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Byron Shire
July 20, 2024

Bruns, the fishing town, becomes a musical!  

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‘All the old salts have moved on… All the old salts have moved on… I’m wondering where they’ve gone…’

These were the song lyrics that came to local musical producer and historian, Ollie Heathwood, one day as she looked in the windows of the old Brunswick Heads fishing co-op building.

Having once been at the very heart of the town, the co-op has lain empty for more than six years, a silent reminder of a time when fishing was the lifeblood of Bruns.

It was a bittersweet moment, but one that inspired Ms Heathwood to research and create a musical based on the history of the Bruns fishing fleet.

The outcome was a remarkable work called The Wake, which will premiere at the Brunswick Heads Picture House  on June 22 and 23.

The Wake tells the stories of the fishing folk and the industry that sustained the town for around 35 years, from 1954 to the late 1980s.

‘There was no other industry… everyone was connected to, related to, or involved in it. All the teens worked in the co-op for their first jobs. It was a fishing town…’

While rewards for the fishing folk were great, the risks were as well. The Bruns bar was, and remains, one of the most dangerous in NSW, and as safety rules tightened, so did the opportunities for the crews to collect their catch.

‘By the end of the 1990s, there were only about five boats left,’ Ms Heathwood says. ‘The fishermen were getting older, and the sons weren’t taking over anymore… Instead, they were heading away to the mines’.

‘There were hardly any boats left by 2000, and in 2002, they were forced to close the co-op because there weren’t enough active boats to sustain the licence.’

The eventual closure of the fish and chips shop at the Bruns Marina in 2017 marked the unofficial end of the Bruns fishing industry, with tourism well and truly taking over the economic reins. 

But there are still many in the town who remember those sweet and salty times, and many more who desire to learn about them.

It was a desire to preserve this folklore that led Ms Heathwood into a deep dive of this period of Bruns’ history, interviewing sailors and collecting dozens of amazing images and other artefacts.

‘Many of the fishing blokes and families are still among us’, she says.

‘There’s a deep river of knowledge and history running under the town that many people don’t know about. My hope is that this project will help bring some of that to the surface.’

While tickets to the show have all sold out, the rich stories and knowledge that Ms Heathwood has collected will become part of an oral, visual, and written history project that will make its way to local museums and libraries in the coming months.

This will ensure that, while the Bruns fishing industry may be gone, it’s stories will sail on.

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