Dictionary of Sydney

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Commodore Heights

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Commodore Heights

Commodore Heights was the name given in 1868 to the elevated land at the northern tip of the Lambert Peninsula which separates Pittwater from Cowan Creek. The area now embraces one of Australia's iconic places, the West Head Lookout with its panoramic views over Broken Bay and Pittwater. However, while now part of Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, it was excluded from the Chase when the park was established in 1894 and was not fully incorporated until 1964.

The area, and, indeed, the entire Lambert Peninsula, was named in honour of Commodore Rowley Lambert RN, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's Australia Station from 1867 to 1870. Challenger Head, on the western side of the peninsula was named after HMS Challenger, the Commodore's flagship. All three names first appeared on an Admiralty map published in 1868 and based on a survey made in 1867 by Lieutenant John Thomas Ewing Gowlland RN and Midshipman George RN.

Lawson's grant

Prior to the adoption of the new name, Commodore Heights had been more generally known as Lawson's Grant, since it comprised a 640-acre (256-hectare) Crown grant to William Lawson, a leading pastoralist best known for his participation in the first European crossing of the Blue Mountains. Although the land had originally been selected by a young Irish immigrant, Alexander Stuart Waddell, in 1831, he left the colony before taking up the grant, and in 1834 it was instead granted to Lawson who claimed that he had purchased it from Waddell. Afterwards, it remained in the possession of the Lawson family for 90 years, though no use was ever made of it.

Following William Lawson's death in 1850, the land passed to his daughter, Rebecca Bettington and, when she died in 1882 it, together with her other estates, went to her five children who, acting through trustees, quickly began to sell off much of their inheritance. However, Commodore Heights proved difficult to dispose of, especially after the establishment of Ku-ring-gai Chase, so in 1911 it was offered to the Chase Trust for £1 per acre. Unfortunately, the Trust had no power to make the purchase and the Department of Lands declined the offer.

It was not until after World War I that the last surviving trustee of Lawson's estate, Robert Chevin Ghest, managed to rid the family of Commodore Heights, and although the formal transfer of ownership did not take place until 1924, the land passed into the hands of John Miller, a surveyor, and Rosa Ellen Jane Mobbs, wife of auctioneer George Mobbs, who agreed to purchase it for £1500.

Development efforts

Miller and Mobbs's plan was to develop Commodore Heights, subdividing parts of it for waterfront sites where purchasers could erect their weekend villas. There was, however, a major problem of access. Commodore Heights, while accessible by water, could not be reached by land except through Ku-ring-gai Chase, where there was no road. Early in 1919 Miller, without permission, began to construct a road through the Chase towards Commodore Heights, but when the Chase trustees learned of this they quickly put a stop to it. Nevertheless, Miller did not abandon his plans and in the early 1920s he offered a parcel of land at Flint & Steel Bay to New Zealand-born Eardley Henderson 'Mac' McGaw, on condition that he build a house there which would serve to attract other investors. McGaw leapt at the opportunity and set to work, using local materials as far as possible and bringing in the rest by rowing boat from Brooklyn.

In 1925 another surveyor, Sydney William Stokes, joined the development syndicate and soon took over its management. Stokes campaigned hard for the dedication of a public road from Terrey Hills to Commodore Heights, and, despite opposition from the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust, he eventually persuaded the Lands Department and Warringah Shire Council to agree to his proposal. In 1927 land was resumed from the Chase and road construction began.

Flushed with success, Stokes, acting through Miller and Mobbs, applied to have Commodore Heights converted to Torrens Title in order to ease the process of subdivision. When this took place in late 1928, Stokes became the proprietor of the entire estate apart from three small lots at Flint & Steel Bay, one of which went jointly to Miller and Mobbs, one to Stokes' wife, Louisa, and the other to 'Mac' McGaw who, by that stage, had built a serviceable house which he and his wife, Minna, were intending to run as a guest house.

Stokes, however, had other ideas for his portion. Almost immediately after gaining title to almost all of Commodore Heights he offered it for sale, promoting it as being 'admirably suited for Development into a select Waterside Resort and Country Club.' Unfortunately for him, no purchaser came forward. In 1929 a second attempt at selling portrayed what Stokes now called the Riviera Estate as an opportunity for someone to make £1 million out of it 'by correct handling.' The result, however, was the same.

Thinking that a new approach was needed, in 1931 Stokes and others established the Riviera Co-operative Country Club which proposed to subdivide the estate into 250 residential lots plus a golf course, casino and other resort facilities. A glowing prospectus was issued for 'The Beautiful Riviera' but, in a country still in the grip of the Great Depression, no investors were to be found, apart from three individuals who purchased small plots at Flint & Steel Bay where the McGaw house was still growing, as it was to continue to grow for the next 30 years.

Eventually, Stokes had to concede defeat. He defaulted on his mortgage and left the problem in the hands of his mortgagees who, in April 1939, managed to sell the land to a Sydney real estate agent who quickly onsold it to a recently formed company, Tumbala Pty Ltd. Less than five months later, just days before the onset of World War II, the New South Wales Government resumed the whole of Commodore Heights, ostensibly for the purpose of public recreation. The owners claimed significant amounts in compensation, though it is not clear how much they received.

Defence of Sydney

The resumption of the land at that time had more to do with defence than with public recreation and the state government immediately ceded control of the West Head area to the Commonwealth government, which established two gun emplacements at the foot of the cliff. Searchlights were mounted and observation posts built at various points, while an anti-submarine net was stretched across the mouth of Pittwater from Commodore Heights to Barrenjoey. During the war, about 90 men of the 18th Militia Battalion were stationed at West Head, housed in quarters near the present Lookout.

At Flint & Steel Bay the Navy was in charge. Mines were laid in Broken Bay and Mac and Minna McGaw's guest house business was put on hold for the duration, though they were frequently visited by Army and Navy personnel stationed in the area.

Public recreation at last

When the war ended, the Commonwealth government had no further interest in West Head and it was transferred back to the New South Wales government which then brought the whole of Commodore Heights, except for a small portion at West Head used as a camp by the National Fitness Council, into Ku-ring-gai Chase. When the National Fitness Council withdrew from the area in 1964, that portion too was incorporated into the park.

Meanwhile, down at Flint & Steel Bay, Mac and Minna McGaw re-established their guest house and Mac was employed as a park ranger. Following Minna's death in 1959, Mac married an old friend, Beatrice Fullagar, and they continued to live at 'Flint & Steel', the name by which their house was known. However, in 1968, after the recently established National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) took over management of the park from the Ku-ring-gai Chase Trust, the McGaws were ordered to quit the area and remove the structures. Mac protested and the matter was still unresolved in 1971 when 'Flint & Steel' was mysteriously destroyed by fire. The ruins are still evident today.

Over the past 40 years, the NPWS has improved visitor facilities at Commodore Heights, constructing walking tracks, picnic areas and lookouts. The West Head Road, which even into the 1960s was in a poor state and subject to washouts, is now a popular tourist road, used by many tens of thousand of visitors each year. The most popular destinations are the West Head Lookout and Resolute Picnic Area, where tracks lead off to Resolute Beach and West Head Beach, and to Aboriginal heritage sites.

Commodore Heights today is a far cry from the isolated, inaccessible place that Alexander Stuart Waddell selected for a farm and which was granted to William Lawson, but, thankfully, it did not suffer the fate of so many other iconic places that have been spoiled by rampant development. It remains as one of the jewels in the national crown, for all to enjoy.


Tony Dawson, The Commodore and the Pastoralist – the story of Commodore Heights and West Head at Broken Bay, Manly Warringah & Pittwater Historical Society, 2011