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Even before Captain Arthur Phillip raised the flag for the first settlement in Port Jackson at Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788, he had visited North Harbour (on 23 January). For at least 20,000 years before Europeans arrived, Aboriginal people lived in what is now the Manly district, but which they knew as Kay-ye-my. They fished, gathered food in the dunes and hunted in the eucalypt forests and open heath country. The smallpox epidemic of April and May 1789 devastated the people of Kay-ye-my, and by the 1800s there were few remaining. Balgowlah (Balgowla or Bulgowlah), an Aboriginal word meaning 'north harbour', was mentioned as early as 1828 by Major Thomas Livingstone Mitchell, and in his Map of the Nineteen Counties in 1834, although according to the 1834–35 field book of the surveyor James Larmer, the area designated as Balgowla Township had the Aboriginal name Jilling.
In 1828, his first year as Surveyor-General of New South Wales, Major Mitchell drew a plan of Balgowlah. It was one of the first 10 villages in the county of Cumberland. The head of North Harbour was chosen for village-type settlement. Here the Government's surveyors laid out 31 allotments in a rectangular grid. There were several reliable watercourses (scarce in nearby Manly) and a sheltered harbour.
Convicts and early settlers
It is likely that the first European settler in the North Harbour area was a Third Fleet convict, John Fincham, who arrived in Sydney in 1790 on the Albemarle. The existence of Fincham's home is inscribed in the grant document for Allotment 19. The hut appears as one of the two small squares on Mitchell's map of 1828, which puts its location near where the shop at North Harbour Reserve stands today. Perhaps the second building might have been his 'new hut' – these are the only two buildings on the survey. The last reference to Fincham is in the 1836 Post Office Directory, listing him as living at North Harbour.
Another early occupant was Robert Tiffen. Lot 20 is shown as being promised to Tiffen, an ex-convict who petitioned for land on 2 October 1824, when he stated that he was now free and had lived at North Harbour since arriving on the Neptune in 1817. It is also known that Tiffen had worked for James Jenkins and Fincham at North Harbour when he was promised the land in 1828. Tiffen subsequently married Mary Blue (daughter of the ferryman Billy Blue, after whom Blues Point is named). He died at North Sydney in 1842.
James Jenkins was a convict who arrived in Sydney in 1802. He purchased land in 1823 at Long Reef and then later in 1826 at Manly Vale. He built a public road to connect his land to Sydney: it cost him £300 and had 13 bridges, reaching the loading place near present-day King Avenue. To complete the link to Sydney he needed a halfway house at North Harbour, and in March 1827 he petitioned Governor Darling, since
on his way to Sydney with the produce of his farm he is obliged to leave his horse tied to a tree to secret the Harness and leave his Cart exposed to any malicious or felonious person till his return thereto ...The place Memorialist is desirous to obtain is situated about two and a half miles from the North Head of Port Jackson and about one and a quarter miles from Cheers' Farm. 
His petition was successful and Jenkins was granted Allotment 29. For farmers on the peninsula, the obvious route now was the Jenkins road to Balgowlah and from there to Sydney, a shortcut devised long before Peter Ellery's punt at the Spit, or the Manly steamers. Jenkins's stone halfway house at the southern end of the road on Lot 29 of the village was located at what is now 3 King Avenue, one-time home of the industrialist Sir William Walkley.
The early surveyors did not see Manly as suitable for close urban settlement and the original land grants there, from 1810 onwards, were large rural blocks ranging from 30 to 380 acres (12 to 154 hectares) intended for farming only. The first 31 allotments in Balgowlah (subsequently increased to 48) ranged in size from around two to five acres (0.8 to two hectares), the normal size for rural domestic living at that time, when families would have to be largely self-sufficient in food. In 1850 the remaining land was sold very cheaply.
An industrious early resident of North Harbour was John Crane Parker, a market gardener who bought 20 acres (eight hectares) of land, Lot 79, for £36. The deed was executed on 12 April 1837.  By early 1838, he and his family had prospered:
Mr Parker has purchased twenty acres of land and rocks on the eastern side of the cove, part of which he has laid out very tastefully, his two sons having been occupied in the mean time in erecting a neat stone walled cottage with suitable outhouses, part of the walls of both being the solid rock, which has been hewn away in certain places, and allowed to remain in others to suit the taste or convenience of the proprietor. In short, the combination of mechanical force which Mr P's virtuous and respectable family have been able to bring to bear on their little property is one of the happiest we have witnessed in the colony, and the result, we are confident, within a very few years hence will be the transformation of their twenty acres of rocks and land, hitherto deemed good for nothing, into one of the best cultivated, most romantic, and most valuable properties of its size within a day's journey of the capital. Mr P's object has been to establish himself as a gardener and nurseryman, to supply the Sydney market with vegetables, fruit, fruit-trees, and shrubs. 
Henry Gilbert Smith purchased from Parker and his wife their 20 acres on 11 May 1853.  This land, with its magnificent view through the heads of Port Jackson, was later to become the site of Smith's private home, Fairlight. John Crane Parker died at North Harbour on 11 May 1854.
Water, firewood and shade
An early writer reveals Balgowlah as a township which:
affords large opportunities for picnic spots; a quarter of an hour's walk by way of Sydney Road, water, firewood and shade found in a hundred convenient spots. Wildflowers are abundant here and delightful harbour views surrounding. 
Whitehall, built in the 1870s, is thought to be the oldest surviving home in Balgowlah. Situated on the corner of White and Woodland streets, with a waterfall on its southern side and another creek running near the bottom of its garden, it enjoyed an ideal outlook over the harbour. It was occupied by Edmund Barton from 1888 to 1891, in the 1950s by Douglas Darby, member of the Legislative Assembly, and is now the Norwegian Sjomannskirken (Seamen's Church).
Brimbecomb's Dairy was close by on the other side of Woodland Street. The entrance to the old homestead, where many people recall collecting milk, is marked by a line of palm trees.
Until the 1920s Balgowlah was still fairly isolated, although Sydney Road, the main road to Manly, ran through it. The Balgowlah Progress Association built the Balgowlah Hall (architects, Kaberry and Chard) in 1922, which became the Balgowlah Theatre in 1927, a popular venue until 1985, when it was sold for demolition. A strip of shops became consolidated around the hall.
The Spit Bridge opens
Balgowlah became more developed in the 1920s and 1930s after the opening of the Spit Bridge and improvements to the tram service. Balgowlah Oval was opened in 1934. From 1945, the first pupils at what was to become Balgowlah Boys High School were taught in buildings known familiarly as 'Shacktown', but the school has long left behind its modest beginnings.
A house called The Lookout, near the corner of Boyle Street and Lauderdale Avenue, was a local landmark. Its property originally included a gardener's three-bedroom cottage and a tennis court. For many years The Lookout was owned and occupied by the Rayward family. During the Depression it provided a soup kitchen for local children, and it served as a private hospital for some years, complete with operating theatre. It subsequently became the Camden Grammar School, but later reverted to a residence.
As Balgowlah developed after the war the remaining dairy farms disappeared, and in 1959 the Totem Shopping Centre was built, one of the earliest in Australia. The Totem was based on the North American model, and contained 33 shops, a bowling alley and a huge Woolworths store. In 2007 the Totem site was redeveloped.
 State Records New South Wales, AO Reel 1216 Court of Claims Case 670, 19 March 1827
 New South Wales Land Titles Office, LTO SN63/170
 Colonist, 28 February 1838
 New South Wales Land Titles Office, LTO Book 26 no 675
 Unnamed source, quoted in 'Souvenir of the Balgowlah Sesquicentenary', 1991