La Perouse II: A Coastal Bush Walk through Obsolete Military Emplacements, Multiple Golf Courses, Shooting Ranges and an Abandoned Graveyard

Bushwalking, Local history

imageAt the end of Anzac Parade, not far from where the bitumen meets the grassy knoll, was once the location of the La Perouse tram terminus (known locally as “the Loop”). The tram lines were torn up in 1961 with the La Perouse line having the distinction of being the last Sydney tram service still running at that time. This is an ideal spot to kick-off a leisurely and instructive saunter through Sydney’s southern suburban coastline and unearth some of the connexions with its past. The knoll is dotted with a number of landmarks recalling both the early British colonial regime and Comte de Lapérouse’s brief sojourn on his eponymous peninsula.

Looking south, the first colonial structure that comes into our line of sight is the 1822 built sandstone, castellated watchtower … today an exotic backdrop favoured by numerous newly-weds for their wedding photos. In the 19th century the watchtower functioned as a surveillance point and customs post (under David Goodsir who had the quaint official title of “coast watcher”): strategically important because Botany Bay was a vulnerable point in the early colony, a sparsely populated “back door” through which smugglers sought to sneak contraband into Sydney by sea. A fire destroyed the attached wooden living quarters in 1957 [‘The Macquarie Watchtower, La Perouse’, (Randwick and Districts Historical Society]. To the west of the castle tower is the monument to J-F Lapérouse, not far from the museum which also bears his name.

Leaving the monument and walking east past the Mr Whippy van, the weekend kite-flyers, and assorted day-trippers reclining on the side of the hill, we come to a bridge leading to a one-time fort and later war veterans home, Bare Island. Organised tours of historic Bare Island on Sundays are available, but these days the most activity the hilly island sees are the scores of scuba divers who flock to its shoreline to enjoy what is one of the most popular dive sites in Sydney. From here we return to Anzac Parade and to a sign directing us to Congwong Bay Beach. Before we take that path lined with sandy vegetation on either side, we spot a square, fenced-off area just ahead which is decorated with colourful Aboriginal motifs. This is the famous “snake pit” (AKA “the Loop”), for 107 years a source of entertainment for Sunday visitors to La Perouse. A small, dedicated team of herpetological enthusiasts (for most of this period the work of one family of seasoned handlers – the Canns) have enthralled, mesmerised and horrified (probably in equal measures) untold numbers of onlookers. Every Sunday since c.1909 this pit has been the stage on which countless snakes, goannas, lizards and other reptiles have strutted their stuff!

Congwong Bay
Congwong Bay
We leave the snake ‘sideshow’ and cross small Congwong Beach, heading north-east into the scrub. Ignoring a right turn which leads to secluded Little Congwong Beach (a long-time haunt for unofficial nude bathers … shock/horror!), we keep to the main track which cuts through ragged scrubland that once was thick with tall, abundant Eastern Suburbs Banksias (melaleucas, coast tee trees, banksia serratas and the like). At the top of the rise (where a solitary rest bench sits) we go left up to the boundary of the first of four golf courses we will pass on our travels (the NSW Club), then right down a long, disused service trail that leads us to Henry Head. Henry Head was the site of a 19th century battery post which was meant to back up the fortifications at Bare Island further inside the heads (neither sets of guns were ever fired in anger!). On the point, in front of the Henry Head emplacements, is a small, obsolete lighthouse (Endeavour Light). The empty mountings where the guns were once housed now are bare shells with only the calling cards of vandals, graffitists and rubbish dumpers to show.

Henry Head battery
Henry Head battery
This windswept and desolate spot marks the start of a spectacular coastal walk. The quality of this walk has been enhanced in recent years with the addition of a mini-mesh boardwalk which facilitates the up-and-down clamber over the rocks. About halfway along the winding boardwalk we see a bench seat made from the very same mesh material … obsessive-compulsiveness or 100% utilisation of existing materials? Perhaps when they finished laying the boardwalk they had some mesh left over and thought, waste not, want not, might as well make a matching seat as well! The high cliffs from here down to Malabar provide some of the best vantage points in Sydney to view northbound pods of migrating whales (mainly Winter-Spring).

At the point where the rocks on the shoreline start to get too high to climb without the right mountaineering gear, we verge left and follow a narrow trail that winds up the hill. At the top we find ourselves rejoining the NSW Golf Club course. We steer a tight course around the edge of the cliff so as not to antagonise any iron-wielding golfers we may run in to, but also because it affords walkers the best views of the ocean. Lots of vivid, native coastal wildflowers can be seen along the cliff-top.

What remains of the stern of the SS Minmi
What remains of the stern of the SS Minmi
Halfway through the golf course we take a diversion over a narrow footbridge to explore the aquatic reserve at Cape Banks. This sinewy peninsula, jutting out into the sea, was a WWII fortification and the site of a 1937 shipwreck, SS Minmi. The collier upon impact with the rocks one dark night split in two, the remainder of its stern, a rusty grey mess, draws curious sightseers and hikers to the peninsula (‘Shipwrecks’, Randwick City Council, One of the holes of the golf course has a professional tee on the nature reserve itself, a challenging lofty shot back across a broad and windy stretch of water to the green, fully testing the nerves of even the most confident of golfers.

Continuing through the golf course onto a bush track with lush vegetation, the path turns towards the road, coming out near the Westpac Chopper Base. Adjacent to the base is a pistol range, the home of the Sydney Pistol Club❈. Just after that we turn right and enter what a sign describes as the “Coastal Hospital Management Trail”. It is an ancient looking graveyard … the widespread, abandoned remains of the old Coast Hospital Cemetery, the scattered graves and headstones all looking decidedly unkempt and decrepit (the approaches to the cemetery are usually water-logged after any significant rain). Many patients from the Little Bay infectious diseases hospital are buried here. Most of the headstones, much weathered by the elements and/or vandalised, are hard to read (see below for more on the historic hospital).

