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Balls Head and the bays beside

BY ALEC SMART

Balls Head, the peninsula between Berrys Bay, to the east, and Balls Head Bay, to the west (opposite Balmain on the north side of Sydney Harbour), has a fascinating history.


Balls Head Sydney 1803. Engraving: Charles Alexandre Lesueur
Balls Head Sydney 1803. Engraving: Charles Alexandre Lesueur

Unlike neighbouring Berry Island Reserve (which, confusingly, is in Balls Head Bay, not Berrys Bay), Balls Head was never an island. (Berry Island, once linked to the foreshore by a sandy spit submerged by high tide, was in-filled and joined to the mainland in 1926 when it became a public park.)

 

The L-shaped headland features a number of historic sites (see below) and the tip of the forested peninsula, Balls Head Reserve, has around eight easy-walking tracks, some overlapping. However, only two – Western Walk and the Harbour View Walk – are wheelchair-accessible.

 

Although the Indigenous Cammeraygal Aboriginals knew the peninsula as Yerroulbine, British colonists renamed it Balls Head in the 1790s honouring Henry Lidgbird Ball (1756-1818), who commanded HMS Supply, one of two Royal Navy ships that accompanied the First Fleet of convicts to Sydney.


Supply was the first of the 11 vessels to arrive at Botany Bay on 20 January 1788 and the first to arrive in Sydney Harbour six days later, when the Britons relocated to Warrane (Sydney Cove).


Berrys Bay, Balls Head to the right, Sydney city in the distance. Photo: Alec Smart
Berrys Bay, Balls Head to the right, Sydney city in the distance. Photo: Alec Smart

 

Sites of interest


Aboriginal - Hand stencils and engravings were once scattered in rock shelters and plateaus, although most have weathered away. However, a petroglyph of a whale, 7m long, with a man inside, by its tail, is carved into a rock surface near the entrance of the Coal Loader. There are also shell middens near the shoreline.


In 1964, the incomplete remains of an Aboriginal woman in her 30s were unearthed in a rock shelter overlooking Sydney Harbour. Initial speculation focused on a murder victim, however, the bones were later determined to be between 1000-2000 years old. Over 450 historic artefacts were later dug up from the floor of the overhang.

 

Coal Loader – Now an educational centre for environmental sustainability, this Heritage-listed bunkering facility (1920-1993) was mainly used to supply coal to fuel Sydney’s fleet of steamships (see details below).

 

MV Cape Don - Moored below the Coal Loader is this former research vessel; now a museum and training ship.


MV Cape Don training ship (the old ferry behind has since sunk and broken up). Photo: Alec Smart
MV Cape Don training ship (the old ferry behind has since sunk and broken up). Photo: Alec Smart

The remains of the Old Gas Works at Oyster Cove Reserve, below the modern apartment complex of Wondakiah Estate, include the Boiler House, Carburetted Water Gas Plant, the Chimney, and the Exhauster House.


Here artist Brett Whiteley rented a studio from 1971-3 in a former coal storage building (since demolished). He utilised this for the purpose of creating large artworks, including the 18-panel Alchemy 1972-73 (a section of which was later used by rock band Dire Straits for their album of the same name).


Brett Whiteley's 1974 artwork 'Alchemy'
Brett Whiteley's 1974 artwork 'Alchemy'

 

Carradah Park, a dismantled fuel storage depot, was home to huge metal tanks of varying sizes from the 1930s until their removal in the mid-1990s when there were 31 in total. The sheer cliff face behind was nicknamed ‘Gibraltar’ by locals. Carradah was named after a Cammeraygal man who was a friend of Lieutenant Ball the headland was named after.

 

Quarantine Boat Depot – From 1912 until 1988 this facility, which consists of two cottages and boat moorings, operated two vessels, Pasteur and Jenner. They fumigated international passenger ships arriving at Sydney Harbour and ferried medical personnel and patients between them and the Quarantine Station Wharf at North Head.

 

Tom’s Cabin, is a relic from the Great Depression (1929-1939) when the poverty-stricken lived in tents, rocky overhangs, and make-shift huts because they couldn’t afford rent or mortgages. This dwelling survives because the open-fronted cave was sealed behind concrete and bricks and a steel-hinged door. Inside there was a firepit and chimney and steel pegs were driven into the wall on which to hang clothes.


It is not known who originally sealed the cave entrance, but in the 1950s it was occupied by Tom Stacey, a North Sydney Council labourer, whom it was named after.


Rusting remains of an old boat beside Sawmillers Reserve in Berrys Bay. Photo: Alec Smart
Rusting remains of an old boat beside Sawmillers Reserve in Berrys Bay. Photo: Alec Smart

 

Sawmillers Reserve features stone blocks of a ruined sawmill works and the rusting hulk of a historic shipwreck on the shoreline nearby.

