Dictionary of Sydney

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Camp Cove

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Camp Cove

Camp Cove is a bay on the southern side of Port Jackson (Sydney harbour), lying within the village and suburb of Watsons Bay and adjacent to Inner South Head.

Protected and with clean water, Camp Cove was very important to Aboriginal life in the area. It served as a sheltered bay for shipping throughout the nineteenth century and today it is a popular area for visitors.

Aboriginal inhabitants

Behind Camp Cove lay a freshwater pond. Sometimes called the Duck Pond or the Wild Duck Pool, [1] it was formed by a spring where a small park now sits. The combination of fresh water and easy access to the waters of Port Jackson made this location important to the Cadigal (Gadigal) people who occupied the southern reaches of the harbour. They made intensive use of Sydney harbour both for fishing and for collecting shellfish, and Camp Cove was a great launching place for canoes and also a camp site base. There have been some suggestions that the Cadigal people take their name from 'Cadi' and that this was the Aboriginal name given to Camp Cove, but there seems no strong evidence for such an ambitious claim.

A small rock shelter holds some undated shell midden deposits. A local resident who died in 1948 referred to an Aboriginal burial place in a sandy area a little to the south of the steps down to Camp Cove at the end of Cliff Street, and mentioned one body being seven feet long. [2] Just behind Camp Cove, in Victoria Street, two skeletons were discovered in 1963. [3] A police doctor identified these as the remains of Aboriginal people, and several hundred years old, but no archaeological investigation seems to have taken place. The skeletons were described as perfectly preserved, and each skeleton had been laid on its back.

Europeans arrive

Camp Cove is important to the history of European settlement in Australia as the probable site of the first landfall in Sydney harbour. On 21 January 1788 Captain Phillip sailed from Botany Bay to explore the potential of Port Jackson. The exploration was described by Jacob Nagle in his journal. After the expedition had sailed around the north side of Port Jackson he noted:

It coming on dark, we landed on a beach on the south side and there pitched our tents for the night. This was called Camp Cove. The marines were put on their posts. The sailors were variously employed, some kindling fires and some shooting the seine for fish, others getting out utensils for cooking. By the time we got our suppers, was late in the night, and by four in the morning we had everything in the boats again. [4]

The story of the camp, giving its origin to the name Camp Cove, sounds realistic and is taken to imply the first landfall by Europeans within Port Jackson. [5] With arrival in the dark and departure before dawn, there would have been no opportunity to explore the hinterland. As Camp Cove had a freshwater spring behind the beach, it proved a suitable place for a night's camp. The next day, Nagle fished while Phillip and his party went ashore at what was to be named Sydney Cove.

First Fleet visitors

Camp Cove was often revisited by the officers of the First Fleet. The first such visit was by Hunter and Bradley, just two days after the settlement of Sydney Cove on the 26 January 1788, when they encountered an Aboriginal group. [6] In his journal, Bradley remarked:

In course of the forenoon we went to a Cove within the Inner South Head (Camp Cove) where we were cordially received by three men, who left their women sitting in a canoe at the other end of the beach [7]

Later excursions in the area were less cordial however. In March 1788, David Collins noted that relations between the original inhabitants of Camp Cove and members of the First Fleet had deteriorated. Escaped convicts and runaway sailors were deemed to be the cause of this conflict. According to Collins:

the governor … on landing at Camp Cove, found the natives there who had before frequently come up to him with confidence, unusually shy, and seemingly afraid of him and his party; and one, who after much invitation did venture to approach, pointed to some marks upon his shoulders, making signs they were caused by blows given with a stick … the man had been beaten by some of our stragglers. [8]

On 14 July 1788 Bradley again visited Camp Cove. His journal entry for that day depicts a pitiful scene of hostility, fear, starvation and ill health.

On our return we went into Camp Cove where we found a man and two children who appear'd to be starving. We gave them salt beef which eagerly took and eat immediately [sic] whilst the boats remained in the Cove, the man went into the woods and brought in a root which he roasted, beat it with a stone which he frequently wet with his mouth and when it was properly prepared he gave it to the children to eat … We saw several women fishing near the Cove but they would not land. [9]

Later accounts

The smallpox outbreak of 1789 brought a definitive break to Aboriginal settlement at South Head by the Cadigal people. Half a century later however, the area had been inhabited by Aboriginal people from northern Sydney. In 1844 Angas and Miles observed: [10]

about a dozen natives of the Sydney and Broken Bay tribes were encamped among the bushes on the margin of a small fresh-water lake close to Camp Cove.

