The Rise, Fall And Rising Again Of Balmain

Balmain Sydney 1 Front

This week, The Past Present is sharing a postcard image of a place in Sydney which has undergone vast changes over the history of European colonisation – Balmain. The area is one which many Sydneysiders would be familiar with, yet the postcard view above is remarkably different to the Balmain we see today.

Grants in the Balmain area began quite quickly after European colonisation, with the first being given in 1800 to the colonial surgeon, William Balmain, after whom the area is still named today. Yet true settlement of the area was much slower, as Balmain was difficult to access, with no transport to the area. When ferry services began to the area (with Henry Perdriau establishing a steam ferry service in 1842), it became much easier to access the area, and the suburb really began to thrive. At this time, people were reliant on ferries, steamers and other ships for travel, and a thriving community of ship builders soon moved into the area too, bringing not only work, but workers who wished to live near the shipyards. With new families moving to the area, services were needed to support the growing community, and soon enough shops, churches, schools, police services, and even a hospital were established. In 1860, Balmain Council was even opened.

By the 1880s many claimed that Balmain was the leading social suburb in Sydney, complete with clubs such as those catering for rowers and cricketers, and institutes such as the Balmain School Of Arts. Yet it was also this same suburb that was, in the 1880s, increasingly overcrowded and poorly organised. Soon enough the suburb went into decline, businesses and industries closed down and people moved out, being replaced by younger, poorer families. By 1933 nearly 40 percent of workers living in Balmain were actually out of work. It would not be until the 1970s that the gentrification of Balmain began to occur, leading to the affluent and popular foreshore suburb we see today.

Sydney Panorama

complete panorama

This week, The Past Present is doing something just a little bit different. Usually, the focus is on a specific place, but the series of postcards above (six in total), show not one place, but many. This is a series of panoramic postcards, which fit together to create a complete and uninterrupted panoramic view of Sydney. Such panoramic photos, whether sold as a series of cards, or as a single, intact panorama, have a fascinating history.

Today, panoramic photographs are quick and easy to produce. Cameras and various devices with cameras featured in them are able to take a panoramic photo with the simple click of a button. In the past though, panoramic photographs were extremely difficult to take. They involved several unique photographs being taken, and then ‘stitched’ together to create a single, seamless view. The earliest photographic panorama of an Australian scene is believed to date from 1854 and is an eight panel view of Melbourne taken by Walter Woodbury. Sydney photographers were not far behind though and the first panorama of Sydney was taken just four years later by the Freeman Brothers.

The most famous of the Sydney panoramas were taken by Bernard Otto Holtermann and his assistant Charles Bayliss (Bayliss being the photographer, and Holtermann providing funding and photographic assistance). The famous Holtermann Panorama as it is known was taken in 1875 and made up of 23 discrete photographs, taken from the top of a specially built tower. This tower, which became known as the Holtermann tower, was part of Holtermanns home in Lavender Bay, and was used for many years as a photographic tower. Some even suggest it continued to be used after Holtermann’s death. The panorama above was taken not from Holtermann’s tower but from Miller’s Point and dates from the early 1900s.

Luna Park And Its Famous Face

luna park
This week, with Valentines Day approaching, it seemed to be an ideal time to turn the attention of readers of The Past Present to a popular destination for young couples out on the town. Luna Park in Sydney has long been a popular place with couples and families alike, and also has a fascinating history.
Of course, one of the most iconic parts of Luna Park is the face, but the face we see today is not the face which once would have looked down on visitors. The face was inspired by and based on the smiling faces which welcome visitors to Luna Park Melbourne and to Steeplechase Park in the United States, but it has been replaced eight times, each time with a slightly new look. However, there has been a face of one form or another looking over visitors in Sydney for nearly the entirety of its history. The first face was installed in 1935, the same year the park opened to visitors. It was replaced in 1938, then just another year later, in 1939. Then, in 1946, 1950 and 1973 the face again had something of a ‘facelift’.
After the Ghost Train fire of 1979, Luna Park closed down, and in 1980, the future looked grim. A march was organised that year to see the site saved, and one of the results of this march was that the face itself was heritage listed. Luna Park opened to the public once again in 1982 as Harbourside Amusement Park, and the same year another new face was installed. The park closed again in 1988, and in 1994 the face was once again removed in preparation for the newest, and final face in the history of the park. The face that was removed was donated to the Powerhouse Museum, and is now part of their collection. The new face was installed in 1994, and although the park itself underwent quite a rocky period between then and the final reopening in 2004, the final face remains, smiling down on visitors to this day.

