top of page

Cronulla History Part 2: The First Settlers


In part 2, (Cronulla History part 1) we chronicle the arrival of Europeans, from the First Fleet to the first settlers, via French sailors, runaway convicts, explorers and surveyors.

Cronulla first settlers encounter aborigines

Abandoned boat, Woronora River, Woronora. Photo: Alec Smart

The Cronulla First Settlers

On 26 January 1788, just six days after the first of 11 ships of the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay from Britain, Governor Phillip ordered the 1373 survivors of the arduous eight-month journey from Portsmouth to set sail again, to a different harbour.

The water sources in Kamay/Botany Bay were insufficient to sustain the garrison of marines, settlers and 732 convicts - despite Captain Cook’s assurances in his 1770 journal that Botany Bay was well provisioned with freshwater streams and meadows.

And so, after felling a few trees in Kurnell, the 11 ships relocated north to a great harbour Captain Cook never entered, Port Jackson...

Coincidentally on 24 Jan 1788, French naval captain and explorer Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse and his crew sailed into Botany Bay in two ships. On a scientific circumnavigation of the world, the French anchored at what is now known as La Perouse in Frenchman’s Bay.

They maintained cordial relations with the British during their six-week stay, with officers meeting formally on at least 11 occasions.

During that time they pitched tents on the beach, restocked provisions, constructed a longboat, built an observatory from which they took astral measurements and erected a timber stockade (they endured several hostile attacks from the Indigenous Kamaygal, keen to see them depart).

Convicts Helped by the French

Meanwhile, numerous free-roaming convicts implored the French to take them on board when they left.

Colonial Secretary David Collins, in his 1798-published An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, recorded: Robert de Clonard, the Franco-Irish captain of the Astrolabe “informed us that they were daily visited by the convicts, many of whom solicited to be received on board before their departure, promising (as an inducement) to be accompanied by a number of females. M. de Clonard at the same time assured us, that the general (as he was termed by his officers and people) had given their solicitations no kind of countenance, but had threatened to drive them away by force.”

After replenishing supplies the French expedition departed on 10 March 1788. Sadly, both ships were wrecked on the reefs of Vanikoro Island in the Santa Cruz group of the Solomon Islands during a cyclone in April or May 1788. The crews were never seen again by Europeans.

Thankfully, Lapérouse had already dispatched his journals and letters to Europe with the British First Fleet flagship HMS Sirius.

Captain Cook lands in 1770

Captain Cook's landing at Kurnell, 29 April 1770. Lithograph: unknown, 1872

Captain Cook Lands in 1770

The first Cronulla settler to die on Australia’s east coast was Forby Sutherland, a poulterer on The Endeavour, who succumbed to tuberculosis on 30 April 1770. He was buried in Kurnell on the headland Cook named Sutherland Point in tribute – from whence the regional name Sutherland was derived.

After Sydney Cove/Warrane was settled, many years elapsed before the Cronulla first settlers ventured in an official capacity to the southern shores of Kamay/Botany Bay. Although free-roaming and escaped convicts wandered south to Botany Bay, and whalers traversed eastern waters (sometimes coming ashore and clashing with Aboriginals), the British penal experiment now called ‘Sydney’ expanded west and north.

(In order to deter convicts from ‘going bush’, British authorities spread rumours that Indigenous Aboriginals were cannibals).

Cronulla First Settlers, Explorers and Surveyors

Flinders & Bass

Matthew Flinders, the explorer-cartographer who famously circumnavigated the Australian continent with Garigal leader Bungaree and a cat named ‘Trim’, initially undertook two exploratory voyages south of Sydney. The first, in Oct 1795, was 32km up the Tucoerah/Georges River with naval surgeon George Bass and his 14yo assistant William Martin, reporting on arable lands (which led to the foundation of Bankstown).

This was accomplished in a tiny (2.5m long!), single-sailed boat without cover called Tom Thumb.

On 25 March 1796 the trio set sail again in a similar small boat named Tom Thumb II, seeking a ‘river south of Botany Bay’ unmarked on Cook’s charts. However, the mission ran into trouble when strong currents carried them too far south and they were eventually dumped ashore near present-day Wollongong.

Two Wodi Wodi Aboriginal men rescued the explorers by guiding them to fresh water and introducing them to their clan. Flinders repaid the kindness by trimming their beards and characteristically dread-locked hair with scissors.

Flinders also learned that several escaped convicts were living in the vicinity growing corn and potatoes.

Thereafter, the two Wodi Wodi piloted the Tom Thumb II to the entrance of a tidal lagoon to better launch into the sea.

Historians debate whether Tom Thumb II ran ashore at the southern end of Towradgi Beach, and the Indigenous rescuers took the trio to a tidal inlet since named Tom Thumb Lagoon. Or whether the troubled trio were found near Red Point on Fishermans Beach and guided to Lake Illawarra (from Dharawal ‘elouera’, meaning ‘pleasant place’).

Sailing north again, a fierce gale forced the explorers to seek overnight refuge at Wattamolla. The following day, 30 March, they coasted into the inlet they sought, which they charted and named Port Hacking (after convicted murderer and pilot Henry Hacking, who previously came across it during “kangaroo-hunting excursions”).

The trio explored and charted the region for the next two days before sailing back to Sydney Cove. At Bass & Flinders Point, on Gowrie St at the southern tip of Cronulla, a sandstone monument commemorates this trek at the point where they came ashore.