'Wrapped Coast' 1969
‘Wrapped Coast’ 1969
After the cemetery the trail returns to the cliffs and we walk along the edge of the second golf course, St Michaels. More attractive wildflowers on the right side. At the end of the golf course where the headland turns to the left we catch a glimpse of a secluded little beach deep in the bay, aptly name “Little Bay” (behind the beach a third and shorter course is situated, this is the Coast Golf Course). There are many more houses and apartments in Little Bay now than 47 years ago when the celebrated avant-garde artists, Bulgarian-American Christo and his partner Jeanne-Claude, selected this remote and uninhibited stretch of Sydney coastline for an environmental art project. In a major logistics operation involving over 100 workers in 1969, these two practitioners of what has come to be called “environmental sculpture” ‘wrapped’ a 2.5km long section of Little Bay’s deserted rocky coast using one million square feet of synthetic woven fibre fabric and an awful lot of rope!❦

Coastal Hospital for Infectious Diseases
Coastal Hospital for Infectious Diseases
A short diversion from the walking path at Little Bay beach takes us up to Coast Hospital Road where the Prince Henry Hospital, initially called the Coast Hospital, was situated (in 2001 the hospital was closed and its services transferred to the Prince of Wales Hospital, the salvageable buildings were absorbed into local public housing). From 1881 Prince Henry functioned alternately as a smallpox hospital, a convalescent hospital, and a “fever hospital” dealing with all manner of infectious conditions over the years (diphtheria, TB, scarlet fever, bubonic plague, swine flu pandemic). Later the medical focus of Prince Henry was extended to epidemiology and preventative medicine and the poliomyelitis virus (‘Prince Henry Hospital – South Eastern Sydney Local Health District’,

Close to the Coast Hospital site the University of NSW maintained a campus for many years. Originally intended for a medical school which was never built, it was used instead for biological sciences research and for solar energy research (Solarch, first building in NSW to generate green power). In 2008 UNSW sold the land to developers and it now contains high-rise apartments (‘Development of ex-UNSW site Little Bay’, LAPEROUSE – Social Change not Climate Change,

The Coast walk continues north from Little Bay above “Christo’s Rocks” (a headland once owned by the Prince Henry Hospital) where we trek past the last of the four ocean-facing golf courses in a row, the Randwick Council course. Keeping out of the range of flying golf balls✥ is one of the navigational skills needed to thread your way through the maze of golf courses … a key to managing this is to hug the red marker posts on the cliff edges.

Finally we get beyond the last of the golf holes by the distance of a 4 wood, reaching Bay Parade and Long Bay where there is a rockpool and a tiny, unfashionable beach, too sheltered from the ocean to lure many serious board surfers. On the northern side of Long Bay you will spot plenty of black suited “frogmen and women”, signifying another popular dive site. Malabar Beach is very much the “poor relation” of much larger neighbour, Maroubra Beach, and its popularity probably hasn’t been enhanced over the years by its proximity to both a large sewerage outlet and a large penitentiary (Long Bay Gaol).

Anzac Range
Anzac Range
The route taken for the final leg of our walk, to Maroubra, depends on circumstances at the time of the walk. The optimal route is out to Boora Point where you can find a series of isolated concrete lookout posts from WWII, then north along the cliff-top past dense thickens of tea trees and banksia (the scrubby track here is ill-defined or even non-existent!). The last part which takes you to South Maroubra Beach skirts around the eastern perimeters of the vast Anzac Rifle Range (there has been recreational target shooting here on-and-off since the 1850s). After passing the northern boundary of the rifle range you do a sharp dog-leg left through wild, lanky vegetation around the model aero club field, followed by a U-turn, then back through an open gate (hard to spot until you get close, look to the right side) leading to Arthur Byrne Reserve and the South Maroubra beachfront.

All up the La Perouse to Maroubra coastal trek is about a 12.5 to 14.5 km walk depending on which route you take from Malabar Beach – with very minimal amount of gradient to contend with. If you are looking for a pleasant and feature-packed sort of coastline ramble, with plenty of variety to see on the way, then this one definitely ticks the box.

❈ located here (near Cape Banks) since 1959, previously the handgun club practiced in a disused rail tunnel near Wynyard Station(!?!)
❦ Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s ‘bag’ seems to have been to temporarily wrap large objects – natural or human-made … one of the other famous projects of the environmental artist-couple was the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin
✥ especially on the Council course where we find ourselves walking directly towards the golfers hitting from the tees!
if you are walking on a weekend on which the Rifle Club is holding a competition (red flags flying over the range), then the Boora Point route is not available (for safety reasons) and usually patrolled. On these occasions you need to take the western path through Cromwell and Pioneer Parks and come out at Broome Street, South Maroubra

The Wright Way, the Only Way: the Early Aviation ‘Patent Wars’ and Glenn Curtiss

Aviation history, Popular Culture, Regional History, Social History, Society & Culture

In this age of deregulated, worldwide passenger flight with more commercial airlines in the game than there are countries in the world (or so it seems anyway), its interesting to reflect that back in 1906 two American brothers had a monopoly on the very concept of human flight. Of course in 1906 there was no commercial flights – being still at the first dawn of aviation endeavour, but the only attempts at flight at all then (in a legal sense at least) were with the express say-so of those same two brothers.

The 1906 Patent
The 1906 Patent
In 1906 the Wright brothers – Orville and Wilbur – were granted a patent by the US Patent Office (after two earlier failed applications) for their “flying machine”, or more precisely, for their demonstrated method of controlled, powered, heavier-than-air flight. The bicycle shop owners-cum-aviation inventors had managed to demonstrate some measure (albeit minimal) of aerial control of the third version of their Wright flyer in all three axes of aerodynamics – pitch, yaw and roll[1]. The basis of the patent was the Wrights’ experiments in 1902-1903 and the successful (852 feet/59 seconds) glider flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903.

The Wright brothers defended their exclusive aircraft patent against all-comers (“copiers and imitators” as they saw everybody else in the game) with a monomaniacal religious zeal that would have befitted their overbearing United Brethren minister father Milton. Orville and Wilbur freely sued and issued writs against anyone who attempted to construct and fly a new aircraft without purchasing a licence from them. As this was the pioneering era of aviation there were a lot of inventors trying to do just this[2]. Accordingly, the Wrights spent a lot of time locked in legal disputes with other manufacturers in America and overseas who were trying to avoid the patent fee. The Wrights staunchly defended their world monopoly over flight in unequivocal terms as a ‘moral’ and a ‘legal’ right, treating all other contemporary inventors in the field as in effect “hobbyists”![3].

