‘Fortress’ Sydney – a Colonial Paradigm of Feeble Fortifications

Local history, Military history

The founding of the British colony in Port Jackson in 1788, isolated from the mother country some ten-and-a-half thousand miles away, brought with it many anxieties for the new settlers. With French, Spanish, Dutch and Russian empires all vying with Britain for global supremacy, the security of Sydney was very much on the minds of Governor Phillip and his gubernatorial successors. Right from the get-go measures were put in place to shore up the vulnerable colony’s defences, both against potential external threats and internal rebellion. How secure and how effective these efforts were, we shall examine below.

What's left of the Dawes Pt battery, these days with a pretty sizeable awning!
What’s left of the Dawes Pt battery, these days with a pretty sizeable awning!
In 1790 a battery was located in Sydney on a rocky bluff jutting out into the harbour on what was to become known as Dawes Point. The Dawes Point fortifications were chosen to be the first line of defence against enemy invaders because of its propitious location – a high, narrow, peninsula offering an excellent views straight out onto the harbour§. Also, being very close to the main settlement at Sydney Cove, news of any sign of impending danger or threat could be quickly relayed to the townspeople. A battery was also installed on Windmill Hill (now Observatory Hill) in 1794. Ten years later work commenced on the construction of Fort Phillip on the same site, the fort was intended to be a citadel in the event of convict insurrection, however it was never completed. In the 1850s most of the fortified structure got dismantled to make way for the building of the Sydney Observatory¹.

Over the course of the first seventy years or so of settlement in Sydney the security focus gradually shifted from concentrating on the inner harbour (Dawes Point and Sydney Cove) to defending the Heads and Botany Bay. In 1801 the first gun emplacements were built in Middle Head (north of Obelisk Bay) as a response to the growing threat to Britain of France under Napoleon (in the 20th century these fortifications were overgrown by vegetation and more or less forgotten until rediscovered in the 1990s)².

Outmoded artillery on Windmill Hill
Outmoded artillery on Windmill Hill
The threat to New South Wales, so distant from the European theatres of the Napoleonic Wars, probably seems a remote one when seen through modern eyes, but it was taken seriously at the time. Sydney was perceived as a desirable prize because of several factors – it had a strategically important harbour, the envy of navies all over the world; there was only a small population in place to defend the settlement; and later on it had huge quantities of gold bullion acquired from the goldfields³.

It seems that the adequacy of the fortifications was being called into question constantly throughout the 19th century. Criticism from prominent citizens of the colony was common (the embrasures ineffective, fragility of the fortification as a whole, etc). One of the points made by Commissioner Bigge’s Report into the colony (1820) was that in the event of another conflict between Britain and the USA (following upon the recent War of 1812) Britain’s colonies, especially New South Wales, would be very susceptible to seizure by the US4. In addition, the prevalence of American whaling fleets in the South Pacific made many in the colony fearful of raids on Sydney Town by Yankee privateers.

Francis Greenway was the architect commissioned to strengthen the principal fort at Dawes Point in 1819, having described (with some exaggeration) the battery’s prior state as “perfectly useless … so that any speculator of any of the nations we were at war with, might have entered our harbour, destroyed our infant town, blowed up the stores, and left us in a woeful condition5. Greenway was also responsible for the construction of Fort Macquarie on the tip of Bennelong Point (smack-bang where the Sydney Opera House is today!).

The strengthening of Sydney’s defences have often occurred as a reaction to security scares in the colony. The decision in 1841 to convert a convict hold in the middle of the harbour (Pinchgut Island) into Fort Denison came about after two American warships were discovered having anchored themselves in the harbour without being detected. The fortifications of Fort Denison were in any case far from swiftly constructed, not being finished until 1857, by which time the perceived external threat had shifted to Russia after the Crimean War.

South Head was fortified in the 1840s – though not equipped with artillery until the 1870s! Possessing an ideal vantage point to view vessels approaching the harbour, it was also used as a lookout and a signal station. Today a naval base, HMAS Watson, is housed on the land it occupied6.

Not all plans for the reform of Sydney’s coastal defences got acted on. In 1848 Lt-Colonel James Gordon proposed a definitive, systematic plan to upgrade and improve both the inner (harbour) fortifications and the outer (heads) fortifications. Gordon’s plans only ever got partially implemented by the colonial authorities who were content to “cherry-pick”7.

Upper Georges Heights battery
Upper Georges Heights battery
Following the Crimean War conflict, a fear that the Russian Pacific Fleet might invade the colony prompted an upgrade in defence facilities. Some fortifications were added to Bradleys Head and South Head, although nothing much really happened until Britain’s Cardwell Army Reforms came into effect (1870). One consequence was that British ‘redcoats’ were withdrawn from Australia and the colony was required to raise local units to protect itself. This proved a spur to the authorities in Sydney to construct new fortifications further north-east in Port Jackson, around Mosman. Gun emplacements were built at Middle Head, Georges Head, Bradleys Head and Lower Georges Heights.

