Walama Redux: Ballast Point’s Cyclical Journey

Archaeology, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

In the time of Aboriginal Australia, the indigenous clans which inhabited the Balmain peninsula, the Wan-gal and the Cadi-gal, called the chunk of land that juts out between Snails Bay and Mort’s Bay, Walama (meaning “to return”). In the 230 years since white settlement Ballast Point has come back to a peaceful state of natureφ.

At the time the First Fleeters encountered the place it was a bushy promontory with great intrinsic value to the original inhabitants. This narrow bluff of land on Sydney Harbour has gone full circle from a spot of untouched natural beauty to (post-1788) a grimy industrial site and is now being returned to something a little reminiscent of its natural state, in time perhaps becoming a palimpsest of what it once was.

Ballast Point Park was opened as a two-and-a-half-hectare public space in 2009 (also called ‘Walama’ as a mark of respect for the traditional custodians for the area). The restoration of the Point as public land was a victory for the people of Balmain, achieved only after a long struggle of determined local activism and community support to overcome the commercial plans of developers and the vacillation of state governments.

Walama’s geology, a boon for the return voyages of cargo ships
Before I outline the details of how the Ballast Point story with its vicissitudes played out in the late 20th century, I should recount a little of the headland’s early history following first contacts between the indigenous and white populations. The British settlers’ first use of Ballast Point seems to have been as a fishing and hunting spot. The name “Ballast Point” is derived apparently from the occurrence of rockfalls from the high point above the shoreline crashing to the bottom of the outcrop[1]. Ships having unloaded their cargo from Europe needed to secure suitable ballast for the return journeys. Stones accumulated on the Point’s shore – some heavy but manoeuvrable, others smaller, mainly broken rocks and gravel – were deemed ideal weighty material to steady the empty hulls of the merchant vessels, providing the stability needed for the ocean voyage.

Display remembering 'Menevia'  which once occupied BP site
Display remembering ‘Menevia’ which once occupied the Ballast Pt site
A succession of colonial land-holders and ‘Menevia’
Part of colonial surgeon William Balmain’s early land grant, Ballast Point passed through many hands in the first half of the 19th century including Fred Parbury, James Goodsir, Henry Smith, George Cooper and John Gilchrist (who subdivided it as ‘Glenelg Crescent’ but this enticed few if any buyers)[2]. Merchant and draper Thomas Perkins acquired the promontory in 1852. By 1864 Perkins had built and occupied a large two-story, sandstone villa on the headland, which he named Menevia§. For some years after it was built Ballast Point was known as Menevia Point. After Perkins’ death the mansion became a boarding house until after World War I.

Texas Oil takeover
By 1928 Menevia had fallen into disrepair and was up for sale. Balmain Council expressed an interest but public funds were tight at the time and it couldn’t afford to buy it. Texas oil company Texaco snapped it up. Texaco, who later merged with Standard Oil of California to form Caltex, used it as a depot to store very large quantities of petroleum (and later as a grease plant).

Old 1960s Caltex sign: 'Grease Plant'
Old 1960s Caltex sign: ‘Grease Plant’
Over time Caltex built 30 large storage tanks at what became known as the Balmain Terminal. However this large scale enterprise did nothing the quality of life of local residents, with trucks coming and going through the narrow, congested streets of Balmain an ongoing irritant to those living in the, mainly humble, dwellings nearby[3].

Caltex scale-back and preparation for pull-out
Ballast Point became less important to Caltex after the company in the late sixties opened a new, larger oil terminal at Banksmeadow (South Sydney). From the late 1980s through the 1990s Caltex tried to prepare the way to unload its Balmain operations in a commercial deal, twice petitioning Leichhardt Council to have its land rezoned from waterfront industrial to residential, but without success. A struggle for the future land use of Ballast Point ensued: the local community in Balmain formed an opposition group called Ballast Point Campaign Committee (BPCC) in the mid Eighties to save Ballast Point by returning the headland to public land. Leichhardt Council eventually supported BPCC in its actions[4].

