Bega Cheese Heritage Centre

Bega Cheese

The Story

Title(s) of Collection:

Bega Cheese (as a company, an entity and a surviving link to the early days dairying and the co-operative movement).

Location of Collection:

Across the Bega Valley Shire area.

Accessibility of Collection:

Varied. Material is a mix of public and private ownership. It exists as built structures on private properties; in public museums and exhibitions; in printed publications and private documents; on the shelves in supermarkets; and in the memories of individuals. Many aspects of this heritage remain private and inclusion in this dossier does not imply any right or permission to access.

History and Provenance of Collection:

As the largest employer in the Bega Valley and major player in the national dairying scene, Bega Cheese is and has been one of the most important developments in the district since the establishment of the original co-operative more than a century ago.

A highly important aspect of the history of the Bega Valley Shire, dairying has been an integral part of the heritage of the region virtually since the arrival of the first European settlers in the 1830s. Attracted to the area by the obvious livestock grazing potential, squatters from Braidwood pushed down in to Wandello near Cobargo at the northern end, with William Duggan Tarlinton establishing a run at Cobargo; while to the south the three Scottish Imlay brothers founded stations at various spots including Pambula, Bega and Kameruka. Governor Bourke landed in Twofold Bay in 1835 and visited, among other places, “Panbula” and “Biggah”.

Cattle were initially dual purpose, providing both milk and meat, but with the rich pasturelands at their disposal, it took little time for the new arrivals to begin laying the foundations for a successful local dairying industry. The first shipment of butter left Twofold Bay for Hobart in 1835, and by the 1840s it had become a regular export. Almost every family kept cows and individual dairies with small creameries were soon spread across the district. By the 1850s they were turning out saleable butter and cheese that was shipped to markets in Sydney and elsewhere.

In the wake of the Free Selection Bill of 1861, dairying expanded considerably, overtaking beef cattle and sheep farming as the predominant industry across the district. As a complimentary undertaking, pigs raising also grew significantly.

A labour intensive, manual industry in those early days, hand milking was generally undertaken twice a day, seven days a week, in specially constructed buildings. Large families were envied because of their ability to share the task across many hands with children as young as four put to work in the milking shed. The output was poured through a strainer before standing in a wide shallow setting pan, usually for between 24 and 36 hours, allowing the fatty cream to rise to the top. This was then removed from the surface with a large tin spoon known as a skimmer. The method was slow and inefficient, and because of the standing time required, often resulted in soured cream. The standards of cleanliness also meant that butter and cheese made under these conditions was of inconsistent quality.

The arrival of the separator in Australia in the 1880s was a major step forward for dairy farmers and their output. Separation could now take place as soon as milking was completed and although the earliest examples were still manually powered, they nonetheless considerably improved hygiene standards and increased productivity. The district’s first separator is reputed to have been brought to the area in the mid-1880s by Daniel Gowing, and slowly but surely the new appliance gained increasing acceptance.

The introduction of the milking machine was another major development. However, although originally patented in 1836, it was not until 1892 that Australia’s first were installed at Bodalla and it wasn’t until the late 1930s that they were accepted as the norm.

For many years across the district, butter was the predominant dairy product turned out for export to the metropolitan markets.

Made using churns powered by manual crank handles and later with power from windmill, steam engine or oil engine, the butter was originally packed in wooden kegs for shipment. These were later discarded in favour of the butter box, often crudely made from timber off-cuts held together by nails, a stencil painted on the sides identifying the producer. Jonas Alcock of Bemboka was reputedly the first to have introduced the butter box to the district.

Since the establishment of the industry locally, each farmer had acted independently, organising their own production, transport and marketing. However, with improved technology, costs continued to rise but the farmers’ economic bargaining power remained minimal. The solution presented itself in the form of co-operation.