British fears that Tsarist Russia might try to extend its empire into India via Afghanistan led to a wave of ‘Russophobia’in the 1870s and 80s8, which spread eventually to the NSW colony. Already, in 1863 a Russian corvette (the Bogatyr) had visited Sydney and Melbourne, prompting the Sydney Morning Herald to allege that it was secretly conducting topographical surveys of Port Jackson and Botany Bay to ascertain the strength of the settlement’s fortifications9.

Bare Island - decent sort of target!
Bare Island – decent sort of target!
The Sydney authorities, fearing an attack from the Russian Navy and sensing that Sydney was vulnerable to an attack from its southern “back door”, built a fort in 1888 at Bare Island off La Perouseat the entrance to Botany Bay. The edifice unfortunately was composed of poor quality materials and began to crumble before completion. The islet fort was decommissioned in 1902 due in part to the state of its armaments. Though heavily-gunned its technology had quickly become outdated. The Russian Pacific Fleet never came to Bare Island but these days scuba divers flock to it as its waters are a prized diving site10.

The Jervois-Stratchley Reports (defence capability reviews) of the late 1870s emphasised the military importance of sea-ports and this led to a new phase of fort construction in Sydney and elsewhere in the Australasian colonies, eg, Bare Island, Fort Nepean (Port Phillip Bay, Victoria), Fort Lytton (Brisbane) and the eponymous Fort Scratchley in Newcastle. The fortifications designed by Lieutenant Scratchley, eg, Bare Island, the 1890s cliff-top forts manned with large, anti-bombardment guns around Sydney’s eastern seaboard to protect the suburbs of Vaucluse (Signal Hill Fort), Bondi (Ben Buckler) and Clovelly/Coogee (Shark Point), were outmoded and already basically obsolete when completed11.

The development of Sydney’s coastal defences has followed an irregular course since 1788. Its decidedly desultory and piecemeal trajectory can be attributed to a number of factors, principal among which is cost. Funding defensive works with all the infrastructure required (then as well as now) is an expensive business. Unsurprisingly, the resort to cost-cutting as in the Dawes Point battery, led to the use of inferior materials and rapid disintegration of the construction. Procuring the artillery was neither cheap or easy to do, and in virtually no time the weaponry became out-of-date12. Also at times, the “tyranny of distance” possibly breed in the local authorities a degree of complacency. Being so far away from where the international action was, meant that coastal fortification often ended up a lower priority that the other, immediate needs of the colony.


Bare Island has functioned as a museum since the early 1960s, having never fired a shot in anger (fortunately so perhaps, as had it seen action, its location would have been terribly exposed to hostile fire). Its infrastructure remains largely intact although it’s disappearing guns have indeed ‘disappeared’ for good. The nearby but remote Henry Head is today overgrown to a large extent with vegetation and also sans guns.

Old Fort Rd, Middle Head
Old Fort Rd, Middle Head
Middle Head/Georges Head (Mosman) has probably the best kept fortifications on the Sydney coast, owing in large part to the fact that this part of Middle Harbour was under military jurisdiction for over a century. The area at various times has contained, et al, a naval hospital, army camp (barracks, quarters, etc), a gunnery school and a submarine miners’ depot.

The Outer Fort's notorious "tiger cages"
The Outer Fort’s notorious “tiger cages”
Middle Head has two forts on the headland, the larger one, the Outer Fort, is perched up on sloping ground in front of a cleared area. The fort’s emplacements contain the notorious the “tiger cages”. During the Vietnam War the cages were used by the Australian Army to train soldiers to withstand torture and interrogation. On the iron grills of some of the cages rust marks are still visible, a remnant of the water entrapment ordeals that used to be meted out! Although no shots were ever fired in anger from the Head, in the middle of last century the battery’s gunners used to practice the accuracy of their 10 and 12 inch guns on a tiny, rocky outcrop of an island in Middle Harbour – which is now fully submerged (no surprise!)

imageThe smaller, Inner Fort with dense vegetation surrounding it has a very different claim to fame. It was used as the bikies’ hideout in the 1974 independent cult movie Stone. The emplacements have long entrance ramps leading to circular gun enclosures and the bikies on their Harleys would tear through the bush track and along the ramps into the enclosures. The two forts and the nearby fort at Georges Head all have the same design – circular gun mounts with ancillary rooms running off them and a vast network of connecting tunnels leading to other military instalments on the promontory.

Emplacements at Middle Head
Emplacements at Middle Head
The Dawes Point battery today is non-existent, the space merely one of the historic curios of the Rocks. All that remains is the symbolism of a couple of authentic looking canons, some information boards recounting the history and architecture, and an artist’s modern, interpretative representation of the former structure … and a nice park in the shadows of the steel under-girth of the harbour bridge.