End-game: Victory for the public over developers’ profit-driven plans for the Point
The Walker Corporation (formerly McRoss Developments) sought to purchase the 2.6ha headland site from Caltex to build a 138 unit apartment complex, but the deal was blocked by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority’s (SHFA) compulsory acquisition of the land in 2002[5]. Caltex received nearly $14.4 million in compensation. Walker Corp was offered $10.1 million by the state government (as they had acquired an option on the land), which it disputed in the High Court of Australia as grossly undervalued (Walker Corporation P/L v Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (2008). Initially the developers were awarded compensation of $60M but this was overturned on appeal and the original amount of $10M reaffirmed[6].

The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
The Menevia artefacts display cabinet (as it used to look!)
After the SHFA took control of Ballast Point it took another seven years during which the Caltex site was remediated, followed by planning, designing and landscaping, before the post-industrial park was opened in July 2009. The design of the new park includes walls composed of recycled rubble enclosed in wire mesh gabions (cylindrical baskets), sandstone plinths, artworks commemorating the former industrial role, eg, Tank 101 (storage tanks) as well as reminiscences of Menevia – artefacts of the Victorian house excavated whilst the site was being remediated. These comprise domestic utensils (crockery, glassware, bottles, etc) mounted in a display case in the park. Unfortunately, recently the glass cabinet was smashed by mindless vandals and the damaged archeological items have been removed.

Ballast Pt Park's Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
BP Park’s Gabion walls: cylinders of recycled stones
The final form of Ballast Point Park has come in for some criticism from various quarters, especially from Paul Keating (who originally championed its creation) for “its lack of romantic verdancy” and the failure of the architects to erase all reminders of the past “industrial vandalism” of Caltex (as the ex-PM described it). Opponents of this viewpoint have attacked it as representing an attitude that seeks to ‘sanitise’ history by omitting the full story of the place’s industrial past[7]. With the full passage of time, they advocate, vegetation will bring this public park back to something like the wooden headland it was prior to European colonisation.

Footnote: The Gabion, the all-purpose retaining wall
Ballast Point Park is not a place to visit if you have a “gabion phobia”, the park is positively gabion-overload! Upon arrival the ubiquity of this construction feature is all-too evident! The Gabion⋇ has become quite the go-to outdoor feature for councils and town planners in recent times. It is both highly utilitarian and cost-effective and embraces the recycling ethos. Some may also find an aesthetic appeal in the gabion’s unusual symmetry – the way it neatly packages an assortment of multi-coloured, irregular-shaped, cast-off building materials in (usually) oblong wire-mesh containers.

⋇ Gabion (from Italian gabbione meaning “big cage”; from Italian gabbia and Latin cavea meaning “cage”) is a cage, cylinder, or box filled with rocks, concrete, or sometimes sand and soil for use in civil engineering, road building, military applications and landscaping [Wikipedia].

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φ At the time the British came in 1788, the pioneering settlers reported that indigenous hunters of the Wan-gal and Cadi-gal clans would hunt kangaroos through the densely wooden and bushy peninsula, driving them towards the north-eastern point of Balmain (down the hill into present-day Illoura Reserve) into a cul-de-sac at Peacock’s Point where they were able to trap the animals and easily kill them
§ The name ‘Menevia’ was apparently derived from a cathedral in Swansea, South Wales which bears the name

[1] Peter Reynolds,’Ballast Point’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ballast_point,viewed 15 May 2016
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ‘Ballast Point Park Opening’, The Peninsula Observer, Vol 44 No 3 Issue 312 (Sept 2009)
[5] Ex-PM Keating, Tom Uren, et al, apparently influenced the Carr Labor Government’s decision to make the Caltex site a public space, K Legge, ‘How Paul Keating saved Barangaroo headland park on Sydney Harbour’, The Australian, 3 October 2015
[6] B Makin, ‘Ballast Point: from oil terminal to public park’, Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 2005
[7] as Laura Hardin put the counter-view: Ex-PM Keating’s “interpretation of history risks replacing the gritty authenticity of these places with the deceptive, pastel languor of a Lycett watercolour…seeks to make amends by erasure, denial and the importation of the picturesque”, L Harding & S Hawken, ‘Ballast Point’, ArchitectureAU, 2 Jan 2012, www.architectureau.com

Balmain’s Legacy of Industry, Workers, Pubs and Architectural Heterogeneity

Archaeology, Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

The Balmain peninsula, just to the west of Sydney’s CBD, has a long post-settlement history of European mixed land use, both as a magnet for industry and a place for workers and their families – and room also for those financially well-heeled enough to afford the pick of the land and a waterfront property with magnificent views of Australia’s finest harbour.

