Glebe’s History of Maritime Industry and Heritage of Terrace Rows and Italianate Villas

Built Environment, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

Glebe Point Road is the heart of the inner west suburb that bears its name…a leisurely stroll from the Broadway end of the road reveals the variable character of Glebe itself. Close to the Broadway Centre are numerous eateries and coffee shops frequented by Gen X’s, Millennials and the occasional Zennial, three-quarters of which are university students from just across Parramatta Road at USYD. As we get closer to the other end (Glebe Point) there is a mix of elegant old houses, isolated groups of shops and a liberal sprinkling of backpacker lodges. This built-up urbanisation a stark contrast to the era before white settlement in the 18th century when the Glebe area was a Turpentine Ironbark forest inhabited by the indigenous Wangal and Cadigal clans.

‘Florence Villa’ 1883
The word itself, glebe (from glaeba (L), clod of earth), refers to an area of land devoted to the maintenance of an incumbent of the church. The colony of Port Jackson’s first governor, Arthur Phillip, set aside the land here for church purposes in 1789[1].

Sydney’s Broadway and Parramatta Road marks the eastern boundary of Glebe and the suburb extends west to Rozelle Bay, a body of water flowing into Johnstons Bay and eventually into Sydney Harbour. Rozelle Bay houses a bustling marina sitting on a strip of land incongruously known as “Glebe Island” (not an island!) which accommodates the old bridge that once linked Pyrmont to Glebe Island and Rozelle, which was replaced in the mid 1990s by the modernist looking cable-stayed new Glebe Island Bridge (name later changed to Anzac Bridge).

Although Glebe was subjected to waves of greed-fuelled demolition during the 20th century, heritage architecture still characterises a significant chunk of the suburb’s residential complexion. A representative sample of 19th century houses have been preserved despite the best efforts of developers and development-sympathetic state governments to jettison the old to make way for new dwellings and a network of freeways crisscrossing Glebe (see PostScript on Lyndhurst below)[2].

Early trends toward gentrification
The Church’s 1856 sell-off of some of its land in Glebe was the spark that started the suburb’s long spiral into an inexorable gentrification. A two strata society developed with Glebe Point (the bay end) becoming the location for many new homes of the urban gentry, these better-off citizens were clearly separated off from ‘The Glebe’ where the more numerous working class resided[3].

Terraced Glebe
By 1870 the terrace had become the dominant build form in Glebe. By WWI there was several distinct types of terrace – colonial Georgian, Regency, Victorian Gothic, Italianate and Federal style – standing side by side. Terraces were the optimal solution to accommodate Glebe’s rapidly growing population, having the virtue of economical outlays on land and building materials[4].

‘Bellevue’ (detail)
Italianate villas and cottages figure prominently among the residences of Glebe that have survived to this day, eg, Bellevue c1896 (Italianate Victorian home reprieved from the demolishers’ wrecking ball, today a cafe for walkers (with or without dogs) and cyclists on the foreshore)❈; other Victorian Italianate buildings including the Glebe Court House, the Town Hall and Kerribree. Many of Glebe’s finer buildings were the work of the leading architects of colonial New South Wales (such as Barnet, Blackett and Verge). For a time Glebe was known as the architect’s suburb.

As the early land use of Glebe was taking shape the foreshore was not considered suitable for residential development, opening the way for exclusive use for marine industry – and for sporting activity. Glebe Rowing Club has long had its position on Blackwattle Bay and Jubilee Oval, near the old tramsheds, was the home ground of Glebe Cricket Club in the Sydney Grade Cricket competition[5].

Industrial remnant: Crane on walkway
Timberyards in the foreshore dress circle
A walk along the foreshore from Blackwattle Bay reveals precise little of the suburb’s concentrated industrial past. Modern apartments sit hunched together close to the waterfront where once timberyards and sawmillers dominated the landscape❈. On the foreshore path a monument to those activities is a rusty old crane and winch…Sylvester Stride’s Ship-breaking Yard and Crane business used these devices to break up steamers to recycle metals. Most of the industry – which also included noxious industries like boiling down works and slaughterhouses as well as a distillery – were gone from the Bay by 1975. Hardy’s Timber Mill, an extended complex of building structures, was for a time converted into artists’ studios[6].

