Cowra Part Two – Exploring This Area

Today was an interesting day as we travelled around the area near Cowra following Jill’s family history. If you missed it, you can read about it here.

We started our day by looking around the site of the WW2 internment camp on the edge of the town of Cowra. In 1941 a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp was built on the north-eastern outskirts of town to originally hold Italian Prisoners of War, and later, Japanese prisoners. By 1944 the camp contained about 4,000 prisoners. On 5 August, 1944, this camp became the site of the largest mass POW escape in British military history. It was also the only such escape in Australia.


The Italian prisoners were, by and large, happy and cheerful. For them the war was over. They happily worked on local farms and community projects.

The Japanese POWs, by contrast, were surly, militant and resentful. Unlike the Italians, employing them outside the camp proved a failure due to their aggressive behaviour. Their lack of co-operation was the product of a culture which imbued in them an overwhelming sense of shame. The Japanese code of honour, at the time, viewed capture as a disgrace for the individuals involved, their families and their country. Japanese soldiers were expected to commit suicide rather than be humiliated by the subservience implicit in imprisonment.

At 1.30 a.m. on 5 August 1944, a Japanese soldier blew a bugle and the prisoners opened their hut doors. Screaming loudly and armed with knives, chisels, forks, saws, axe handles and baseball bats the prisoners rushed the wire of their prison compound. They threw blankets over the barbed wire, or crawled under it, while others dressed in heavy clothing, threw themselves onto the wire so others could climb over.

Two Australian soldiers who had manned one of the Vickers machine guns were overrun and murdered. Remarkably one of the soldiers, Private Hardy, managed to sabotage his gun before he was killed. Another private was stabbed to death and a lieutenant was killed during the round-up on the following morning. Another four Australian personnel were wounded.

In total 378 Japanese POWs escaped. The townsfolk and the media were given partial, and at times false, information. Within nine days 334 escapees were recaptured. Others were killed and some committed suicide – two by putting their heads on railroad tracks. In all 231 Japanese died and 108 were wounded – three dying subsequently of their wounds.

The site of this POW compound is now a memorial. A replica guard tower pays homage to the Australians that died in this escape. All that is left are a few concrete foundations of buildings in the old Headquarters area.


Nearby are two war cemeteries. There are about twenty Australian graves in one, and in the adjoining Japanese cemetery, a couple of hundred graves. Some of the Japanese graves are those of civilian internees who died of disease or illness while interned. Some were over 70 years of age. 



Our next stop was at Canowindra ( pronounced can-oun-dra) where Jill’s grandparents were married. We searched around for the church and had morning tea in the really nice commemorative gardens in town.

The Main Street of Canowindra follows the original curves of the bullock drays from when the town was originally settled. Most of the buildings have verandas that contribute to the charm of the streetscape. The entire main street is classified by the National Trust and some buildings are in a sorry state of repair. We hope that the property owners have enough money to renovate them so that they are not lost to history. If you could squint and ignore the modern cars in the street, you could almost believe that the town is just about to enter the 20th Century.

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This region is renowned for its grain and wool production. Large silos are used for storing the grain after harvest  and there were many large bulk grain trucks on the road.


I tried to photograph a mob of sheep that were sheltering under the shade of a tree but as soon as I approached, they all moved off en-masse away from me.


We spent a few hours poking around the little town of Gooloogong (Population 466) where Jill’s Grandfather began his police career as a mounted constable. The original police action is still in use, although the police officer now operates out of Cowra, 30 kms away. Jill’s mum was born in this house.

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Not far out of town, we came across Croote Cottage which was built by convicts around 1827 and, as such, is one of the oldest buildings west of the Blue Mountains. It is one of the most important historic pioneer homesteads on the Central Western Slopes. It is built of pise bricks and constructed with holes in the walls so the residents could protect themselves against bushrangers and local Aborigines. The original building had shutters and a shingle roof. The walls were 20 cm thick and there was a cellar with a trapdoor where, in case of attack, the women and children could be hidden. Today the cottage is decorated with authentic period furnishings.


While Victoria had the Kelly Gang of Bush Rangers robbing and pillaging residents, this area of New South Wales was home to Ben Hall. From 1863 to 1865, over 100 robberies are attributed to Ben Hall and his various associates, marking him as one of the most prolific bushrangers of the period. 

The Lachlan River runs through this area. It is the fourth longest river in Australia. The river runs from the Great Dividing Range in central New South Wales, westwards through sloping country in the central catchment, and then across river plains. The river ends at the Great Cumbung Swamp. In times of high flow, water will continue southwards through the swamp to reach the floodwaters of the Murrumbidgee River. 


I always think of the Lachlan River as an important part of Australia’s folklore and outback history because of its place in the bush poet, Banjo Patterson’s 1899 work, “Clancy of the Overflow”. The first two verses are follows:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just “on spec”, addressed as follows: “Clancy, of The Overflow”.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written in a thumbnail dipped in tar)
‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”

Read Banjo Pattersons full version of this poem here

At the end of our day, we came back to Cowra and found the old railway station – another relic of the days when rail was the foremost way of travelling around the country. Since the first train arrived in 1886 until the last train left in September 2009, the Cowra line was a major contributor to the flow of passengers and freight accessing the central west from Sydney and Melbourne. The Station is now home to five local community groups who offer a variety of social and community activities which help to maintain and reuse the station.


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