§ Dawes Point functioned as the centrepiece of a system of signal stations. A series of strategically positioned signal posts stretching out to the Heads would relay information on marine activity such as the approach of foreign shipping

at the same gun emplacements (with disappearing guns) were constructed at Henry Head on the most easterly part of La Perouse

¹ ‘Colonial Powder Magazines – Fort Phillip Powder Magazine’, www.users.tpg.com
²’Sydney’s lost fort declared open’, 23. July 2010, www.news.com.au
³ Dean Boyce, ‘Defending colonial Sydney” Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/defending_colonial_sydney, viewed 30 March 2016.
4 Boyce 2008; A Wayne Johnson, ‘Showdown in the Pacific: a Remote Response to European Power Struggles in the Pacific, Dawes Point Battery, Sydney, 1791-1925’, (Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority), www.sha.org/uploads/files/
5 F Greenway, Sydney Gazette and NSW Advertiser, 13 September 1834.
6’Bridging the Gap’, Dictionary of Sydney,2011.
7 ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ (2015), www.visitsydneyaustralia.com.au
8 ‘Russophobia’ was evident at the time in the popularity of “Invasion scare novels” (eg, The Invasion by WH Walker, published in Sydney in 1877, an account of a fictionalised attack on Sydney by the Russian navy, Boyce 2008.
9 A Massov, ‘The Russian Corvette “Bogatyr” in Melbourne and Sydney in 1863’, http://australiarussia.com.au
10 ‘Bare Island (New South Wales)’, Wikipedia, www.e.n.wikipedia.org
11 Boyce 2008; ‘Sydney’s Fortifications’ 2015.
12 ‘Sydney’s Colonial Fortifications’, Australian Society for the History of Engineering & Technology (ASHET, Self-guided Tour, nd)

Homebush Bay Perambulations III: a Walk through an Industrial Graveyard

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

This walk starts from a central point in Homebush Bay, Sydney Olympic Station, and will explore some places on the periphery of the area. This will include parts of the present Olympic Park complex with a very different industrial past to its current activities.

From the station we are very close to the first stop on our walk, but when we get there we discover that a small group of linked buildings (between Dawn Fraser and Herb Elliott Avenues) is the only reminder of the area’s former industrial preoccupations. The nest of Abattoirs administration buildings are all that remains of the once vast (Homebush) State Abattoirs. This handsome brick structure, circa 1913 but maintained in good condition, now bears the name (in SOPA* speak) Abattoir Heritage Precinct. Today, it houses, appropriately enough for the surroundings, sporting bodies, eg, the NSW Rugby League Professional Players Association and the Australian Paralympics Committee. One of the smaller, adjunct buildings is used as a cafe (with the slightly melancholy and possibly perverse name (given the history) “Abattoir Blues” Cafe.

Abattoir humour
Abattoir humour
There is a backhanded tribute of sorts(?) on the admin site to its former status as an Abattoirs. The forecourt’s garden setting includes a series of panels trivialising the activities involving the slaughtered creatures in a humorous fashion. The signs consisted of painted ceramics depicting cute-looking cows and pigs with captions echoing popular nursery rhymes – “Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo, e-i-e-i-o”, “To market, to market, Jiggety Jig, Jiggety Jog”, etc. Very sensitive stuff, eh? You don’t have to be a committed animal liberationist to find this in poor taste.

Next we walk from the Admin Precinct down Showground Road and through Cathy Freeman Park with its “Olympic Torch” Fountain (a hit with five-year-olds in summer, if not their parents) on to Kevin Coombs Avenue around the Showground block up to Australia Avenue. The Abattoirs itself was located within this broad area, and comprised at its peak 44 slaughterhouses with a capacity to kill over 20,000 animals a day … at one point it was the largest abattoir in the Commonwealth. Serviced by an industry rail link from Rookwood Station, there were saleyards and meat preserving facilities in the immediate vicinity (Homebush and Flemington).

Homebush Bay (1922 edition of Wilson's Street Directory)
Homebush Bay (1922 edition of Wilson’s Street Directory)
In a previous piece on Homebush Bay I mentioned the super-sized contribution of Union Carbide and other industrial polluters to the extreme level of dioxins and other contaminants found in Haslams Creek. Well, the Abattoirs did its bit as well in the old days. The proximity of the plant to the Creek was too tempting … an easy way to dispose of the waste materials of animal carcasses resulting in algal blooms and further pollution of the waterway. This practice had the additional affect of attracting sharks to the nearby Silverwater Baths[¹].

About 500 metres along Australia Avenue, opposite the Showground, we see a mechanical relic of a bygone industry on display, rusted throughout. Here a narrow, sloping pathway starts, cutting a v-shape through the bush. At the end of the path you reach a long, elevated catwalk, caged on either side, which leads to the viewing tower of the old Brickpit, known as the Brickpit Ring. This aerial, circular structure, sitting 18.5 metres above the ground on slender metal stilts, provides a spectacular view of the former quarry with its gouged sandstone pit floor filled with viridescent-coloured water.

The Homebush Brickpit closed operations in 1988 (same year as the Abattoirs) and was destined to become one of the venues for the Olympics (possible site for among other things the tennis centre) but the last-minute discovery of an endangered frog species in residence saw it converted into a habitat for the green and golden bell frog.