Remarkably, the small grassy stretch of foreshore known as Pope Paul VI Reserve was until the early eighties the only public access point on all of Blackwattle and Rozelle Bays. The papal appellation bestowed on the reserve derives from the lobbying efforts of right-wing Labor Catholic politicians in Leichhardt Council to commemorate the spot where Paul VI landed by launch during his 1970 papal visit of Australia[7].

Griffin incinerator
One item remaining on Blackwattle is Walter Burley Griffin’s Glebe incinerator dating from the early 1930s. An elegant building in the Art Deco style, in 2006 it was restored as an interpretative work with its once impressive chimney stack in skeletal form. The incinerator was one of a number in Sydney (and elsewhere) constructed by the famous Canberra Capital designer as a response to council’s need to find a more effective way to dispose of increasing amounts of consumer garbage۞.

PostScript: Georgian mansion with a varied past
A survey of Glebe’s history and heritage is not complete without noting one of its grandest, earliest and still extant old homes. Lyndhurst is a mansion with an exceptionally colourful history. The once impressive scale of the estate has been plundered by successive subdivisions over the years…if you visit it today by locating its street address (57-65 Darghan St) the big surprise is finding that the building’s back affronts the street! Lyndhurst was built in 1833 by colonial architect John Verge as a marine villa for surgeon and pastoralist Dr James Bowman, the son-in-law of wool pioneers John and Elizabeth Macarthur. In the last 100 years the Lyndhurst estate has served many purposes – from theological college to pickle factory to hospital to broom factory and in the 1960s and ’70s as the headquarters of the Australian Nazi Party (Australian National Socialist Party). Lyndhurst was one of the many great Glebe residences slated for demolition in the early seventies by Askin’s government, a fate it and many others fortunately avoided![8].

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❈ the campaign to save Glebe’s heritage homes from corporate culling was spearheaded by the Glebe Society, formed by concerned local residents in 1969
today there is one remaining timber yard along the shoreline of Rozelle Bay, Crescent Timber, being actually in Annandale, adjacent to Federal Park
۞ hitherto the preferred methods of disposal were either piling garbage on to tips, burying it or carting garbage six miles out to sea on barges and jettisoning it overboard (only for the tide to return it to shore!), had met with growing public disapproval

[1] B & B Kennedy, Sydney and Suburbs: A History and Descriptions, (1982)
[2] eg, the vision of long-term Liberal premier of NSW Robin (Robert) Askin, born and bred in Glebe, was to turn the suburb into a network of freeways – fortunately for Glebe’s heritage integrity this was never implemented, ‘Sir Robert Askin’ https://www.glebesociety.org.au/?person=sir-robert-askin
[3] ‘History and Heritage’, The Glebe Society Inc, www.glebesociety.org.au
[4] Solling, Max, Glebe, Dictionary of Sydney, 2011, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/glebe, 03 Oct 2017
[5] ‘History of Glebe Foreshore parks’, (City of Sydney), www.cityofsydney.gov.au
[6] ‘Timber Industry’, (Glebe Walks), www.glebewalks.com.au
[7] ‘Pope Paul VI Reserve (interpretative sign)’, (Glebe Walks), www.glebewalks.com.au
[8] ‘Historic Glebe Mansion Lyndhurst, Once Australia’s Nazi Party Headquarters, on Market for $7.5M’, (B Wong), 07-May 2016, www.dsilytelegraph.com.au

Anatomy of a Suburban Wharf: Fiddens Wharf – Timber, Fruit Plants and Day Trippers

Bushwalking, Heritage & Conservation, Local history

If you drive down to the end of Fidden’s Wharf Road on the western side of Killara, park on the edge of the bush land and walk down the old stone steps built by convicts, you will reach a reserve bearing the name Fiddens Wharf – there’s virtually nothing tangible left of the wharf itself (mainly just signs and old photos of it!). Today it’s a tranquil spot on Sydney’s Lane Cove River comprising a secluded sporting field and a riverside walking track popular with bushwalkers…but it also has had a busy commercial history that goes back to the early years of the Port Jackson European settlement.