Incidentally, Flinders is credited with promoting the name ‘Australia’. In his journals he preferenced it over ‘New Holland’ and ‘New South Wales’, then in common usage for the two halves of the continent. After his death the term was formally adopted.

Bass, Finders and Martin Cronulla first settlers

Bass, Flinders and Martin in Tom Thumb. Engraving: Ralph and Chandos Temple, 1870

Robert Dixon

In 1827 Robert Dixon was appointed to survey the districts south of Botany Bay with the aid of a small sailboat. Dixon gave the name ‘Cronulla Beach’ to the stretch of coastline between Botany Bay and Port Hacking, which was formalised on NSW Govt maps in 1834.

The name ‘Cronulla’ is derived from the Dharawal word ‘karanulla’, meaning ‘place of small pink shells’, which the Indigenous Gweagal people named the foreshores east of the region they called ‘gunamatta’ (sand dunes). The word karanulla was adapted by the British for both the Kurnell peninsula and the beach to its south, although gunamatta was reappropriated and given to a narrow bay near the entrance to Deeban/Port Hacking – beside present day Cronulla.

Alternative spellings Cooranulla, Kurranulla, Krenulla and Koorungnulla appeared in journals and the media for several decades until the official name entered the common lexicon.

Woolooware and Burraneer were also named by Dixon from Dharawal words meaning ‘muddy track’ and ‘point of the bay’. Caringbah was derived from the Dharawal word for the smallest member of the wallaby family (the pademelon).

Cronulla Land Acquisition From 1861

Thereafter, through a series of land grants (James Malone, John Connell and James Birnie), one of which was never formally approved (Malone) and land purchases, plus a mental breakdown (Birnie) and a bankruptcy (Connell’s grandson John Laycock), most of the Sutherland region came into the ownership of Marrickville property tycoon and Newtown politician Thomas Holt.

Between Aug 1861-75, Holt (who named ‘Sans Souci’ after the summer palace of Prussian Emperor Frederick the Great and built the sandstone obelisk at Kurnell in 1870 to commemorate the centenary of Cook’s landing) purchased large swathes of what is now Cronulla district for Cronulla first settlers.

These properties, which eventually encompassed 12,000 acres (4,856ha) including most of the region between Botany Bay, Georges River, Woronora River and Port Hacking, Holt divided into 11 farming estates, primarily livestock. Holt also founded oyster farms in Gwawley Bay and Weeney Bay.

The land not included in Holt’s Sutherland estates the Crown Land Authority began subdividing and selling in 1854. However, fearing naval invasion from Russia (due to the Crimean War), the NSW Govt annexed the east coast from Cape Solander to the Cronulla peninsula for possible defence fortifications.

Thomas Holt's Sutherland House in Cronulla

Thomas Holt's Sutherland House, 1868, at Holt’s Point, Gwawley Bay (now Sylvania Waters)

Inset: after it was destroyed by arsonists in 1918

Holt’s stock and oyster farming were economic failures, despite his becoming extraordinarily wealthy through other ventures and investments. He also built Sutherland House mansion at Holt’s Point overlooking Gwawley Bay in 1875 (destroyed by arson Dec 1918).

The only profit he turned on his estates was timber from the forests that were clear-felled of native blackbutt, cedar, ironbark and mahogany and sold to lumber merchants in Sydney for house frames, fencing and furniture.

The sheep were preyed upon (over 300 dingoes were shot or poisoned) before 1300 of them were killed after developing footrot. The cattle excessively grazed the native grasses and imported buffalo grass to sand dunes before many strayed; and the tidal bays were too muddy for commercial oyster production.

In 1878, acknowledging that the forests he denuded to sandy pastures were unsuitable for raising stock, Holt sub-divided his failed farmlands and offered 21-year leases to tenants.The subdivisions for the village of Kurnell were surveyed in Aug 1882, followed by ‘Gunamatta’ in Nov 1899 (renamed Cronulla in Feb 1908).

In 1879 the National Park was established, the first in Australia (renamed Royal National Park when British queen Elizabeth II visited in 1955).

Train Access Creates Growth

For many years the Cronulla region was only publicly-accessible by punt across George’s River from Tom Ugly’s Point (now the site of Tom Ugly’s Bridge) to Horse Rock Point.

A rail line to Sutherland was opened for Cronulla first settlers in 1885, crossing the Georges River at Como.

A single track steam tram operated between Sutherland and Cronulla from 1911, replaced by the electric railway extension to Cronulla in 1939. However, it wasn’t until April 1929, when an iron truss bridge crossing Georges River was constructed at Tom Ugly’s Point, that vehicular traffic could drive from Sydney.

The Oriental Hotel, Cronulla’s first commercial hotel, was built in 1888 (now the site of apartments behind North Cronulla Hotel).

In 1891 Cronulla Beach post office first opened. It closed two years later then reopened in 1907 when the name ‘Cronulla’ was formally adopted for the growing town.

In 1907, initially utilising an old tramcar, the Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club opened, reflecting the increasing popularity of surf swimming in the region.

Cronulla public school opened in 1910, six years after Cronulla School of Arts.

Historical picture of Cronulla beach

Cronulla Beach, 1920s

Port Hacking – origin of place names

Neighbourhood Media has written histories of several suburbs in Sydney. Read more on Balmain history here, Cronulla history here, and history of Sydney ferries here.



bottom of page