Balmain is one of Sydneys oldest waterfront areas, within 2 km of the CBD and commanding outstanding Harbour views. It has a strong maritime, artistic and community/political heritage, and over the years, the area has become synonymous with avant garde cafes, bookshops and galleries. There are several renowned restaurants in Balmain, and the area is well-served by interestingly revamped former workers pubs, with music and other entertainment. This all makes the Balmain Rozelle area one of the most fascinating and exciting areas to visit in Sydney.
A short trip by bus or ferry from the city, the Balmain-Birchgrove Peninsula is a great place to explore. From what were historically blue collar workers suburbs to the trendy Balmain and Rozelle of today the area is a drawcard for residents, Sydneysiders and visitors alike. Darling Street, which forms the meandering spine of the peninsula, is home to a kilometre or more of cafes, restaurants, character pubs, bookshops, galleries and antique shops.
At its peak the area had over 80 pubs! Today it still has something for everyone from traditional to trendy, neighbourhood friendly to chic and all serving a wide range of beers, ales and often cocktails. Make a night or day of it! The areas pubs are also great places to eat with a range of food from simple to sophisticated. Most pubs also cater for a variety of functions from christenings or birthdays to weddings to wakes or company events.
If the area did not invent Sydneys cafe culture it has certainly embraced it fully. You can rest and relax with your favourite coffee, in the morning, afternoon or evening seven days a week. A wide range of food and beverages is served at over 80 outlets throughout the area. Balmain and Rozelle have always attracted some of the best up and coming Sydney chefs and there is a large choice from Asian to European and everything in between. Many restaurants are BYO and there are a number of liquor outlets with a large range of wines to go with whatever style of food you choose. Whether it be an intimate dinner for two or a family outing you will find something to please.
Balmains sister suburb, Birchgrove, took its name from Birch Grove House, a homstead built by settler John Birch in 1812. Birch was paymaster of the 73rd regiment. Earlier, Birchgrove had been granted to NSW Corps private George Whitfield, when it was still virgin bush. By the mid 19th century ship builders had moved onto Long Nose Point and around the turn of the century a coal mine began operating on a site next door to Birchgrove School.
Rozelle, another neighbouring suburb, takes its name from Rozelle Bay, the innermost section of White Bay, which in the mid 1800 2s was known as Rozella Bay, either because of the Rosella native plant, or the large number of parrots known as Rose Hillers found there. The Rose Hillers were in fact what we today call the Eastern Rosella. Rozelle was part of William Balmains grant. Some farming was done until 1860 after which the land was gradually subdivided for residential development. In the 1870s a large section was procured and renamed Callan Park for use as a mental asylum. The rest was known as Balmain West until 1892 when the Postmaster General declared Rozelle as the official name of Balmain West.
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St Andrews Church. Cnr Darling St and Curtis Rd, Balmain, NSW 2041
Trading: Every Saturday 8:30am 4pm
Type: Art and Craft, General, Produce
Phone: 0418 765 736
White Horse Point/Dawn Fraser Pool
Commanding views of Iron Cove, Parramatta River and Snapper, Spectacle and Cockatoo Islands are offered from White Horse Point. To its east is the historic Dawn Fraser Pool, which has also known as Elkington Park Baths, Balmain Baths, Corporation Baths and White Horse Point Baths). Built between 1882 and 1924, it is an irregular shaped swimming pool, enclosed by a timber structure, supported by timber piles above the harbour. The pool itself is surrounded by a timber deck used for access, watching swimming races and sunbaking. At low tides there is a small sandy beach alongside the entrance.
A well known Sydney landmark, the pool was renamed in 1964 in honour of Dawn Fraser, local resident and Olympic Swimming Champion at three consecutive Olympic Games. Dawn Fraser learnt to swim at the baths and swam with the Leichhardt-Balmain League of Swimmers from age 8 to 13. She then had two seasons with the Balmain Ladies Club and won two New South Wales Championships, using the pool for all her training.