One of the most important developments to occur since the commencement of dairying locally, it was based on the concept of farmers pooling resources for large scale production and distribution of their butter and later cheese. Recognising that they were better served by sharing building, equipment and other expenses, local farmers began banding together to form co-operatives across the district. They erected purpose built, centrally located factories, purchased new cream separators and organised transport and marketing. With around 30 suppliers required to finance and operate a creamery, the movement away from on farm production spread quickly. The first local butter co-operative was established at Wolumla in 1893, followed by others including Burragate, Bimbaya, Bemboka, Kameruka Estate, Pambula, Cobargo, Mogilla and Moran’s Crossing.

Bega farmers also made moves to adopt the principle, calling a meeting for 15 July 1899 to consider the establishment of co-operative butter factory. During the gathering, Chairman John D’Arcy proposed “That a company, to be called the Bega Co-operative Creamery Company, be originated at this meeting.” John Otton seconded the motion, highlighting that co-operation was the best way farmers could protect themselves. With local farmers throwing their support behind the proposal, the society was duly registered with a nominal capital of £5,000 in 5,000 £1 shares.

The inaugural board of directors consisted of Thomas D'Arcy, T. J. Kelly, J. J. Ritchie and T. J. Rogers, with John Underhill appointed as part time secretary. A new weatherboard factory was erected at North Bega at a cost of £800 and with 27 suppliers, production commenced in August 1900. Within a year, output had almost trebled and within two, the Society’s debt had been liquidated. It was a golden era for the industry locally as farmers began to take back market power from city-based commercial retailers.

Like the other co-operatives throughout the district, farmers carted whole milk to the Bega factory for separation, returning home with the skimmed product to feed to calves and pigs. After churning, the finished butter was packed into 56-pound kegs and transported to the nearest wharf for shipment to the metropolitan markets.

Eventually, with the spread of domestic separators, farmers were able to treat the whole milk on farm, only having to cart the prepared cream to the factory. This was delivered in special two-handled galvanised or tin cans, usually identified with the owner’s or farm name on small brass plates soldered onto the side. Depending on herd size, the average farmer might need ten or more cream cans for their daily supply. Eventually, contractors were employed to collect the cans from high set, three sided timber and galvanized cream boxes constructed at the various farm gates.

The continually improving equipment and procedures gave farmers more milking time, which allowed for an increase in herd sizes and, in turn, greater cream output. The Bega Co-op’s reputation continued to grow and within a year of commencing production, the company was winning prizes at agricultural shows. By 1907, dairying had become the district’s primary income source and in 1924 a new butter factory was erected on the present site at North Bega.

Like many co-operatives, the society also established a department store in 1920, stocking a range of goods. A new premises was erected in 1949 and continued to trade until 1984 when the Bega Co-operative Store closed its doors for the last time.

The potential for a major company to move into the district remained a threat to the co-op’s survival and in an effort to minimise the risk, the business became the Bega Co-operative Society Limited in 1944. By that time, margarine had proven itself a competitive force in the marketplace, so attention was given to reducing dependence on butter. Although the smaller local co-ops had always resisted proposals for amalgamation, lively and sometimes heated discussions eventually resulted in a unanimous 1946 agreement between representatives from the Bega, Bemboka, Pambula, South Wolumla, Bimbaya, Cobargo and Erinna co-operatives that, in addition to butter, Bega should also process whole milk products for human consumption. Farmers at Brogo, Springvale, Tanja, Numbugga and Angledale all agreed to supply the Bega Co-operative. In 1956, the Society installed a milk packaging plant and equipment to treat skim milk.

This program of diversification also saw commercial cheese manufacturing commence at the Bega Co-operative in 1955.

Cheddar cheese production had started locally by the 1850s and with no refrigeration, allowed for more effective storage and transportation. By 1871, an average of 31,000 cheese were being shipped from Eden annually; while two schooners and steamer were collecting 200 cheeses a week from Tathra.