As you walk around the 550-metre circumference of the Ring, the walls (multicoloured mesh panels interspersed with clear glass ones) double as information kiosks on the history of the brickworks (including an audio speaker with former pit workers recounting stories of their experiences). Other panels are equiped with soundscapes of frog calls.

imageThe information walls encircling the Ring give a concise summary of the history of the State Brickworks from its establishment in 1911. It tells an interesting story of a public enterprise formed to counter the oligopolistic tendencies of private brick manufacturers. Having a state brickworks was a means of keeping prices down and of increasing the percentage of owner-occupied dwellings in Sydney (only 30% in 1911).

Brickpit Ring
Brickpit Ring
The story is also one of intrigue in the form of sabotage – in the Depression the Nationalist government sold off the brickworks to a consortium of private brick-making companies which did its upmost to sabotage the brickworks when it was reacquired by the NSW (Labor) government. From 1946 the reformed State Brickworks, with their kilns destroyed and the works vandalised, struggled to meet the demands of the immediate post-war housing boom before again reaching an optimal output of 63 million bricks in the mid 1950s. Technological and work practice changes to brick-making in the 1970s presented a further challenge to the Homebush operations before its inevitable closure in the 1980s[²].

We exit by the northern catwalk which is apparently the official entrance to the Brickpit and cross over Marjorie Jackson Parkway into Wentworth Common. The Common today has a sporting field, children’s play area and family picnic facilities, but in the first half of the 19th century when it was part of the Wentworth Estate, the famous explorer William Wentworth built what was claimed to be Sydney’s first racecourse on the site¥ … an apt place to position a racecourse given that the Homebush area was originally known as as “The Flats”¤. In 1859 the premier racecourse (and the home of the Australian Jockey Club) was moved to its present site Randwick[³]. The Homebush track eventually was used (ca 1910) as something euphemistically called a “resting paddock” for the Homebush Abbatoirs. When the Brickworks were in full swing the workers dug the clay for construction of the bricks from the soil where Wentworth Common is now.

At night back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Brickworks and Abattoirs workers would go home, the back roads around the works would be taken over by testosterone-driven (and almost certainly alcohol-fuelled) local hoons who would turn it into a drag strip and stage their own ‘Brickies’ version of Mt Panorama[4].

The exploits of the suburban ‘revheads’ in the sixties and seventies, curiously, anticipated the recent conversion of Olympic Park into a street circuit for the running of V8 Supercars events from 2009. Amazingly, despite the furore caused by using such an environmentally sensitive location for this purpose, the Sydney 500 race continues to be held at Homebush (although 2016 is the last year it is scheduled to be held)[5].

Just to the north of the Common we come to a high earth mound with a circular path winding its way to the top. The Bay Marker as it is called contains the same cocktail of toxins and contaminants as the other markers and mounds in Homebush Bay. After taking in the views from atop the Bay Marker we head down Bennelong Parkway towards Bicentennial Park (a distance of about 1.4km to the park gates). On route we pass businesses of various kinds, electric power generators, fencing contractors and the occasional tertiary education centre.

Inside the gates we walk up the undulating grass slopes close to the road. The land at Bicentennial Park was once a large, de facto garbage tip with nothing aesthetic about the area to recommend it. It was a real eyesore with dumped cars, building wastes, tyres, all manner of ‘unwantables’ found their way onto the land over the years. The coming of the 200 year anniversary of white settlement in 1988 transformed the site with a makeover of the park, complete with fountain lakes, large modern sculptural pieces, bike hire facilities, ‘adventure’ playground and picnic areas.

Cyrus the Great
Cyrus the Great
On the walk through the Park there are several interesting features to see. Near where a small footbridge crosses from the park over Bennelong Parkway there is a monument to the ancient lawgiver, the 6th century BC Shahanshah Cyrus II of Persia … Iranians stumbling upon this whilst picnicking in the Park may puzzle over why his commemorative stone turned up here (NB: the footbridge is closed until November 2018 to allow for the construction of a new brickpit park).

Treillage in Bicen Park
Treillage in Bicen Park
From the Cyrus stone we walk east through the multi-fountained “water play area” to the striking structure at the highest point of the Park, the Treillage Tower. A treillage is a type of latticework that you are supposed to grow vines up, however there is not a vine in sight around this one! The structure has an oddly artificial appearance to it, a bit plasticky or cardboardish … like a cross between King Arthur’s Camelot and something you’d find at Disneyland! Unreal-looking it may be but it does afford good views of the nearby Badu Wetlands, Olympic facilities and yet another earth mound marker on the south side of Australia Avenue.

Heading east from the Treillage down the archaic-looking stone steps and over the Powells Creek bridge (with its curved lines which seem to mimic the Olympic Stadium) you come to the eastern entrance to the Park, flanked by two small-scale replicas of the Bicentennial tower. By walking 500 metres straight up Victoria Street you’ll reach Concord West Railway Station.