Balmain’s dirty industries
From the 1840s industry had started to make inroads into the Balmain landscape, and the types of enterprises were becoming many and varied. Over the next 150 years the suburb’s diverse industry has included power stationsφ, an English-owned colliery (from 1897) located just east of Birchgrove Public School, whose long-term productivity proved disappointing. After the mine’s closure in 1931 it produced methane gas until the early 1940s. Eventually houses were built over it and today an exclusive residential complex known as Hopetoun Quays sits atop the site.

Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort's Bay
Thames St Ferry Wharf, Mort’s Bay
At Mort’s Bay a shipyard and dry dock (Australia’s first) was created in the 1850s, the shipyard was not very successful, and the business eventually morphed into a maritime engineering enterprise employing in excess of 1,000 men. Thomas S Mort, the dock owner, created ‘Mort’s Town of Waterview‘, a subdivision of land to provide housing for his dockyard workers[1]. There was also a ferry service built at Mort’s Bay c.1895. The Thames Street Wharf, with its distinctive curved shelter, transported between 20,000 and 24,000 workers to and from Circular Quay daily (it is thought to be the only Victorian era ferry still operating in the Sydney Harbour network)[2].

Colgate-Palm apartments
Colgate-Palm apartments
Balmain’s ‘clean’ industries
Other industrial enterprises on the peninsula included a saw mill at the end of Nicholson Street, owned by Alexander Burns, the location later taken over by the Adelaide Steamship Co which employed more than 600 men in its ship repair business; a coal loader; US soap and toothpaste giant Colgate-Palmolive with a factory employing over 140 operated in Broadstairs Street, later renamed Colgate Avenue (the Colgate building, which was known locally as “the Olive” is now smartly renovated apartments)[3]. Interestingly, grimy industrial Balmain had no shortage of soap as a second company, Lever and Kitchen (later morphing into the multinational corporation Unilever), also manufactured soap and glycerol in a huge (10ha) plant near Booth Street and Punch Park. At its zenith Lever and Kitchen had a workforce of over 1,250, many of whom lived locally.

imageThe co-existence between home-maker and industry in Balmain has not always been an easy one. The peninsula developed as an industry hub and a desirable place to dwell more or less concurrently. Its proximity to Sydney Town made it attractive to industrialists and to the workforce. By 1846 Balmain housed 19.6 per cent of Sydney and was the largest residential area of the colony – predominantly working class as the workers in the main wanted to be close to where the industrial work was[4].

Notwithstanding the numerous working men (and their unpaid women folk) in the early days[5] there was also a significant middle class component, after all someone had to live in those magnificent Post-Regency and Georgian mansions. “Captains of industry” like Ewen Wallace Cameron and Robert (RW) Miller lived in such palatial homes on the peninsula, as did local developers and businessmen like Robert Blake and JJ Yeend.

The peninsula’s population in 1848 was just 1,337, however there was a spike in numbers over the remainder of the century reaching a straining 28,460 by 1895[6]. The working class parts of Balmain were clearly overcrowded and the suburb’s pattern of development disorganised and haphazard, eg, factories were springing up alongside workers’ modest houses and public schools[7].

ALP “Holy Grail”
Because of the historic heavy concentration of blue-collar industry in Balmain, a strong trade union presence (in particular the maritime industries with the Painters and Dockers Union) has always been part of the landscape. That Balmain/union nexus led to the formation of the Labor Electoral League (which changed its name to the Australian Labor Party) at the relocated Unity Hall Hotel (290 Darling Street) in 1891. The ALP has dominated state elections in the seat covering the Balmain area (in 1978 capturing 82.4 per cent of the two-party vote), although the current MP is a Greens politician, which continues the traditional left-leaning trend of peninsula politics.

Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Birchgrove, btwn Snails Bay & Long Cove: 1855 map
Louisa Road dress circle
Birchgrove in Balmain’s north-western point is thought of as the classiest (in reality values at least) area of the whole peninsula, well, not all of Birchgrove, just one street … actually just part of one street, Louisa Road, the end part. Birch Grove House, believed to be the first house built on the Balmain peninsula, was located at 67 Louisa Rd. It was constructed in 1810 for army regiment paymaster John Birch and demolished, sadly, in 1967. In the 1860s and 70s Hunters Hill developers, the Joubert brothers, subdivided Birchgrove land backing on to Snails Bay§. The estate was advertised as “a miniature Bay of Naples” but few of the villas were ever sold[8].