 

History


Berrys Bay was named and commercialised in the early 1820s, when merchants Alexander Berry and Edward Wollstonecraft, whose estate covered what is now the Waverton and Wollstonecraft foreshores, constructed a stone wharf and warehouse on the northeast of Balls Head facing Berrys Bay.


Here they unloaded produce – crops, tobacco and timber – shipped up from their Coolangatta estate in Shoalhaven Heads on the NSW south coast.

 

After Edward died in 1832, Alexander replaced Edward’s property above Berrys Bay, ‘Crows Nest’, with a larger stone house and spent most of his time there, eventually becoming a recluse when his wife Elizabeth (Edward’s sister) died in 1845.


Thereafter the estate was subdivided and in the mid-1800s Alexander leased the Berrys Bay wharf to steam shipping companies as a depot for storing coal and ballast.


After his death in 1872, a distillery was set up in the old stone warehouse, operating until the mid-1880s.


BerrysBay + Crows Nest Cottage, c1850s
BerrysBay + Crows Nest Cottage, c1850s

From the 1870s, shipbuilding companies also set up around Berrys Bay and for the next 40+ years all types of vessels, including ferries, yachts, tugboats and lighters, were made here.


The cove on the western side of Berrys Bay was colloquially known as ‘Torpedo Bay’ when the NSW Torpedo and Signals Corp occupied it from their foundation in Dec 1873, until the Navy relocated the submariners to Chowder Bay, Mosman, in 1889.

 

Balls Head Bay was formerly known by a succession of different names, depending on the principle industry taking place on the foreshore, and some of the historic buildings around the bay retain these titles.


In approximate order, it was known as: Wollstonecraft Bay (from 1820 providing anchorage to goods vessels chartered by merchant Edward Wollstonecraft after he received his North Sydney land grant); Sugarworks Bay (In 1858, Ralph Robey, co-founder of Colonial Sugar Refining Co. – now CSR – purchased 22 acres of Alexander Berry’s Crows Nest estate and established a new refinery, Robey’s Sugar Works, on the foreshore. However, it ran into financial troubles and was subsequently purchased by CSR);  Kerosene Bay (from 1865-67, the Australian Mineral Oil Co, followed by the Peruvian Oil Co, repurposed the former sugar distillery into a kerosene manufacturing plant to provide fuel for household lamps); and

Powder Works Bay (from 1889-91, Neokratine Safety Explosives Co manufactured gunpowder on site, which was then taken over by North Shore Gas Co and they constructed a gasworks in 1906).


The north-eastern upper reaches of Balls Head Bay are known as Oyster Cove.


The former Oyster Cove Gasworks c1910
The former Oyster Cove Gasworks c1910

 

Coal Loader


Until the start of the 20th century, most of the industrial operations on Balls Head took place across the northern regions, where ships had safe anchorage in the bays on either side and wharves and docks serviced the vessels. The southern peninsula remained tree-covered parkland and accessible to the public.


However, in 1916 the Sydney Coal Bunkering Company cleared the southern tip to create a coal loader. This facility enabled the storage of coal brought by rail and ‘sixty-miler’ ships (named after the distance from Sydney’s North Head to Nobby’s Head south of Newcastle Harbour).


In 1917 a wharf was constructed on the western edge for the loading of coal via hoppers and skips through four vaulted tunnels onto Sydney’s fleet of steamships.


The Coal Loader under construction in 1916
The Coal Loader under construction in 1916

 

The clearance and industrialisation of Balls Head peninsula incensed writer Henry Lawson, who, in 1916, wrote what is arguably Australia’s first environmental protest poem, The Sacrifice of Balls Head.


Lawson railed against the construction of the Coal Loader and the loss of the public land: “North Sydney has no soul - the State is cutting down Ball's Head to make a wharf for coal,” he decried.

 

“Where picnic parties used to go to spend a glorious day. With all the scenery of a coast and not a cent to pay. The deep cool tangle shall be cleared to make the glaring roads, and motor lorries jolt and grind, and drag their sordid loads.”


Dilapidated wharf in Balls Head Bay that once serviced the coal loader. Photo: Alec Smart
Dilapidated wharf in Balls Head Bay that once serviced the coal loader. Photo: Alec Smart

Operating from 1920-1993, in July 2011 the repurposed site was officially reopened as the Coal Loader Centre for Sustainability, the historic facilities adapted into an environmental education centre.

 

Berrys Bay Master Plan - A Museum of Sydney Harbour has been proposed for Berrys Bay, which will also provide long-term anchorage for Sydney’s Heritage Fleet of 10 historic vessels.


The Master Plan involves renovating three former industrial zones on the eastern edge of Balls Head  -  BP site, Woodley’s Boatyard, and the Quarantine Boat Depot – as well as upgrading the jetty adjoining Woodley’s Shed.


Work is scheduled to begin in 2024.


Berrys Bay Boatyard c1940
Berrys Bay Boatyard c1940

 

Further reading



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