With an area of 43,000 square kilometres, the shire is home to many small villages and is considered a gateway into south west Queensland and the far west of New South Wales. It is home to approximately 3,000 people. The Shire’s prosperity is built around the pastoral, irrigation, tourism and service industries which are strongly supported by a wide range of attractions and activities.
The first white explorer to encounter the river was Charles Sturt in 1828 who named it after NSW Governor Ralph Darling. Having struck the region during an intense drought and a low river, Sturt dismissed the area as largely uninhabitable and short of any features necessary for establishing renewable industry on the land.
Bourke is considered to represent the edge of the settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the Outback that lies north and west of Bourke. This is reflected in a traditional east coast Australian expression “back o’ Bourke”, referring to the Outback.
In 1892 a young writer Henry Lawson was sent to Bourke by Bulletin editor J.F. Archibald to get a taste of outback life and to try to curb his heavy drinking. In Lawson’s own words “I got £5 and a railway ticket from the Bulletin and went to Bourke. Painted, picked up in a shearing shed and swagged it for six months”. The experience was to have a profound effect on the 25-year-old and his encounter with the harsh realities of bush life inspired much of his subsequent work. Lawson would later write “if you know Bourke you know Australia”. In 1992 eight poems, written under a pseudonym and published in the Western Herald, were discovered in the Bourke library archives and confirmed to be Lawson’s work.
Fred Hollows, the famous eye surgeon, was buried in Bourke after his death in 1993. Fred Hollows had worked in Bourke in the early 1970s and had asked to be buried there.