Yinaagalangbu, gibirangbu, wulgalbu, migaybu
(Ladies and gentlemen, young men and women also)
Gawaymbanhadhu nginyalgir, Wiradjurigu ngurambanggu
(I welcome you all, to Wiradjuri and to Country)
Wiradjuri mayiny gadhaang, ngindhugir nginhi yanhayi
(Wiradjuri people are happy (that) you all to here have come)
- Wiradjuri Welcome, S. Grant and J. Rudder, 2002
Explore our history and stories
Wagga Wagga claims a diverse cultural heritage and rich background.
Our unique history, shaped by Indigenous ownership and European settlement, has helped make the city of Wagga Wagga the quintessential Australian town.
Learn more about our history below.
Wagga Wagga History
The first inhabitants – the Wiradjuri
The Wiradjuri people have been custodians of the area including what is now the City of Wagga Wagga for roughly 40,000 years. Approximately 2000 – 3000 lived in semi-permanent camps, concentrated primarily around billabongs, flood plains, sand hills, lakes, creeks and seasonally at springs.
Wiradjuri country extends beyond the Lachlan River in the north, almost to the junction of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee Rivers in the west and reaching as far south as Albury to the Eastern Highlands.
The Wiradjuri provided invaluable support and assistance to the early European explorers as guides, and performed many other labour-intensive tasks.
Today, Wiradjuri Country is occupied not only by the Wiradjuri people but other First Nations people from across Australia, as well as non-indigenous people from Australia and all around the world.
Pictured above: Breastplate – King Peter of the Murrumbidgee, Ganmain, 1860s (Devlin family collection)
Hamilton Hume and William Hovell were the first white explorers to travel near Wagga, during their 1824 expedition to find new grazing land in the south of the colony.
In 1829, five years after Hume and Hovell’s expedition, explorer Captain Charles Sturt, accompanied by George Macleay (the son of Colonial Secretary Alexander Macleay), led a party of 12 men across what is now the City of Wagga Wagga. Their exploration opened up the Riverina for settlement by squatters wanting to escape the overcrowded coastal cities.
Pictured above: Engraving titled ‘View on the Morumbidge (sic) River' by W. Punser, from a sketch by Captain Charles Sturt, 1830s
The first settlers – the Europeans arrive
When Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, the Surveyor General, passed through Wagga in 1836, he found an explosion of settlement had occurred along the Murrumbidgee River.
Family names that are found amongst Wagga’s early pioneers include Tompson, Best, Jenkins, Thorne, Devlin, Macleay and Edney. Some of these men came to Australia as convicts, others were free immigrants. A great number were pastoralists.
Former convict Charles Tompson was the first to settle in North Wagga, and was a man of great accomplishment. One son, Charles Junior, became the first native-born Australian poet to publish a collection of verse, while another, Frederick Anslow, became a renowned businessman, grazier and Wagga’s first Town Clerk. In fact, Frederick contributed so much towards the development of the township that he was bestowed the mantle of the ‘Father of Wagga’.
In 1832, on the south side of the Murrumbidgee River, another ex-convict George Best established a pastoral run which he called ‘Wagga Wagga’ (or ‘Woga Woga’) from which the town took its name. It is a popular, and long-held belief that the name ‘Wagga Wagga’ was derived from a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘Place of Many Crows’. However, more recently, many Wiradjuri (including Stan Grant, one of the last Wiradjuri speakers) have claimed that it is a word used to describe sacred ceremonies in which a man dances in circles with a wonderfully rolling, rollicking gait.
Pictured above: Branding iron used by Robert Holt Best on his property ‘Wagga Wagga’, 1840s
Growth of the town
As Wagga’s population grew, the town flourished. Businesses were formed and industries established. So followed schools, churches and other social organisations. In 1849 surveyor Thomas Scott Townsend marked out the town, and it was formally gazetted as a village that same year.
In the early 1850s, former convict Scottish born John Robertson Edney settled in Wagga, after receiving his ticket-of-leave. In 1859, Edney brought his wife Elizabeth out from Scotland. John’s son, James Brown Edney also migrated to Australia, bringing his family (wife Elizabeth and son James Welsh Edney) with him. Making their home in Wagga, John and James built many of the original wooden buildings in the burgeoning township. Later, James established the first foundry in Wagga, making barrow wheels, and a new body for the only single furrow plough in town. In the last quarter of the 19th century, the father and son team also built the Joss House which was the religious centre of Wagga’s Chinese community.