On-farm cheese making continued on many individual properties throughout the area, with Kameruka’s Island Factory considered the most advanced by the 1880s. As the 19th century turned over into the 20th, the rising price of cheese encouraged local dairymen to erect on farm factories, with brands such as Box Range, Yarranung, Jellat, Kanoona, Elmgrove, Warragaburra and Kameruka all earning outstanding reputations. By 1917, there were 47 cheese factories spread across the area now encompassed in the Bega Valley Shire and it was noted that “There can be no doubt about this district being adapted for cheese making, especially when it is backed up by manufacturers who make a scientific study and carry out up-to-date methods. The cheese-makers of this district are renowned for a good article."

Cheese making facilities at Bega expanded with the construction of a larger factory in 1969, but, unable to compete, the Island factory at Kameruka ceased production in 1971. After purchasing the name, Bega began to also manufacture the Kameruka brand. The following year, Bega amalgamated with the A. B. C. Cheese Society at Tilba and in 1975, a branch was opened at Queanbeyan, operating until its closure in 1983.

Prior to the 1970s, the dairying industry nationally was dominated by family owned concerns milking small herds. However, in the wake of the United Kingdom joining the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973-74, that export market went into decline. With shrinking viability, many small farms were turned over to beef production and other activities to survive. A range of other changes including milk quotas, bulk collection by refrigerated tankers and increasingly strict government regulations eventually brought about the closure of the smaller co-operatives throughout the district until Bega was the only one remaining.

In 1975, capacity at the cheese factory was doubled and the milk packaging plant was upgraded. Redevelopment of the Canberra factory was completed in 1985 and after the Bodalla Co-operative’s closure, their suppliers transferred their output to Bega in 1990. The export of cheese to a number of countries commenced in 1994, the same year that the Bega Heritage Centre was erected, and in 1995, a number of East Gippsland farmers began supplying milk to Bega.

In 1998, the cheese cutting, packaging and processing plant in Ridge Street, Bega, was officially opened by the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, servicing the domestic and international markets for value added cheese products; and within about three years, the company underwent a period of rapid growth, going from a staff of 80 people to more than 500. Now the largest employer in the Shire, the company now has a workforce of around 650 in the Bega Valley with a further 300 in the Strathmerton facility and about 300 at Tatura Milk Industries.

In excess of one hundred farms across the district supply the local factory, in addition to others in the Illawarra and East Gippsland, providing around 125 million litres of milk a year to Bega Cheese Ltd. Although some is used for the Canberra fresh milk market, a total of around 20,000 tonnes of natural cheddar cheese, 7,500 tonnes of whey powder and a small amount of butter is produced annually, along with processed cheese. In addition to its extensive dairy range, the company now also produces spreads such as the iconic Vegemite and peanut butter; and the Zoosh brand of dressings, condiments, sauces and dips.

Still one hundred percent Australian owned and operated, Bega is now the number one cheese brand nationwide and the largest cheese manufacturer in the country. It is the leading supplier of cheese products to the domestic market and also exports products valued at around $100 million a year to more than fifty countries around the world.


A co-operative is defined as “…an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Based on the concept of individuals pooling resources for a common outcome, the modern co-operative movement gained popularity in Europe, particularly England and France, during the 19th century.

The Shore Porters Society, established in Aberdeen in 1498, claims to be one of the world’s first co-operatives. However, the earliest documented establishment of such an organisation was in Fenwick, Scotland where, in 1769, members of the Fenwick Weavers’ Society began selling oatmeal at a discounted rate. As the mechanisation of the Industrial Revolution continued to force more and more workers into poverty, increasing numbers of people began to band together to open their own stores selling food and other items at discounted rates. By 1830, there were several hundred co-operatives, with various organisations springing up across Western Europe, North America and Japan during the mid-19th century.

However, it is the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers that are generally accepted as having founded the modern co-operative movement. Established in 1844 in Lancashire, England, to provide an affordable alternative to poor-quality, adulterated food and provisions, they developed the Rochdale Principles that formed the basis for the development and growth of the modern co-operative movement - and upon which all co-operatives operate even today. Since then, the concept has flourished, spreading across the world and encompassing all sectors of the economy.

