and an Instagram profile.
Through the page, we wanted to create a platform for those who love local history and want to share their memories of the region and pictures. Once we saw how successful Lost Wollongong had become, we decided to use that reach to help promote the local museums and encourage heritage tourism, including creating the Wollongong Museum Trail along with Destination Wollongong.
Where do you source the old photographs from, and has the page helped its members reconnect with their family and old friends?
Most of the old photos come from either Wollongong City Library or Illawarra Historical Society collections. A lot of the pictures shared come from our members’ personal collections, and these include some of my favourite images!
The page has helped many members get in touch with old friends whom they haven’t seen in decades! We even had residents who either reconnected or discovered family members they didn’t know about earlier. That’s pretty amazing.
Do you have a lot of members on your page who are not from the region, but follow it for the stories?
Definitely! We have 25,000 members in our Facebook group, 28,000 followers on our Facebook page and 5,000 Instagram followers. While most of the page’s members and followers live in Illawarra, many have moved away from the region but like to stay connected. And, then there are those who have never lived here but love the history, photos and the stories shared. The website gets views not only from Australia but also overseas, which is very exciting.
Was it challenging to get the page up and running? And, how has the journey been like till now?
Earlier, Facebook groups were not as easy to operate as they are now, and we had a tough time dealing with unruly members. But with time, those issues have been sorted, and the page and website now work like clockwork.
The rapid growth of the group surprised us, and it also took us some time to figure out the best way to categorise photos into albums. Luckily, we have some great admins who help run everything smoothly.
What advice would you give to tourists visiting the region? What are places they must visit when in the area?
There is so much to see in Illawarra! We are lucky to live in one of the most naturally picturesque parts of New South Wales. The Grand Pacific Drive from the Royal National Park in the north to Kiama in the south is a must. Enjoy the spectacular coast roads, including the famous Sea Cliff Bridge, and our many lookout points and beaches. If you are a history buff like us, then visit the museums which are a fantastic repertoire of everything from local history to heritage trains, planes and cars. You can find out more about the area on our website.
What are your future plans for the page?
We have some exciting projects in the pipeline, including promoting local tourism through our museums, and the heritage festival.
We have also collaborated with Yesterday Stories, a local project aiming to record the region’s history in short stories and sharing them online to help promote heritage tourism in the area and beyond.
It’s a hobby we will never get tired of, for we love the Gong!
Learn more about the region on Lost Wollongong’s website.
Pic courtesy: Lost Wollongong Facebook page.