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Balgowlah (Balgowla or Bulgowlah), an Aboriginal word meaning north harbour, was mentioned as early as 1828 by Thomas Livingston Mitchell, and was included in his Map of the Nineteen Counties in 1834. However according to surveyor James Larmer's 1834–35 Field Book, the area designated 'Balgowla Township' had the Aboriginal name Jilling. Balgowlah Heights is the name given to the area south of Balgowlah which extends to Dobroyd Head. The land rises south, culminating in the mass of Dobroyd Head, with views from the Arabanoo and Crater Cove lookouts out over Sydney heads. The area forms part of the Hawkesbury sandstone region. There are several secluded east-facing beaches – Forty Baskets Beach, Reef Beach and Washaway Beach – and a lighthouse on the extremity of Grotto Point.
The earliest inhabitants
In January 1788 Arthur Phillip noted Aboriginal people living in caves at what is now Wellings Reserve, and there are a number of Aboriginal sites recorded in the Balgowlah Heights area, including an archaeological deposit (midden) at Reef Beach, and hand stencils in a rock shelter near Forty Baskets Beach. The midden was partly eroded by the high tide and storm in May 1974, when human skeletal material was exposed. Grotto Point was first named by the exploratory expedition of Captain Hunter and Lieutenant Bradley, who moored there on the night of 28 January 1788.
The first land grants
The earliest land grant was to EA Hely in 1834, 20 acres (eight hectares) surrounding and including Reef Beach. John Whealey was also granted 20 acres to the west of this in 1856, and in 1887 subdivisions of nine acres (3.6 hectares) were sold to Mr Davison and Mr R Lewers. It is thought that St Helena, a two-storey stone and brick house, was the earliest house in the Forty Baskets Beach area, and may have dated from as early as 1887. By the 1930s however it was uninhabited and it was demolished in 1938.
On 21 August 1857, the day after the wreck of the Dunbar at the Gap, South Head, Daniel and William Whealey, sons of John Whealey, found the ship's Bible washed up on Forty Baskets Beach. (The Bible found its way to St Stephen's Church of England, Newtown.)
From the 1870s, Balgowlah Heights was part of Sydney's defences. The Commonwealth land at Dobroyd Head was designated Reserve no 6 for harbour defences in 1871. Some of this land remained undeveloped and is now parkland or reserve.
Grotto Point Recreation Reserve, under the care and control of Manly Council, was dedicated as a public reserve in 1912. Part of the Gledhill Park Reserve located at Reef Beach was dedicated in 1903 and the rest in 1923. Both reserves were transferred to the state of New South Wales for inclusion in the Sydney Harbour National Park in 1975. Land at Dobroyd Point reserve was occupied by the military during World War II, but the army had left by November 1944.
Much of Balgowlah Heights was virgin bushland until into the 1930s. Land to the east of Balgowlah Heights was subdivided in 1918 as the Rosyth Estate, with streets named after World War I admirals such as Jellicoe and Beatty. There was further subdivision in 1922 as part of Kemp's Estate. A colony of huts was established at Crater Cove by Bob Cadwell, Fred Williams and others, who lived permanently there during the Depression. The occupants were protective of the local vegetation – Williams died there in 1940 after fighting a bushfire.
Following requests from the Balgowlah Heights and Clontarf Progress Association, a small school was established in 1933. The sole teacher at Balgowlah Heights School was Annie Williams, succeeded in 1939 by Nellie Farms.  With suburban development after World War II the school increased greatly in size. Former pupils include two surfing world champions – Pam Burridge and Layne Beachley.
From bush to backyard
By the 1940s the dairy at the corner of Beach and Woodland streets was one of the last reminders of the area's earlier pastoral surroundings. Within 10 years the dairy had been swept away, together with the bushland fronting Condamine Street, to make way for housing – most development east of Condamine Street is postwar. Much of the housing in Tutus, New, Beatty, Jellicoe, Geddes and Fisher streets was begun in 1951.
With the original bush and open space disappearing, Balgowlah Heights needed dedicated green space. Bareena Park bowling green was constructed in 1954 and Gledhill Park was dedicated in 1955. Tania Park was also completed, named after the beauty queen Tania Verstak. Other outdoor pastimes flourished too – Reef Beach made headlines in the 1990s as the scene of controversy over nudists' rights.