Home owners today in the exclusive bits of Louisa Rd (properties starting at well in excess of $3 million) include movie producers and directors, famous writers, members of platinum record-breaking rock bands, as well as the more mainstream common, garden variety” type of professionals. But it has not always been the exclusive preserve of society’s elite – 150 Louisa Rd at one time was the headquarters of the Bandidos bikie gang. After the 1984 Milperra Massacre involving rival Comancheros and Bandidos bikie gangs, the Bandidos members were turfed out of the 1897 Federation/Queen Anne house[9].

From pub to friendly society to medical centre
Darling Street: sandstone hotel precinct
The houses in East Balmain don’t overall tend to match the price tags of Federation-rich Louisa Road, but they represent some of the best and most interesting, as well as the oldest, architecture in the peninsula. Darling Street, starting from East Balmain Wharf, is dotted with 1840s-1860s sandstone hotel buildings. Some are no longer functioning as pubs, eg, the Shipwrights Arms, 1844 (10 Darling St), the original Unity Hall Hotel, c.1848 (49 Darling St), the Waterford Arms, now ‘Cahermore’ (“Fort on the Hill”) 1846 (50 Darling St). These 1840s buildings have a plain Post-Regency style to them, simple stone and wooden roofs, clean lines with little or no ornamentation. The contrast is with the later Victorian buildings, such as ‘Bootmaker’s Cottage’ 1860 (90 Darling St) which is more ornate (if restrained) with stone quoins (corner blocks) plus a combination of stone and brick materials and elegant cast-iron balustrading[10]. The enhanced use of decoration and superior materials in the grander later Victorian houses, reflect the affluence of Sydney after the colony’s Gold rushes.

Datchett Street
Datchett Street
Cameron’s Cove and Datchett Street
The extent to which Balmain had become an architectural zoo In the 19th century can be glimpsed from comparing Cameron’s Cove with its Victorian Italianate mansions like ‘Ewenton’ 1854-72 (1 Blake St)[11] with the delightful but ramshackled old timber cottages in little Datchett Street, a narrow, steep side lane-way just across the Cove. Some of the Datchett dwellings look a bit like holiday shacks and would not be out-of-place in a sleepy little backwater down the coast✲.

Just to the east of Ewenton in Grafton St, backing on to the fairly new White Bay Cruise Terminal, sits Hampton Villa. This 1849 Post-Regency house with its Tuscan columns is best known as the 1880s residence of Sir Henry Parkes (five times premier of NSW and “Father of Federation”).

De-industrialising the peninsula: Enter the developers
From the 1960s Balmain’s character began to change. A slow process of gentrification was occurring as property values rose and more people renovated their old houses. Industries moved out, partly because of a trend toward decentralisation, and partly because many were dying off[12]. The prospect of a waterfront home tantalisingly close to the CBD was a lure for many a “cashed-up” punter!

In the eighties and early nineties industrial areas of the peninsula were re-zoned as residential by a development friendly Leichhardt Council to the glee of developers like Leda Group who were free to carve out new middle class estates from the old Unilever site and elsewhere in Balmain. All of which meant the suburb had fast become beyond the reach of most working class home-owners.