Balmain Council acquired land at White Horse Point for public baths in 1880. When the baths were opened January 1882, men only could use them during daylight hours and at limited times they were opened for women. The pool is irregularly shaped, being enclosed by a timber structure, supported by timber piles where it is above the harbour. The entrance to the baths is marked by a squat tower, which separates two timber buildings following the curve of the foreshore and contain the changing rooms for men and women and the swimming pool office.
Glassop Street, Balmain
Gladstone Park covers an old, abandoned water storage reservoir. Rectangular in shape and around the size of a football field, the concrete reservoir, which has been close to empty for many years, about 15m high, given the appearance of a gigantic subterranean cavern according to those who have accessed it. A sealed stairway leads down to a central causeway which has ladders descending to the floor on either side. An overflow, and inlet valve, float operated. The many, regularly spaced concrete columns no doubt were responsible for the exceptional echo characteristics of the empty facility. A matted veil of tree roots drape along the end wall. Rusting pipes, valves and pieces of machinery fill the adjacent pumping machine room.
Morts Bay Park
A harbourside park created on an historic industrial site. It was here that in 1854 businessman Thomas Sutcliffe Mort built a dry dock along with associated factories and shipbuilding yards at the end of Waterview Street. These facilities changed the character of Balmain into one of Sydneys busiest industrial districts and working class residential areas. It wasn t until the 1970s when industry began moving away from Sydneys inner city areas that Balmain entered a new phase of popularity, this time as a trendy inner city address for professional and business people who brought new life to Balmains former workmans cottages.
With the withdrawal of industry, the area around Morts industrial works was redeveloped with modern housing and parklands. Mort Bay Park contains the remains of Morts dock, the exposed tops of the walls of the dock having been retained when it was filled in.
College Street, Birchgrove. UBD Map 10 Ref E 5. Facilities: grassed area.
Public transport: ferry to Balmain (Thames St. wharf). The park adjoins the Balmain ferry wharf.
It was at Birchgrove Oval (within the parkland at the end of Snails Bay, Birchgrove) and Wentworth Park on 20th April 1908, that the first games of Rugby League were played in Australia. On that day, a crowd of around 3,000 watched two matches, one between South Sydney and North Sydney (South Sydney won 11 to 7) and the other between Balmain and Western Suburbs (Balmain won 24 to nil). On the same day at Wentworth Park, Eastern Suburbs beat Newtown 36 to 16 and Glebe beat Newcastle 8 to 5. After the games, members of the Western Suburbs Rugby club met at the Horse and Jockey Hotel at Flemington to form a ninth premiership club, Cumberland, now known as the Parramatta Eels.
UBD Map 10 Ref C 2.
Yurulbin Park is a native bushland reserve situated on the headland at Birchgrove. Formerly a shipbuilding site it has been restored into one of the most beautiful secluded spots on the Harbour. The award winning park contains a lawn area with a wooden viewing platform, both with views to the Harbour Bridge and magnificent views of Sydney Harbour with rocky outcrops and native garden beds. The Birchgrove Ferry wharf extends from the park and there is a two tiered viewing platform.
Yurulbin Park sits at the end of Yurulbin Point, a very narrow neck of land jutting out into the harbour from Birchgrove. Louisa Road stretches from one end of the point to the other and gives access by motor vehicle or on foot. The road is very narrow and lined by houses on both sides which are close to the road, not to mention parked cars, and there is limited parking at the Park, so go there by ferry or on foot if you can.
Balmain Colliery, Birchgrove
Not many people know that the city of Sydney sits on a huge coal seam which extends from near Wollongong in the Illawarra district to the south of Sydney, to the Hunter Valley in the north. The ridge of the suburb of Birchgrove was eventually chosen as the site. The Sydney Harbour Colliery, sunk near Birchgrove Primary School, was Sydneys only coal mine. It began production in November 1902. The coal, similar to that mined around Wollongong, was considered excellent for steaming and coking and an estimated 681,000 tonnes was mined from 1902 to 1931. The Sydney Harbour Colliery was and remains the deepest coal mine ever to have been sunk in Australia.