The Chinese first appeared in the Wagga district as indentured labourers in the late 1840s – early 1850s (some moving to Wagga after trying their luck on the gold fields of Victoria).
By the 1870s, the lower end of Fitzmaurice Street (at that time the town’s main business centre) had become Wagga’s Chinese Quarter, comprising homes for the more than 200 Chinese who made up approximately 5% of the population. The camp also included stores, gambling rooms and opium dens.
Foon Kee’s Store and home was the last business left standing in the Chinese Quarter, surviving into the 1920s. Although little remains of this part of Wagga’s history, rumours still abound of the tunnels that criss-cross beneath this part of town, used by the Chinese to secretly travel between their various establishments.
Pictured above: Foon Kee’s Store and home, Fitzmaurice Street, 1920s
The Council Story
In 1870, the population of Wagga had reached 1,000. On 15 March that same year, Wagga was incorporated as a municipality.
The Council Chambers which also served as the Town Hall (now the Historic Council Chambers) situated on the corner of Baylis and Morrow Streets, were constructed in 1881 by renowned local builder Charles Hardy (Hardy & Co.)
The first council meeting of 12 Aldermen was held in 1899.
On 17 April 1946, Wagga was proclaimed a city, after the population passed 15,000.
In 2019, Wagga is the largest inland city in NSW, with a population of over 64,000. Within the region, it remains an important commercial, industrial, administrative, educational and health centre, especially for those living in the smaller surrounding towns.
Pictured above: The First Council of Twelve Aldermen, First Meeting 14th February 1899
To see who is on the current Wagga Wagga City Council, visit our Councillors page.
Wagga Wagga, or ‘Wagga’ as the locals call it, is a special place. All towns have their unique stories of quirky characters and remarkable events that have helped shape their character. Since its settlement, Wagga has been known variously as a ‘sporting little town’, Place of many crows, the Manly of the Riverina, the Sunshine Capital and the City of Good Sports.
Today, Wagga is home to the National Art Glass Collection (part of the Wagga Art Gallery), the Sporting Hall of Fame (Museum of the Riverina), Kapooka Army Barracks, RAAF Base Wagga (which includes the Wagga Aviation Training Facility) and Charles Sturt University’s Wagga Campus.
People have come ‘Back to Wagga’ (1927), and together, the community has celebrated milestones including Australia’s Sesquicentenary (1938), the 100th Anniversary of Charles Sturt’s expedition (1951) and the Centenary of Local Government (1970). In 2020, Wagga will commemorate its Sesquicentenary of Local Government.
Wagga is a name synonymous with quality products. There are wagga rugs, the Wagga saddle, the Wagga Pot, Wagga Lily Flour and even a Wagga Pudding! Wagga has been celebrated by poets including Dame Mary Gilmore and Jack Moses, and in numerous songs from ‘Wagga You’re Calling Me Back’ (penned by Rai Homann in 1927) to the contemporary ‘Don’t Call Wagga Wagga Wagga’ of Greg Champion and Jim Haynes.
Wagga was not only the birthplace of Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey, GBE, KCB, CMG, DSO, ED (1884 – 1951), but also national treasure Dame Edna Everage!
A Selection of Wagga stories
The Tichborne Claimant
It was out of the midst of his humble collection of sausages and tripe that he soared up into the zenith of notoriety…
- Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World, Chapter XV, 1896
In late 1895, Mark Twain visited Australia as part of a worldwide lecture tour. Travelling south from Sydney (to Albury), Twain visited Wagga. He was particularly drawn to the town due to his fascination with the Tichborne Trials.
Roger Charles Doughty Tichborne, the heir to one of England’s wealthiest estates situated in Hampshire, disappeared at sea in 1854, while travelling from Rio de Janiero to New York. Eleven years later, in 1866, ‘Sir Roger’ reappeared. Living in Wagga, the long-lost heir was eking out a living as a butcher in Gurwood Street.