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φ strictly speaking, these two power stations, White Bay and Balmain (Cove), which book-ended the peninsula east and west, were located in Rozelle, but within the Balmain district
§ the Wan-gal (Aboriginal) name for the point jutting out from Birchgrove is Yurulbin which means “swift running waters” as it is the point of confluence where the two headwaters meet (Port Jackson and Parramatta River)
✲ a number of the street’s old timber cottages have gone, to be replaced with dense concrete heavily-fortified looking structures
[1] LA Jones, ‘Housing the Worker’, (unpublished BA(Hon) thesis, University of Sydney), Oct 2011
[2] ‘History of Balmain Thames Street Ferry Wharf’, (NSW Transport), www.rms.gov.au
[3] G Spindler, ‘A Sydney Harbour Circle Walk 2011-12’ (Historic Notes & Background), Apr 2011, www.walkingcoastalsydney.com.au
[4] ‘Wyoming’ (Balmain Italianate Mansion), NSW Office of Environment & Heritage, www.environment.nsw.gov.au
[5] so much so the mainstream Sydney press in 1889 described Balmain with its 5,000 dwellings as “working men’s paradise”, Illustrated Sydney News, 11 Jul 1889
[6] ‘Balmain: Local History’, Inner West Council/Leichhardt Municipal Council, www.leichhardt.nsw.gov.au
[7] ‘History of Balmain’, www.balmainlodge.com.au
[8] ‘Wyoming’, op.cit.. Didier Joubert named Louisa Rd after his wife and the adjoining streets after his children
[9] Spindler, op.cit.
[10] ‘Humble to Handsome – Balmain Architecture 1840-1860s’, (Balmain Walks, Balmain Association Inc), www.balmainwalks.org.au
[11] ‘Ewenton’ itself is something of an architectural mélange with its mixture of Moorish arches and Georgian and Victorian features, ibid.
[12] eg, the 14 or so old shipyards of Balmain have all closed down, ‘Old Balmain: Paddocks and Shipyards’, Local Notes (2012), www.localnotes.net.au

Australia’s Colonial Zoo Story

Local history, Popular Culture, Social History

Taronga - southern (ferry end) entrance
Taronga – southern (ferry end) entrance
October 7 this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Taronga Zoological Park, or as it is simply known to successive generations of children and parents of Sydney and its environs, Taronga Zoo (Taronga: Abor. for “beautiful sea view”). Sydney’s premier zoo can in fact trace its genesis considerably further back than that to the formation of the Zoological Society of New South Wales in 1879.

The Society’s initial purpose was to import English birds (and other introduced species) to the Antipodes and to acclimatise them to the conditions before distributing them to different parts of the continent. In 1883 the Sydney City Council gave permission to the Zoo Society to open a public zoo on government land allocated to it in Moore Park (3.5km south of the city centre). The location of the zoo was in a part of Moore Park known locally as Billy Goat Swamp, today occupied by Sydney Girls High (zoo remnants survive, still visible within the school grounds, ie, two bear pits in the ‘Lowers’ area adjoining Sydney Boys High). The zoo was designed by Charles Moore, responsible for the earlier creation of Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens[1].

Primitive lion enclosure at Moore Park
Primitive lion enclosure at Moore Park
As more animals were added to it, the zoo soon outgrew its original land grant of 7.5 acres[2]. Gradually the zoo’s space encroached on more and more of the Moore Park parkland. Mostly in the 19th century, the new additions of animals for big public zoos came from engaging overseas professional hunters to capture exotic animals for their collections[3]. Melbourne Zoo acquired its hippos and monkeys, and Moore Park its Californian and Cinnamon bears, via this channel. Others like Jessie the Asian elephant were gifts for the Sydney zoo from the King of Siam.

By 1910 Moore Park Zoo was too small for the burgeoning number of animals accumulated. As a result the New South Government made 43ha of bushland§ between Little Sirius Cove and Bradleys Head (Mosman) available as a new site for Sydney’s zoo[4]. Around 1913-14 most of the zoo inhabitantsφ were bused from Moore Park to Circular Quay and then ferried by flat-top barge across the harbour to Mosman. With the taller animals, the elephants and giraffes, the zoo authorities eventually realised that it would be prudent to transport them to their new home in the middle of the night to avoid a public commotion in the streets. The sight of the massive beasts silhouetted against the night skyline whilst being barged across the water would have provided an inspiring, even poetic, vision.

Melbourne Zoo was founded in 1862 at Royal Park (Parkville). Heavily modelled on London Zoo, it has often been described as the first zoo in Australia[5], but this is not strictly correct – as there were small, private zoos in Sydney that predate it. Melbourne’s position however as the first public zoo in the country is certainly not in dispute, starting up some 22 years before Sydney’s Moore Park Public Zoo (Royal Melbourne Zoo is also the longest, continually operating zoo in Australia).

The concept of a zoo in the NSW colony has its origins in Hyde Park in the centre of Sydney Town in 1810. Soon after taking office Governor Macquarie established Sydney Common as a “people’s park”. Hyde Park initially housed a racecourse which by 1825 had given way to a menagerie of domestic and imported animals¥. By 1848 one Captain William Charlesworth, having procured exotic animals from India, and with the imprimatur of the Australian Museum, displayed them in a private menagerie-cum-small zoo in the Park[6].