The mines two circular shafts were named Birthday and Jubilee to commemorate Queen Victorias birthday and the Diamond Jubilee of her reign, were lined with brick from top to bottom, as was a horizontal tunnel driven between the Birthday Shaft and the dock on Iron Cove. The horizontal tunnel was dug between 1897 and 1902 to mine coal from almost one kilometre below the Harbour floor. It stretched east under Balmain for more than a kilometre to coal workings bounded by Mort Bay, Snails Bay, Balls Head and Goat Island.
The cost of surface machinery and buildings was high as it covered the reclamation of a 177 metre wharf which provided 8 metres of water at low tide. A disastrous accident occurred in March 1900, while sinking the Birthday Shaft, when six men were being lowered in a bucket which was tipped over by an obstruction in the shaft wall and threw out five of them, who fell 122 metres to the bottom.
After the five years of sinking, coal was eventually struck at 870 metres, but was split into several thin seams, the largest being less than a metre. This was not encouraging to the directors of the largely English owned company. A decision was then made to mine the coal towards the successful Cremorne bore in the expectation that the seams would join. The seam did improve, so long drives had to be made under Balmain before much coal could be won. The company had title to mine only under the harbour and public reserves, and a special Act of Parliament (Sydney Harbour Collieries Act of 1903) had to be passed to allow these drives. These went under the slipway at Morts Dock, in spite of that companys complaints.
In spite of the problems, mining continued and remained a major activity in the area for many years. Above the Birthday Shaft stood a 21 metre high head frame, an 81 tonne steel skeleton that remained a landmark on the Balmain waterfront until 1956. The frame was used to raise coal from the mine and lto raise and lower the miners. Massive steam engines and boilers were installed to provide the power for operating the enormous ventilation fan and winding gear needed to reach the mines depths, and a 59 metre high brick chimney to remove flue gas from the boilers was also a prominent feature on the Balmain skyline. Coal was removed by pick and shovel then transported to the shaft using skips pulled by pit ponies. Conditions were hot, dusty and gassy. Approximately 309 men were employed at the mine, mostly underground. The mine operated on three shifts, with 159 men working underground on the day shift, 60 on afternoon shift and 26 on night shift. Each man worked five metres of the coal face, from which he was expected to win five and a half tonnes of coal. Because of concerns about subsidence, coal extraction from the mine was only permitted under the Harbour.
The company never managed to produce enough coal to get a cash flow large enough to offset the huge capital costs. It simply ran out of cash and work ceased in 1915. After a nine year shutdown the mine was reopened in 1924. The new company obtained permission to drive two new headings by another act of Parliament (Sydney Collieries Enabling Act, 1924), but these were never completed. Following continuing financial trouble the mine was reorganised in 1928 on a semi cooperative basis. The miners, operating as the Balmain Coal Contracting Company Ltd, agreed to take over running of mining operations and to supply the new company with coal at a certain price. Continuing industrial and financial troubles caused the Sydney Collieries Ltd to go into liquidation in February 1931, bringing coal mining operations at Balmain to an end.
In 1932 the Natural Gas and Oil Corporation Ltd issued a prospectus which stated that it was expected to find gas or oil if a bore was put down a further 1,200 metres below the bottom of the mine shafts. Two men were preparing the site for boring in January 1933 when an explosion occurred. They were severely burned and later died in Balmain Hospital. By 1937 the bore had reached 1,505 metres from the surface. No reservoir of gas was found and the gas flow was weak. The source of methane which had been a problem in coal mining operations has mainly been the face of freshly broken coal. During the war and after, the gas was compressed and sold as an industrial and motor fuel. In the peak year, 1944, over 3 million cubic metres of gas was produced. The last year of production was 1950. The property was sold in 1955.