The International Co-operative Alliance was founded in London, England, on 19 August 1895 during the 1st Co-operative Congress. In attendance were delegates from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, India, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia and the USA.

The co-operative concept has had a presence in the Australian economic and social landscape since the 1850s. In that time, the country has had, and continues to have, several different forms ranging from building societies and credit unions through to agricultural, workers and consumer co-operatives.

Agricultural co-operatives in particular have played a crucial role in the development of rural Australia. Indeed the country’s first co-operative was agricultural-based. The South Coast and West Camden Co-operative Company was established in 1881 with the aim to remove the “middle men” and improve returns for the farmers. It was followed two years later by the Kiama Pioneer Co-operative Dairy Factory, reputedly the first co-operative dairy factory in Australia. The concept soon spread with similar organisations established in many rural areas across the country.

Considered such an outstanding and noteworthy aspect of the human story, UNESCO added the “idea and practice of organizing [sic] shared interests in cooperatives” to their Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.


Fabric, design, manufacture and condition:

Bega Cheese as an industry, an entity and a representation of the local dairying industry is illustrated by a rich legacy of movable and built cultural heritage; as well as landscapes; people; livestock; archaeological sites; and intangible attachments and associations, extending the length and breadth of the Bega Valley Shire.

Tangible fabric includes built heritage elements such as farms, barns, feed silos, milking stalls, wells, co-operative and on farm factories and roadside cream boxes; along with moveable cultural heritage objects such as the extensive array of tools and equipment in both public and private collections. There are also numerous important cultural landscapes and vistas across the shire, including the Bega Valley, Kameruka and the Pambula River flats that have either shaped or been shaped by the industry.


Used by:

The Bega Co-operative Society; dairy farmers and their employees across the region; factory workers; transport drivers; local, national and international consumers;


Although Bega Cheese is a strong and readily recognisable identity, radical changes to dairying across the Bega Valley Shire represents a significant threat to the tangible and intangible extant remnants of the local industry. Developments such as the move to beef raising and other farming activities, the quota system, deregulation, government restrictions and increasing bureaucratic oversight has seen many relics of the industry continuing to deteriorate through lack of use, maintenance and declining usefulness.

Growing pressure to open up productive rural grazing land to subdivision and redevelopment for “hobby farm” and residential purposes is placing increasingly negative pressure on the historically valuable tangible links with the industry right across the local government area. Unless steps are taken to protect those remainders, particularly with respect to the built and archaeological, loss of significant material evidence (both in importance and in amount) will result. It is also likely to irrevocably alter highly important cultural landscapes and vistas.


Production date:

Between the 1830s through to the present day.

Most local museums also have photographic collections of various aspects of the industry. Examples also exist in other organisations outside the Local Government Area.

Most local museums have photographic collections associated with the industry. Examples also exist in organisations outside the Local Government Area.

The particular significance of this collection:

Bega Cheese as a company, an entity and a local icon has outstanding historic, social and cultural importance to the local region and maintains an invaluable link between past and present.

The district now encompassed by the Bega Valley Shire has been traditionally dependent upon dairying since the earliest days of European settlement. The industry has been and remains a crucial social and economic story for the area.

As one of the principal industries in the district, dairying in general and butter and cheese production in particular have had a major economic influence on the region. It has been responsible for the direct and indirect employment of growing numbers of people, not only with respect to farm and factory production but in the wider community. It continues to contribute to the financial well-being of the community.

The industry has a special and deep social and historic importance to the community. Closely associated with many of the early European settlers in the region, this generational link has remained strong through to the present day. As a well-recognised and highly respected brand virtually worldwide, Bega Cheese continues to make an integral contribution to the ongoing cultural significance of the industry to the local population.

Bega Cheese and its forerunners have a strong historic and living association with the dairying, farming and general community throughout and beyond the local region.

The combined tangible and intangible historic evidence is important in illustrating the development of a uniquely local and recognisable identity.

