Cowra is a town in the Central West region of New South Wales, Australia in the Cowra Shire. It is located on the Mid-Western Highway, 317 kilometres west of Sydney on the banks of the Lachlan River at an altitude of 310 metres above sea level. At the 2011 census Cowra had a population of 12,147 people.
The area was originally inhabited by the Wiradjuri people. The first white explorer, George Wilson Evans, entered the Lachlan Valley in 1815. He named the area the Oxley Plains after his superior the surveyor-general, John Oxley. In 1817 he deemed the area "unfit for white settlement". A military depot was established not long after at Soldiers Flat near present day Billimari. Arthur Ranken and James Sloan, from Bathurst, were amongst the first white settlers on the Lachlan. They moved to the area in 1831.
The township of "Coura Rocks" had its beginnings in 1844. Around 1847, the township site became known as Cowra, and in 1849, was proclaimed a village.
The origin of the town's name is unclear. Sources claim that the name is aboriginal for "rocks", although the local Wiradjuri language has no words for "rocks".
In the 1850s the many gold prospectors passed through headed for gold fields at Lambing Flat (Young) and Grenfell. The first school was established in 1857. The first bridge over the Lachlan River was built in 1870. Gold was discovered at Mount McDonald in the 1880s. The rail head, from Sydney, reached Cowra in 1886. Local government was granted in 1888. The first telephone exchange was established in 1901. The town water supply was established in 1909, the gasworks in 1912 and town supplied electricity was introduced in 1924.
In 1922, a young Sir Charles Kingsford Smith flew under the Cowra Traffic Bridge with local man Ken Richards. The pair also attempted to fly under the railway bridge but Richards noticed telephone lines seconds before the attempt and they were able to pull the aircraft up and away from danger.
Cowra is home to the Australian replica of the UN's World Peace Bell, an honour normally reserved for a nation's capital city. It was awarded to Cowra in recognition of its unique contribution to international understanding, promotion of peace and as a centre of world friendship.
Cowra also hosts an annual Festival of International Understanding, featuring street stalls, parades and events showcasing a particular foreign culture. This year's event took place between the 10-13 March and focused on Finland.
The Cowra breakout
During World War II Cowra was the site of a prisoner of war (POW) camp. Most of the detainees were captured Japanese and Italian military personnel, On 5 August 1944, at least 545 Japanese POWs attempted a mass breakout from the camp. Simultaneously, other Japanese prisoners committed suicide, or were killed by their countrymen, inside the camp.
The actions of the POWs in storming machine gun posts, armed only with improvised weapons, showed what Prime Minister John Curtin described as a "suicidal disregard of life", and had no chance of success.
During the breakout and subsequent recapture of POWs, four Australian guards and 231 Japanese died, and 108 prisoners were wounded. The dead Japanese were buried in Cowra in the specially created Japanese War Cemetery. This is the only such cemetery in Australia, and also holds some of the dead from the WWII air raids on Darwin.