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Barrenjoey, which means 'young kangaroo', is in the lands of the Garigal people. Midden sites have been found on the headland and nearby in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park – there are also axe-grinding grooves, cave art and rock engravings.
Barrenjoey is the most northern part of the Pittwater local government area, only reached from the water or by walking along the sand-spit which links it to Palm Beach. The headland, which commands the entrance to Broken Bay, the Hawkesbury River and Pittwater, serves as a reminder that during the nineteenth century most access to Pittwater was by ship and that Barrenjoey became a focal point during this period.
In the early colonial period, ships travelling to or from Sydney could easily be pirated and goods smuggled. In 1807, the US ship Jenny landed 1200 gallons of spirits in Pittwater that were taken overland to be illegally sold in Sydney. In 1843, to prevent smuggling and to control the port of Broken Bay, a customs house was established at the base of the headland on the western (Pittwater) shore. The customs house had its own wharf and became a communication centre, with the establishment of a telegraph connection in 1869, post office in 1871, and a school a year later.
The Barrenjoey isthmus was home to a few fishermen in the early part of the nineteenth century, and probably the earliest recorded European settler in the area was Pat Flynn, who was living there and growing vegetables in 1804.
For the safety of shipping, a signal lamp was first displayed on top of Barrenjoey headland in 1855. Beacons were displayed on the two Stewart Towers in 1868. The stone lighthouse, which stands today, was designed by colonial architect James Barnet, and began operating on 1 August 1881.
The distinctive features of the area were commented on by many visitors. As Francis Myers noted in 1885,
Elliott Island, lying almost in mid-channel, is also an artist's rock, so strangely shaped as to be capable of any comparison; a lion couchant, a headless sphinx, a remnant of some giant's work of the world's strong youth, worn down to vast undistinctness by wind and waves
In 1899 the school closed and in 1900 the customs house also closed. The light was tended by a keeper until 13 August 1932, when it was switched to automatic operation. Wild goats roamed the area in the 1920s and 1930s, and were hunted for milk or meat. In 1924, the Palm Beach golf club was established and Barrenjoey remained a popular camping area until the 1970s.
D Byrne, Aboriginal Sites on the Palm Beach Barrier, 1984
G and S Champion, Manly Warringah & Pittwater 1850–1880, Killarney Heights, NSW, 1998
Joan Lawrence, Pittwater Pictorial History, Kingsclear Books, Alexandria, NSW, 2006
Clive Lucas, Barrenjoey Lightstation, Pittwater, NSW, Conservation Management Plan, 1994
Manly Warringah Journal of Local History, vol 1 no 3, 1988
John Morcombe, 'The Light Fantastic', Manly Daily, 27 March 1999
Francis Myers, A Traveller's Tale: From Manly to the Hawkesbury, 1885
Jervis Sparks, Tales from Barrenjoey, Palm Beach, NSW, 1992
Jervis Sparks, The Red Light of Palm Beach, Maleny, Queensland, 2005
Josephine Tait, 'Broken Bay Customs House 1843–1900', Warringah History, 1988
Mary White, 'Barrenjoey's small slice of earth history', Manly Warringah Journal of Local History, vol 1 no 3, 1988