The extensive historic and modern material evidence stretching across and beyond the district provides a vital tangible link with and illustration of local farming and agricultural practices across a lengthy time period. Highlighting the importance of the industry to the region, it offers outstanding potential to yield information about the pattern of growth and development of dairying in general and butter and cheese processing in particular from the earliest manual, labour intensive age right through to the present, highly mechanised era. It provides outstanding evidence of changing technology and the impact that had and is continuing to have on the industry.

The associated historic and modern infrastructure was and remains closely tied to the local community of the Bega Valley Shire and beyond and is indicative of the ongoing value the industry continues to have.

A central part of the cultural landscape of the broader Bega Valley Shire, the dairying industry has played a significant role in shaping the physical environment. Tangible evidence can be noted in vistas and views across the region, contributing to the understanding of historic land use patterns and the sequence and nature of settlement and occupation. It also offers opportunities to better understand the dictates of geography in the location of various factories and other infrastructure along with the distribution of farms, property clusters and transport routes.

Remnant and current tangible evidence across the district also provides an outstanding built document illustrating the growth, expansion and contraction of the co-operative movement across the district. They reflect the general state of the dairy industry state wide from the 19th century through to the present day and illustrates the booms and busts of dairying locally and beyond. As the last remaining working entity associated with that earlier period, Bega Cheese is an important illustration of change and continuity in the industry and provides a valuable tangible link between past and present operations.

An excellent representation of the style of co-operative factories that were once so common throughout New South Wales, the remnant structures across the shire display the form and design of those commonly employed in rural dairy factory construction. They also provide an important and extensive illustration of rural industrial buildings from the first half of the 20th century.

A highly significant aspect of the history and heritage of the region, the opportunities for interpretation are extensive and could include heritage trails, guided tours, written and oral histories, publications and interpretive exhibitions.


Main theme:






Pastoralism in Bega Valley Shire

Other themes:









Aboriginal cultures and interactions with other cultures

Ethnic influences



Environment – cultural landscapes





Towns, suburbs and villages

Land tenure


Government and administration



Aboriginal people’s cultural heritage and connections to Bega Valley Shire

Settler heritage in Bega Valley Shire

Coming to live in the Bega Valley Shire

Working the land in Bega Valley Shire

Cultural landscapes within Bega Valley Shire

Learning the landscapes of Bega Valley Shire

Building and industrial development within Bega Valley Shire

Technological innovation within Bega Valley Shire

Challenging terrains: Getting about in Bega Valley Shire

Constructing townships within Bega Valley Shire

Constructing boundaries within Bega Valley Shire

Working in Bega Valley Shire

Self-government and democracy in Bega Valley Shire

Remembering and honouring the people of Bega Valley Shire

Thematic storylines:

  • European exploration
  • Settling, developing and building the region
  • Settling, developing and building the region – The squatters
  • Settling, developing and building the region – Farming estates
  • Settling, developing and building the region – Convicts and convict labour
  • Settling, developing and building the region – The selectors.
  • Developing the settlements, villages and towns
  • Land use patterns
  • Transport – Maritime
  • Transport – Land
  • The development and evolution of transportation methods
  • Rural and regional industries
  • Rural and regional industries – Agricultural and pastoral
  • Rural and regional industries - Dairying
  • Rural and regional industries – Pig raising
  • The economy and economic influences
  • The economy and economic influences – 1840s depressions
  • Labour, working and employment

Geographically associated places / sites:

Many extant remnants right across the local government area.

Associated / linked places / sites / items / people:

Heritage listings (statutory and non-statutory):

Further information:

Bega Heritage Centre, 13/11 Lagoon St, Bega NSW 2550

Bega Pioneers’ Museum, 87 Bega St, Bega NSW 2550

Bega Cheese website,

Contributors to this ‘library’:

Angela George and Pat Raymond, February 2019.

Acknowledgements, Rights and Permissions:

Acknowledgement of Angela George and Pat Raymond.

© Angela George and Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.