GHC, technology innovator
GHC, technology innovator
Glenn Hammond Curtiss, a New York engineer and aviator, was one of many inventors who fell foul of the litigious Wright brothers when he added ailerons (French: “little wing”), a movable attachment to a fixed wing for greater control, to his experimental aircraft. Unfortunately for Curtiss he became the main focus of the Wrights’ wrath and in their eyes their greatest nemesis … in 1913 the Wrights won lawsuits for patent infringement against Curtiss et al, when US courts ruled that ailerons fell under the ambit of the Wright patent. Consequently Curtiss and his business partners (Aerial Experiment Association – AEA) were forced into bankruptcy[4].

The Wrights’ broad litigious reach was generally less effectively outside of the USA. Many European inventors were able to escape paying the patent fees, sometimes with the aid of sympathetic European courts. The Wrights’ demands for royalties were ignored or evaded, or if they were contested, one strategy was to stretch the case out until the patents had expired[5].

The Wright brothers’ obsession with enforcing their legal patent❈ had wider ramifications for the industry to the point of retarding progress in the development of US aviation. Beyond the early breakthroughs in lateral control, the brothers did not really add much to their aviation achievements (consequently in these years Curtiss pulled far ahead of them in design innovation). After America entered the Great War in 1917, the brothers’ perversely rigorous enforcement of the patents left America woefully short of new airplanes at a time they were desperately needed. The upshot was that the US forces in WWI had to secure French fighter planes for their military pilots[6].

Restored 1903 Flyer III in the Smithsonian
Restored 1903 Flyer III in the Smithsonian
Because of the Wrights’ unwavering stance on their patents (after 1912 Orville alone, as Wilbur died that year), resentment towards the brothers was strong, they were accused of being greedy by licensees, eg, by demanding “money first” from prospective buyers BEFORE giving a demonstration of the prototype flyer, or by setting too high a royalty fee (at one point demanding 20% of sales); after a string of fatal air crashes in Wright planes Orville Wright lost sympathy with the public by attributing the accidents solely to “pilot error” (characteristically giving no consideration to the fact that the Wrights might be at fault for not having tried to make improvements to their prototype Flyer’s basic design[7].

Eventually, inevitably, the US authorities moved to close down the Wrights’ monopoly. A patent pool system was introduced in 1917 whereby all aircraft manufacturers in the country joined an association requiring the payment of a relatively small fee for patent use. The pooling of the aircraft patents signalled the end of the Wrights’ patent wars … by this time Orville had already sold his interest in the Wright Company at handsome profit and moved on to other (non-aviation) ventures[8].

Postscript: Curtiss V Wright
Intriguingly Curtiss shared a common background with the brothers Wright, like them he began as a bicycle shop owner, designing, building and repairing bikes in small-town USA. But before moving into aviation Curtiss excelled in another area, motorcycles … he began designing V-8 powered motorcycles. The adventurous Curtiss even raced them, winning several races and setting a world record speed of 136 mph (earning himself the tag of “the fastest man on earth”).

Despite the early setbacks at the hands of the Wrights Curtiss went on to have a stellar career in aviation (and in naval aviation), designing practical seaplanes and airplanes, the viability of which he happily demonstrated in public (cf. the Wrights who tended to shroud their aircraft projects in secrecy). With financial backing from the famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell and from Bell’s wife, Curtiss’ international prize-winning planes (“The June Bug”, “The Albany Flyer”, “The Jenny”) completed the first publicly witnessed flight and the first long distance flight in North America (220 km, Albany to New York City). Curtiss, far superior to the Wrights as a pragmatic, go-ahead businessman, quickly became a multimillionaire. Curtiss possessed a flair for publicising and promoting his inventions that the brothers did not exhibit, and turned his inventions into rapid sales of units[9]. In a superb irony given Orville’s fierce, lifelong antipathy to Glenn Curtiss, the two aviation companies eventually merged in 1929❦ to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation[10].

◖◗ See also the related 2014 blog article ‘Wright or Not Right?: the Controversy over who really was “First in Flight?” ‘


❈ the stock joke the Curtiss people liked to tell at the time went … (the brothers were so litigious that) every time somebody jumped in the air and waved his arms, the Wrights would demand a patent royalty or threaten to sue!
❦ by which time neither man had active roles in their respective companies any longer … Notwithstanding that Orville still objected to the new corporation’s title listing Curtiss’ name first!

[1] activating the pitch (moving the aircraft’s nose up and down) and yaw (moving the nose side-to-side) of the projectile was the previous, understood (but unsuccessful) method of controlling flight … the Wrights reasoned that these worked only in unison with the third element of rotation, roll (lateral movement through the novel wing-warping feature of the Flyer). Warping (twisting) of part of the wing on either side causes the plane to roll or bank in that direction, Phaedra Hise, ‘The 1903 Wright Flyer’, Air & Space Magazine (Smithsonian), March 2003. The addition of twin-rudders to the rear of the 1902 model of the Flyer helped stabilise it and prevent it spinning out of control, ‘Rudder – Yaw (Wright 1903 Flyer)’, (National Aeronautics and Space Administration),
[2] as W J Boyne described it, the Wrights went about “systematically sueing anyone suspected of infringing their patents, which really meant everyone attempting to make a living from building or flying airplanes”, Walter J Boyne’s “World Aviation History”, (‘The Wright Brothers: The Other Side of the Coin’), 2008,
[3] Sparks of Invention: Need for Speed, (Series 1, episode 5, TV documentary 2015, 9-NOW Network, screened 23-Oct-2016); ‘Wilbur Wright to Octave Chanute’, (letter, Dayton, Oh. 20-Jan-1910), cited in ‘Wright Brothers patent war’, Wikipedia,
[3] ibid.
[4] ‘Wright Brothers patent wars’, ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7] Boyne, op.cit.; Phaedra Hise, ‘How the Wright Brothers Blew It’, Forbes, 19-Nov-2003,
[8] Wright Brothers patent wars’, op.cit.
[9] ‘About the Man – Glenn H. Curtiss’, Glenn H. Curtiss Museum,
[10] Flying (magazine), ‘Century of Flight’, 130(12), Dec 2003

La Perouse I: A Potpourri of French, Chinese and Indigenous Impacts; Bare Island and Happy Valley

Heritage & Conservation, Local history, Social History

La Perouse is a quiet little coastal suburb in Sydney’s south overlooking the entrance to Botany Bay. At the end of Anzac Parade where the grassy headland starts, the 394 bus loops round and stops at the bus shed before commencing its inward journey to Circular Quay. The sign on the side of the shed announces “La Perouse – Australia’s French Connection”.