Convict steps
The first governor Arthur Phillip in 1788 identified the north shore as a rich source of timber for the colony’s construction needs (house and ship building). This area of the Lane Cove River was especially abundant with woody perennial plants of great height. The saw-milling industry thrived around Fiddens Wharf and the river – first the Government Sawing Establishment in the 1820 and 30s and later was the Lane Cove Sawmill Company just up Fiddens Wharf Road*.

Fiddens Wharf was only one of three wharves on that part of the Lane Cove River important to the burgeoning timber industry and to commerce generally in the early colony. The other two close by were Fullers Wharf and Jenkins Wharf. The notorious waterman Billy Blue ferried passengers by punt from Sydney Cove to these wharves [Edwards, Zeny, Rowland, Joan, Killara, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/killara, viewed 15 Sep 2017].

Small vineyards grew up in the early 1800s, such as in nearby Fullers Park, with many orchards scattered along the river bank. Further south on the river sat the Fairyland Tea Gardens (later Pleasure Grounds), known for its picnics, swings, slides, Ferris wheel and a dance hall [‘A Brief History of Lane Cove National Park’, www.friendsoflanecovenationalpark.org.au]

The eponymous wharf at West Killara derives from one Joseph Fidden, an ex-convict emancipated by Governor Macquarie. Fidden in 1813 was granted 40 acres of land stretching all the way from Fiddens Wharf Road west to Pennant Hills Road [‘Local History: Fiddens Wharf Road’, 17-Nov-2014, KGEX – Kuringai Examiner]. The information kiosk on the oval states that Fiddens never actually either owned or leased the wharf named after him…nonetheless up until the 1850s he was “reportedly known to row 3,000 tons of sawn timber with the tide down the river” to Circular Quay, and then “return with the tide, delivering supplies to farms along the way”.

Lane Cove River – view from the wharf site
With the bulk of the river’s tall timber hacked down by the 1850s, quantities of citrus plants were planted in their place with the yields transported from the wharf to the city for sale. The wharf’s commercial role as a goods transport hub diminished by the 1880s after Lane Cove Road was established as the “main highway” and route for delivering goods to the ferry at Blues Point (North Sydney).

The ‘public’ wharf did go by different names over the course of its working life…an 1831 survey reveals it was known as “Hyndes Wharf”, a reference to Thomas Hyndes, a local timber merchant of the day. The survey also listed huts and a garden on the location occupied by Joseph Fiddens and others. In the early 20th century another name for it was the “Killara Jetty” derived from the spot’s increasing use for recreation – at this time the wharf was a landing-place for picnic parties and campers. The Lane Cove Ferry Co brought “holiday excursionists” just prior to the Great War, with this local leisure activity continuing into the interwar period.

The construction of a weir on the river in 1937 meant that rowing boats could no longer reach the wharf from Figtree (Hunters Hill). The weir also permanently raised the river-level at the wharf (the remnants of some of the earlier versions of the wharf can be found submerged in the river). The Bradfield Jamboree in 1938 saw 10,000 scouts swarming all over Fiddens Wharf and its bush. During WWII the RAAF used the wharf and environs as a training camp.

PostScript: Killara, once the domain of saw-millers, was transformed in the 20th century into a garden suburb with large allotments, little commercial development and devoid of industrial sites [‘Killara’, (Ku-ring-gai Historical Society Inc), www.khs.org.au]. Today it is a leafy northern suburb marked by a mix of 1950s brick cottages and new, modern residences, golf courses and its “old money” inhabitants, although its diversified ethnic mix over the past 20 years give it less of the ‘whitebread’ character that it was once known for.

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* the timber-getters employed by these companies were itinerant types who fashioned crude accommodation (hardly more than “lean-to’s”) in the North Shore bush [Edwards and Rowland]

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 www.randwickhistoricalsociety.org.au]. 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, www.randwick.nsw.gov.au). 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’, www.seslhd.health.nsw.gov.au).

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, www.laperouse.info

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.

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❈ 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

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”.