Site of the Sydney Harbour Colliery, Birchgrove Road, Birchgrove
Since the shafts were capped, the site has been used for wool stores and for ship repairs and maintenance. A housing development has since been constructed on the site. There have been several newspaper reports and questions in Parliament since about the sites safety, but it is considered impossible for an explosion to occur. Most of the workings will have collapsed and filled with water. Access to the surface was blocked by 855 metres of fly ash from White Bay Power Station which was topped by concrete seals in 1957. Buildings now cover the shaft heads and mine site.
Balmain Watch House
Balmain Watch House was built 1854 as police station and local jail at a time when its locality was the town centre. The number of inhabitants reached more than 3,000 at that time. A museum house in the building displays a photographic history of the development of the Balmain peninsula.
179 Darling Street, Balmain. Open Sat. 12 3pm or by appointment. Entry fee applies. UBD Map 10 Ref F 9
Public transport: ferry to Darling St. Wharf, walk up Darling St.
Noted by First Fleeters as a place often frequented by the local Aborigines, Ballast Point was named because it was quarried by the early European settlers to provide ballast for the convict ships from England before their long journey home. The point not only guards the wide entrance to Balmain's Morts Bay, it marks the entry to the western part of Sydney Habrour from the Parramatta River. In recognition of its Aboriginal history, Ballast Point Park, which occupies the whole point, was given a second name, Walama, which means "to return".
The park has a somewhat raw atmosphere which, combined with its natural beauty and panoramic views, makes it a very interesting place to wander around. Its most dominant feature is Tank 101, a huge steel structure that represents one of the oil tanks used by Caltex in the 20th century. Built in the 1930 s, the original Tank 101 was the largest industrial storage vessel on the site which was transformed into a fuel depot by the oil company Texaco (which later became Caltex) in 1928.
Up until the 1990's, Ballast Point had been a very important oil distribution site in the Sydney area. Prior to that, the point was occupied by a two-storey house naMmed Menevia, built by a local clothing merchant, Thomas Perkins, in 1852. Memorabilia from both its time as an oil storage facility and the home of Mr Perkins have been incorporated into the landscaped public parkland that was opened in 2009. The park has walking trails on various level, as well as BBQ and picnic facilities andtoilets. Parking is limited, so visit a visit Ballast Point Park on a weekday is preferable.
Over the years, the suburb of Balmain has been home to many famous people. These include:
Governor General, Sir John Kerr (1974-77) lived at 25 Short Street and 54 Terry Street, Balmain. He was the son of a Morts Dock boilermaker. Sir William McKells father worked with Kerrs father at Morts Dock. McKell became Premier of NSW and later Governor-General of Australia.
Prior to becoming Prime Minister of Australia (1915-23), William Morris (Billie) Hughes (1862-1952) operated a store at 16-18 Beattie Street, Balmain. Many Cabinet decisions were made here. Later in life he lived at 14 Nelson Road, Lindfield.
Playwright David Williamson lived at 85 Louisa Road, Birchgrove, between 1987 and 1996.
The winged keel which helped win the Americas Cup for Australia in 1983 was handcrafted at 1 Jubilee Place, Balmain.
For 25 years from 1971 to just before her death in 1996, one of Sydneys true characters, Beatrice ( Beattie ) Bush, sold papers to passing motorists at the junction of The Crescent (City West Link) and Victoria Road, Balmain. Every morning in all weather, wearing Balmain Tigers socks and running shoes, Beatrice was part of the drive to work for thousands of motorists.
The 1984 song The White Bay Paper Seller by Judy Small was written about Beatrice. The 1986 painting Beatrice the Paper-Seller of the White Bay Intersection by Susan Dorothea White shows Beatrice Bush running between the cars and trucks, selling newspapers in the rain. Her newspaper trolley, hat, gloves and other clothing items are held in the Powerhouse Museum collection in Sydney.
Former Premier of NSW, Neville Wran grew up at a terrace house at 117 Darling Street, Balmain.
Olympic swimmer Dawn Fraser lived at 87 Birchgrove Road, Balmain. Not far away is the swimming pool named in her honour. Located at Elkington Park, it is here that the asthmatic Dawn started swimming to help her with her breathing. She went on to become one of Australias greatest swimmers, winning Olympic gold at three consecutive Olympic Games, 1956 (Melbourne), 1960 (Rome) and 1964 (Tokyo).
