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Dee Why History – and Its Two Letter Name

The origins of the name Dee Why are arguably the most prosaic in history. Dee Why is literally an adaptation of the two letters: DY, which appeared somewhat confusingly in a surveyor’s notebook. Bland, hey?


Dee Why history and its name

Dee Why Beach at night. Photo: Alec Smart

The abbreviated words that form the acronyms Okay, Scuba, Laser, Jpeg and Radar, have more much interesting origins, but we’ll save those for another day.

The suburb Collaroy, however, has an amusing origin, read further for details..

The name Dee Why is attributed to James Meehan, Acting Surveyor-General, an emancipated former convict deported from Ireland in 1800 for his insurrectionary activities in the failed Irish Rebellion of 1798.

Whilst surveying the Northern Beaches of Sydney in 1815, Meehan wrote cryptically in pencil in his field book: "Wednesday, 27th Sept, 1815 Dy Beach - Marked a Honey Suckle Tree near the Beach."

Perhaps ‘Honeysuckle Beach’ might have been more appropriate name for Dee Why.

There is speculation that Meehan sourced the ‘Dy’ name from Indigenous people in the vicinity; we’ll never know, but from 1840 the region adjacent to the beach was formally recorded as Deewhy.

A century later, subdivisions of the suburb (and the name, divided into two words) saw the highlands of Dee Why Heights renamed ‘Narraweena’ (an Aboriginal word meaning a quiet place in the hills) in 1951, whilst Dee Why West was officially changed to ‘Cromer’ in 1964, named after Cromer Golf Club that dominated the area.

The two new entities kept the 2099 postcode, however, along with the northern section of Curl Curl beach to the south.

History of Dee Why - Indigenous People

The Aboriginal people who lived in the Dee Why area and north to Broken Bay and around Pittwater prior to European colonisation were the Garigal. Part of the Dharug-speaking language group, they overlapped, traded and inter-married with the Darramurragal clans to the west and the Gayemagal to the south (around what is now Manly Cove).

The Garigal fished the waters of both Dee Why and Narrabeen lagoons, and harvested shellfish along the shore. A midden (village dump) of discarded shells was recorded on the southern end of Dee Why beach.

According to the Aboriginal Heritage Office: “Middens are shell mounds built up over hundreds and often thousands of years as a result of countless meals of shellfish. They are found along ocean coasts, estuaries, rivers and inland lakes, and primarily contain mature specimens of edible shellfish species.

“They may also contain pieces of clay, bird, fish and animal teeth and bones, campfire charcoal, stone flakes and the remains of tools. Less commonly found in middens are remains from human burials.”

A community of Indigenous people lived in the forests of Cromer near Narrabeen Lake right up until the mid-20th century.

According to the Northern Beaches Council website: “An Aboriginal camp site at Narrabeen Lagoon was likely the last community camp of Aboriginal people to survive in the Northern suburbs. It was first under threat when the Wakehurst Parkway was built nearby in 1946 but reportedly survived into the 1950s. The camp was cleared for the development of the National Fitness Centre.”

Dee Why history

Sunrise on Dee Why Beach. It's possible the Garigal Aboriginal people of the Northern Beaches surfed on open canoes made from gum tree bark. According to 'Saltwater People of the Broken Bays': ''These were very good water people, with excellent surf skills. It was their livelihood. Theirs was a canoe culture and they were known to take these craft out in large surf." ~ Photo: Alec Smart

History of Dee Why - European Settlement

The first land parcel around Dee Why allocated to a European settler was a 280 hectares plot granted to William Cossar, a master shipbuilder, in 1819. It encompassed the foreshore, including Dee Why Lagoon and Long Reef.

(Incidentally, a 20-tonne schooner named after William Cossar fared poorly. Stolen by a group of fleeing convicts in July 1817, it was steered onto a beach in Port Stephens where the escapees were likely killed by Aborigines. After recovery, in March 1824 it capsized in Sydney Harbour and three crew drowned; then in Feb 1825 it struck a reef near South Head in Sydney Harbour and was wrecked).

By the early 19th century most of the land around Dee Why Lagoon and north to Mona Vale was owned by the Jenkins family, purchased by convicted sheep stealer and grazier, James Jenkins, who also managed a boat-building business in Darling Harbour that constructed ships up to 100 tonnes in size.

Jenkins built a homestead north of Long Reef (now the site of Homestead Ave in Collaroy), near where his daughter Elizabeth had been bequeathed property around Narrabeen by a family friend. Then, as he purchased tracts of land both north and south of his initial investment, he built a 5-bedroom stone house in Manly Vale.

To facilitate transporting equipment and stock back and forth between his properties and the main settlement in Sydney Cove, Jenkins constructed a road from Collaroy to the water’s edge at North Harbour (Fairlight) where he also built a stone cottage. This became the main road through the Northern Beaches peninsula and required 13 bridges to cross streams and lagoons.

The Salvos

When Jenkins died in 1835, his descendants, including 20 grandchildren, were locked in legal battles until 1880, quarrelling over distribution of the estate.

His daughter Elizabeth was very religious, and in 1885 gave the Salvation Army 12 hectares of land around Narrabeen Lagoon, followed by another 81 hectares in Dee Why – eventually transferring her entire 700 ha estate to them in return for an annuity and support in old age.

After her death in 1900, the Salvation Army retained control of the land, upon which they managed an industrial farm and hostels for boys, girls and women (paying the annuity to Elizabeth’s nephew Phillip until his death in 1931 when they resumed full control of the estates).

The Salvos also fenced-off Dee Why Beach to the public with wire netting running its entire length, although the NSW Govt issued a legal challenge to them over their claimed ownership of Dee Why Lagoon.

In 1911 the Salvos began subdividing and selling their estates, and the area opened up to settlers, with Dee Why expanding from five dwellings to 125 in four years (albeit most of them holiday homes). Dee Why Public School opened in 1922 for the children of new residents, and when the Spit and Roseville Bridges were opened in 1924, settlement of the peninsula accelerated.

A copper mine was active at Long Reef from the 1880s to the 1930s, accessed by a 30 metre shaft tunnelled in from the southern side of the cliff face at the north end of the beach (now concreted over).

History of Salvos in Dee Why, Sydney

Sunrise on Dee Why Lagoon. Photo: Alec Smart

History of Dee Why - SS Collaroy

Meanwhile, the coastal shipping route from Sydney Harbour to Broken Bay and north to Newcastle developed as boatmen ferried goods to the Hawkesbury River settlements and ships transported coal and timber.

However, despite the prominent headland jutting out at Long Reef, no lighthouse was ever constructed, leading to the loss of numerous vessels and lives as they careened into the rocks in storms and fog.

In 1881, the paddle-steamer SS Collaroy ran aground in dense mist on the then-unnamed beach to the north of Long Reef. After the ship's mate and ship's master lost their certificates for their negligence, Collaroy remained stranded on the sand for nearly four years until it was repaired and recommissioned. The suburb and beach were subsequently named after this wayward ship.

Several old tug boats and ferries have since been scuttled offshore from Dee Why and the Long Reef headland to provide artificial reefs, including the aptly-named Dee Why ferry.

In service between Manly and Circular Quay from Xmas Day 1928 to 7 July 1968, Dee Why was deliberately sunk on 25 August 1976 at a point two-and-a-half nautical miles offshore. It’s now a popular subaqueous spot for adventurous Scuba divers.

Further reading

Northern Beaches Council

History Hub

Dee Why Library

Dee Why History

Dee Why RSL

History portal

Aboriginal Heritage Office



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