Lapérouse
Lapérouse
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.

image

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❈ 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, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/la_perouse, viewed 19 October 2016
[2] R Sutton, ‘La Perouśe’s unknown historical significance’, (‘SBS News’), 29-Nov-2012, www.sbs.com
[3] all the huts were demolished in the 1960s, ‘Howe Refreshment Rooms’, Dictionary of Sydney, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/
[4] Kensy, op.cit.
[5] ibid
[6] ibid
[7] ‘Bare Island Fort’, (NSW Office of Environment & Heritage), www.environment.nsw.gov.au; ‘History of Bare Island, La Perouse’, (24-Mar-2015), www.postcardsydney.com
[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 heritage.nsw.gov.au
[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), www.environment.nsw.gov.au
[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, www.laperouse.info
[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, www.monumentaustralia.org.au

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

Postscript:
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“!

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❈ 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), www.archive.treasury.gov.au
[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), www.aph.gov.au/
[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, www.primeministers.moadoph.gov.au
[7] A Grassby & S Ordoñez, John Watson, (1999)
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.

The Hawkesbury – A Not So Close Encounter with Napoleonic France

Local history, Military history

Hawkesbury R. at Windsor
Hawkesbury R. at Windsor
Windsor, 63 kilometres north-west of Sydney and nestling on the southern side of the winding Hawkesbury River, is one of the most historic towns of Australia’s European settlement. The first white settlers moved into Windsor in the early 1790’s giving it the name Green Hills, although it wasn’t until Lachlan Macquarie’s governorship (commencing in early 1810) that the town and environs of Green Hills (by now renamed ‘Windsor’) started to get a kick-along, progress-wise.

The Riverview Shopping Centre in George Street (Windsor’s high street), constructed in 2006, offers up its own acknowledgement of the suburb’s rich historical story. On the centre’s marble effect floor, positioned at regular points, there is a series of banner inscriptions which identify certain events or milestones in the history of the Hawkesbury district.

Among the little snippets of local historical interest is a reference to Windsor’s own notorious colonial bushranger, George Armstrong. Armstrong – labelled “the terror of the Windsor district” – briefly threatened the safety and well-being of the township’s citizens in 1837[1] (an interesting side-note to this is that nearby Wilberforce – just across the river – was the birthplace of a far more celebrated Australian bushranger, Fred Ward, better known as Captain Thunderbolt).

However it was another historical headline on the centre floor that caught my eye – the banner read “1814 ~ Report given to Governor Macquarie of planned invasion of the Hawkesbury by Napoleon”. I was not previously aware of any reference to a supposed connection between Napoleon and Sydney’s Windsor district, and found the notion an intriguing one.

Gov. Macquarie in Thompson Square
Gov. Macquarie in Thompson Square
At the time the Napoleonic Wars were at their height with Britain and its allies moving towards the ultimate showdown with France at Waterloo in 1815. The official who alerted Macquarie to the French danger was Earl Bathurst, Secretary of War and Colonies (Bathurst to Macquarie: 1813 correspondence). Bathurst’s letter warned of the possibility of French attack on the colony, most likely to originate by sea from Broken Bay, down the Hawkesbury River … the target was thought to be Windsor’s granary (Sydney’s “food bowl”), to cut off its supply to Sydney Town[2]. In response, Macquarie, already preoccupied with the task of making Windsor more secure, stepped up the strengthening of the military garrison and boosted the population of free men (including emancipists) in the district.

British intelligence about a planned invasion of the Sydney colony has its genesis in the period’s French maritime expeditions in the South Pacifc, particularly that of Nicolas Baudin in 1802 and 1803. Baudin’s scientific expedition visited Port Jackson in 1802 and it was the activities (and subsequent written record) of the expedition’s naturalist, François Péron, which provided the blueprint for supposed French intentions in New Holland. Whilst there, Péron, under the guise of his scientific activities, engaged in a “freelance spying” exercise[3], collecting information on the nature and defence capacity of the colony. Péron wrote down his observations in a secret report (entitled Mémoire sur les établissements anglais à la Nouvelle Hollande).

Monsieur F Péron
Monsieur F Péron
Péron claimed to be a government agent and that the expedition’s real purpose was a political mission. The zoologist-cum-spy recommended that France attack the fledgling British colony in New Holland, speculating that the act would incite an Irish rebellion against the colony’s English overlords and elicit resistance from the indigenous population as well. The military strategy advanced by Péron also called for a takeover of the south of Tasmania. The assault on Sydney via the Hawkesbury was one of three invasion routes proposed by Péron[4].

