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The Bantry Bay Explosives Magazine Complex is located in Garigal National Park and managed by the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change (Parks and Wildlife Group). The complex occupies about 14 hectares on both the eastern and western shores of the bay, which is the most northerly part of Middle Harbour, and consists of numerous buildings, seawalls, tram lines, wharves, slipways, tracks, dams and other remains above ground, as well as a number of archaeological sites. It is an important but little-known part of the cultural and natural heritage of Sydney.
Bantry Bay is part of the traditional lands of the Guringai/Gai-Mariagal Aboriginal people, who made extensive use of the area for tens of thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. Numerous rock engraving sites and shell middens, some at least 4,600 years old, can still be seen in the area as tangible evidence of this Aboriginal past. It is likely that Aboriginal people continued to use the area for fishing and shellfish collecting until they were gradually dispossessed by European settlement and succumbed to disease.
European use of this area in the early 1800s initially focused on lime-burning, fishing, oyster-gathering and woodcutting. The pioneer of the area, Constable and Crown Lands Ranger James French (after whom Frenchs Forest is named), started the local timber industry around 1856. He built his sawmill on the hill above Bantry Bay, and made a track for his bullock team to drag the wood down to a wharf, where it was shipped to Sydney. This 'Old Bullock Track' remains today, with cobbles, culverts and the remains of a stone bridge visible amid the bushland.
The bay itself is named after Bantry Bay in County Cork, Ireland. Most of the streets in neighbouring Killarney Heights, like the suburb itself, are also named after places in Ireland.
From pleasure ground to harbour defence site
In 1879 the Bantry Bay area was set aside for public recreation as Sydneysiders started seeking daytrips away from the growing city congestion. By the start of the 1900s, Bantry Bay had been turned into a popular pleasure ground, complete with dance hall, picnic ground, a dining room and several summer houses. Operated by John Dunbar Nelson of the Balmain New Ferry Company, the area was promoted as a secluded, scenic and romantic retreat for the residents of an increasingly urban Sydney. The stone footings of the dance hall can still be seen between the jetty and the slipway on the bay's eastern shore.
Seclusion was also an important aspect for the area's subsequent use. In 1906 it was chosen as the site for a government-operated explosives magazine. The land was cheap and isolated, and it was believed the U-shape of the valley would help contain and divert any accidental explosions. Construction accelerated after the outbreak of World War I and by 1915 the site was ready to store up to 50 tonnes of explosives.
The magazines were operated on a commercial basis by the state government and used for receiving, storing and distributing explosives for civil and commercial purposes. They supplied explosives for large public works in the 1930s – including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, underground tunnels and railways in the city, and the Newcastle highway – as well as serving an expanding mining industry.
The complex was operated by the Allied forces during World War II. It comprised various magazines where the explosives were received, sorted and stored as well as an office, two jetties, numerous sheds and testing laboratories. Up to 18 men were regularly employed there, but until residential buildings were constructed on the eastern side of the bay in the mid-1940s, officers had their quarters on the hulk Alacrity, moored nearby. Bantry Bay's isolation led to a high degree of camaraderie and pride among the workers, reflected in the high standard of safety and maintenance of the complex.
In the years after World War II increasing funds had to be allocated to repair and maintain the magazines and, with revenue falling, their future began to look grim. The final straw was changing technology – which led to transportation of explosives by train rather than water – and in May 1974 the magazines were closed.
An isolated bush retreat
Bantry Bay was incorporated into Davidson State Recreation Area in 1974, which became part of Garigal National Park in 1992. The main magazine complex on the bay's western foreshore has been closed to the public for many years due to contamination by lead, zinc and possibly arsenic, as well as its difficult access, the threat of vandalism, and the lack of a clear plan for the site.
The National Parks Group of the Department of Environment and Climate Change has developed a small walk-in picnic area on the eastern foreshore, but this site is little known and receives only limited use. The bay itself is, at times, a popular destination and refuge for boats. But the area's closure, difficult access and limited public knowledge have combined to maintain the explosives magazines' seclusion and isolation. Bantry Bay remains a largely unknown part of Sydney, even though it is right in people's backyards.