Byron Bay

Brief History Of Byron Town, Council & Bypass

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I arrived in Sydney in 1972 to work for Avery Scales for 2 years. One of my first trips was to see the Queensland manager in Brisbane. He wanted to show off his area he brought me to Byron Bay! (There are a number of people in this town who would like to see Byron come under the Queensland State Government permanently!) What I found blew me away. The view from the lighthouse, 40km of unspoilt beaches, hardly a house in sight and a great wave off the Pass. Houses in Lighthouse Road seemed to be closed up and only used for holidays. The town itself was extremely well laid out in a grid pattern. All the houses were neat and tidy, obviously blue collar, the result of 90 years of really hard work. We went to the Abbatoir and discovered why the town had not been yuppified! The northerly wind blew an amazing smell across the town.

The first settler arrived in 1881. Prior to this, the region had been a timber gathering, shack and tent area. 1885/6 town lots were sold and two hotels constructed. (One, the Great Northern, managed to be burnt down in 1897 and again in 1936. The Pier Hotel didn’t suffer a fire until 1949!). The Cape and Bay had been called Byron by Captain Cook in 1770 (After one of his Captains). The town itself was called Cavvanba, some say aboriginal for “meeting place”. If its not, it is still appropriate for the town today. The building of a jetty for 8000pounds in 1888 saw the population grow. Shipping, farming, fishing the main occupations, even gold mining along the beaches. The jetty stretched 400m out to sea, was 8m wide and had 66 piers. At high tide there was 7m of water at the end, enough to take very large steamers. Several shipwrecks in the area led to the building of the Lighthouse in 1901. As the town grew, a Town Council was elected in 1906 (Perhaps as a portent of the disasters to follow, they named the roads after poets; Dryden, Burns, Ruskin, Tennyson etc. silly mistake!) The town had a rugby team, brass band, maypole dancers, all very english. In 1907 they started a surf lifesaving club. By 1917 the town had grown to a population of 1500. There was always work, butter factory, fishing, farming etc. In 1928 a new jetty was built at a cost of 57,000pounds, a considerable sum in those days. There were 2 railway tracks and a diesel electric train called the green frog that pulled jetty carriages (These are now in the Sydney transport museum). Byron prospered with lots of industry, sand mining, abbatoir, piggery, the Norco butter factory, even whaling from 1954-62. Obviously this industry didn’t please the gods, a huge cyclone in 1954 flooded the town centre, took 180m off the end of the jetty and wrecked 22 fishing boats. The boats now operated out of Brunswick Heads and Byron was no longer considered a port. About the time of my visit, Byron Bay and the hinterland was being “discovered” by hippies and surfers. Some backpackers found this paradise, went home and told the world about it. 

Tourism was still in its infancy. The population of Byron was around 2500. Goods were brought by train. People came on holiday by train and camped. The train was well used and long enough to block the only road in and out of Byron, while passengers and goods were unloaded!. Talk of a bypass was started. In 1980, Mullumbimby Council was forced to merge with Byron Bay. A total disaster for both towns. Traffic was increasing, a firm was commissioned to do a study in 1987. They recommended a ring road,crossing the railway line at Browning Street,(behind the present Mitre 10). In 1989 the Council purchased land here ready for the ring road entrance/exit. After a couple of local lads made Crocodile Dundee movies, some scenes filmed in the old meatworks, Australia was launched onto the world map. When John Cornell and Paul Hogan opened the revamped Beach Hotel in 1991, Byron became swamped with visitors. Dundees hat in the bar and the chance to glimpse the great man changed Byron Bay forever. We now get 1.7 million tourists a year. The sudden desire to holiday here caught everyone by surprise. World class hotels were few and far between. Locals started to let their homes, buy second homes to let, put in cabins, studios, Bed and Breakfast places grew like mushrooms. Soon Byron was a giant building site. Club Med bought a 79h site to the north. The town said “stop”, its all too much. Prices of real estate were now matching Sydneys. Fortunately for Council, our sewerage plant had reached capacity. A moratorium on development gave us some breathing space until developers found a way around it. What had been a sleepy working mans town, suddenly became the best debating place on earth. You had to have two opinions on everything, just in case some bastard agreed with you.

There have been 16 major traffic studies, development applications, environmental impact studies, species impact studies, aerial photographs, government grant for a transit station on the new bypass… still no bypass. Meanwhile, traffic at peak season piles up, it can take a hour to enter Byron Bay. Not much of a problem for the tourist but a nightmare for people trying to go about their work. Byron Council Offices were relocated to Mullumbimby in 1995. In 1996 Council was investigated by ICAC and Local Government Inspectors. The General Manager was sacked. The new Council Chambers virtually bankrupted the Council. The rancour created by the forced merger of the two Councils can best be illustrated by this memo sent by a Mullumbimby Councillor when told everything was ready to go on the ring road; “I do not support a bypass, I do not support paid parking funding a bypass. I do support Council selling the land that is held for this proposal. ”With the closure of the railway line, the debate has widened. 

Parking out of town could be provided with a light rail service backwards and forwards, cars could be made to “Park and ride” out of town the railway line could be used as a bypass, the present entry into town could be closed to traffic, all cars coming in or leaving beside Mitre 10. This takes them away from pedestrians and allows a pedestrian friendly CBD. Traffic can also be funnelled off to many different routes.(Guess which option I favour!). Traffic aside, this is still the best town to live in, it has everything anyone could possibly want. 100 restaurants, 3 great pubs, 3 nightclubs, 2 cinemas, a magnificent golf course, the best eclectic mix of people on earth, airs and graces are not allowed, there are active community groups, any religion or belief tolerated, fantastic beaches, surf and walking trails. Our community radio Bay FM matches the people who live in the region, colourful, interesting, fun. The markets and music festivals are world class. What more could a person want?

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