* Sydney Olympic Park Authority – the body responsible for managing and developing the 640 hectares of the Park’s area post-Olympics
¥ this claim would be under serious challenge as horse races were held on a course built in Hyde Park in the City of Sydney as early as 1810…Hyde Park ‘racecourse’ clearly predates other known claimants in Sydney.
¤ although the racecourse at Homebush was a ‘downs’ course apparently, undulating, not flat

PostScript: Homebush nomenclature
The earliest free settler in the area then known as Liberty Plains, Thomas Laycock, chose the name “Home Bush” for his farm in the area (1794) [M Wayne, ‘NSW State Abbatoirs/Sydney Olympic Park – Homebush, NSW’, (2012)]

[1] ‘Timeline of Narawang Wetland and the Surrounding Area’, (Narawang Wetland, NSW Government Education & Communities), www.geographychallenge.nsw.edu.au)

[2] ‘Industrial History’, (History and Heritage, Sydney Olympic Park), www.sopa.nsw.gov.au

[3] The Homebush Racecourse was the home of the powerful Australian Jockey Club before the relocation to the (new) Randwick Racecourse in 1860, Cathy Jones, ‘Homebush Racecourse’, Strathfield Heritage, (2005), www.strathfield heritage.org

[4] M Wayne, ‘NSW State Brickworks/Brickpit Ring Walk – Homebush, NSW’, 14 June 2012, www.pastlivesofthenearfuture.com

[5] ‘Axe falls on Sydney Olympic Park street race’, Speedcafe, 22 March 2016.

Homebush Bay Perambulations II: a Walk around Nuevo Rhodes, Shipwreck Bay and Waterbird Refuges

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

The ferry wharf at Olympic Park is a good starting point for a ramble through Homebush Bay commencing from a ferry and ending at the rail line. From the wharf we walk down Hill Road, passing a dense concentration of light industrial businesses, turning left at either Monza or Baywater and walk through the Wentworth Point estate to the Promenade, a pleasantly wide and newish waterfront path (1k walk from the ferry).

imageIf you take a left at the Promenade, the bay path passes large residential blocks, removals and waste disposal companies before it morphs into a very thin bush strip. The strip which doubles as a rubbish dump meanders on for a bit but ends up against a high residential fence about 100m from where workers are currently building a non-vehicular bridge across the Bay to the homogenous looking towers of Rhodes. Taking a look at the skyline on both sides of the Bay it is less than a “Sherlock Holmesian” deduction to conclude how much the newer Wentworth Point waterfront has come to resemble the Rhodes prototype – albeit there is less of it.

You can happily skip this dead-end digression and just head south from the end of Baywater Drive … the path becomes a narrow trail which swings round a bend closer to Bennelong Parkway. We pass a gated estate within touching distance of its largish but shallow communal swimming pool (at least we can touch the reinforced glass that separates the pool from the boardwalk). The pool is in a nice location but there’s zero privacy for the bathers it seems to me, right on the public boardwalk. Personally I’d be somewhat put off by the regular stream of passers-by.

SS Ayrfield
SS Ayrfield
This is the ideal spot to view one of the best examples of a distinctive feature of Homebush Bay, a number of old vessels deliberated shipwrecked and left to co-habit with nature. The steam collier SS Ayrfield was scuttled and broken up in 1972 and here sits its rusty, rotting steel hull, impressively assimilated with the water-bound vegetation and crops of mangroves. The tree growth sprouts out of the hull so luxuriantly that is looks like something organic and even artistic in its visual effect.

Shipwrecks plaque
Shipwrecks plaque
At the end of the trail we turn left at Bennelong and (carefully) cross the often busy road on to the right side to cross the small bridge spanning the Bay. About 30 metres after the bridge cross over Bennelong Pkwy and follow the trail into the bush. Almost immediately you come to a side track with a plaque on the ground identifying a Shipwreck Lookout. This is a dedication to the “remnant hulks” of Homebush Bay. These are abandoned, rusting wrecks resting here, like the Ayrfield, scattered along the shoreline and overrun by vegetation and mangroves^.

Water bird Refugee
Water bird Refugee
The curved path continues around the Bay, and it is common to see white egrets and purplish-blue crested Pukekos or swamp hens lurking around the water’s edge. As you continue on the trail, if you keep glancing to the right you will shortly notice a bird hide camouflaged in the vegetation to allow glimpses of the waterbird refuge – the Charadriiformes population inhabiting these tidal waters include Pacific Golden Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Bar-tailed Godwits, Red-necked Avocets, ducks and black swans. Look for the observation tower to the left of the nature strip where the path turns south (note the prevalence of large spiders webbed above the pathway).

Approaching Bicentennial Park a turnoff on the right takes you on to a zig-zagging boardwalk through the Badu Mangroves, a dense patchwork of grey and olive-coloured mangrove growth which leads to the Bennelong Ponds and the western side of Bicentennial Park. If you choose not to do this diversion continue south to the next crossway and go left opposite the tinny looking Field Studies Centre building. After passing a small bridge and another of those observation towers in the mangroves you soon reach the far-eastern edge of the park and a path which heads north along the water, parallel to Homebush Bay Drive.

It’s about 1.5km from this point to Rhodes Station. When the Wentworth Point to Rhodes bridge is completed, walkers will be able to do the walk as a loop starting at Rhodes Station and returning from Homebush Bay to the same start point.

^ for more details of the vessels involved and the ship-breaking industry in Homebush Bay during the 1970s see G Blaxell, ‘The Wrecks of Homebush Bay’ (May 2008), www.afloat.com.au.