By all accounts, Tom Castro, as he was now known, had little in common with Sir Roger. Tipping the scales at 18 stone (114 kg), Tom was described as a ‘mere mountain of flesh’, ‘a bloated aristocrat’ and most unflatteringly, ‘a mass of tastefully ornamented whale blubber in broadcloth.’
So began one of the longest trials in British history, which launched Wagga onto the international stage.
While Roger’s grieving mother accepted that Tom was her long-lost son, the rest of the family did not. In 1871 (following Lady Tichborne’s death) they began court proceedings against him for perjury, and two years later, a second criminal trial proceeded. In total, the Tichborne Trials, as they became known, ran for nearly 300 days in total, and ended with Tom (who, in reality, was an East Ender called Arthur Orton) being sentenced to 14 years’ penal servitude.
Wagga Wagga City Library and the Museum of the Riverina have collections of Tichborne memorabilia, and the impressive painting ‘The Tichborne Romance’ by Nathan Hughes hangs in the Historic Council Chambers
August Menneke’s Legendary Bells
August Menneke was born in Germany in 1838, and became a legendary bell maker, immortalised by authors including Dame Mary Gilmore and Alan Marshall. He migrated to Australia, arriving in NSW in about 1858.
By 1867, Menneke had established his own business near the Black Swan Hotel in North Wagga, making livestock bells. There, he built up a good reputation with his customers, and by the 1870s, the bells he was producing had become a favourite amongst bullockies, who nicknamed them the ‘Wagga Pot’.
Menneke had a perfect ear for the sound of a bell, and the clear tenor quality of his bells could reputedly be heard miles away. According to legend, a test was carried out on the top of Mt. Kosciusko to find the best bell maker in Australia. The two main rivals were Menneke and Anthony Mongan of Albury. Menneke won when the sound of his bell carried ten miles.
Once in a while we ask if he hears
The sound of Mennicke’s (sic) bells
Deep in the pits of his ancient ears
Repeating their olden spells
‘Mennicke’s (sic) bells?’… Then he’ll say
Never heard none like ‘em;
Mennicke (sic), he had the way
No-one else could strike ‘em…
- Dame Mary Gilmore, Bells and Bullocks
Dame Mary Gilmore
Dame Mary Gilmore is the woman you see on Australia’s $10 note. Although not born in Wagga, it was here that she spent her formative years. Gilmore grew up in the Wagga district in the 1860s and 1870s, a period of profound social and ecological change in southern NSW.
At the age of 7, young Mary began school at Brucedale, where the Cameron family had settled. Between 1875 and 1877, she was a pupil at the Wagga Public School. Leaving home at the age of 12, Mary began a career as an unofficial pupil-teacher in small schools at Cootamundra, Bungowannah and Yerong Creek (on the outskirts of Wagga). After successfully completing her teaching exams at 16, she took up a teaching position back where she, herself, was a pupil, Wagga Public School. After a brief stint teaching at Illabo, Mary transferred to a school at Silverton, near Broken Hill. She never returned to live in Wagga, but visited many times.
Throughout the years until her death at the age of 97, her rural childhood became a major inspiration for her writing, in poems like The Dear Old Town, written in 1956:
When I first saw the dear old town
Emus went walking up and down,
Or in a doorway poked a head
Asking in hope, a crust of bread.
Wagga was bush in those far days;
What now are streets were trodden ways;
Between the trees and through the grass,
Where kangaroos walked, sometimes pass –
Houses were slab and roofs were bark
No windows then, a child might mark;
But just a shutter thing with hide,
Which sun or wind, or rain defied…
By the 1850s Wagga was developing a reputation as a boisterous and tough town. The most common crimes recorded at the time included drunkenness, using profane language, soliciting alms, vagrancy and fighting in the streets. Scottish born Henry Baylis was appointed as the town’s first Police Magistrate on 1 January 1858.
One of the most notable early magistrates of NSW, Baylis presided from 1862 in the Wagga courts, and also travelled to those at Urana and Narrandera.
Probably the most exciting episode of Henry’s career occurred in August 1863, when he was travelling on horseback to the Court of Petty Sessions in Urana. Whilst on the road, he encountered bushrangers Daniel ‘Mad Dog’ Morgan and his accomplice Clarke.
