Of the many, many coastal walks afforded by “the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security…”(Governor Arthur Phillip’s appraisal of Port Jackson after sighting Sydney for the first time in 1788), the seaside walk on the southern side of the suburb of Manly✳ is certainly right up there with the most picturesque of them.
Henry Gilbert Smith
Pivotal to Manly Scenic Walkway (henceforth MSW) and to the seaside community of Manly as a whole is the historic Manly Wharf, the original of which was built by Henry Gilbert Smith in 1855⌽. Smith, known as the “Father of Manly”, had a vision of how the undeveloped bushland that dominated Manly in the 1850s could be transformed into a thriving seaside resort. Purchasing and leasing in excess of 300 acres of land, Smith built Manly’s early hotels, including one (as a sop to the local Temperance Society?) that served only soft drinks! As well the pioneer entrepreneur was responsible for planning the layout of Manly’s streets and parks as they still exist today [‘Manly Heritage Plaques Walk’, www.manlyaustralia.com.au]
Carrying passengers to Manly
Creating a seaside resort a good 11.3km from Sydney (a formidable distance in the 19th century) necessitated a good transport link. Travel by water was the obvious mode of transport for the beach suburb. HG Smith started the first regular service from the wharf operated through the paddle steamer Phantom which ferried day-time visitors to Manly and night-time theatre-goers to and from Sydney in the 1860s. From the 1870s the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company. controlled the suburb’s ferry services. Briefly in the early 1890s the Port Jackson Co had competition from a new rival, the Manly Cooperative Steam Ferry Co which lowered fares and increased services. By 1896 the Manly Co-op business however faltered and was wound up and Port Jackson Co resumed its monopoly.
The Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Co, whose motto was “Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care”, continued to serve the public at Manly until 1972 when its role was taken over by Brambles Industries which in turn passed ownership to the state government two years later [‘The Heart of Manly Heritage Walk’, www.manly australia.com]. In the early 1990s the government operator introduced Catamaran vessels, JetCats, to replace the unreliable and costly hydrofoils…the Manly service is now operated by Bass and Flinders Cruises operating as Manly Fast Ferries.
East Esplanade was the venue for many of Manly’s early cultural activities, such as the Venetian Carnival which flourished from around 1913 on. The carnival comprised stalls with food and entertainment (eg, “chocolate wheels and other gambling devices”), costumes, fireworks and a water pageant [‘The Heart of Manly Heritage Walk’]. By 1930 the annual Venetian Carnival was promising the greatest “new attractions, new frolics and new stunts … ever organised in the Southern Hemisphere” with the inclusion of aeroplane rides, a “night time raid”, a “monkey speedway” and participation by Manly Surf Club. The event in 1930 ran for three weeks during Summer with the proceeds pledged to Manly Hospital and other local charities [The Sydney Mail, 15-Jan-1930 (Advertisement)]
A meander along the Esplanade
Rows of Norfolk Island pines (no surprise to learn was also the idea of HG Smith!) flank MSW with narrow strips of sand on both sides of the wharf forming beaches sheltered in the cove from the ocean. Standing in front of the wharf building opposite Manly’s famous (Italian-inspired) Corso, if you go left, past the fast food outlets on West Esplanade the walking path heads back toward the suburb of Fairlight. Right, past Aldi◘ takes you on to East Esplanade and the walkway curves around past an assortment of clubs devoted to aquatic pursuits (Manly Yacht Club, 16ft Skiff Club, etc) and connects up with the locale known as Little Manly.
If you head further east where the Esplanade ends, the road will make its way to Little Manly Beach and Point with its spectacular promontory views. Little Manly today is uniformly residential but for a very long period (1883-1964), the Manly Gas Works located at Manly Point Park met all the area’s domestic gas needs.
Beyond Little Manly is the dense pristine heathland known as North Head, a sandstone promontory with a significant history of military and immigration activities. North Head’s surviving fortifications were strategically important to the country’s eastern coastline defence especially during WWII. The headland also functioned as Sydney’s Quarantine Station for a huge stretch of New South Wales’ history (1832-1984), isolating smallpox and other infectious diseases from entering the community.
Little penguins and large selachii
Starting back at the wharf and heading in a western direction this time, along West Esplanade, we note the first of numerous stencilled messages on the walkway alerting walkers to the presence of little penguins. Manly Wharf and its surrounds are known nesting grounds (May/June) for migrating colonies of Eudyptula minor.
Further along MSW one of the first complexes we pass is the Manly Sea Life Sanctuary, a public aquarium displaying sharks, stingrays, little penguins (easier to spot here than on the nearby shoreline!) and other refugees from the ocean. A lure for thrill-seeking visitors is the “Shark Dive Xtreme” (swimming with 3m plus grey nurse sharks). The Sanctuary has been somewhat of an institution in Manly for 52 years¤ but is now in the final chapter of its Manly story – in March this year the management announced its upcoming closure, citing that the business, in a small ageing building, was no longer viable [B Kay, ‘Manly Sea Life Sanctuary aquarium to close at the end of the year’, Manly Daily, 30-Mar-2017].