Spectacle Island

Spectacle Island
This week, with the holidays approaching rapidly, it seemed the perfect time to examine one of the many islands which dot Sydney Harbour. The islands are popular places for people to visit, though of course not all are publicly accessible. Spectacle Island is one which can be visited, though as far as I could find, only by appointment.
Spectacle Island is one of 13 islands in Sydney Harbour, but originally, there were 14 islands dotted around our beautiful Harbour! Spectacle Island is, in fact, two islands in one! Originally, a narrow strip of shallow water separated the two smaller islands, but this was filled in to create the single island we see today. Then, between 1863 and 1865, a great deal of work occurred on the island, with the Colonial Government constructing a huge Powder Magazine. Previously, explosives had been kept on Goat Island, but the facilities there were, by this time, overtaxed and dangerous. In 1885 Spectacle Island officially became the armament depot for the Royal Navy and more facilities were built, including buildings for the handling and even making of ammunition and explosives! Just before World War 1, the island and its facilities were transferred to the new Royal Australian Navy, and the island played an important role in both World Wars. Then, in the 1960s the armaments were moved once again, and the island became the home to the Naval Historical Collection, which you can visit on tours or by appointment.

The Changing Fortunes Of Balmain


White Horse Point and Drummoyne from Balmain

Today, when we think of suburbs such as Balmain, chances are we think of a beautiful place, with a reasonably affluent community. Yet Balmain, just like so many other suburbs of Sydney, has had a rather chequered history.
The suburb known as Balmain began to develop in the 1830s, and by the 1850s a true suburb had been established. Balmain residents relied on the waterway, and steamers, ferries and other boats not only as a means of transport, but also as a form of work, and ship yards were plentiful along the foreshore. More people moved into the suburb, often workers in the shipyards, and the increasing population brought about much progress, with schools, a hospital, Churches, shops and even a hospital being built to service the growing community. Clubs were also established, focussing on rowing, swimming, bowling and cricket, while institutes like the Balmain School of Arts were also built. In fact, by 1880, Balmain was viewed as the leading social suburb.
Balmain’s fortunes were set to change rather drastically. By the late 1880s Balmain was extremely overcrowded and the suburb itself was also organised very poorly, with factories and houses standing side by side. People began to move out, and trade closed down, until by the early 20th century Balmain was occupied by a much poorer class of people. In fact, by 1933 nearly 40 percent of the people living in Balmain were unemployed, which was at the time double the NSW average. This all changed again in the 1970s, when new owners moved into the suburb, gentrifying the old homes and recreating the reputation of Balmain in general. By 1990, Balmain was back to being one of the most desirable suburbs in Sydney.

Milsons Point Ferry Arcade

Milsons PointMilsons Point is an area which Sydneysiders and visitors alike are very familiar with. As the place where the famous Sydney Harbour Bridge connects to Sydney Harbours north shore, it is a place which most of us pass through at the very least, on a regular basis. Yet the postcard above shows a very different view of the area to that we are familiar with today.

Even before the famous bridge was built, Milsons Point was an important area for travellers wishing to cross the beautiful harbour. From Milsons Point to the opposite shore was the smallest distance of water, so it was naturally the place where many early ferry services developed. The first ferry services were offered by local residents, the most famous of whom was Billy Blue (whose full name was William). Regular services soon followed, and they increased in frequency dramatically between the 1830s and the 1860s.

Then, in the early 1860s James Milson junior and some of his colleagues formed the North Shore Ferry Company, which was also known as the North Shore Steam Ferry Company and later as simply Sydney Ferries. They ran ferries between Milsons Point and Circular Quay and were licensed to carry up to 60 people at a time. In fact, the steam ferries were able to carry more than simply human passengers – they also ferried horses and carts! When cable trams began to run to and from the Milsons Point Ferry Terminus, the future of Milsons Point as a transport hub was assured. A grand ferry arcade (also known as the North Shore Ferry Company Building) was also constructed at this time, a building which dominated the Milson Point area until 1924 when it was demolished to allow the Sydney Harbour Bridge to be built.

Pott’s Point

Potts PointThis week, The Past Present is once again turning attention to one of the area of Sydney which so many of us know, but so few of us know the history of, Potts Point.

Potts Point has long been popular with the wealthy and well to do, and indeed this was true even of the first Europeans to colonise the area. Potts Point was not however always known by the name we recognise today. Originally, the area was known as Woolloomooloo Hill and the suburb sits on a ridge immediately east of Woollomooloo which, presumably, explains the name. Originally, the Potts Point area was part of two large parcels of land granted to well known Sydney colonists, Judge Wylde and Alexander Macleay. Then, self made man Joseph Hyde Potts purchased a harbour side section of the land and renamed his new property in honour of himself – Potts Point was born.