Homebush Bay Perambulations I: a Walk through ‘Toxicity’ … Munitions Dumps and Toxic Mounds

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

The north-western part of Homebush Bay in Sydney’s west was once a backwater of swampy industrial and military dumping grounds and wastelands. The rubbish dumps are still there but no longer visible and the entire surface area of the Bay now boasts a diverse range of interesting walks for the enthusiastic pedestrian. The network of walkways allow you to commence a walk in Homebush Bay* from various points of the compass … we shall start with a walk from the north-west commencing at Silverwater Bridge and throw in some digressions and let’s see what we can unearth.

The Rivercat on route to Sydney Olympic Park
The Rivercat on route to Sydney Olympic Park
As you set off by foot on the south bank along the pathway you can see across the River the predominantly low-level housing of Ermington and Melrose Park. There is not much river traffic around this part of the waterway but expect to see the green-and-white Rivercat glide by at regular intervals.

1897 Gatehouse
1897 Gatehouse
The first item of historic interest we encounter is the former Royal Australian Navy site, Newington Armory. There is a modern (‘Armory’) cafe, an older shop that also sells coffee and some play facilities here, near to the naval depot entrance. The entrance area is much as it was when the Navy abandoned the site in 1999 – still standing is an 1897 brick gatehouse (also known as “the cooperage”), with a rail track leading down from the gate to where the wharf used to be. Two old, grey-toned cranes (circa 1960s) stand fixed in time on the edge of the river.

The Sydney Olympic Park Authority describes the Armory site as it exists today as “compris(ing) a range of historically significant natural and cultural features including former army and navy ammunition storehouses, workshops, offices, small gauge railway and other infrastructure associated with the operation of a naval armament depot”¹. One hundred years ago (1916) it was a military powder magazine and five years after that a munitions store for the navy.

When the navy moved out there were skiploads of old armaments and other dangerous pollutants lying around the depot, so the department simply buried them and fenced off a large section of the site from the public. Other sections of the former naval property still have limited access for commercial activities on the weekend only (eg, rides on a historic electric locomotive which had been used for moving armaments around the ordnance depot). Blaxland Riverside Park nearby has flying fox rides and tunnel slides. Not far from here is the new Newington housing estate.

Continuing down the waterfront path, you come to a side path next to a high electricity tower. This bush-lined path (named in honour of paralympian Louise Sauvage) can be either a digression to take in the view from the second highest point in the Bay (after the Treillage), or an another route to the Sydney Olympic Precinct (railway station) via the lush Narawang Wetland and Haslams Creek.

There’s a steep, linear walk up a very large conical-shaped earth mound full of dangerous chemicals and other toxins² buried under several layers of top and middle soil … atop this geographical marker (Bay Marker) is the best view around here – a 360-degree panorama incorporating the river, the uniformed high-rise of Rhodes and Liberty Grove and the numerous Olympia stadia. Steeply descending the mound trail to the bottom you immediately ascend again, this second hilltop not as steep as the mound but with a plateau at the top, bears the name ascribed to it by the local, Wan-gal clan, Woo-la-ra (= lookout).

From the high ground of Woo-la-ra you have a choice (several choices in fact): you can take the path down to Hill Road where you can walk along the forest trail parallel to Hill Road**. The Sydney Olympic Park Wharf is about one kilometre away, where you can catch the ferry back to Circular Quay or west to Parramatta.

Kronos Hill
Kronos Hill
We decide to continue the path for a further 2.5km through the Millennium Parklands down to Haslams Creek. Here on the south-eastern shore of the Creek there is another high mound known as Kronos Hill, and also full of hidden toxic surprises³. You can follow a staggered, concentric trail up to the summit and be rewarded with sweeping 360-degree views of the Olympic Precinct (Allphones Arena and ANZ Stadium are both in the immediate foreground). From atop Kronos Hill it is only about half-an-hour walk’s back to the Olympic train station.

* “Homebush Bay” strictly historically speaking refers to the inlet, the body of water, off Parramatta River. The area that is now generally thought of as Homebush Bay (including Wentworth Point and the Sydney Olympic Park) was described in the early part of the 20th century as being part of “Lidcombe North”. The name “Homebush” itself derives from D’Arcy Wentworth who was granted a large land grant in the area in 1810, literally “his home in the bush”. ‘Homebush out to make a point’, Daily Telegraph, (Sydney), 04 January 2009, www.dailytelegraph.com.au