Abbotsford House is where poet Henry Lawson died, 9th September 1922, age 55. During his lifetime, Lawson lived in numerous homes around Sydney. They include a number of houses in Market Street, Naremburn (near a cave now in Bicentennial Reserve where he used to write his verse) Numbers 21, 26 and 30 Euroka Street, North Sydney, and 62 Church Street, Balmain, where he resided between 1896 and 1901.
In the early years of the colony when the Balmain peninsula was still virgin bush, a popular weekend pastime was to hunt kangaroos in the area where Annandale and Leichhardt are today. The hunters would travel through the bush chasing the kangaroos onto the Balmain peninsula where they would be cornered and killed around Peacock Point. Balmain developed in the 1800s as a working class suburb around shipbuilding facilities established on its shores and nearby Cockatoo Island, the first being a shipyard on Peacock Point.
Balmain Self Guided Walking Tours
Balmain provides a rich display of Australias early development. This includes workers cottages dating back to the early 1840s, marine villas, townhouses, shops, hotels and other business establishments. The layout of its streets reflects the early tracks and delivery routes. All of this still has direct impact on the daily lives of its residents today, as access and movement across the peninsula has essentially not changed greatly in over 120 years. Very few areas in Australia reflect 205 years of European settlement as does Balmain, and there is evidence to suggest that Balmain might be the oldest planned residential area in Australia. More >>
Located in the middle of Port Jackson to the east of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Goat Island has a long history of human habitation. During the colonial days, Goat Island served as a quarry, convict stockade and boatyard and more recently an explosives store, police station, fire station and film set. Today the island forms part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.
Aborigines referred to it as Mel-Mel, the First Fleet settlers chose to call it by its present name as it was here that Gov. Phillip allowed three goats purchased in Capetown on the journey out from England to forage. Over the years the island has been used as a quarry (by convicts), a home for convicts awaiting transportation to Norfolk Island, for explosives storage, as a research centre during the Bubonic Plague (1901) and as the headquarters for the management of Sydney Harbour.
Convict era relics: A hollowed out section of sandstone in an overhang on Goat Island, which was carved to hold Charles 'Bony' Anderson, a wild convict who was chained here for two years around 1838 during the island's days as a convict prison. Anderson had suffered a mental impairment which made him violent as a result of a head injury received during his service in the Royal Navy. During 1835 he received over 1,200 lashes for his numerous attempts to escape the island. Anderson was one of 200 convicts who worked on the construction of the Gunpowder Magazine Complex on the island between 1833 and 1839. During those years, gangs of convicts quarried stone and levelling ground on a site at the south-western side of the island. The powder magazine they built is a substantial, stone-built, bomb-proof construction. In 1854 a new Colonial Magazine was constructed to the north of the existing magazine, which became known as the Queen's Magazine. Between 1925 and 1931 the magazine area to the south-west of the island was converted into a shipyard for the repair of the trusts vessels and floating plant.
Water Rats: during the mid to late 1990s, Goat Island was used as a film-set for the Australian television series Water Rats. The series premiered on 12 February 1996 and ran for six seasons and 177 episodes.
Harbourmaster's residence: If you are looking for the house in Sydney with the best view of the Harbour Bridge and the city, you can't go past this one - but it's not for sale! It is located on a rise at the eastern end of Goat Island, which sits in the middle of the Parramatta River facing the Harbour Bridge. The charming, unoccupied Federation-era sandstone house has a magnificent panoramic view of the Bridge and upper reaches of Port Jackson before it becomes the Parramatta River. This view encompasses Milsons Point, Walsh Bay and Darling Harbour. The house was built in the early 1900s following the creation of the Sydney Harbour Trust which had been given the responsibility to control and reconstruct the Port of Sydney. The Trust's operations were based on Goat Island which gave the Trust's head employee a magnificent view of the port over which he presided from his front verandah. Not a bad perk that comes with the job if you get it.