The suburb, as most Sydneysiders probably know, derives its name from the French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup, better known as the comte de la Perouse. Lapérouse whilst on a scientific expedition of the Pacific landed here in 1788, building a stockade, an observatory and a vegetable garden in Phillip Bay (anticipating the later Chinese residents). Lapérouse’s men explored the bay area for six weeks before sailing off north to the Solomon Islands and disappearing from sight for good❈.

The Aboriginal connection
Today La Perouse is a pleasant day trip for picknickers, beach goers and bush walkers, and a haunt for scuba divers, snorkellers and fishermen. It is also part of the traditional lands of the Dharawal people, the clans of Gweagal and Kameygal, signifying over 7,500 years of continuous indigenous occupation in La Perouse/Yarra Bay[1]. From the 1890s until deep into the 20th century Yarra Bay was the site of an aboriginal mission.

Unsurprisingly some sections of the aboriginal community have taken umbrage at what they see as white society’s recent efforts to re-brand La Perouse with the “French Connection” tag – an emphasis which they see as taking some gloss off the significance of indigenous Australia’s unbroken bond with the area. A recent manifestation of a divergence of opinion on this has concerned the content and orientation of the Lapérouse Museum on the headland (formerly a cable station connecting the telegraph to New Zealand). The La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council’s position is that rather than solely telling the (six week) Lapérouse story in Australia as intended by the French-Australian community, the Museum should reflect an integrated history, ie, the French chapter of the La Perouse story is but one part in a much longer narrative of thousands of years of indigenous occupation and land use in the area[2].

At the beginning of the 20th century La Perouse started to move ahead as a place to live. Part of the drive came from Redfern counsellor and developer George William Howe. Howe with William Rose set up the Yarra Bay Pleasure Grounds. The pleasure grounds popularity benefitted from the tram line being extended to La Perouse in 1902. Howe built 72 huts for campers and fishermen, as well as refreshment rooms[3], a boatshed and stables to accommodate 150 horses. As a result weekend visitor and holidayer numbers from the city increased.

A form of Sunday sideshow entertainment at La Perouse developed and some aboriginals earned money from the emerging tourist industry by selling boomerangs and souvenirs such as decorative shell necklaces[4]. The other prominent sideshow element at La Perouse was the snake pit show which originated near the tram loop around 1909. By 1919 the show was run by George Cann, a curator of reptiles at Taronga Zoo. Cann the snake man’s performances drew crowds from the suburbs weekly. Cann continued running the shows until 1965 and created a dynasty of “snake men” with his sons (George Jr and John) maintaining the family’s snake pit shows until 2010 (when it was taken over by the Hawkesbury Herpetological Society)[5].

Another lure for visitors from the suburbs was a kind of cultural curiosity – a chance for many to view the “native inhabitants” of La Perouse (government practice had been to remove indigenous people from the more populated parts of Sydney). This weekly influx of tourists however caused problems for Aboriginal Reserve inhabitants (leading to restrictions on their freedom of movement – eventually they were confined effectively to the Reserve). After WWII the population of La Perouse underwent further diversification with many recent refugees from the Baltic States and other war-ravished places in Europe ending up living there[6].

Bare Island: The Russians are coming? … maybe not
Captain Cook took special note of this small, rocky bluff of an island at the point just off La Perouse in 1770 (giving it its name “small, bare island” in his journal). By the 1870s the British colonial authorities started to take Sydney’s security more seriously in the context of a perceived push into the Pacific from Tsarist Russia. Botany Bay had long been thought vulnerable as a “back door” entry point to Sydney for a hostile power⊗. To protect Sydney’s southern flank from a surprise Russian invasion, a fortification was built on Bare Island in the 1880s. The emplacements on Bare Island were supplemented by a second battery at Henry Head to the east of Bare Island, a small promontory jutting out from the coast. The Bare Island fort was part of a network of foreshore military installations built by the colonial government in Sydney to deal with a Russians menace that never eventuated❦.

Henry Head emplacements
Henry Head emplacements
Designed by the military engineer Peter Stratchley, construction was in the hands of colonial architect James Barnet. Unfortunately the construction was a shambles, the materials were of poor quality and the structure started to crumble before it was completed. Furthermore the fort’s armaments were out-of-date by the time it became operational. A Royal Commission ensued in 1890, finding Barnet culpable of incompetence and effectively ended his architectural career. By 1902 the fort was decommissioned and its defence role wound up within a few years.

Bare Is.
Bare Is.
By 1912 Bare Island had become (Australia’s first) war veterans home, housing retired military personnel from earlier wars that Australians saw action in (Crimean War, Maori Wars, Sudan, etc). It remained a veterans’ home until 1963 (except for 1941-1945 when the army re-occupied and re-armed it as part of the coastal defence against the Japanese threat – its guns however were never fired in anger during WWII). From 1963-1975 the fort was home to the Randwick (Council) Historical Society Museum. Since 1967 it has been administered by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (the eastern strip of the coast near the NSW Golf Club, part of Kamay Botany Bay National Park, has retained its dense bush land texture). The firing of live ammo from the fort’s 9 and 10 inch guns ceased in 1974[7].

La Perouse, Happy Valley, a refuge in the Depression
In 1929 La Perouse and its environs was still somewhat isolated from more central and built-up parts of Sydney. With the effects of the Great Depression hitting home in the early 1930s (pernicious levels of unemployment becoming the norm), many such affected people converged on La Perouse and Yarra Bay. Shanty towns shot up, the largest (c.3,000 occupants in 130 encampments) acquired the name Happy Valley (other camps for the poor went by names such as “Frog Hollow” and “Hill 60”). The occupants of Happy Valley scrounged the bush for materials to construct meagre huts which were hardly better than “lean-tos”유. Eventually there were calls for the squatters to be evicted, the well-heeled, socially-conscious members of the close by NSW Golf Club objected to their unsightly presence and the mayor of Randwick added his voice to the calls[8]. By 1938/39 the camps had been shutdown[9] and the state government had to create cheap public housing to cater for the unemployed.

