Wollongong: A Cultural Profile

A big city in a 'sea-change' location

Wollongong is a major commercial and education centre in a high-growth coastal area with an increasing population. Bordering a capital city, and with a changing economic and employment base, the city has issues concerning retaining young people and its North-South economic 'divide'.

Wollongong is the third largest city in New South Wales, Australia, after Sydney and Newcastle, and is the ninth biggest city in Australia. Its location in the Illawarra region of the east coast of Australia, is just 82 kilometres to the south of Sydney -  about an hour's drive along a scenic coastal road or around two hours on the train.

The greater Wollongong metropolitan area - including Kiama and Shellharbour - has a population of 263,535 and is administered by the Wollongong, Shellharbour and Kiama councils. Just 1.8% of the population is Indigenous, compared with an national average of 2.3%. 20.1% of local residents were born overseas, compared with 22.2% in the whole of Australia. Over recent years, Wollongong has become a destination for new residents moving from Sydney seeking lower real estate prices, less traffic congestion and a less-developed natural environment.

The name Wollongong is believed to mean "sound of the sea" in the local Aboriginal language, although other explanations have been offered, such as "great feast of fish", "hard ground near water", "sound of the waves", "many snakes" and "five islands". 

Known affectionately as 'the Gong', Wollongong is a city with a long history of mining and industry, with coal mines, steelworks and a major industrial port. The city is also a regional centre for the South Coast fishing industry. The University of Wollongong attracts a number of international students each year. The city has two Regional Cathedrals and numerous churches of many denominations including the well-known landmark, the Nan Tien Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the Southern hemisphere.

Wollongong sits on a narrow coastal plain between the Pacific Ocean and the steep sandstone Illawarra Escarpment, which includes the distinctive Mount Keira situated about 4km to the north and which, at 463.9m high, provides spectacular views of the city below.

The area was originally inhabited by the Dharwal (or Turuwal) people and the first Europeans to visit the area were the navigators George Bass and Matthew Flinders who landed in Lake Illawarra in 1796. The first settlers in the region were cedar cutters in the early nineteenth century, followed by graziers in 1812 and the land grants began to be made in 1816. The town was first gazetted on the 26th of November, 1834, when the first courthouse was erected. The now main road down the Escarpment through Bulli Pass was built by convict labour in 1835-6, though other passes were built during the 1800s. Wollongong was proclaimed a City in 1942 and five years later the City of Greater Wollongong was formed. By 1954 the population of Wollongong was 90,852.

There have been many coalmines in Wollongong which led to the development of heavy industry in the region. In 1928 the first steelworks was started at Port Kembla (south of Wollongong) which was acquired by BHP in 1935. The steelworks grew to become a world-class flat rolled steel producer, with a production of around 5 million tonnes per year. Other industries set up in the massive Port Kembla industrial complex, the largest single concentration of heavy industry in Australia, include a fertiliser plant, an electrolytic copper smelter (featuring the tallest chimney in Australia), a locomotive workshop, a coal export shipping terminal, a grain export shipping terminal and an industrial gases manufacturing plant.

Despite the decline of traditional manufacturing and blue-collar industries as a result of the abandonment of Australia's protectionist economic policies in the 1980s, many of these industrial installations still exist in Wollongong, but this has not stopped the city having the unenviable distinction of one of Australia's highest unemployment rates and, it is asserted, Australia's highest rates of drug dependency.

The city's economy is, however, reportedly on the rebound, thanks to diversification of economic activity including higher education, the arts, tourism, residential construction and eco-friendly electricity generation; however, the city's economy still relies primarily on heavy industry, and will continue to in the near future.

Wollongong has one university, the University of Wollongong, which was formerly part of the University of New South Wales, and the Illawarra Institute of Technology, part of the State's system of TAFE colleges. The university was awarded Australian University of the Year in two consecutive years (1999-2000, 2000-2001) by the Good Universities Guide.

Wollongong and the Illawarra region are serviced by three commercial television networks as well as the ABC and SBS and in some areas it is also possible to pick up Sydney broadcasts including the trial datacasting service, Digital Forty Four, and community station Television Sydney. The region receives four ABC radio services and there are two commercial and two community radio stations as well as a Christian broadcaster. Nowra's Power FM also reaches the city, as do most Sydney commercial radio stations. Wollongong is home to one daily newspaper, The Illawarra Mercury, as well as several free community newspapers.

Graffiti art at the Wollongong Youth Centre, Wollongong, 2005. Photo by Paul Jones, courtesy Wollongong City Council

Arts and culture in Wollongong

Despite its industrial heritage, Wollongong maintains an active arts scene. In addition to its Conservatorium of Music, which is one of the largest regional conservatoriums in Australia, the Gong is home to the Wollongong Symphony Orchestra, BlueScope Steel Youth Orchestra, a jazz club and various other groups and ensembles.

Wollongong City Gallery houses a significant collection of the art of the Illawarra, as well as contemporary Australian, Aboriginal and asian art and the city boasts a number of museums including The Illawarra Museum and specialist coal mining, social history museums, heritage sites and an Aboriginal Keeping Place.

Wollongong is home to the Circus Monoxide performance troupe and other local theatre groups such as the Arcadians, Roo Theatre, Wollongong Workshop Theatre and the Merrigong Theatre Company. Merringong is housed at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, a thriving venue which presents local productions as well as high quality touring shows. The WIN Entertainment Centre next to the football stadium is a multipurpose venue which hosts concerts and sporting events, and there are a number of cinemas in town.

The City is also known for its annual Viva la Gong arts and commmunity festival and its local cultural identity is strongly tied with its surf culture; which thrives thanks to the seventeen surf beaches along its coast.

No overview of Wollongong culture would be complete with a mention of the nationally famous Aunty Jack Sings Wollongong album (1974), which was a spin-off from the cult ABC TV Show, Aunty Jack, featuring the character of the same name: an obese, moustachioed, gravel-voiced bloke dressed in a huge blue velvet dress, footie socks and workboots, with a golden boxing glove on her right hand, who rode everywhere on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and habitually solved any problem by knocking people unconscious or threatening to "rip their bloody arms off". The album contained a mixture of songs and sketches, mostly set in Wollongong, including "Wollongong the Brave" and "I've Been Everywhere, [Man]" which was supposedly performed by the Farrelly Brothers in the Gong A Go Go club  and in which it is revealed that the singers have actually been nowhere at all outside of Wollongong except for Dapto, a small town considered the southernmost suburb of the city.

Now, some thirty years later, and with Wollongong City Council's stated commitment to increased cultural infrastructure, the development of creative industries and provision of community cultural activities, outlined in its Cultural Plan 2006-11, Wollongong will continue to feature as one of the places "to be".