Public transport: Regular tours of the island are conducted by NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service from Circular Quay. Limited facilities. Access only by ferry on special tours to Goat Island organised by National Parks & Wildlife Service.
UBD Map 10 Ref P 4
Spectacle Island lies in the main channel of the western section of the harbour, upstream of the Harbour Bridge, adjacent to the Sydney suburb of Drummoyne and tucked in behind Cockatoo Island. Dating from 1865, the island is historically significant as it is the oldest naval explosives manufacturing and storage complex in Australia.
Originally built to store government gunpowder, the island was converted to store naval munitions in 1893, for which purpose it hosts store sheds, jettys and an internal railway system. The island has been significantly increased in size by the use of waste from the coalmine in nearby Balmain. Today, the island is a depository of heritage items of the Royal Australian Navy and also is the home of Training Ship Sydney, a unit of the Australian Navy Cadets.
History of Spectacle Island
Spectacle Island was first known as Dawes Island as early as the first year of British settlement in 1788 but was later renamed Spectacle because of its shape, being then two small islands joined by a narrow isthmus.
The colonial government selected Spectacle Island in 1865 as a storage site for the colonial government's gunpowder. Plans for the initial group of buildings (magazine, cooperage, laboratory, quarters etc.) were drawn up in the office of Colonial Architect James Barnet. The buildings were mainly built of sandstone and had slate roofs. The shape of the island began changing as well, and the isthmus was gradually built up.
In 1884 Spectacle Island became the naval armament depot and the colonial government's explosives were removed. Existing buildings were altered and new ones were constructed to suit the new military needs, and the completed installations were at the forefront of munitions handling and storage technology at the time.
The Royal Australian Navy took over Spectacle from the Royal Navy in 1913. By then, there were 40 buildings on the island, the isthmus had been filled in and the area of the island had been increased by about a hectare through reclamation works utilising spoil from the old Balmain coalmine.
During the First World War there was hectic activity on the island and several hundred extra workers were appointed, mainly for shell-filling. Older buildings were remodelled to better deal with new needs. With the end of the war in 1918, Spectacle was used to store unused munitions until they were eventually dispersed. By 1922 all the major permanent buildings had been built.
Spectacle Island once again played an important role in the Second World War in dealing with smaller calibre ammunition, but was soon unable to cope with larger calibre material. After the war the island again was used to store unused munitions. Gradually, Spectacle's role changed with the growth of harbourside populations and technological change making the island's role of explosives handling and storage untenable and obsolete.
Spectacle Island is still used by the Royal Australian Navy to house the Naval Repository, including a collection of relics and artefacts, ranging from small items to vessels. Spectacle Island was added to the Australian National Heritage List in December 2006.
One of the smaller, lesser known and less frequented islands of Sydney Harbour, Snapper Island is part of the series of drowned knolls along the ridges between the flooded river valleys. The island has been flattened and formed into a rectangular shape with longer sides oriented to the north west and south east. In 1879 Snapper Island was declared a public recreation reserve but it remained a rarely visited rocky outcrop. During World War I the island was leased to the Cockatoo Island Dockyard for additional storage.
Between 1931-2 the island was flattened and expanded by blasting and reclamation to set up the Sydney training depot for naval cadets. The stone sea walls created the shape of a ship with a bow and a stern. In 1932 building work commenced on a signal station and other main buildings. Their names and layout model that of a naval ship.
The Navy League Sea Cadets salvaged many items from HMAS Sydney when it was stripped on Cockatoo Island in 1931. This collection forms the basis of a museum which still exists on the island. Snapper Island remains, as it has for many years, a collage of makeshift waterfront buildings in tin and timber, slipways, boat storage, gardens, flagpoles, a jetty x all arranged in the pattern of a ship. These structures are in varying states of repair. The island is home to a collection of naval artifacts and memorabilia. It is currently closed to the public and run by a private company, Sydney Training Depot Snapper Island Limited.