The Chinese Presence
La Perouse with its ample supply of land established flourishing market gardens early in the colony. After the onset of the gold rushes control of the market gardens gradually shifted from European settlers to the Chinese. By 1900 La Perouse’s market gardens had largely fallen into the hands of city merchants from Dixon Street and Hay Street who were sponsoring low-paid labourers from China to do the work. By the 1920s the Chinese market gardens found themselves under pressure from large-scale agribusiness.[10]. Later when the unemployed came to La Perouse in the 1930s to live rent free in the scrub it was the Chinese gardeners and the local fishermen that they turned to for food to survive[11].

La Perouse as shown above boasts a rich and varied past, a “French connection” as the sign proclaims? … yes but the suburb is much more as well – an unbroken link of aboriginal custodianship stretching back to a Australia of an ancient age, a Chinese agricultural connection, a military installation of short-lived significance, a seaside pleasure grounds and a haven for the poor in time of economic catastrophe.

Bastille Day celebrations 2013
Bastille Day celebrations 2013

Postscript – the lingering French Connection:
The second European to be buried on the east coast of Australia[12] was a Frenchman, he was Pere Laurent Receveur, a member of the 1788 Lapérouse expedition. According to the La Perouse monument dedicated to his memory, he was a “Priest of Friars Minor and a scientist”. Lapérouse himself has a monument on the headland (constructed by the Baron de Bougainville in 1825 and funded by the French Republic). Every year on 14 July (Bastille Day) at La Perouse headland the local French community commemorates Lapérouse’s landing, replete with late 18th century French military uniforms, weapons and canons. The 2016 event included a dramatic touch of Napoleonic war re-enactment.



❈ Captain James Cook (1770), and later Governor Arthur Phillip and comte de la Pérouse, all visited this spot on the northern shore of Botany Bay. Phillip, arriving a few days before Lapérouse, rejected the peninsula out of hand as a possible site of settlement, declaring it a swampy, ‘unhealthy’ place and quickly moved on up the coast, deciding on Sydney Cove as the best place to found the colony
⊗ already, earlier in the 19th century local surveillance had been a priority … a castellated watchtower (at one stage used as a customs house) on the headland was built to keep an eye on smugglers in Botany Bay
❦ the other emplacements are (or were) located at South Head, Middle Head, Georges Heights and North Head
유 a lucky minority of the unemployed managed to secure one of Howe’s huts

[1] the Timbery family, members of which still reside in La Perouse today, can trace their descendants back to pre-European times, Julia Kensy, ‘La Perouse’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008,, viewed 19 October 2016
[2] R Sutton, ‘La Perouśe’s unknown historical significance’, (‘SBS News’), 29-Nov-2012,
[3] all the huts were demolished in the 1960s, ‘Howe Refreshment Rooms’, Dictionary of Sydney,
[4] Kensy, op.cit.
[5] ibid
[6] ibid
[7] ‘Bare Island Fort’, (NSW Office of Environment & Heritage),; ‘History of Bare Island, La Perouse’, (24-Mar-2015),
[8] ‘Happy Valley, Chinese Market Gardens and Migrant Camps’, (‘At the Beach, Contact, Migration and Settlement in South East Sydney’), Migrant Heritage Centre of NSW, www.migration
[9] except for Frog Hollow an aboriginal camp which was closed in 1954, Kensy, op.cit.
[10] ibid. ; ‘Chinese market gardens’, (NSW Office of Environment & Heritage),
[11] the government’s contribution to the shantytowners’ plight was to provide one pint of milk per day provided by the Dairy Farmers’ Co-op, ‘Happy Valley, op.cit.; ‘Blast from the Past – HAPPY VALLEY’, LAPEROUSE – Social Change not Climate Change,
[12] the first was Forby Sutherland, a Scottish seaman on Cook’s 1770 voyage to Australia. Sutherland died and was buried at Kurnell in what is now called the Sutherland Shire, named in honour of the AB seaman, ‘Forby Sutherland’, Monument Australia,

Two Boy Kings, One Deadly 70-Year Palace Secret

Comparative politics, National politics, Regional History

All over the Kingdom of Thailand its citizens are mourning the death last Thursday of their most revered monarch, Bhumibol Adulyadej (King Rama IX). Bhumibol (pronounced “pumi-pon”) had been the world’s longest reigning monarch (June 1946-October 2016) and the end of his long, long reign casts uncertainty over the coup-prone country’s immediate future.

The longevity and stability of the Boston born Bhimibol’s monarchical rule in Thailand has been the glue that has held this turbulent country together over the last seventy years❈. The sense of uncertainty is intensified by doubts the Thai people have about his designated successor, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn. What Thais know of Vajiralongkorn’s questionable past private life and periodical bizarre behaviour means his popularity with the people trails distantly behind that of his beloved father … it remains to be seen with the passage of time whether he will be able to muster up anything like Bhumibol “the Great’s” degree of baramee (accumulated merit) among Thais.

King Ananda of Siam
King Ananda of Siam
The event of King Bhumibol’s death stirs memories of the extraordinary and unexpected circumstances by which he became the king of Thailand at aged 18. In June 1946 the monarch Ananda Mahidol, Bhumibol’s older brother, died of a single gunshot to the head whilst in the royal palace. The king’s mysterious death remains much speculated about but unresolved to this day.

Initially the Bangkok press reported Ananda’s death as accidental (he was known to be “a fancier of firearms” like the Colt.45 that killed him), but international newspapers soon suggested the possibility that Ananda had suicided. To buttress this perspective of the shooting, the papers ran the line that Ananda had been despondent about his mother’s vetoing of a blossoming romance with a Swiss fellow student at the University of Lausanne, and that he was feeling the burden of being the reluctant ruler of his country[1].

Inquiry or cover up?
To stem this unpalatable conjecture the government set up a special commission of inquiry to investigate the death. The commission’s physicians discounted the likelihood of suicide (the angle of entry of the bullet was all wrong), finding rather that the King had been assassinated. As a criminal case however it had already been compromised … before police investigators had arrived at the royal chambers several people including probably the king’s mother had handled the weapon and the whole scene had been tidied up[2].