In the 19th century the two main land grants were further divided and many grand houses and even mansions were built along the ridge line. In fact, the land was given to the most powerful men in the colony on the proviso that they establish grand and elaborate residences. This was the first deliberately designed suburb, known colloquially by other locals as Hob Nobs Ville. Many of these early mansions survive today and are recognised as important parts of Sydney’s history, listed on the Register of the National Estate.

It wasn’t only early architecture which made history in Potts Point though – the suburb is also the site of some of the earliest blocks of flats to be built in Australia. The earliest of these was built in the earliest part of the 20th century, but most date from between the 1920s and the Second World War. Today the suburb has the highest concentration of beautiful Art Deco buildings in the whole of Australia, many of them apartments!

Crossing The Spit

The Spit Ferry Middle Harbour (Fry's Chocolate)Front copy

The image above is an evocative glimpse into era before the Spit Bridge was built. Today, most Sydneysiders and many visitors to the beautiful harbour city are familiar with The Spit Bridge. It is hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t there.

As this image shows though, there was a time when crossing The Spit was not as simple as driving along a bridge. The Spit (which was actually originally known as The Sand Spit) was settled by European colonists as early as the 1840s. In 1849 Peter Ellery took up land opposite The Spit (purchasing the land formally in 1855). Travellers often asked him to take them across the water, and in the early 1850s he decided to start a more formal, paid ferry service adjacent to where The Spit Bridge is today. Originally, the ferry was simply a row boat, but in 1862, with the building of the road to The Spit and the increased traffic the road brought, a better system was needed. Ellery soon replaced the rowboat with a hand operated punt. In 1871 the Government took over the service, operating a public ferry service and in 1888 a steam punt appeared. The steam punt operated right up until the first bridge was built in 1924.

Parsley Bay and the Quest For Public Foreshore Reserves

Parsley Bay Sydney Front copy

The image above is a lively and evocative glimpse into the history of a Sydney reserve which has been a popular recreational reserve for Sydney residents for well over a century, Parsley Bay.

What we now know as Parsley Bay is the traditional lands of the Birrabirragal group but it wasn’t long after European colonisation that the land around Parsley Bay was securely in the hands of European settlers. In 1792 Thomas Laycock, the Deputy Commissioner General, was given a grant of eighty acres of land at the head of Parsley Bay. This is the first known use of the name Parsley Bay. The land passed through several owners and was expanded over the following years before being purchased by the Wentworth family in 1827. Parsley Bay then became just one small part of the Wentworth family’s Vaucluse Estate.

Though the land was in private hands, that did not stop Sydney siders from accessing and using Parsley Bay and even before the area became a public reserve, there is evidence that the area was used by the public for picnics and camping. In 1905 though, William Notting and his Harbour Foreshores Vigilance Committee lobbied the Government to provide public access to various locations around the harbour waterfront. Parsley Bay was one of these locations and in 1906 was resumed by the Government in order to create a public reserve. It was the first area of land to be secured by the Harbour Foreshore Vigilance Committee and went on to become an ever more popular area for picnicking, camping and making merry.

Captain Cooks Landing Place Obelisk

Landing Place Captain Cook Kurnell Botany BayNear Sydney Front

With Australia Day very nearly upon us, this image of Captain Cooks Landing Place, from a postcard dated to 1906, seems an appropriate choice. Many Sydney residents and visitors are familiar with the monument, and most know of the event it commemorates, but the history of the actual monument, and others at the site is much less well known.

Captain Cook arrived in Botany Bay in 1770, and his visit was the very start of the process which led to European settlement in Australia. Although we now know he was not the first European to sight our shores, his visit is an important moment in the history of Australia and has, as a result, been commemorated on the shores of Botany Bay where the landing occurred. The grand sandstone obelisk which features in this postcard was completed in 1870, the centenary year of Captain Cooks actual visit and commemorates that important event. Another plaque was affixed to the obelisk in 1970, and this was done in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, who was visiting Australia at the time. This plaque commemorates the passing of 200 years since Captain Cook and his crew visited the area. This monument has become an important part of our history, and many visit it to remember the ‘discovery’ which led to European settlement.

Captain Cook did not, of course, make the journey to the Great Southern Land alone (or even on purpose, though that is another story!) and there are several other monuments scattered around the area where the landing occurred. Other monuments celebrate Dr Solander, Joseph Banks and Forby Sutherland (the latter being the first British subject to die in Australia).