Once a fishing village, Watsons Bay is now one of the must-see places for visitors to Sydney Situated on a peninsula at the the southern entrance to Sydney Harbour, Watsons Bay offers panoramic views up the harbour as well as coastal vistas on the ocean side. There are enough things to see and do here and in the vicinity to fill a few hours or a few days.
Robertson Park, a sizeable grassed area behind the harbour foreshore near the ferry jetty, is the perfect place for a picnic lunch with plenty of space and facilities, including tables, toilets and a childrens playground. Fish and chips and variations of it are available from the take-away cafe by the ferry jetty. If a picnic is not what you had in mind for lunch or dinner, there are a number of restaurants and cafes surrounding the park, the most famous of which is Doyles seafood restaurant on the waterfront. Lunch at Doyles has long been a tradition for Sydneysiders. The Watson Bay Hotel is a popular watering hole.
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To the east of Robertson Park is a wall of cliffs facing the Pacific Ocean which offer stunning vistas both of the cliffs themselves and up the harbour to the city. The Gap is a notorious place for suicides. The Gap Lookout, to the left after reaching the cliffs at the top of the steps, offers panoramic views up and down the coast as well as up the harbour.
Dunbar shipwreck: A fast frigate built ship on her second voyage from England, the Dunbar struck a rock at the base of Outer South Head (and not at The Gap as popularly thought) on the stormy night of 20th August 1857. 121 lives were lost - there was only one survivor, 23-year old Abel Seaman James Johnson who was rescued from a ledge near Jacobs Ladder some 36 hours after the ship went down. Johnson, giving evidence at the inquest into the disaster, said that Captain James Green had seen the Macquarie light in a break in the storm and believing he had passed it, moved in to shore to sight North Head but had misjudged the ship's distance from the shore.
An anchor was retrieved from the wreck in 1910 and placed on display at The Gap in 1930 at the Dunbar Memorial Lookout. A carving in the rock nearby recalls the event. A plaque positioned at the wreck site in 1992 also tells the Dunbar's story. Bodies recovered from the wreck of the Dunbar and the Catherine Adamson, which sank nearby a month after the Dunbar, were placed in a common grave at Camperdown Cemetery. The funeral procession on 24th August 1857 was a major event, attracting 20,000 people who lined Sydney's George Street.
If you take a short walk walk north from Robertson Park through the Watsons Bay village to the end of Cliff street you will come to Camp Cove. It was here where, on the night of 25th January 1788, Gov. Arthur Phillip and a party of soldiers from the First Fleet camped during their expedition to find a more appropriate settlement site than Botany Bay, hence the cove's name. On the following day, Phillip found and chose Sydney Cove as the site for the new colony. Today a stone obelisk marks the spot where Phillip came ashore and camped.
Nearby Laings Point recalls Edward Laing, the first landowner in the area who was granted 20 acres in the Watsons Bay area in 1793. Camp Cove is used by many sailboarders and scuba divers to begin their activities. The cobblestoned roadway near the top of the steps above Camp Cove is a remnant of the original road constructed in 1871 along which military hardware was transported to the various installation points on South Head. The Inner Battery was built in 1873 and consisted of a series of gunpits and numerous lookout points on the headland from Green Point and Lady Bay. Five guns were aimed across Watsons Bay. A new Outer Battery was erected beyond the Hornby light and facing the ocean and a series of tunnels to connect the inner and outer batteries were cut.
In 1914, the guns were briefly mobilised, but never fired in anger and more bunkers were erected. One has a hand painted 1915 with an upwards pointed arrow (the defence department symbol) above it. During World War 2, a new series of tunnels were built linking HMAS Watson to a wharf used to offload military supplies at Camp Cove. These tunnels are quite deep and rather labyrinthine, their entrances today are blocked by steel doors. At the same time, a series of new observation bunkers were cut deep into the cliff face. These include one which was particularly well placed for viewing the Lady Bay nudist beach. UBD Map 217 Ref Q 12
A path from Camp Cove leads from the northern end of the beach to South Head, which offers views across the Heads of Sydney Harbour to North Head and Manly. The walk takes about 20 minutes each way and followed a built path. The headland between Camp Cove and Lady Beach contains the remnants of gunpits built in 1873, which were known as the Inner Battery of the South Head fortifications. Five guns were mounted here and aimed across Watsons Bay. In 1914, the guns were briefly mobilised, but never fired in anger. During the second world war, a series of tunnels were built linking HMAS Watson to a wharf used to offload military supplies at Camp Cove. UBD Map 217: Ref Q 12.
