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Balmain History & How It Almost Became ‘Gilchrist’

Balmain history features an interesting story about how a debt repayment disagreement probably prevented Balmain being renamed ‘Gilchrist’...

Balmain history painting done in 1865

Johnstons Bay Balmain c1865 - Painted by George F. Halsted - State Library NSW

Origins of Balmain

The three-fingered peninsula at the southern entrance to Parramatta River, encompassing the suburbs of Balmain, Birchgrove and Rozelle, was known to the Indigenous Wangal as Baludarri.

Across Baludarri the predominantly maritime Wangal clans, who occupied the Wanne region from the southern shores of Parramatta River to the northern banks of the Cooks River, reportedly herded kangaroos through the bushland to Iloura (Peacock Point) where, trapped by the harbour, the corralled marsupials were killed and eaten.

Baludarri is the Dharug word for one of 20 species of estuarine and coastal fish commonly found around rocky reefs, seagrass and sponge beds, which we know as the Leatherjacket. Many of them are characterised by a retractable head spine above the eyes.

There are wetlands on the edge of Rangihou Reserve on the north bank of the upper Parramatta River called Baludarri. However, these are named after the Burramatta teenager Baludarri, who, aged 17, was employed by Governor Phillip as a guide and translator on an expedition to the Hawkesbury district in April 1791.

On 26 April 1800, Governor John Hunter gifted 550 acres (2.2km2) of the south-eastern section of the Baludarri headland – west of Cockle Bay - to a British doctor by the name of William Balmain, who arrived on the First Fleet ship Alexander in January 1788 as the assistant to Surgeon-General John White.

HMS Alexander headed for Balmain, Sydney

First Fleet ship HMS Alexander - Painting by Frank Allen c1787

Surgeon William Balmain History

Balmain ultimately fell out with White, the enmity resulting in a duel with pistols in Aug 1788, during which Balmain received a minor flesh wound when he was shot in the right thigh.

However, Balmain’s status was elevated in September 1790 when he was credited with saving Governor Arthur Phillip’s life, following a near-fatal punishment spearing by Aboriginal elder Willemering in Manly Cove.

After a two-hour boat row back to Sydney Cove, Balmain skilfully extracted the spear, the broken shaft of which was protruding from Phillip’s shoulder blade, and treated the wound until Phillip made a full recovery.

Phillip promoted Balmain to Head Surgeon of the newly settled Norfolk Island penal colony, where he operated from Nov 1791 – Aug 1795, then returned to Sydney as acting Principal Surgeon while John White returned to England on leave.

Balmain was subsequently appointed Principal Surgeon of the Colony following White's resignation in May 1797, however, it was a formidable task administering to 1600 settlers and several thousand convicts with only one surgical assistant.

Surgeon William Balmain saves Governor Phillip

Governor Phillip speared at Manly Cove, 1790. Surgeon Balmain saved his life. Sketch: William Bradley

Back to the Baludarri Land Grant

As was typical of many of the land grants given to marines, magistrates, pastoralists and emancipated convicts who distinguished themselves in the first decades of the Sydney penal colony, the allotments quickly changed ownership, often without the original recipient ever setting foot on it.

In 1801, scarcely a year after the prime real estate came into his possession, William Balmain transferred his entire holding for a mere 5 shillings (about $22 in current exchange rates) to settle a debt to Scottish surgeon and linguist John Borthwick Gilchrist. William Balmain then returned to his native Scotland.

Gilchrist is known for his studies of the Hindi and Urdu languages whilst he was based in India, which culminated in a dictionary of Hindustani – effectively amalgamating the two tongues. Colonial administrators then adopted Hindustani as the new official language for British India, to enable them to communicate with their subjects. This ultimately led to Hindustani being chosen as the lingua franca of Northern India and Pakistan.

Oddly, whilst he was based in India from 1782-1804, Gilchrist somehow gained custody of Balmain’s Sydney land grant on the Baladurri peninsula for virtually nothing, yet he never set foot in Australia. The value of the property rose as the Sydney colony expanded, leading the descendants of William Balmain (who died of liver disease in 1803) to challenge the legality of his land transfer for so paltry a sum as 5 shillings.

Portrait of William Balmain MD

William Balmain. Drawn by Richard Earlom - National Library Australia

Glichrist's Place

After William Balmain’s passing, his former land grant became known as Gilchrist's Place, and history might have adopted that name, in which case the region today would likely have been called the less likeable Gilchrist.

However, court documents continued to refer to the area as the Balmain Estate while the challengers blocked housing developments, so it was only leased for agriculture and cattle farming whilst litigation continued.

In 1812, Lieutenant John Birch, paymaster of the 73rd regiment, built his homestead, Birchgrove House, on neighbouring land, and after it was sold in 1814 to Roland Loane, 100 acres of Gilchrist/Balmain’s 550-acre estate was leased to Loane.

In 1833, Gilchrist transferred power of attorney on the disputed land to Frederick Parbury, and three years later, when Roland Loane’s long lease expired in 1836, Parbury sub-divided the Balmain estate into six separate sections. Three of these were purchased by property developer Thomas Hyndes in 1837, who in turn subdivided them into residential homes and streets.

Balmain Population Growth Explodes

Thereafter, the history of Balmain changed as rapid suburbanisation of Balmain began. The district’s first industries – metalwork, engineering and boilermaking – were established around Mort Bay to service the expanding shipbuilding operation there, run by Mort’s Dock & Engineering Co., which launched in 1855.

Morts Dock Balmain in 1900

Morts Dock, Balmain, 1900. Photo: Graeme Andrews

Meanwhile, Loane sold the neighbouring Birchgrove estate in 1838, and it went through a succession of owners until 1856 when the first ten subdivisions started the development of Birchgrove into a suburb.

Balmain West, which extended west to the gates of Callan Park estate (subsequently purchased by the Colonial Government as a site for a lunatic asylum in 1878) was also subdivided with infrastructure and housing and in December 1892, the suburb formally adopted the new name Rozelle, after the bay to the south-east.

By Alec Smart


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