Pittwater and Palm Beach

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Cottage along Palm Beach Road, midway between Newport and Palm Beach. Inside waterway (Pittwater)

The image above, taken from the Past Present’s amazing collection of photographic negatives, is a stunning glimpse into the history of one of Sydney’s more exclusive areas. Today much of the Pittwater area is an area of luxurious homes, fashionable beaches and trendy cafes. Yet once, as the image above shows, the area was much quieter.

Palm Beach itself, which is one of the most exclusive areas of Pittwater today, was named after the many Cabbage Tree Palms which were to be found in the area. The original owners, the Guringai people used the cabbage tree fronds to construct fishing lines and patch leaks in their boats.

The first European to be granted land in the area was James Napper, who in 1816 was granted a huge area of 400 acres, including Palm Beach, Barrenjoey and most of Whale Beach. Other early European use of the land was made by fishermen, who caught and dried fish, and by smugglers, who recognised that the area was an ideal place for illicit trade. In order to discourage smuggling, in 1843 the government acquired land at the base of the headland on the Western Pittwater shore, and built a customs house. In 1881 the acquired further land on the Northern most point of the headland, and built the Barrenjoey Lighthouse, which still stands today.

It wasn’t until the 1900s that residential development truly began to occur. In 1900, 18 large blocks advertised as good grazing land were offered for sale, but none sold. Then, in 1912, the land was again advertised for sale, but this time the blocks were much smaller and there were many more of them. They were advertised as offering fishing, sailing, golf and rowing, and all of the blocks sold. Yet the area was isolated and had poor transport options, so development remained slow, with many blocks remaining empty, and used simply for camping and picnicking. In the wake of World War Two, development sped up, and the area known as Palm Beach began to transform into the exclusive suburb we see today.

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