The nine metre high Hornby Light was installed on the tip of inner South Head in 1858 as a direct result of two maritime disasters in the area - the loss of the Catherine Adamson and Dunbar, both in 1857. Known originally as the Lower Light, South Head to distinguish it from the Macquarie Lighthouse, it was later named after Admiral Sir Phipps Hornby, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet in the 1860s.
The tower was designed by Alexander Dawson and illuminated in 1859 with kerosene, converted to incandescent gas, then electricity in 1933. The red and white striped Hornby Light, a small sandstone light beacon nine metres high, served to mark the actual entrance into Port Jackson, something the Macquarie Light did not. The lens made by Chance Bros. of England was originally fitted to the ship Bramble in 1877, that served as a lightship on the dangerous Sow and Pigs Reef within the harbour.
UBD Map 218 Ref A 9
There are a number of tunnels and bunkers located beneath HMAS Watson on South Head at Watsons Bay. In 1848 Lieutenant-Colonel James Gordon developed a definitive plan for the defence of Sydney town which involved 30 heavy guns located at Inner South Head and Middle Head, 9 heavy guns at Sow and Pigs Reef, 2 heavy guns at Pinchgut, work at Bradley s Head and changes to the Dawes Point Battery. In 1853 a Government Committee on the Defence of Port Jackson recommended harbour defenses be upgraded immediately in view of the threat of an European war with Russia. Governor FitzRoy appointed Colonel Barney to improve harbour defenses based his plans on Gordon 's recommendations of 1848. The original Outer Battery, which is the earliest of the fortifications on South head near the Hornby light and old lighthouse keepers residences, were built in 1859. The purpose of the station was to relay news of incoming shipping by the raising of a flag. They are the only fortifications erected on South Head as per Gordon s recommendations at that time and included a tunnel lined with brick, later covered with concrete.
The southern anchor point for an 800 metre long boom net, placed across the harbour during World War II to stop the entry of enemy ships, can be seen on the waterline at Green Point Reserve beyond Camp Cove. Wooden piles were driven into the harbour bed to which the net was attached. Sections could be opened by a defence vessel.
It was by following one such friendly vessel allowed through the opening that three Japanese mini submarines entered Sydney Harbour on 31st May 1942. It was in the western sector of this boom net off Georges Head that one of the mini submarines was fouled and was partly exposed. HMAS Lolita dropped three depth charges near the stricken sub but they failed to explode in the shallow water. Realising their predicament, the crew detonated a depth charge killing themselves. The other two submarines made it past the net and inflicted some damage before being disabled and sunk.
Play audio: Japanese Midget Submarines Installed near the net were anti-submarine Fixed Defence Indicator Loops which signalled the presence of a submerged vessel. Other Indicator Loops were established in the Hawkesbury River at Broken Bay, as well as Newcastle, Brisbane, Bribie Island, Darwin and Fremantle.
Cut on the expanse of flat bare rock at the top of the cliff on which the Hornby Lighthouse and cottages were built is the remnant of a group of carvings, possibly damaged by building operations. At the north end of the group is a fish, towards the middle of the group is a small whale, a 2 metres long fish and fragments of a wallaby. Only a fish remains on the rock facing North Head alongside the pill box next to the lighthouse. On the south east side of the lighthouse is a kangaroo and a fish. South of the lighthouse was a swordfish, the original pathway cut off its snout. The path has since been widened and the remainder of the fish has been buried under section of the path and grass. Towards the harbour side of the headland cut on several small patches of rock and level with the surface of the ground are two skates and a small shark.
Lady Bay: On a ledge of rock extending across the head of Lady Bay a few feet higher than the top of the masonry wall are the engravings of 2 large fish and several, very weathered ones on the rocks above the water to the south. On top of the rocky point at the south end of Lay Bay are portions of a kangaroo, other animals and a shield. All are badly weathered.
Watsons Bay: On the low ridge on the south side of Vaucluse Bay on a small patch of rock are weathered images of kangaroos. On the northern side of the small bay at the end of Keele Street is a boulder-like rock with the remnants of a fish engraved on it. 180 metres south on a narrow surface of rough rock nearly level with the ground, some 40 metres from the beach was the figure of a man. In a rock shelter to the south and on the beach, 40 metres from the figure of a man was two figures cut into an overhanging face of rock, one being a turtle, the other a man or deity.