Rival Thai politicians pointed the finger at each other, many of the accusations centred on Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong who was forced into permanent exile … a politically motivated move which set back the burgeoning impetus for democracy in Thailand and paved the way for the establishment of ongoing military, authoritarian rule[3].

Short of direct evidence implicating Phanomyong in the act, the military arrested the late King’s private secretary (a national senator) and two of his pages, and eventually tried them for regicide on trumped-up charges supposedly implicating them in a communist conspiracy. Through a series of trials the case dragged on over several years before they were found guilty. After pressure from the army chief the three were executed in 1955. Its transparently clear that the executed men were sacrificed as convenient scapegoats … and sacrificed by the very top level of the Thai elite! Intriguingly King Bhumibol later opined that they were not responsible for the crime, yet, pointedly, he made no attempt following their sentencing to use his royal prerogative to save them from the gallows.

Although it was evident to all in the royal court that the two Thai brother-princes were the best of friends, some observers (including Lord Mountbatten) voiced the opinion that Bhumibol himself was responsible for the death of the young king, whether intentionally or by accident. If Bhumibol had deliberately shot his brother, no one has ever been able to establish a feasible or plausible motive for such action by the young prince[4] … but whether Bhumibol fired the fatal shot in what was a tragic accident is another question.

Another contemporary theory, this one self-death-by-accident, was advanced by the brothers’ cousin Prince Subha Svasti (at the time also Minister at Large in the Government of Siam). Prince Subha explained to the media that Ananda had the habit of sleeping with a loaded revolver beside his bed, and often used it to take potshots at birds through the open window. The prince theorised that the young king reached for it as he awoke but the gun discharged, fatally wounded himself in the motion[5].

Various other theories have been put forward to explain Ananda’s violent death, none of them convincing. Among the more implausible explanations was that from an American journalist that the king was assassinated by a Japanese agent and war criminal[6]. Over the years a number of books on the episode, written from outside Thailand, have surfaced but strict censorship within the country has made it an offence to possess or reproduce these books[7].

Grand Palace, Bangkok
Grand Palace, Bangkok
Another factor in Thai society that suffocates efforts to get to the heart of the enigma is Thailand’s draconian law of lèse majesté which harshly punishes anyone within the country found guilty of defaming or insulting the monarchy. This law has been liberally used by Thai governments (increasingly so) to silence and intimidate dissenting opinion in society[8]. It also has meant that Thais who discuss or read literature about the unresolved circumstances of what happened in 1946 are at risk of imprisonment under the law.

Bhomibol was (as far as is known) the last person to see the king alive that disastrous day, and with the 88-year-old’s death this week, he was the last person alive who might have been able to explain, finally, how his brother died. Whether Ananda died because brothers were playing around with the gun and Bhomibol accidentally shot him in the head (a view that has widespread currency), or by some other means, Bhomibol it seems has taken that sombre secret with him into nirvana[9].

┄┅ ┈┄┉ ┄┅ ┈┉┄ ┅┈┅ ┉┅┄ ┅┅ ┈┉┄ ┄┄ ┅┈ ┉┄ ┅┄┈ ┉┅ ┈┉ ┄┄ ┅┄
❈ the vast sweep of Rama IX’s reign encompassed 29 changes of Thai government, 16 coups and 16 distinct constitutions

[1] G King, ”Long Live the King’, The Smithsonian, 28-Sep-2011, www
[2] ‘Mystery still lingers over death of Thai King Bhumibol’s brother’, Weekend Australian, 15-Oct-2016,
[3] Andrew Marshall has argued that Bhumibol was more comfortable working with military regimes in Bangkok, exhibiting a contempt for civilian leaders of the country, eg, his implicit public criticism of high profile prime minister and telecommunications baron Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001-2002, A M Marshall, ‘The Tragedy of King Bhumibol’, 8-Mar-2012,
[4] T Lennon, ‘His brother’s mysterious death launched Thai King Bhumibol’s 70-year reign’, The Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 9-Jun-2016,
[5] ‘Prince’s Theory of How King Ananda Died’, The Argus (Melbourne), 16-Aug-1946, (Trove NLA),
[6] B Wain, ‘Who Killed King Ananda?’, The Wall Street Journal, 7-Jan-2000,
[7] more notoriously The King Never Smiles, by P M Handley, which the Thai authorities banned and even tried to suppress its publication in the US by appealing in vain to President George W Bush! – according to Indonesian English-language paper ThaiDay, cited by ‘The King Never Smiles’, (Wikipedia), www.en.m.wikipedia.orgThe New York Times, 20-Sep-2015, Interestingly, this failsafe mechanism was not invoked by King Bhomibol himself
[9] A secret costing the lives of three innocent men … and no doubt for the glum, Buddhist monarch, a lifetime of moral agonising, A M Marshall, ‘The Great Oz: King of Thailand’, Thai Story, 19-Jul-2011,

Australia’s Foremost Valparaíso born Politician❈

Local history, Political History, Travel

If you ever take an international flight to South America and happen to stop over in Santiago, Chile with a spare day and find you are not much enamoured of what’s on offer in the less than pulsating capital, a trip to picturesque Valparaíso would be just the tonic! To escape Santiago’s grimy greyness … and its multi-millions of stray, mangy dogs, take a trip on Route 68 115km north-west to Valparaíso and Region V.

imageValparaíso, or ‘Valpo’ for short, today has a faded, glamour but stacks of aesthetic character – with a higgedly-piggedly, chaotic pattern of brightly coloured houses, “a heap … a bunch of crazy houses” as poet Pablo Neruda described them, and numerous run-down/falling-down Victorian mansions (conversely on a cautionary note, the city these days also has a criminal underbelly including endemic petty crime and prostitution). Remnants of the city’s former glory and especially its quaint charm remain however: the old and rickety ascensores (inclined lifts, called funiculars elsewhere) transport passengers up and down Valparaíso’s steep, undulating hills, from atop the cerros visitors enjoy sweeping views across the bay and the ports. It’s a city awash with the most brilliant murals on the walls of houses and commercial buildings which themselves exude colour and character.