References and bibliography:

  • 1841 Census of Aboriginals.
  • 1846 Census.
  • Apps, Chris, pers. comm.
  • Argus,
  • Australian.
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Dairy Industry, Commonwealth of Australia, 2007,
  • Australian Town and Country Journal
  • Balf, Reg (Comp.), Shipping in Ports of the Bega Valley Shire Region, unpublished index, n.d.
  • Bayley, William. A., The Story of the Settlement and Development Bega, Bega Intermediate High School, 1942
  • Bega Cheese,
  • Bega – District Prosperity Lies in Dairying,
  • Bega District News
  • Bega Gazette.
  • Bega Standard.
  • Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Review, 1848
  • Bennett, Mrs. Joyce, pers. comm..
  • Brierly, Oswald, Journal and diaries, ML Doc 2262 A 540, 541, 542.
  • Candelo & Eden Union & South Auckland Advocate,
  • Census of Aboriginals of Manero for the Year Ended 31st December 1847.
  • Clarke, Patricia, A Colonial Woman – The Life and Times and Mary Braidwood Mowle, Allen and Unwin, 1986.
  • Codrington, Stephen B., Gold from gold : the history of dairying in the Bega Valley, Sydney : Mercury Research Press, 2nd ed., 1981
  • Colonist.
  • Dairy Australia, History of Australian Dairy Industry Deregulation,
  • Eden Magnet.
  • Empire.
  • Farmer and Settler
  • Government Gazette.
  • Governor Bourke’s Dispatch No. 99 to Lord Glenelg, 10 October 1835, in Historical Records of Australia, Vol, XVII.
  • Governor Gipps Dispatch No. 139 to Lord John Russell, 28 September 1840, in Historical Records of Australia, Vol. XX, P. 389.
  • Heaton, J. H., Australian Dictionary of Dates and Men of the Times, S. W. Silver and Co., London, 1879.
  • Illawarra Mercury.
  • Lambie, J. Annual Report of the Aborigines of Maneroo, January 6, 1848, in Historical Records of Australia, Vol. XXI.
  • Lambie, J., to Colonial Secretary Thomson, Commissioner of Crown Lands Office, Maneroo, in Historical Records of Australia, Vol, XXI.
  • Lambie, John, Commissioner of Crown Lands, 1839 Census.
  • Maitland Mercury.
  • Pambula Voice.
  • Perkins, J. A. Index to J. A. Perkins Papers, Monaro District Items 1823 – 1858, Vols. 1, 2, Manly, NSW
  • Perkins Papers, NLA MS 936 1-2
  • Robinson, George Augustus, Journey into South-Eastern Australia – 1844.
  • Ryan, Bruce, Towns and Settlements of the South Coast, NSW, 1965.
  • Smith, Bernice, Pioneering Days in Bega, Bega Valley Historical Society, 1975.
  • Swinbourne, Helen, and Winters, Judy, Pictorial
  • History Bega Valley Shire,
  • Kingsclear Books, 2001
  • Sydney Gazette.
  • Sydney Monitor.
  • Twofold Bay Magnet
  • The Sydney Morning Herald.
  • Walker, A. L. (comp.), Walker Family Letters, 1836 – 52, A. L. Walker, Wolgan, Vic.
  • Walker, Archie, pers. comm.
  • Walker, Virginia, pers. comm.
  • Weatherhead, Alexander, Leaves from my Life, W. T. Campbell printer, 1891.
  • Wellings, H. P. Early Pambula, [n.d.]
  • Wellings, H. P. An Experiment in Exports from Twofold Bay, in Magnet December 27, 1930.
  • Wellings, H. P., The Imlay Brothers D. S. Ford, Sydney [n.d.]
  • Wells, William Henry, A Geographical Dictionary or Gazetteer of the Australian Colonies, W. and F. Ford, Sydney, 1848.
  • Wikipedia, Agricultural Cooperative,
  • Wikipedia, Bega, New South Wales,,_New_South_Wales
  • Wikipedia, History of the Cooperative Movement,
Images courtesy of and © Pat Raymond. All rights reserved.


11-13 Lagoon Street, BEGA NSW 2550