Take a walk up the hill along South Head Road to this historic landmark. Within one year of the First Fleet arriving to settle New South Wales. the strategic position where the Macquarie Lighthouse now stands has been the location of a marker to guide ships into Sydney Harbour and to warn Sydney's residents of their impending arrival. A simple flagstaff was erected by Capt. John Hunter on 20th January 1790 to signal to any ships about to enter Botany Bay that the colony had transferred to a new location. The flagstaff was replaced by a wood and coal fired beacon, a basket on a tripod, which from 1793 was the only guiding light for the next 25 years. In 1816 the foundations were laid here for Australia's first lighthouse. completed at Governor Macquarie's request in 1,818m it was the work of Francis Greenway, the famous convict Architect, responsible for many significant and beautiful buildings in early Sydney.
Construction of the current Macquarie Lighthouse was begun in 1881 and the light was first exhibited in 1883. Designed by James Barnet as a replica of the original tower, its design became the trademark of many other lighthouses that Barnet designed. The new light's giant lens was around two metres in diameter showing an eight second flash every minute, and with a range of 25 nautical miles.
In 1912 the apparatus was was converted to a vapourised kerosene incandescent mantle system, replacing Barnet's coal gas engine. With the connection of the city power supply in 1933 the light was converted back to electricity. It was fully automated in 1976. A signal station to observe and assist in the control of shipping in and out of Port Jackson was built in 1842 near the lighthouse.
UBD Map 238 Ref C 2
Located close by near Macquarie Lighthouse in Christison Park, Vaucluse, these fortifications were built in 1893 with others at North Bondi, Clovelly, Henry Head and Bare Island (Botany Bay) as part of a coastal defence update. All the fortifications housed 22-tonne 9.2 inch breech loading disappearin Fg guns housed in below ground cavities with concrete walls ten metres in diameter. The barrels of each gun weighed 22 tonnes. The Signal Hill disappearing gun was housed in the centre of three gun pits. It was last fired in 1933 and removed in 1937 when it was replaced by two 6-inch Mk II guns placed in each of the outer pits. These were removed after World War II. The barrel of the disappearing gun is on display at the Artillery Museum at North Head.
Two levels of rooms were constructed under the gun emplacement in 1915. These were interconnected to bunkers and observation boxes by tunnels also built at the time. The lower level beneath the gun emplacement is reached via shaft and ladder at back of top level. A number of metal doors which are now sealed gave access to stairs leading down to the tunnels and the bunkers themselves. 2
HMAS Watson is a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) base at South Head. Commissioned in 1945 (after three years operating as HMAS Radar), the base served as the RAN's radar training school. In 1956, torpedo and anti-submarine warfare training were relocated to the base, and by 2011, Watson was the main maritime warfare training base, as well as providing post-entry education for Seaman Officers, training for Combat System sailors, and command training.
The RAN first established training facilities at South Head in 1942, when the navy's radar school was shifted there from HMAS Rushcutter. The facility initially operated under the name HMAS Radar, but was commissioned as HMAS Watson on 14 March 1945. Torpedo and anti-submarine warfare training were relocated to Watson in 1956. Watson' s main role is for the training of RAN personnel in maritime warfare.
In addition, the base provides post-entry training for Seaman Officers in areas of navigation, ship handling, weapons, and sensors; training for Combat System category sailors; and command training for recently promoted commanding and executive officers. It is also the parent base for RAN personnel studying at Sydney universities. The facility has a ship's company of 300.
A marker post located near the Harbour foreshore in Robertsons Park at Watsons Bay records the construction of the first major road through Sydney's east which was also the first to be financed by subscription in suburban Sydney. The post reads, "This road, made by subscription, was completed in 10 weeks from 25th March, 1814 by 21 soldiers of His Majesty's 73rd Regiment." The marker post was erected by Gov. Macquarie and honours the construction work of Macquarie's own regiment. The road was paid for by residents who lived between Sydney and the tiny fishing settlement that had sprung up at Watsons Bay in the form of a subscription negotiated with them by Macquarie.
The agreement allowed for pedestrians to travel free, a horseman paid three pence and the cost to vehicular traffic would be "in accordance to its quality". The road replaced a rough track cut through the bush by the colonial surgeon John Harris in 1803. Early records indicate that the section of road between Hyde Park and Centennial Park known today as Oxford Street followed an Aboriginal track between the two locations.
Watsons Bay has a large number of heritage buildings, with the following buildings listed on the Register of the National Estate:
Buildings 28-31, HMAS Watson
Hornby Light House and two cottages, South Head
St Peter's Church, Old South Head Road, designed by Edmund Blacket (1864)
Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, Old South Head Road (1909-1910)
Scout hall, 335 Old South Head Road, former school designed by George Mansfield (1876)
A former school residence designed by George Mansfield, Old South Head Road, (1876)
Former marine station, Pacific Street and Laings Point, built and used by Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay (1885)
Sandstone obelisk, Robertson Park, commemorating the construction of Old South Head Road (1811)