** Optional diversion: you might consider a side trip from the corner of Bennelong and Hill. From the intersection its about 400 metres to the Olympic Archery Field … catch a look at a bunch of would-be “Robin Hoods” in “bow and quiver” action (not a skerrick of Lincoln green in sight though, I’m afraid!).

~~~~~~~ ~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~ ~~ ~~~~~~~

¹’Armory History: The Military Magazine’, (Sydney Olympic Park Authority), www.sopa.nsw.gov.au. During WWII the US Navy Pacific arm had its own ammo depot at the Armory, ‘Newington Armory’ (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newington-Armory
² these include dioxins (DDT, pesticides and herbicides), hydrocarbons, lead, heavy metals, asbestos, benzenes and phenols, Sharon Beder, ‘… And what the tourists will not see’, Sunday Age, 18 June 2000

³ Haslams Creek is heavily polluted with toxins (especially dioxins) as are all of the waterways and wetlands around Homebush Bay. Largely this is a direct result of chemical pollution by the Union Carbide/Timbrol Rhodes Plant between 1949 and 1976. The giant chemicals manufacturer poured the waste by-products of dioxins as well as other toxic landfill along the shoreline of the Bay. This practice (unbelievably) was sanctioned by the Maritime Services Board on the grounds that it “reclaimed stinking wetlands for a useful industrial purpose”. Consequently the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1994 ranked Homebush Bay as one of the five worst dioxin hotspots in the world, ‘A race against toxins’, The Irish Times, 19 August 2000.

Port Jackson and Dawes Point’s Role in an 18th Century Imperial Conflict in the Pacific

Regional History

Not long ago I was doing an exploratory walk around Sydney’s The Rocks, an area much changed since the PT (pre-tourism) days when it was a considerably less glamorous part of town to dwell in. At Dawes Point, on the hill immediately under the southern pylons of the Harbour Bridge, I noticed an information stand next to the old battery site and erstwhile observatory which makes reference to an 18th century conflict between the empires of Britain and Spain that had an association with that very spot, Dawes Point.

imageThe stand contains a timeline which includes the following short narrative:
1790 Britain fears an attack on the colony from Spain, which disputes Britain’s claim to New South Wales. Spain backs down in the dispute.

This curious snippet of information came as a surprise and prompted me to look further into this little known chapter in early Australian colonial history. I was aware of course of the French interest in New Holland (as it was known in the 18th century) with the explorations of Botany Bay by La Perouse in the 1780s, but the idea of a Spanish connection with the earliest days of European settlement was new to me.

The Dawes Point story begins with the arrival of the First Fleet in Port Jackson in 1788. Naval engineer Lt William Dawes came on the Sirius as the colony’s astronomer with orders to construct an observatory, optimally located on a narrow promontory near Sydney Cove. Dawes named the point (which now bears his name) Point Maskelyne after the then Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, London. The peninsula Dawes chose in 1788 for the designated lookout had been home to the local, indigenous Cadigal clan for 1000s of years and known to them as Tar-ra.

In addition to an observatory, Pt Maskelyne/Dawes Point was soon put to use as a powder magazine§, a cemetery and it’s most substantial role, as a defence battery – in fact the first line of defence for the colony against the enemies of the British Empire. The original battery was pretty rudimentary but the fortifications were strengthened in 1819 by Francis Greenway utilising the plentiful supply of local sandstone. Greenway’s formidable castle-like structure was actually more impressive in appearance than in reality … the famous colonial architect constructed a kind of faux castle that was mainly just facade![Johnson 2003].

imageThe incident that triggered a new crisis in 18th century Anglo-Spanish relations with ramifications for the fledgling colony in Botany Bay is known as the Nootka Sound incident. Nootka Sound was an important Spanish trading base on Vancouver Island on the North American north-west coast. In 1789 the Spanish commander at Nootka seized two British merchantmen anchored in the Sound and arrested the crews for infringing the sovereign territory of Spain. As far as Spain was concerned the British ships had transgressed into its imperial sphere of influence. Madrid had long claimed the entire Pacific Ocean region as a Spanish mare clausum (Legal Latin = “closed sea”). Moreover the British had already earned the ire of Spain in establishing the colony in Nueva Holanda two years earlier, seen also as a hostile incursion into its mare clausum. Spain viewed the recent British foothold on the “Great Southern Land” as a potential threat to the Spanish Pacific colonies (Philippines, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Peru)[King 1986; Johnson 2003].

Spain had good reason to worry about the threat Britain posed to its diverse Pacific possessions, but it was also concerned about Tsarist Russia’s imperial ambitions in the region. Russia had established settlements in Alaska which had spread south as far as California (also in Hawaii) and it appeared likely to encroach on Spain’s American territories.

Britain at the time was determined to get in on the lucrative North American fur trade (seal and especially sea otter pelts). American fur traders (and sailors on Captain Cook’s 3rd Expedition) achieved very high prices for North Pacific otter pelts in Canton (Guangzhou)[Johnson 2003]. A British trading base on the north-west Pacific coast would obviate the need to make the long haul from Calcutta to reach these rich fishing waters. The recent, successful colonisation of both Botany Bay and Norfolk Island also encouraged Britain to establish a presence at Nootka Sound [King 2010]. Accordingly the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, realising that Britain had a pretty weak legal claim to the territory that was to become British Columbia, played the bluff card and belligerently demanded redress from the Spanish for ‘illegally’ holding the British crewmen and allegedly mistreating them. Parliament mobilised for war and made plans to attack the Spanish at Nootka Sound.

