Barmah is a rural village and district on the Murray River in northern Victoria, 23 km north-east of Echuca and 23 km west of Nathalia. The journey from Nathalia is more direct than the one from Echuca. It is renowned for the Barmah State Forest, which has one section adjoining the village and a more extended section to the east.

It is thought that the name derives from an Aboriginal word paama, meaning meeting place. Whether or not that is accurate, there is evidence that the Barmah forest was inhabited by a large Aboriginal population and was a plentiful source of food.

In 1863-64 the railway line from Bendigo to Echuca was built, and consumed large volumes of sleepers cut from the red gums in the Barmah forest. A punt began operation, joining the tracks from Echuca to Yarrawonga where they crossed the Murray River. In 1886 a town was surveyed on rising ground near the punt, and the resulting Barmah village became a river outlet for wool from surrounding pastoral stations. It also became the shipping point for railway sleepers cut for domestic use and for export to India and New Zealand.

Despite expressions of concern about unsustainable timber harvesting as early as 1869 and the reservation of State forest in 1870, large sawmillers mostly cut as much as they wanted until about 1880, when an export duty was put on timber to preserve supplies. Closer to the township the Barmah Common was reserved in about 1879 as a place for stock to be grazed, particularly in drought years.

A school was opened at Barmah in 1871, but the township was small with a hotel, a sale yard and a few houses. In 1894 a Barmah Village Settlement brought more people to the area. Timber-cutting rose and fell with demand, and was milled locally or at Echuca.

By the 1950s there was evidence that the weirs built on the Murray River for irrigation were decreasing the flood frequency in the Barmah forest. The change of rhythm decreased the germination of red gum seedlings and interfered with the breeding of water birds. Effluent from human and farm activity also adversely affected water quality. Flood regulators were installed by 1959.

During the 1920s Barmah became a destination for campers and fishers. Its popularity has grown, particularly for canoeing during flood times. A bridge replaced the punt in 1966. The importance of the forest as a recreation area was reinforced by the opening of the Dharuya Centre (1985), jointly run by the State Government and the local Aboriginal community. It functions as a museum and an interpretation centre. In 1993 one of the three tribal groups in the area, the Yorta Yorta, made a land claim under the Mabo legislation in respect of the forest.

The State Forest comprises 28,500 ha, of which about 85% is red gum. It was declared a National Park in 2010, and is part of the Ramsar Barmah–Millewa wetland. In 2006 fire burnt through 900 hectares in Barmah. In 2010 nearly all of the river red gum forest was flooded for the first time in 15 years and the national park temporarily closed.

Barmah township has a hotel/motel, two caravan parks, a hall, a Catholic church, a boat ramp and picnic spots along the river. The Barmah punt (1929-66) and the stock muster yards (1880s-) are heritage-listed.

Barmah's census populations have been:

Census date Population
1891 73
1911 328
1947 183
1961 167
2011 181

In 2011 15.5% of Barmah’s population was Indigenous.

Further Reading

Charles Fahey, ‘Barmah Forest’, Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, 1987

Gillian Hibbins, A history of the Nathalia Shire: the good helsman, Hawthorn Press, 1978

Gillian Hibbins, Barmah chronicles, Richmond, 1991

Norman Mackay and David Eastburn (eds), The Murray, Murray Darling Basin Commission, 1990

Ron Hood and Judy Ormond, Spanning the years: Barmah town and school, Barmah, 1996

Nerelie Teese and Leigh Wright, Timber workers of the Barmah Forest, Nathalia, 2009

Nerelie Teese and Leigh Wright, The Barmah Forest in our blood, Echuca, 2008