Although Péron’s viewpoint was widely discredited at the time, his memoir has recently been translated into English (from the original) and new research on the subject at Adelaide University (UOA) has thrown up fresh evidence to support the contention of Péron that Napoleon was seriously considering such an attack. Peron’s report (and the reactions to it) demonstrates that Port Jackson/NSW was perceived as a strategic location by both Britain and its enemies. The related UOA research unearthed further evidence that the British South Pacific outpost held a strategic necessity that went beyond the mere penal colony that was stated to be Sydney’s raison d’être[5].

Isle de France
Isle de France
The perspective of the Sydney colony proffered by Péron (and Napoleon’s later acknowledgement of his views) underscore the displeasure with which the French viewed Britain’s decision to unilaterally annex this great, southern land without consulting other European powers. The new British colony was also seen as posing a potential threat to France’s Indian Ocean island possessions, especially to the French naval base in the Isle de France (Mauritius and its dependent territories)[6].

The British colonialists in Australia did recognise and respond to the threat from France at some level. Concern over French incursions into Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) was intensified by the contemporary activity of French explorers (separate ‘scientific’ expeditions by d’Entrecasteaux, Baudin and Freycinet in the south) – and prompted His Majesty’s government to occupy the south of Tasmania and plant the “Union Jack” on King Island (in the Bass Strait) in fear of French designs on this part of the continent[7].

Hawkesbury River
Hawkesbury River
Bathurst’s “hush-hush” letter to Macquarie (based on information supplied by agents friendly to Britain) also raised the prospect of a joint naval attack by both France and the United States[8]. The plan was for the combined fleet to assemble at Two Fold Bay (Eden, NSW) and then proceed up the Pacific Coast and launch an attack on Sydney from the north (Hawkesbury River). Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign and the reverses suffered by the US early in the War of 1812 meant that the plan was never put into practice[9], but the episode served to underline how strategically important the remote, western Pacific colony was for Britain imperial ambitions.

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[1] ‘The Notorious Bushranger George Armstrong’, Hawkesbury Historical Society, (10-Feb 2016), www.hawkesburyhistoricalsocietyblogspot.com.au
[2] ‘Windsor, New South Wales’, (Wiki), www.en.m.wikipedia.org
[3] described by some as an “amateur espionage project”, N Rothwell, ‘Francois Peron’s French lessons in the colonisation of Australia’, The Australian, 05-Apr 2014
[4] M Connor, ‘The secret plan to invade Sydney’, Quadrant Magazine, 01-Nov 2009, www.quadrant.org.au; ‘Napoleon’s Intention to Capture Thompson Square’, (The Battle for Windsor Bridge – Personal Stories), www.rahs.org.au
[5] R Brice, ‘Sacré bleu! French invasion plan for Sydney’, (ABC News, 11-Dec 2012), www.abc.net.au
[6] ibid.
[7] ‘Battle for Windsor Bridge’, op.cit.
[8] At the time (1813), both France and the US were engaged in (distinct but related) wars with Britain, whose navy was blockading the fleets of both countries. Attacking the important colony of Port Jackson made tactical sense to divert the British fleet away from US and French ports, ibid.
[9] ibid.

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”). And in a sense, that is what has happened to Ballast Point, once a bushy promontoryφ. From the earliest encounters of the First Fleeters’ with the Point, it has gone full circle from a spot of untouched natural beauty to a grimy industrial site and is now being returned to something 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.

Before I outline the details of the end-game for the Ballast Point story I should recount the headland’s history from the initial colonial contacts. 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 found the stones, small broken rocks, gravel, etc which accumulated on the shore ideal material for ballast for their empty hulls to give the vessels stability for the return journeys.

Display remembering 'Menevia'  which once occupied BP site
Display remembering ‘Menevia’ which once occupied the Ballast Pt site
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.

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 not enhance the quality of life for 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].

Ballast Point became less important to Caltex after the company 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. The local community in Balmain had 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].

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 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)[7]. 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.

_ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _ _ _ __ _
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

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[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] L Harding, ‘Ballast Point’, ArchitectureAU, 2 Jan 2012, www.architectureau.com