Here they met 'Queen Gooseberry', widow of Bungaree, who had been a familiar figure in Sydney at the time of the First Fleet. In his reminiscences Angas also describes:

natives spearing fish by torch-light, in the sheltered bays around Camp Cove, and in Camp Cove itself. They wade into the water until about knee deep, each man brandishing a flaming torch. Made of inflammable bark this attracts the fish, and with their four-pronged spears they strike them with wonderful dexterity.

Maritime suburb

Watsons Bay began to take over importance from Camp Cove following the establishment in 1790 of the lookout at Outer South Head, and from 1855, the settlement of Watsons Bay extended to the land behind Camp Cove.

The calm water and ease of launching small boats meant that the northern end of Camp Cove was used as a base by the water police after they were relocated from Garden Island in 1840, and also by some of the Watsons Bay pilots. The foundations of the wharf used by the water police from 1842 now end in a tidal gauge. The water police had both residences and offices here. A later building constructed at the end of the nineteenth century for military personnel, and now called the constable's cottage, occupies the same site. Following the wreck of the Dunbar nearby in 1857, a lifeboat shed was erected at the northern end of Camp Cove, and volunteers provided a rescue service, with a second boatshed for the artillery in the 1890s.

At the southern end of Camp Cove stands the house built by the Russian scientist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay between 1879 and 1881, as the base for a marine biological research station. Despite the excellent location for such a venture, the house was taken over in 1885 for military purposes and became the property of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1908. It was mainly used as officers' residential quarters until 2001, after which it was handed to the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, and it has since seen adaptive re-use as a private residence.

Also at the southern end of Camp Cove, the small promontory of Green Point was a major marker for early navigation into Port Jackson, and in the 1850s a navigation obelisk was erected there. The area was also referred to as Laings Point after it formed part of the land assigned to Edward Laing in 1793 (although Laing never occupied the site himself). Fortifications were in use there in the 1870s and 1880s, and a weatherboard cottage for military personnel was built on Green Point between 1892 and 1900. Green Point was also the southern end of the cross-harbour boom net extending 1,480 metres to Georges Head, which was built in 1942 and caught one of the Japanese midget submarines that entered Sydney Harbour in May 1942.

Today, Camp Cove beach is a major tourist destination and the access point for Inner South Head, part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.


[1] J Jervis, edited by V Kelly, The History of Woollahra, Sydney, Municipal Council of Woollahra, Sydney, 1960, p 10

[2] 'Many Memories of Watsons Bay', Wentworth Courier, 29 October 1986, pp 13, 104; Aboriginal History project Woollahra, 'An introduction to the Aboriginal history of the Woollahra Local Government Area', unpublished manuscript, Woollahra Library, p 15

[3] Daily Telegraph, 28 August 1963, p 5

[4] JC Dann (ed), The Nagle Journal: a diary in the life of Jacob Nagle, sailor, from the year 1775 to 1841, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, New York, 1988, pp 92–4

[5] B Crosson, 'Camp Cove or not Camp Cove', Outlook: Woollahra History and Heritage Society Newsletter 50, 2000, pp 6–9

[6] J Cobley, Sydney Cove 1788, Hodder, London, 1962

[7] W Bradley, A voyage to New South Wales, the journal of Lieutenant William Bradley RN of HMS Sirius 1786–1792, Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1969, p 66

[8] D Collins, An account of the English Colony in New South Wales, vol 1, B Fletcher (ed), Royal Australian Historical Society, Sydney, 1975, pp 18–19

[9] W Bradley, A voyage to New South Wales, the journal of Lieutenant William Bradley RN of HMS Sirius 1786–1792, Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, Sydney, 1969, p 117

[10] GF Angas, Savage life and scenes in Australia and New Zealand, 2 vols, Smith Elder, London, 1847, vol 2, pp 200, 202, 273