The original inhabitants of Brunswick Heads were Aboriginal people from the tribe commonly known as Dur-ung-bil, which was part of the larger Midjungbal tribe. They established gunyahs where the present township of Brunswick Heads now stands, and their territory was the Brunswick River valley.
Early records show these people were a peaceful group, sharing their local knowledge with the first European settlers. One historical account of a ship-wreck at New Brighton in 1849 records the assistance given by local Aboriginal people in rescuing two sailors trapped in the hull. People of many Indigenous tribes of the Bundjalung Nation also have an association with the area now known as Brunswick Heads. It was considered a place of significance for the Aboriginal people, and a meeting place for ceremonial and trade purposes. There was a steady source of food such as dugums (pipis), julum (fish) and other resources. Leaves from the foam-bark trees were also used to release poison, causing the fish to float to the surface, allowing them to be readily taken. Because of the frequent tribal gatherings, midden sites, containing the remains of various types of seafood enjoyed by local Indigenous people , were common. Unfortunately, sand-mining destroyed many of these sites from the 1930’s onwards, and they are now protected under Federal legislation.
The Brunswick River was charted by Captain Rous in 1828 and named after Queen Caroline of Brunswick. His visit was followed more than 20 years later by cedar-cutters, whose activities led to the first town in what is now Byron Shire. The first Europeans to set up a permanent camp at Brunswick Heads were cedar-cutters Steve King and brothers John and Edward Boyd in 1849. The cedar logs were rafted to Brunswick Heads, and hauled by bullocks into the surf, where they were then winched on board sailing ships, bound for England. For many years, the Indigenous people out-numbered the Europeans. As there was an abundant food supply all year round, the Dur-ung-bil people were a strong, healthy group, who knew the area well and made good use of the natural resources. Steve King established a good relationship with the Dur-ung-bil people, and enlisted their help in locating cedar trees. Records show that as European settlers increased, a peaceful co-existence between settlers and local Indigenous people lasted many years.
Cedar and other local rainforest timbers were excellent for boat building, so it is unsurprising that boat building became a major industry in the Brunswick valley. Supplies were shipped to Sydney by sea, and the constant movement of ships between townships like Ballina, Murwillumbah, Mullumbimby and Byron Bay made it necessary to have efficient boat building and repair facilities. Brunswick Heads quickly became a vibrant sea port with its own boat building industry, and by the 1880’s, was a busy, robust commercial centre. The “Emma” a 51 ton schooner, was one of the boats built in Brunswick Heads in 1851. The only access for the Europeans to the outside world at that time was by boat. Many ships bringing essential supplies were wrecked crossing the treacherous Brunswick River bar, including the “SS Brunswick” in 1883, the “Agnes” in 1889, and the “Endeavour” in 1892.
The Brunswick River has three arms. The main arm rises in the hills above Mullumbimby. The North Arm is named Marshall’s Creek, after Bob Marshall, cedar-cutter and publican of the first Hotel Brunswick, which opened in 1884. The South Arm is named Simpson’s Creek, after Captain Simpson, and for a period around 1865, the town was called Simpson Town. Captain Simpson established the pilot station in the 1870’s on Harry’s Hill, named after Harry Houghton, who operated a ferry across to North Beach. It was an important Indigenous gathering site, known as Durrumbil (water rat). When viewed from the South side of the river, the shape of a water rat can be clearly seen. The old village of Hainsville, a little inland, was named after Maria Hains, who built a small inn to cater for travellers waiting to cross the river at low tide. In the 1880’s, Hainsville had 3 Hotels, several businesses, and a school for 109 children. The village prospered from 1891 to 1894 while the railway was being built. Reading’s Bay was once much deeper than it is today, and provided anchorage for the schooners trading to the Brunswick River port. The wharf was at the North-East corner of Harry’s Hill.
The boat building industry continued until the ready availability of the cedar and rainforest timbers required for it, ran out. The first farming pioneers to the Brunswick Valley occupied their selections some 32 years after the first European settlement at Brunswick Heads. Dairy farming began in 1881, but it wasn’t until 1892 when paspalum grass was introduced, that the dairy industry thrived. The opening of the railway in 1894, with a station at Billinudgel providing transport to the butter factory at Byron Bay, was another boost to the local dairy industry.
Other industries to develop include bananas and sugar cane. Bananas were grown on the steep slopes which could not be used for dairy cattle. After packing in wooden crates, the bananas were transported by rail from Billinudgel to the markets in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. Sugar cane grew successfully in the Brunswick valley, but never became a major industry, being mostly grown as fodder for stock during dry periods.
The early industries of boat-building, sea transport, and farming, encouraged development in the valley, and families flocked to Brunswick Heads on weekends and during holiday breaks to enjoy the relaxed, coastal lifestyle.
Before access was available to what is now known as Brunswick Beach, North Beach (now New Brighton) was the surfing beach, and a popular picnic spot. Mr Farrugia’s ferry service operated across the river prior to the construction of the first bridge to cross the Brunswick River in 1934. The footbridge over Simpson’s Creek was built in 1937. The traffic bridge wasn’t built until the 1960’s, when the Department of Public Works needed to truck in the huge rocks required to build the South Wall, providing access to the beach and the homes on the ocean side of the river. Following destruction of the Byron Bay jetty in 1954, a decision was made to create a safe boat harbour in Brunswick Heads, and construction of the rock wall commenced in 1959. Prior to then, there was a beautiful, sandy foreshore extending from the kiosk (now the Housie shed) over to the river. At high tide it was Brunswick’s main swimming area, and was also used as a landing strip for joy-flight aircraft. In 1974, Cyclone Pam devastated the coastal strip and the ocean breached the dunes North and South of New Brighton, sweeping away cabins and a cluster of homes. The new bridge over the river was opened in 2007.
The character and ambience of Brunswick Heads has remained largely unchanged over the years, as a beautiful coastal town, favourite family spot, and popular holiday destination.