Empress of Australia
Over the years, two attempts have been made to operate a car and passenger ferry service between Sydney and Tasmania, but with limited success. The first was with the Empress of Australia, a car ferry with which Balmain had a strong connection. The Empress of Australia was custom built in 1962 at Sydneys Cockatoo Island Dockyards, which stands a short distance off the Balmain Peninsula.
Empress of Australia, Morts Bay
Operated by Australian National Line, it provided a ferry serice between Sydney and Hobart via Devonport and Burnie between 1962 and 1972. The ferry's Sydney terminal was in Morts Bay, Balmain, alongside the site of Morts Dock. The foundations and frames of two ramps that gave motor vehicle entry through the ship's rear door are still in place on Morts Bay, as is a concrete wharf on Morts Bay.
Empress of Australia, Morts Bay, from Thames Street wharf
The Empress had a gross weight of 12,037 tonnes, and was the largest vessel of this type in the world when built while its route was one of the longest open water routes in the world for a vessel of this type. It could carry 250 passengers, 51 cars and 33 semi trailers (or 91 cars and 16 trucks) and travelled at an average speed of 17.5 knots. Empress of Australia sailed between Sydney and Hobart three times each fortnight. Trade never reached expectations, and in 1972, the vessel was transferred to the Melbourne-Devonport run, replacing the Princess of Tasmania which was sold. The passenger ccapacity was increased to some 450, with the addition of about 200 seats, for the Melbourne-Devonport overnight service. Empress of Australia was sold 1985 after 20 years of service, and renamed Royal Pacific. She sank in the Malacca Strait, in 1991 after colliding with a Taiwanese fishing vessel.
Balmain's Shipbuilding Past
Launch of HMAS Deloraine, 1942, Morts Dock, Balmain
By the mid 19th century Balmain had developed into Sydneys biggest maritime industrial/residential area, with clusters of workmens cottages standing cheek-by-jowl with the industries in which their tenants eked out a living. Every trade and occupation was represented in its population: not only the waterfront-related ones, like wharfies, seamen, coal lumpers, boilermakers, engineers, painters and dockers, etc., but also the wide variety of factory workers, miners, building trades, timber workers, stone masons, etc.
Boat yards, ship repair and ship building yards abounded around the foreshores of Balmain, as well as on Cockatoo Island and neighbouring headlands. The main maritime businesses were: Poole and Steel, Stephen Street; Irma and Dick White, Shipwriting, Grafton Street; Maritime Services Board Depot, Camerons Cove; Nichol Bros. and Pengu xin Floating Crane, Weston Street; S.G. White and Co., Lookes Avenue; Adelaide Steam Ship Co., Nicholson Street; Chapmans Slipway, Hart Street; Morts Dock & Eng. Co., Mort Bay; Stannards Launches, Lemm Street; Jubilee Eng. Co., Yeroulbin Street; Morrison & Sinclair, Long Nose (now Yeroulbin) Point; Storey & Keers, Louisa Road; Howard Smith Steam Ship Co. (old coal mine site), Water Street; S.G. White, Fitzroy Avenue, Wards Floating Dock. Morts operated a second graving dock at Woolwich from 1901.
Around Snails Bay and extending to the end of Longnose Point was the shipbuilding and ship repair facility of Morrison and Sinclair (1923-72). Many ferries were built here for the Balmain Ferry Company during the early part of the 20th century. A slipway at the end of Longnose Point is all that remains of this facility. Snails Bay has several concrete dolphins that were used by timber-transport ships coming into port. Once the ships were moored at the dolphins, the timber was unloaded into barges. From there it was taken to the many timber mills located around the Harbour and Parramatta River foreshore. In more recent years they have been used to tie up ships that at the time were not in use.
In the last 50 years, Balmains shoreline has changed dramatically as one by one Balmains factories and workshops moved away from the inner city suburb. Parklands and blocks of residential units have replaced the factories, chimneys and cranes that once were so much a part of Balmains skyline. Just a handful of remnants have survived to remind present and future generations of Balmains unique blue collar maritime origins.