Botany Zoological Gardens
Botany Zoological Gardens
Remembering the elephant at Banks Zoo
Remembering the elephant at Banks Zoo
The Hyde Park zoo experiment was short-lived and in 1851 its exhibits were ‘gifted’ to the publican (William Beaumont) of the Sir Joseph Banks Inn in Botany in Sydney’s south. The Botany hotel included a large land holding which was turned into pleasure grounds, with the private zoo being one of its star attractions. Among the new zoo’s animals acquired from Hyde Park were a ‘docile’ Asian elephant, a Bengal tiger, a gorilla, male and female Himalayan bears, black Bengal sheep and a pair of Manilla red deers[7].

After a change of hotel lease-holders the zoo folded and the animals were sold (late 1850s) to another pub at Watsons Bay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs – the Marine Hotel, owned by Henry Billing. “The Marine” was originally a private mansion built by Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis ca 1837 and initially named “Zandvilet” (or “Zandoliet”) and then “Marine Villa’ under different owners (known simply as “Watsons Bay House” to many).

Billing located the zoo in Robertson Park (Clovelly Street Watsons Bay) in the grounds of the Marine Hotel, which he later renamed Greenwich Pier Hotel. The private zoo (and hotel) had its own wharf for visitors. The collection included a lion (which was obviously tame, and perhaps worst, declawed, as the zoo advertised that it was available for visitors to ride!), elephants, tigers and harnessed zebras (no further information available on this but the inference is that the zebras might have been used bizarrely to pull carriages – like a horse!)[8].

The ‘showman’ Billing tirelessly promoted his private zoo as the largest and finest collection of wild animals in the Australian colonies, with “the wonder of the world, the Monstor Bengal Tiger Hercules, three East Indian Leopards, East Indian Porcupines, a Brahmin Cow, Egyptian Sheep, Golden Pheasants, Mongoose and English Ferrets”[9].

Dunbar House - former grounds of Watsons Bay Private Zoo
Dunbar House – former grounds of Watsons Bay Private Zoo
Not surprisingly, the zoo was a big hit with the punters, especially when combined with the on-site pub! Unfortunately in 1861 the zoo suffered a setback when one of the Bengal tigers mauled its keeper. This resulted in litigation against Billing and although cleared of any blame, the hotelier soon after died. His widow tried to get the colonial zoological board to purchase the animals, but the government rejected her request. Her excessive reaction, sadly, was to poison the 18 animals (some reports list the number as higher) in the Robertson Park zoo. A few years later Mrs Billing embarked on a new “show business” venture, operating a waxworks in Sydney[10]. There is no record of whether it was a successful business or not, but at least it didn’t involve any animals.

the Zoological Society was formed to carry on the role of the Acclimatisation Society, viz. the introduction and acclimatisation of (especially English) song birds and game (Royal Zoological Society of NSW)

§ an additional 9ha of Ashton Park bushland was later made available to the zoo

φ calculated at 228 mammals, 552 birds and 64 reptiles (Taronga Conservation Society Australia)

¥ Mrs Macquarie was reputed to maintain a personal menagerie of animals at Government House in Parramatta during her husband’s governorship.

the building housing Billing’s hotel in Robertson Park can boast a most colourful and manifold history. Since Billing’s ownership it has continued to change hands and names. Later in the century it got a new name, this time becoming the Royal Hotel, which had an open-air cinema added to its rear. From 1924 it was the municipal chambers of Vaucluse Council until the Council was abolished and merged into Woollahra Council in 1948. Part of the house became a library for a time. In the fifties as “Fisherman’s Lodge” it hosted wedding receptions and the like. Today it is the revamped Dunbar House, owned by the Grand Pacific Group, and hired out for events and operating as a cafe/restaurant for the many visitors to Watsons Bay.