If we follow MSW walkway to its natural end-point, it would take us past magnificent, dense bushland, serene bays and scenic lookouts on a trek of 10km to the low-lying Spit Bridge – this archaic looking bridge is the curse of motorists forced to twiddle their thumbs in peak-time gridlock whilst the bridge opens in the middle to let various sea craft through its passage.
The walkway passes another local landmark Manly Pavilion (a bistro/reception venue these days) and continues up the stairs. At the top two base relief bronze plaques greet walkers and joggers, these are of Federation era politicians Edmund Barton and the somewhat itinerant Henry Parkes, both residents of the area in the 19th century. Apparently these are replacement plaques as the originals were stolen from the site in 2014 [J Morcombe, ‘Federation fathers Barton and Parkes stolen from Manly’, Manly Daily, 01-Apr-2014]
The MSW path soon reaches the suburb of Fairlight, in the 1920s, along with Balgowlah collectively known as Manly West. Fairlight was named after Fairlight House, the mansion home of Henry Gilbert Smith (that seminal figure in Manly’s development again!). English-born Smith took the name from a village in Sussex. Built in the 1850s by colonial architect Edmund Blacket, the house was demolished in 1939. All that is left to remind us of its one-time grandeur is a plaque on the spot showing a grainy old photo of the grand house.
Fairlight Beach Dutch submarine episode
The small beach at Fairlight with its rocky shore and unpredictable breaks holds no attractions for board surfers but its position nestled into the cove and small tidal pool makes it kid-friendly. A tourism sign on the beachfront recounts its connection with a Dutch submarine which had seen action in the world war against the Japanese (the K.12 succeeded in torpedoing several enemy warships). The K.12 sub had been residing in Manly harbour when heavy storms in 1949 prompted the leasee, the Port Jackson Co, to try to tow it to a safer haven in Neutral Bay. Unfortunately in the process it became grounded near Fairlight Beach and sat there for 18 months before being refloated early in 1951…the K.12 was salvaged for scrap and eventually finished up in a new location near Ryde Bridge where it sank again! Parts of the sub’s engine and the bow are still wedged on rocks at Fairlight Beach [G Ross, M Melliar-Phelps, A century of ships in Sydney Harbour (1980); ‘Submarine Refloated, Salvaged for Scrap’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18-Jan-1951]
PostScript: Kay-ye-my, the Aboriginal name for Manly Cove and North Harbour
Long, long before the Europeans came to the area, Manly was home to two indigenous Eora peoples, the Cannalgal and Kay-ye-my (AKA Gamaragal) clans, who were the custodians of the land. On one part of the walkway overlooking North Harbour there’s information signage which celebrates the Kay-ye-my clan who for millennia contentedly inhabited the Manly region, living a traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering.
The Gamaragal were situated on the north shore of Port Jackson – occupying the land from Karabilye (Kirribilli) to the cliffs of Garungal or Carangle (North Head) and the sandy bay of Kayyeemy (Manly Cove) [‘Gamaragal – Aboriginal People of Manly and Northern Sydney’, Dictionary of Sydney, 24-Sept-2013, www.home.dictionaryofsydney.org
FootNote: Manly East and Manly West
Less than one hundred years ago Sydney cartographers divided the suburb of Manly and its greater surrounds neatly into East and West Manly…as illustrated in the following street maps taken from the 1922 Wilson’s Street Director (predecessor of the standard Sydney street directory Gregory’s). Today’s distinct suburbs of Fairlight, Clontarf, Seaforth, Manly Vale and North Manly are not identified on the maps, and ‘Balgowlah’ and ‘Dobroyd'(sic) are listed as locales only. Note also no bridge at The Spit in 1922.
✳ the origin of the name for the suburb can be traced back to Phillip himself…on his visit to the area the first governor described the aboriginal inhabitants as ‘manly’ in physique. As if to demonstrate the veracity of Phillip’s observation forcefully, one of the clansman in fact speared the governor over a misunderstanding at Little Manly Beach! (Phillip recovered from his wound and to his credit did not seek to inflict retribution on the native population)
⌽ later a second parallel wharf was built for cargo transport which became redundant after the construction of Spit Bridge in 1924 enabled easier road transport. In 1928 the cargo wharf was converted into a Fun Pier which operated until 1989
◘ where the Manly Fun Pier was until its closure and demolition in 1989
¤ starting in 1965 as Manly Marineland and later known as Oceanworld Manly before its present handle