Morts Dry Dock
Mort Bay, once the hub of Sydneys shipbuilding industry, is located immediately south west of Goat Island where the Parramatta River enters Sydney Harbour. It is named after Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, the merchant and businessman who established the first dry dock in Sydney there in 1854. This was created by the excavation of sandstone near the head of Mort Bay. The dock opened in 1855 and remained operational for 102 years. In 1957 the dock was closed and filled in.
Remnants of the dock have been preserved in Mort Bay Park off Cameron Street, Birchgrove. These include the outline of the historic dry dock which is in fact the top of the dock wall and the steel caisson or dock gate. The nearby quarries at the head of Mort Bay which had supplied the stone for Balmains buildings and seawalls were taken over by shipyards after the dock was built. Today the shipyards have been replaced by blocks of luxury apartments which now cling to the towering quarry walls.
Morts Dry Dock was the first dry dock in Australia, opening for business in 1855 and closing more than a century later in 1959. Morts Dock was the brainchild of industrialist Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and former steamship captain T.S. Rountree (or Rowntree). Steam ships had first appeared in Sydney Harbour in 1853 but no repair or maintenance facilities existed to cater for the new vessels. In 1854, Mort and Rountree purchased an area of land at Waterview Bay on the northern side of the Balmain peninsula and excavated a dry dock measuring 123 by 15 metres.
SS Montoro in Morts Dry Dock, 1911
The dry dock opened in March 1855, a year before the Royal Navys Fitzroy Dock at Cockatoo Island. The first vessel serviced at the new Morts Dock was the SS Hunter, a coastal mail steamer running between Sydney and Newcastle. The Morts Dock and Engineering Company was formed in 1872, but Thomas Mort himself withdrew from active participation immediately afterward, and management devolved to dock manager James Franki. He continued to manage the dock for 50 years finally retiring in 1922. Ship construction and repairs continued at the dry dock and immediate surrounds, and in 1901 the company opened a second dry dock and slipway at Woolwich to cater for demand for commercial vessels and ferries.
The outbreak of World War II proved to be a boom time for Morts Dock. The 1920s and 1930s had seen a decline in the Royal Australian Navy with few vessels constructed and older ships sold off or scrapped. Japans entry into the war led to a sudden demand for coastal protection and increased offensive power in the Pacific Ocean. Between 1940 and 1945, Morts Dock constructed fourteen of the sixty Bathurst class corvettes built in Australia during the war, as well as four of the twelve River class frigates. By the end of the war Morts Dock was second only to the Cockatoo Island dockyard in the number of naval vessels produced.
Shipbuilding once again declined in the post-war period, and revenue from engineering leases fell as firms relocated to cheaper land in western Sydney. Morts Dock closed in 1958, Morts Dock and Engineering Company went into liquidation in 1959, and ceased trading completely in 1968. The derelict Morts Dock site was levelled and converted into a container storage terminal for ships berthing at Glebe Island and White Bay. In 1989, the container terminal was closed and the site transformed into a waterfront park. The filled-in dry dock is commemorated in the name of the adjacent Dry Dock Hotel, which stands opposite the former location of the gates to the original Morts Dock site. The outline of the filled-in dry dock can also been seen at the park's waterfront.
How to get there:
The Balmain-Birchgrove Peninsula is serviced by three ferry wharves, with frequent services to Circular Quay and along the Parramatta River as far as Parramatta. Public buses run along Darling Street and Mullens Street from Victoria Road.
The suburbs name commemorates Balmains first colonial land owner, William Balmain, surgeon with the First Fleet who became the colonys principal surgeon. He was granted the peninsula in 1800 by Governor Hunter. Balmain never lived there and in fact sold his property within 15 months of acquiring it for the nominal sum of five shillings to John Gilchrist, who was Head of Fort William Collage in Calcutta, India.
Sydney Harbour ferry Queenscliff at the Balmain ferry base