Baylis spurred his horse away from the bushrangers, despite them threatening to ‘Stand, or I’ll blow your bloody head off!’ When they caught up, they searched his valise that was full of court documents, and relieved him of a cheque for £2. Upon learning of his identity, they returned his cheque, saying ‘There Sir, you are none the worse for having met us, and if we come before you I hope you’ll be easy with us.’ Baylis declined, stating that he would most certainly do his duty.
Baylis was so angered by the encounter that he rallied a posse of policemen from Urana, and together, they tracked Morgan to his camp. In the ensuing shootout, Clarke was fatally wounded, and Baylis seriously injured.
The bullet, the only physical reminder of this legendary encounter between two men on opposing sides of the law, was presented to Baylis by his brother magistrates upon his retirement from the bench in 1896. The slug was enclosed in a gold casket, which he wore suspended from his watch chain as a good luck charm. In 1875 the NSW Government presented Baylis with a gold medal for his ‘gallant and faithful service’ in tracking down the bushranger Morgan.
Today, Henry Baylis is remembered by locals as Wagga’s main street is named in his honour.
The bullet which struck Henry Baylis, and his gold medal are held in the collections of the Museum of the Riverina
The Kangaroo March
In 1915 recruiting committees were formed in nearly every town throughout Australia, and so-called ‘snowball marches’ were devised as an effective way of inspiring men to answer the call.
The earliest example set off from Gilgandra in October 1915, and became known as the ‘Coo-ee March’. Later marches in 1915 and 1916 (NSW and Queensland) included the Waratahs, Wallabies, Dungarees, Men from Snowy River, Kurrajongs, Kookaburras, Central West Boomerangs and the North Coast Boomerangs.
Wagga’s answer to a recruitment march was the Kangaroo March. This drive was led by Lieutenant Charles Aitken Mayes, a veteran of the Boer War and a professional soldier.
5000 people were reported to have farewelled the original 88 recruits as they marched out of Wagga at 2 p.m. on 1 December 1915. After leaving Wagga, the route took in the villages and towns of Junee, Illabo, Bethungra, Cootamundra, Wallendbeen, Galong, Goondah, Binalong, Bowning, Yass, Goulburn, Wingello, Bundanoon, Sutton Forest, Moss Vale, Mittagong, Picton, Camden, Campbelltown, Petersham, and ending at The Domain, Sydney.
Groups of recruits joined from Narrandera, Tumut and Young. To retain the country nature of the march no recruits were taken on after Campbelltown. The military authorities attempted to stop the march at Goulburn where they were intended to enter camp for training but the march continued to Sydney. There were accusations of misconduct of the marchers along the way and also after they had entered training camp. They had staged a strike outside Goulburn and again in Sydney over leave, both strikes led by Australian Workers union members who had been recruited at Galong and Goondah.
Many of the Kangaroos were in the 55th Battalion arriving in France in mid to late 1916. Men who had marched with the Kangaroos earned one Victoria Cross (John Ryan of Tumut), 2 Distinguished Conduct Medals and 7 Military Medals.
The Kangaroo March was the longest of the recruiting marches in WWI – covering 320 miles (515 kilometres).
Senator Charles Hardy and the Riverina Movement
I attack the whole system of government. The country is being butchered by the overfed city; and we of the Riverina must bring such a state of events to an end.
- Senator Charles Hardy, 1931
In 1931, there was a push for Wagga (and other parts of the Riverina) to secede from the rest of NSW, and become self-governing. This push was led by the Riverina Movement, an organisation which reached a crescendo of popularity in Wagga during the early 1930s, built upon allegations that Sydney-based politicians were ignoring the area. With the election of the Jack Lang Labor government, a local charismatic leader emerged – Senator Charles Hardy Junior.
Organised along paramilitary lines, the Movement at its height was able to field an unprecedented 10,000 members to a meeting held in Wagga on 28 February 1931. The excitement culminated in what became known as ‘the great riverbank meeting’. Wagga business houses closed at 3.30 p.m., enabling both employers and their staff to attend the rally. Presided over by E. Fenn Lusher, the movement was supported by some of the most prominent local residents.
