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Postcards from 100 years ago

 

 

 

Watsons Bay

Watsons Bay was named after Robert Watson (1756-1819), formerly the quartermaster of the first fleet vessel, the HMAS Sirius.  He  was still serving in that capacity when the ship was wrecked at Norfolk Island in 1790. The following year he obtained and cultivated a grant of sixty acres (24 ha) on the island. He sold the farm in 1793 to bocame mate of the schooner Francis, retaining that post until 1805 when the ship was wrecked off Newcastle. Meanwhile in 1801 Governor Philip Gidley King had granted him land at South Head, Sydney, and there he settled, later becoming boatswain of the dockyard.   Watson was appointed harbour pilot and harbourmaster of the port of Sydney in 1811 and the first superintendent of Macquarie Lighthouse in 1816.

126 Watsons Bay

The first grant of 20 acres (81,000 m2) was made to Edward Laing in 1793 in the Camp Cove Area. Watsons Bay was an isolated fishing village until development began in the 1860s. 

156 Watsons BayThe Town of Watsons Bay subdivision was the second attempt to subdivide and release for sale the twenty-acre Roddam Farm property, initially granted to Edward Laing in 1793. The grant area took in, in current terms, the localities of Camp Cove, Laing’s Point, the waterfront area of Watsons Bay and part of present-day Robertson Park.  Laing did not stay for long, and left the colony in 1794.  The grant passed through a number of hands before purchase by members of the Donnithorne family, who like earlier owners appear to have had no intention of occupying the land acquired. Judge Donnithorne was a seasoned investor in land and the family was settled throughout his lifetime and beyond at Cambridge Hall in Newtown. Here he died in 1852, and here his daughter Eliza was to later gain notoriety as a celebrated recluse, arising from which grew unsubstantiated suggestions that her story provided Dickens with the basis of his fictional character Miss Havisham.  

167 Watsons BayThe Donnithorne family attempted to sell their Watsons Bay holding in 1843, subdivided into portions described as ‘suitable for marine villa residences’. The sale was advertised in the Sydney Morning Herald, the promotional literature extolling the low-lying area between Camp and Cove Streets as a ‘rich, swampy spot’, at the centre of which was a source of water ‘known to many a sportsman of former days as the Wild Duck Pool’. This same area was, the advertisement stated, at one time reserved for general use as a public water supply: ‘a circular spot is kept back as a reservoir’.   After extensive filling in the early years of the twentieth century the area referred to would become Camp Cove Reserve.  

285 Watsons BayDonnithorne’s subdivision was withdrawn from sale only two weeks after advertisement, and without explanation. It is possible that Judge  Donnithorne withdrew for the same reason as later vendors were forced to postpone sales – because this same ‘rich, swampy’ locality was subject to flooding, and that this liability was exposed at an awkward time for the nineteenthcentury sales campaign. After Donnithorne’s abrupt newspaper announcement it would be over a decade before any further attempt was made to sell Roddam Farm. 

364 Watsons BayIn March 1854, Sydney merchants Ralph Meyer Robey and Elias Carpenter Weekes purchased Roddam Farm for £600 and readied the land for sale as 141 allotments – the first substantial land sale in the Watsons Bay area. The forthcoming sale of the land was announced one year after their purchase by auctioneers Bowden and Threlkeld through the pages of the Illustrated Sydney News under the name ‘The Town of Watsons Bay’.  

Several defensive fortifications are located on the shores and cliff tops of Watsons Bay, such as the Signal Hill Battery, which was constructed in 1892 and was intended to defend the town of Sydney from bombardment by an enemy vessel standing off the coast. The battery is still intact and is located next to the Signal Hill Lighthouse on Old South Head Road adjacent to the lighthouse. 

Also located in Watsons Bay is the Steel Point fortifications in Nielsen Park. Built in 1871, it originally accommodated three 80 pounder rifled muzzle-loaders (RMLs) that were replaced sometime during the 1890s with 5 inch breech-loading guns that were removed in 1910. In the 1950’s the RAN degaussing station was constructed over part of the Steel Point fortification. The degaussing station was a countermeasure against magnetic mines. Shark Island was used for this purpose during WWII, naval ships would pass over cables laid under the harbour and were effectively demagnetized. During WWII the Nielsen Park area was used as an anti-aircraft base with interim wooden barracks that included searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. 

407 Watsons Bay from the GapIn In 1942 during the Second World War the Sydney Harbour anti-submarine boom net was constructed on Georges Head and was designed to prevent enemy submarines from entering into Sydney Harbour. The boom net spanned the entire width of Port Jackson and a boom net winch house was located on Liangs Point, Watsons Bay. On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines attempted to enter Sydney Harbour in what became known as the Attack on Sydney Harbour.  One of the Japanese midget submarines became entangled in the boom net and after unsuccessful attempts by the crew to free the submarine they detonated charges within the sub, killing themselves and destroying their sub in the process.

SYDNEY  HARBOUR BEACON

Within one year of the First Fleet arriving to settle New South Wales in 1791, a flagstaff was erected at South Head. A wood and coal fired beacon, a basket on a tripod, was established in 1793 and was the only guiding light for the next 25 years. 

The very first lighthouse structure in Australia was built in Watsons Bay. it was started in 1816 at the command of Governor Macquarie, and was completed two years later.  The work was undertaken by Francis Greenway, the famous convict Architect, responsible for many significant and beautiful buildings in early Sydney.  So pleased was Governor Macquarie with the quality of the work that Greenway was producing that he granted him emancipation for his efforts.  Greenway, however,  had warned that the poor quality of the sandstone being used would result in the rapid deterioration of the new tower, and, as predicted, the building started deteriorating within 5 years when several large stones fell away.  Large iron bands were placed around the tower to prevent further movement. The state of the tower was so parlous by 1878 that the New South Wales Government determined to build a new tower.  

The construction of the current Macquarie Lighthouse was begun in 1881 and the light was first exhibited in 1883.  It was designed by James Barnet and is a replica of the original tower. 

The electric lighting apparatus at the time was described by the builder, Chance Brothers, of Birmingham as the most efficient in the world. One of the de Meritens generators is owned by the Powerhouse museum..  

The electric apparatus was only used in bad weather. When the weather got really bad the second magneto was brought into operation producing a light of 6,000,000 candelas, the most powerful in the world at the time. The power generators for the new light proved too expensive to run and in 1912 the apparatus was was converted to a vaporised kerosene incandescent mantle system.  With the connection of the city power supply in 1933 the light was converted back to electricity. At the time a smaller lens was installed and this is basically the mode of operation we see today. 

 The lighthouse was fully automated in 1976.The keepers were eventually withdrawn in 1989. 

 The need for a lighthouse was demonstrated by the loss of the Dunbar in 1857  On the 20th August  the Dunbar was shipwrecked against the cliffs below The Gap, with 121 lives lost. The skipper had mistaken the bay of The Gap for the harbour entrance. Today, The Gap is known as a notorious suicide spot, with about 50 deaths occurring there each year. 

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