Valaparaíso’s “salad days” were in the 19th century, during this period it was a world-class port on the Europe to California shipping route. A combination of the devastating 1906 earthquake and the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 signified the rapid commercial decline of Valparaíso, once known as the “Jewel of the Pacific”. This small city on the eastern edge of the Pacific 11,326km from Sydney might seem an odd place for a turn-of-the-century Australian prime minister to be born◙, but in 1867 one such future PM was born there (also see Postscript). His name at birth was Johann Christian Tunck. Tunck’s father was Chilean of German stock whilst his mother was born in New Zealand of Irish ancestry. After his Chilean father disappeared early on, his mother remarried, changing the child’s name to John Christian Watson.

Later on Watson perpetuated a myth as to the truth of his origins which sustained itself throughout his political life. The name John Christian Watson emphasised his supposed ‘Scotchness’ and concealed an inconvenient, alien background. If his non-Britishness have been known, Watson’s eligibility for public office would have been imperilled (Australian politicians were required to be subjects of the Crown)[1].

Tanck (now Watson) grew up in the South Island of New Zealand, he trained as a compositor and worked for provincial newspapers such as the North Otago Times and the Oamaru Mail. Through these workplaces Watson had his first contacts with labour politics, joining the Typographers’ Union and the NZ Land League. Finding himself unemployed in his late teens prompted him to migrate to Sydney and peripatetic employment with local newspapers until moving to the em>Australian Star, a paper with a protectionist bent which matched his own economic thinking. As in NZ Watson found a path into the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council (TLC) via the Typographical Association of NSW[2].

Rising quickly through the official labour ranks Watson became both president of the TLC and chairman of the Labor Party (only recently established as the Labor Electoral League) by age 25. Watson served as a member of the colonial parliament of NSW, representing rural Young, and his star continued to ascend after the Commonwealth came into being on 1 January 1901.
A few months after Federation, still closer to 30 than 40, Watson was chosen as the first parliamentary leader of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Early Federal Australian politics entailed a three-way tussle between Watson’s ALP, the Protectionist Party led by Deakin and the Free Trade Party under Reid. Watson’s ascension to the prime minister-ship in 1904 was a novel occurrence: (the ALP was the) first national, labour-based government in the world; Watson at 37, the youngest-ever Australian PM[3]. The advent of Watson’s “workers'” government was met with cynicism and hostility as it challenged the hitherto standard notion that the working class were capable of assuming the mantle of government and succeeding. It didn’t as it eventuated succeed, surviving not quite four months before Watson found his government’s position untenable and was edged out of power¤ … but this was more to do with the nature of the Watson government, a minority one, than the quality or performance. Basically it couldn’t muster the numbers in parliament to continue governing and the governor-general appointed George Reid to the PM-ship in August 1904[4].

Watson’s political ideology:
In the terminology of 2016 filtered through the media’s lens, Chris Watson would be called “right-wing Labor”. Pro-protectionist (much closer to the position of his friend Deakin than to that of Reid and his Free Traders), a staunch advocate of the White Australia Policy, committed to gradual, industrial change in the working conditions and wages of the working man (hence his constant championing of Arbitration and Conciliation reform whilst PM). On the enduring question of the ALP and socialism, Watson, a moderate and mediator by temperament, eschewed a revolutionary approach, seeing himself rather as a proponent of “evolutionary (Christian) socialism”[5]. At his core Watson was no ideologue, he was far from being a fan of the later, quasi-messianic NSW Labor leader Jack Lang and his style of politics. Not a fuzzy idealist either, Watson was a thorough-going pragmatist (albeit a well-liked one), ever happy to do deals and compromise with the Free Trade Party and especially the Protectionists to try to retain Labor’s hold on power.

Labor front runner from Double Bay with Van Dyke beard
Labor front runner from Double Bay with Van Dyke beard
The almost universally highly regarded Watson held on to the leadership for a few more years[6] but in 1910, at around the time his successor Andrew Fisher was forming the first Federal Labor government to rule in its own right, Watson was leaving parliament. One reason for this decision was to spend more time with his wife, the other was purely financial, MPs in those days were not handsomely remunerated. Watson’s early business ventures were unsuccessful, eg, investing in a South African gold mine, land speculation at Sutherland in the southern districts of Sydney. More stable income was to be had when he became a director of a wool and textile enterprise – he was able to put his prestige as an ex-PM and his political connections to good use as a lobbyist for the business[7].

Into WWI Watson continued to play a behind-the-scenes role in the ALP, allying himself with the new Labor leader and PM, William Morris Hughes. The 1916 Conscription debate, saw both Hughes and Watson on the wrong side of the argument … calling for the introduction of compulsory military service by Australians in the war, a stand bitterly opposed by the great bulk of the Party (also decisively rejected by the public at large in two referendums). In the internecine conflict Hughes factionalised the ALP, defecting in 1917 to form a new (non-Labor) party, the Nationalists and holding on the prime minister-ship. Watson joined Hughes in the new party (both he and Watson were expelled from the ALP for their actions). Watson spent the last part of the war enthusiastically trying to get a soldier settlers’ scheme for returned Great War veterans off the ground[8].

In the 1920s Watson played a leading role in establishing and guiding the NRMA (National Roads and Motorists Association), and in the formation of Yellow Cabs (taxi service), and in the 1930s, AMPOL (Australian Motorists Petrol Company), all of which illustrate the former PM’s interest in motor transport. One of his other interests, cricket, led to him being appointed a trustee of the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia[9].

Chris Watson’s life journey took him from obscure and somewhat clandestine origins in Chile to a printing apprenticeship in Dunedin, NZ, to labour politics in Sydney and ultimately to the highest political office in Australia during the formative years of Federation. His brief stint in the top job (a mere 15 weeks) and early retirement at 42 from representative politics, leaves him as one of the lesser known PMs but one that nonetheless played a pioneering role in Labor leadership and in the shaping of Australia’s national identity.

Watson’s trajectory after 1916, if you were to be critical, could be seen as one in which he abandoned labour for the business world, and for the party of big business, the Nationalists (a choice of nationalism over social democracy it could be described) … clearly why, despite his achievements, he has never quite made it into the Pantheon of ALP political heroes.