It was the charismatic Senator Hardy whom many had flocked to hear at the Wagga Secession Rally. Nicknamed the ‘Cromwell of the Riverina’, all newspapers reported that Hardy was a born orator, who appealed to the emotional as well as the logical qualities of his audience.
A week later, 5,000 attended a similar rally at Narrandera, carrying the same resolutions. In following months, further meetings were held at Deniliquin, Hay, Tocumwal and Jerilderie.
The resolutions passed at the monster meeting were ignored by the Commonwealth government, and only acknowledged by the State government. With Jack Lang’s defeat in 1932, the economy began to recover, and farmers, graziers and businessmen were no longer worried about protecting their interests, and the Riverina Movement fizzled out.
Wagga Lily Flour and the wagga rug
The wagga rug was born of the late 19th century period of pastoral expansion and growth in the Riverina region. The depression of the 1890s saw large groups of itinerant workers criss-cross the district in search of employment. It is generally presumed that the term ‘wagga rug’ originated through connections to the wheat growing and milling activities in Wagga, and the use of discarded flour and wheat bags in the making of these rugs.
Legend has it that the calico bags that held the Wagga Lily Flour manufactured at Wagga’s Murrumbidgee Milling Co. were of such fine quality they were a favourite with anybody wanting to make themselves a wagga rug.
Wagga rugs became a standard item used in the bush by shearers, drovers, fencers and farm labourers. They were carried on horseback and in bullock wagons, trains and riverboats and on foot, slung over a shoulder and incorporated into a swag. They provided protection against the crippling cold of winter, and a barrier against the fiery heat of summer.
More often than not, the wagga rug is now most commonly associated with the make do and mend ethic of the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the most usually recognised form being the domestic wagga. Generally constructed from hand me down clothing, calico and cretonne, many a child and adult of the mid-20th century slept beneath the comforting weight of a wagga rug.
The Miss Wagga Wagga Quest
Instigated in 1948 by the Community Advancement Fund, ‘Miss Wagga Wagga’, along with the ‘Ugly Man’ quest were part of the events planned for a New Year’s Eve street carnival.
Entrants for the 1948 quest were nominated by various sectors of the local community, such as ‘Sports’, ‘Commerce North’, ‘Commerce South’ and ‘Cafés’. Members of the public voted for the winner of each section by contributing a penny per vote. The overall winner who was crowned Miss Wagga was then decided after another 3 months of concerted fundraising by the four section winners. Miss Thena Karofilis (the aunt of actor Lex Marinos) was crowned the inaugural Miss Wagga.
Since 1949, the Miss Wagga winners have been judged by a panel, with the girls being judged on attributes including personality and knowledge of local and world events.
From the first contest in 1948 until 1962, Miss Wagga was accompanied on her prize winning trip to Sydney by a chaperone. From 1963 onwards, Miss Wagga (and since 1976 the Community Princess) have enjoyed an overseas trip to one of Wagga’s sister cities – either Leavenworth, Nordlingen or Kunming.
The Miss Wagga Wagga Quest has raised thousands of dollars over the years, and assisted many community groups. It has showcased the accomplishments of the entrants and organisers and also the talents of local designers including Dawn Smith, Richard Cook and Rose Organ.
More than being an integral part of Wagga’s cultural history, in 2019, the Miss Wagga Wagga Quest enters its 71st year, making it perhaps the oldest and longest serving quest of its type in Australia.
Birthplace of an Australian Icon
One of Wagga’s most controversial claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of the Chiko Roll. Invented by a Bendigo boilermaker, Francis Gerald McEncroe, the Chiko was Frank’s answer to a hot snack that could be eaten with one hand at a race meeting, country show, football match and the like. Watching a man selling chicken rolls outside a football ground set him thinking.
Frank made his first rolls on a small hand-fed sausage machine. A concoction of boned mutton, celery, cabbage, barley, rice, carrots and spices wrapped in a thick dough before frying, their ends were hand-painted.
His answer to the chicken roll may not have contained any actual chicken, but the appeal was enormous. After much planning and experimentation, the resulting product – the ‘Chicken Roll’ – was sold commercially for the first time at the Wagga Wagga Agricultural Show of 1951. The ‘Chiko’ as it became known was an immediate success, and the quantity made for the show was sold by mid-afternoon on the second day.