The part of these developments which connected back to the Botany Bay colony is that Britain’s strategy involved using Port Jackson as a cog in the war operations. The Admiralty redirected frigates bound for New Holland to the conflict zone on the north-west coast. Governor Phillip was instructed to replenish supplies for the Nootka Sound military expedition from Sydney Cove [Gough 1980].

During the period of the war crisis there were also plans to have a small contingent of marines and convicts from Botany Bay travel to Nootka Sound on The Discovery to establish a settlement on the north-west coast [King 2010].

The recently independent United States also had commercial ships in and around Vancouver Island at the time of the Nootka Sound incident, and was an interested onlooker in the Spanish-British conflict. The American government expressed the view that in the event of war Britain would target Spanish ports on the Mississippi including New Orleans which would bring the conflict dangerously into the vicinity of US territory [Niles Weekly 1817].

Eventually war between Spain and Britain was averted. Spain’s resolve to rebuff the English incursion into “New Spain” dissolved, especially after the expected support from Bourbon France was not forthcoming. The onset of the French Revolution in 1789 dissuaded France from embroiling itself in a war against Britain at the time. Spain found itself further isolated after Prussia and Portugal allied themselves with the British on the issue.

After negotiations resulting in a series of Nootka Sound Conventions Spain acquiesced to British demands, conceding that all nations were free to navigate and fish in the Pacific, and to trade and settle on unoccupied land. The conflict’s resolution was a coup for British mercantilism and diplomacy.

By 1795 Spain had abandoned its trading post at Nootka Sound, leaving Britain free to do business in the north Pacific. Vancouver Island and the whole territory (British Columbia) eventually became a crown colony of Britain (1849).

imageThe averting of the war crisis over Nootka Sound did not remove Spanish anxieties over the British presence in the Pacific. In 1793 a large Spanish expedition undertaking maritime scientific exploration reached the shores of Sydney harbour. Funded by the Spanish crown, the expedition had set out from Cadiz in 1789 visiting South America, the Falkland Islands, Mexico, Alaska, the Philippines, Tonga and New Zealand, in addition to the infant New South Wales colony. The catalyst for the expedition, proposed and led by Alessandro Malaspina, was the knowledge that Russia was hatching similar plans for a scientific exploration of the Pacific. The Mulovsky Expedition, as it is known, was also intended to annex the North American littoral region from Vancouver to Alaska in the name of the Russian empress. The expedition however was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second Russo-Turkish War in 1787.

The Spanish expedition carried with it an elite collection of scientists and artists but Malaspina’s mission had a secret, political purpose as well. Madrid was anxious to learn what Britain’s real purpose was in establishing the colony in New Holland. Malaspina’s instructions were to also ascertain how advanced the Port Jackson settlement was. Malaspina respectfully courted the authorities in Sydney (Lt Gov Grose) as a cover for his spying activities during the month the frigates were anchored in the harbour. His men collected botanical specimens and other scientific knowledge and did drawings of the scenery and the townsfolk including the local Eora (Aboriginal) people [King 1986].

Upon his return home Malaspina reported back to the Spanish government that the New South Wales settlement was well established and warned that it posed real dangers to Spain’s Pacific possessions. Malaspina noted that Port Jackson could be used as a base for privateers to cut the colonial lines of communication between Manila and Spanish America, and to launch raids on the Peru and Chile colonies from. He concluded that Spain had no real chance of supplanting the British in Port Jackson [Olcelli 2013].

Britain’s foothold in the western Pacific was an ongoing concern for the Spanish, so much so that they considered a pre-emptive strike on the NSW colony. Proposed by José de Bustamante (military governor of Paraguay and Montevideo) and approved by King Carlos IV in the early 1790s, the Spanish scheme was to launch an 100-boat assault on Port Jackson from its base in Uruguay. The armada, armed with the new, “hot shot” cannon, ultimately did not proceed [Pearlman 2015].

By about 1800, with Spanish imperial power on the wane, Britain was much more concerned about the rise of Napoleon … France had become the main security focus for Dawes Point and the New South Wales outpost.


§ the storage room still exists, located under the Harbour Bridge southern pylon, where in the formative years of the colony a secret stock of explosives was kept for use in defending the town against enemy warships [Compagnoni 2015]


BM Gough, Distant Dominion: Britain and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1579-1809, (1980)
AW Johnson, ‘Showdown in the Pacific: a Remote Response to European Power Struggles in the Pacific, Dawes Point Battery, Sydney, 1791-1925’, (Sydney Harbour Authority 2003) www.sha.org/uploads/files/sha
RJ King, ‘Eora and English at Port Jackson: a Spanish View’, (1986), www.press.anu.edu.au/2016/02/articles054
RJ King, ‘George Vancouver and the Contemplated Settlement at Nootka Sound’, The Great Circle, 32(1), 2010
L Olcelli, ‘Alessandro Malaspina: an Italian-Spaniard at Port Jackson’, Sydney Journal, 4(1), 2013
J Pearlman, “Spanish plan to ‘invade’ the British colony in Australia in the 1790s with 100-vessel armada”, 26-Jan 2015, www.telegraph.co.uk
Niles Weekly Register, No 19 of Vol XII, 5 July 1817
T Compagnoni (video), ‘Gunpowder Magazine Hidden Beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge’, 07 September 2015, www.huffpost.com