Valpo view
Valpo view

When I undertook my day trip to Valparaíso, our tour guide, Adrián, who was equipped with excellent English and organisational skills, had this little technique he used on his tours. If he was taking an Australian group of tourists (as with my one on that particular day), he would tailor his commentary of the places we visit to include a sprinkling of references to Australia (or say to Mexico if that was the case). Such as pointing out the concentrations of imported Eucalyptus Globulus among the indigenous trees in the Andean valley. When we got to the city of the Porteños I casually asked the knowledgable guide if he was aware that an Australian prime minister was actually born right there in Valparaíso. Adrián, clearly someone interested in the wider world, was surprised, even doubting of such a claim. “No, really?!?” he inquired disbelievingly (how could this have escaped the meticulous Adrián!). Immediately he googled it on his iPhone and gleefully confirmed that I was right! Chuffed at picking up such a handy little revelatory fact, he added with a boyish enthusiasm that he would mention it to his next group of Aussie tourists. I laughed and replied, “Don’t worry, the overwhelming odds are they won’t have heard of Watson either“!


❈ a superfluous distinction of course given that as far as is known, short of a forensic examination of Hansard, Watson was almost certainly the only Australian political figure to be born in Valparaíso
◙ all other Australian prime ministers born outside Australia came from the British Isles
¤ the specific trigger for the government’s downfall was Watson’s failure to secure a double dissolution from the Gov-Gen.

[1] the Scottish myth was sustained throughout Watson’s political career, eg, the (Sydney) Bulletin lavished praise on him when he became the government’s treasurer in 1904 – concluding that “public finances are in safe Caledonian hands”, The Bulletin, 28 April 1904, cited in J Hawkins, ‘Chris Watson: Australia’s second Treasurer’, The Treasury: Australian Government, (Economic Roundup – Winter 2007),
[2] B Nairn, ‘Watson, John Christian (Chris) (1867-1941)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 12, (MUP), 1990
[3] at the same point in time the British Labour Party (BLP) had precisely four MPs out of a total of 670 in the House of Commons, and the first BLP UK government didn’t occur until the 1930s, R McMullin, ‘First in the World: Australia’s Watson Labor Government’, Department of Parliamentary Services, (2005),
[4] ibid. Reid’s term, similarly, was one of only 11 months … Watson’s and Reid’s terms were characteristic of the early Commonwealth governments – minority rule, composite, multi-party based governments and (consequently) short-lived
[5] Hawkins, op.cit.
[6] Even when he was PM or Leader of the Opposition, Watson was still highly responsive to his local constituents in Bland (and later South Sydney) and worked tirelessly to address their “grass roots” needs, ‘Chris Watson’ (Australian Prime Ministers), Museum of Australian Democracy,
[7] A Grassby & S Ordoñez, John Watson, (1999)
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.

Kaliningrad Oblast: Withering of the Russian Connexion in “Amber Country”?

International Relations, Politics, Regional History, Social History

A dilution of Russian connectivity among Kaliningrad’s population?

Eighty-seven per cent of the population of Russia’s Kalininskaya province (out of 941,873 residents (2010 Census)) are ethnic Russians. Because of Kaliningrad’s geographic isolation from the rest of the Russian Federation (it is 1,095km distance from Moscow), it depends on its trade links with nearby EU states. When Vladimir Putin embarked on trade wars with the West over Crimea, Kaliningrad was hit hardest by the ensuing food embargo. In this environment proximity allowed many Kaliningraders to venture especially to Poland on shopping sprees without requiring visas. School children in the Oblast, many of whom have studied in neighbouring Lithuania, Poland and Germany, have only hazy recognition of the names of Russian cities. Kaliningraders, who can afford to, have been buying properties in EU countries¹.

Other meaningful Kaliningrad statistics:
25% of residents have Schengen (Treaty) visas
60% have foreign passports
34% identify as SBNR (spiritual but not religious) cf. 30.9% Russian Orthodox and 33.1% Atheist or non-religious (2012 official survey, Arena – Atlas of Religions and Nationalities in Russia)

The cumulative effect of all these developments has seen a trend, as Professor V Shulgin observed in a controversial article on, involving an identity shift (especially in younger Kaliningraders) away from Russian nationalism to a more liberal and European identity².

Prof Shulgin paid a personal price for expressing an opinion that the Kremlin did not want to hear voiced, but the question remains – with so many younger residents of the Oblast perceiving themselves as European – will that eventually snowball into a collective desire by Kaliningraders to join the European Union? Given Moscow’s firm grip on Kaliningrad at the moment❈, this doesn’t appear on the horizon in the short-term at least.

imageIn 2006 Moscow introduced a Special Economic Zone in Kaliningrad. This was intended to provide duty-free trade opportunities in the Oblast and transform Kaliningrad into Russia’s version of Hong Kong or Singapore. The SEZ however failed miserably, it was unable to achieve the necessary economic integration into the Baltic Sea region³, nor did it create a viable tourist trade. Kaliningrad hasn’t had a good track record with SEZs – in 1996 a Yantar (= amber – the region’s premier mineral) Special Economic Zone was started but it has achieved only limited success¤. The closure of Kaliningrad’s SEZ in April 2016 has left the Oblast with questions marks over its economic direction from here⁴.


❈ despite the Russian Republic not having a contiguous border with its most western oblast
¤ Kaliningrad was part of the Amber Road in ancient times, a trade route for transporting amber from the North and Baltic Seas to the Mediterranean Sea and Imperial Rome

¹ ‘The Invasion of Crimea is Hurting Russia’s Other Enclave’, (Interview with Ola Cichowlas), Forbes, 6-Jun-2014,; P Goble, ‘From Siberia to Kaliningrad: the fledging independence movements gaining traction in Russia’, The Guardian (London), 16-Aug-2014,
² cited in R Piet, ‘Kaliningrad: The Last wall in Europe’, (19-Nov-2014), Aljazeera,
³ at its core the economic failures had political roots … Moscow maintained tight reins on the province’s economic activities because of the old fear that giving it too much autonomy might create the conditions for it to secede from the Republic, S Sukhankin, ‘Kaliningrad: Russia’s stagnant enclave’, Economic Council on Foreign Relations, 31-Mar-2016,
⁴ D Crickus, ‘Kaliningrad: Russia’s Own Breakaway Region?’, The National Interest, 21-Mar-2014,

¹ ² ³ ⁴ ⁶ ⁹ ⁰ ⁵ ⁸ ⁷