The public had given their approval to this new take-away food item.
To celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Chiko’s birth, the manufacturer, Simplot, presented the Cities of Wagga and Bendigo with a priceless gold plated Chiko roll.
Since that time, controversy has waged over the true home of the Chiko. Bendigo, Castlemaine, and even Bathurst lay claim to being its birthplace. In 2016 this controversy was even debated in parliament, with MPs from Wagga, Bendigo and Bathurst squaring off over the Chiko’s origin!
In response to this debate, the PR representative for Simplot ended the argument by saying ‘the roll’s origins are varied and complex’, however, Wagga is immensely proud of the role it played in the story of this Aussie snack icon, and its gold Chiko has become of the cities true treasures.
The World Championship Gumi Race
The inaugural Gumi Raft Race was staged in March 1976, as part of the larger Wagga Gumi Festival. Organised entirely by the Central Wagga Lions Club, competitors sailed from Eunony Bridge to the Wiradjuri Reserve. A total of 16 rafts took to the water during this first race, and they were to launch a Wagga leisure tradition that is still going today. At the height of its popularity, the Gumi Race drew international competitors, hundreds of entrants and crowds of spectators lined the route.
The Race was divided into 8 categories including: Junior Single, Junior Team, Women’s Team, Single Event, Gumi Team, Business House Team, Service Club Event and Best Decorated Gumi. “Gumi” the Pidgin English word for [rubber] inner tube, also became a byword for ingenuity, engineering genius and at times just good old ‘rat cunning’! Families, friends, neighbours, sporting clubs and business firms were pitted against each other, all in the name of fun.
The Festival usually ran for a week and featured events included the Gumi Street Parade where Fitzmaurice and Baylis Streets came alive with colour and activity. Many of the floats and displays were created by Wagga businesses and community groups. The floats were judged and prizes awarded. In 1984, prizes were awarded in 7 categories: Best Decorated Gumi, Best School Float, Most Humorous Float, Best Business House Float, Best Out of Town Float, Best Decorated Window Display and Best Sporting Club Float.
Gumi photo competitions were also run, and the Miss Gumi Queen Quest, crowning of the Gumi King and Gumi Festival Balls were also enjoyed by the community. In 1985, a carnival in Bolton Park was held at the finish of the Street Parade and it featured a Competition Bed Race with a first prize of $75 and a $25 consolation prize.
Other events during the history of the festival were the Gumi Festival Marathon Canoe Race, the Gumi Aquathon at Lake Albert and the Gumi Twilight Tennis Tournament.
In 1995, the Gumi Race ended due to insurance, environmental and health and safety issues. 16 years later, the World Championship Gumi Race was reborn. Organised by the South Wagga Apex Club, the people of Wagga and the Riverina once again line the banks of the Murrumbidgee to watch the weird and wonderful, wacky and serious compete to be the first Gumi across the line.
Wagga Wagga is 518km by rail from Sydney and 432km from Melbourne on the main Southern line. It is 180m above sea level at the Council Chambers and situated on the Sturt Highway, which joins the Hume Highway 48km to the east. It is the junction of the Sturt Highway and the Trunk road known as the "Olympic Highway", which enables travellers by road to proceed to and from Sydney via Cootamundra, Cowra, Bathurst and The Blue Mountains area, instead of traveling via the Hume Highway.
The City, incorporated as a Borough in 1870 and proclaimed a City in 1946, has an area of 488,600 hectares, and at 30 June 1998, an estimated population of 58,000.
On 1 January 1981 the existing City of Wagga Wagga became amalgamated with the adjoining Shires of Kyeamba and Mitchell.
Wagga Wagga in the Sixties
A picture of life in the New South Wales town of Wagga Wagga in the mid 1960s.
Made by The Commonwealth Film Unit 1966. Directed by Rhonda Small. Part of the Life in Australia series The Commonwealth Film Unit turned it's cameras on Wagga Wagga, midway between Australia's two largest cities Sydney and Melbourne, as an example of an Australian Regional city with an eye to the future.