[1] the Botanic Gardens provided many exotic birds for the new Moore Park Zoo aviary, ‘Who’s Who in the Moore Park Zoo?’, Centennial Parklands, History & Heritage, 7 May 2015, www.blog.centennialparklands.com
[2] pointedly,the Australian Town and Country Journal expressed “surprise that such a charming effect should be obtained in so comparatively small an area”, ‘The Zoological Gardens – a popular holiday resort with Sydney young folk’, Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), December 17 1892, www.trove.nla.gov.au
[3] ‘The Zoo’s first hippos stars: William and Rosamund’, (Culture Victoria), www.cv.vic.gov.au. There was more of an overlap of zoos and circuses in that era with both obtaining their ‘wild’ animals from this same source. It wasn’t until much later that zoos developed an interest in conservation and education
[4] a thriving artists’ colony, Curlew Camp, on the cove at Ashton Park, was closed down to make way for the zoo. Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, two of Australia’s most celebrated late colonial artists were members of the Curlew Camp group. As it eventuated the camp section of the bush headland was not used by the zoo. A bush track (the Harbour Hike) skirts around the Taronga fence and is part of the Sydney Harbour National Park
[5] eg, ‘Le Souëf Family Archives: Royal Melbourne Zoological Gardens’, www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au; ‘Melbourne Zoo’, www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[6] T Lennon, ‘Colonial Sydney went wild for first zoos at Hyde Park and Botany’, Daily Telegraph, September 10 2015
[7] ‘Sydney’s First Zoo’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October 1931 (Trove collection online). The picnic grounds at Sir Joseph Banks Park contain a series of zoo animal statues commemorating the zoo’s one-time existence there
[8] W Mayne-Wilson, ‘Robertson Park Its Secret Past’, Historic Environment, 17(3) 2004. Beaumont retained some of the Botany zoo animals which were later donated to the Moore Park Zoo
[9] V Campion, ‘Bayside Beauty – Dunbar House revives forgotten 1830s glamour’, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2011
[10] Robin Derricourt, Watsons Bay, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionary of Sydney.org/entry/watsons_bay, viewed 30 April 2016

Homebush Bay Perambulations IV: In the Footsteps of Blaxland and the Newington Estate

Bushwalking, Environmental, Heritage & Conservation, Social History

I wanted to do a follow up walk to an earlier exploration of the Olympic Precinct and the Millennium Parklands, extending it into the Newington and Silverwater hinterland on the other side of the Armory. Taking the ferry wharf at Sydney Olympic Park as our starting point this time, we embark on the 3km riverfront walk to Wilson Park (near the Silverwater Bridge), our first stop.

On the left side of the path we get glimpses through the fence of the Newington Nature Reserve. This huge area (48ha), marshy with mudflats and mangroves, and long neglected before the Olympics, underwent extensive remediation in the 1990s as part of the plan to create a ‘green’ Olympics in 2000. Its native vegetation was regenerated and the land was transformed into an estuarine wetland system and a woodland rich in turpentines and ironbarks. The public is not permitted access as it is a wildlife sanctuary for eagles and frogs and sundry other fauna. An additional factor is that the wetland area is still believed to contain an unexploded ordnance[1].

imageAs we come towards the old Armory site a curious feature is the retention of several old disused navy buildings on the waterfront. This detritus was scattered along the water’s edge, pieces of abandoned wooden and brick buildings tagged with faded building numbers. Some had been fenced up in a valiant but doomed attempt at vandal-proofing, and others near the Naval Depot simply boarded up as best they can be.

Near the always popular Armory Cafe, reborn out of the ashes of the burnt down original building, is the Blaxland Riverside Park, set on a sloping terrain, a treat for children with its flying fox and playground. The park contains several more of those earth mounds, a feature throughout the Bay (I can only surmise that these too are hiding nasty toxic surprises like the other mounds closer to the Olympic Precinct).

Wilson Park: walkers & cyclists
Wilson Park: walkers & cyclists
We stop at the park just before Silverwater Bridge – Wilson Park, there’s a history of toxic contamination here too. The site was occupied in the 1950s by PACCAL (Petroleum and Chemical Corporation of Australia Ltd) which refined gas from petroleum, a process which produced three tonnes of tar sludge a day. The park was where the unwanted waste products ended up. Similarly some of PACCAL’s stockpile of dioxins eventually seeped into Duck River on the other side of the Bridge[2].

We cut through the once highly contaminated Wilson Park, passing the athletics and soccer fields which stand where the gas processing plant used to be, and come out on to Newington Road. Halfway up the street we come to the high, ugly scarred wall of Silverwater Correction Centre. The very large prison, both minimum and maximum (remand) security inmates. The women’s prison, previously known as Mulawa (Aboriginal: in the shadow of trees), these days has mostly minimum security prisoners (in the main for crimes like fraud) but in the past it had ‘celebrity’ inmates such as Lindy Chamberlain (who unwillingly took the rap presumably for an unnamed Australian dingo for the murder of her baby daughter and was wrongfully convicted and incarcerated).

The men’s prison at Silverwater has also been the scene of one of the most daring jail escapes ever in Australia. In 1999 the Russian girlfriend of an inmate in Silverwater hijacked a helicopter at gunpoint and landed inside the prison, enabling her convict lover to get away by air. Six weeks later they were both cornered and caught and the girlfriend (dubbed “Red Lucy” by the Australian media) ended up behind bars in Mulawa as well.

The history of the land the Silverwater prison occupies is a varied one and some traces of of its historic existence can still to be seen … only though if you are a prisoner or a staffer at Silverwater. Within the facility grounds are several old colonial homes, most notably ‘Newington’ built by early landowner John Blaxland§. The Newington Estate, some 520ha of land, was named after the Blaxland family home in Kent.

Newington House
Newington House
Newington House has been variously used over the last 180 years. Initially Blaxland’s principal home, after his death it became the hub of Newington College (established by the Methodist Church in 1863) before the preppy college was relocated to Stanmore in inner city Sydney. The Newington Estate was acquired by land-owner John Wetherill who subdivided it for residential settlement (Homebush Village) but the public didn’t clamour to take the lots on offer (even the majority of the workers at the nearby Abattoir and Brickworks were not interested in living there!).

The government purchased a part of the Newington Estate, turning it into a hospital for the mentally ill – an aged women’s asylum. Buildings named in honour of notable early colonial women (Catchpole, Chisholm, Reiby) were added to Newington House as hospital wards. Later the asylum was extended to male patients and was categorised as a “state asylum for dependent adults with infirmity or illness of “incurable character”[3].

By 1960 the hospital had closed and was handed over to the Department of Prisons. Ten years later Silverwater Gaol opened in a very large block fronting on to Holker Street and incorporating the grounds of the hospital. Newington House itself is still used as the administration wing of the corrective centre.

The entrepreneurial flair of John Blaxland led to the estate use’s in the 19th century for numerous commercial enterprises including salt production, lime kiln, flour mill, tweed mill and coal mining (this last venture proved unsuccessful)[4].

SOP Lodge
SOP Lodge
We turn off Holker Street and into Jamieson Street and walk past the newer part of the prison, these days called the Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre (the gaol entrance point for visitors). On the right we get a fuller view of the vast expanse of the Armory’s restricted area. About halfway up Jamieson Street we come across a fenced-off section of the Armory with a series of old military-style huts set on green pastures. This is the Sydney Olympic Park Lodge, an urban holiday camp run by the YMCA and offering school kids a mix of outdoor and educational activities drawing on the resources of the Armory. Although part of the Olympic Park accommodation portfolio these rather spartan looking dormitories are certainly not likely to be mistaken for luxury five-star accommodation for Olympics or other sports-related VIPs.

The Lodge is buffeted from Blaxland Reserve by a large nature reserve. As we come back to the Parramatta a River trail we spot some more of the artificially created earth mounds, so characteristic of the Bay area. From the impressive gatehouse of the Armory it’s only about one-and-three-quarters kilometres back to our SOP ferry wharf starting point.

§ in the earlier posts Homebush Bay Perambulations I and Homebush Bay Perambulations III I referred to the Wentworth family’s role in the early development of Homebush Bay, being the beneficiaries of the grant of a large swathe of land in the area. Blaxland’s early land acquisitions led to him and his family having a similar imprint on the western part of Homebush Bay. At around the same time, Blaxland’s younger brother, Gregory (of Blue Mountains explorer fame), purchased the Brush Farm Estate in Eastwood from the father of his exploration companion, WC Wentworth – another interaction between the two great colonial families.

[1] ‘Management Plan for Newington Nature Reserve’, (SOPA, 2003), www.environment.nsw.gov.au
[2] ‘Industrial History’, Sydney Olympic Park Authority, www.sopa.nsw.gov.au
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.