Dictionary of Sydney

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Dee Why

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Dee Why

Dee Why is a predominantly residential beachside suburb in the local government area of Warringah, with substantial commercial areas along and near Pittwater Road. Dee Why is bounded generally by Lynwood Avenue, Campbell Avenue and South Creek Road in the north, the Tasman Sea in the east, generally by Headland Road in the south and Victor Road to the west. One of Warringah's most densely populated suburbs, with a high proportion of home units, Dee Why nevertheless has some precious green oases in the form of the Dee Why Lagoon Wildlife Refuge and Stony Range Botanic Garden.

Aboriginal occupation

Dee Why is part of the traditional land of the Aboriginal people some have come to call the Guringai. This name has been in common usage but recent research indicates that this is not the name the local people used themselves and was introduced in the 1890s. They were more likely to be Dharug people. Evidence of the way of life of Aboriginal people can still be found in the rock engravings and other sites which are close to Dee Why, in particular at Cromer and Beacon Hill.

Why Dee Why?

One of the most commonly asked questions about Dee Why is how did it get its name? The answer is that no-one really knows. Many theories abound, some more plausible than others, including 'DY' – representing the shape of the lagoon – or deewae – being the sound made by a small water bird living in the wetlands. Surveyor James Meehan recorded the first written reference to the name Dee Why in his field book in September 1815, when he noted his location as 'Dy Beach'. Dy, as noted by Meehan, may possibly have come from the Aboriginal name for the area. In fact he was standing at Freshwater Beach at the time he jotted 'Dy' in his field book, not at present-day Dee Why Beach. [1]

William Cossar had been granted 500 acres (202 hectares) at Long Reef, which was measured by Meehan in 1815 and confirmed in 1819. Cossar was also listed to receive a further 200 acres (90 hectares) – again measured by Meehan – but this time Meehan noted the 200 acres as 'From Long Reef Dy Lagoon'. It would appear from this notation that when he was surveying in the early nineteenth century Meehan used the term Dy to cover quite a large geographic area, from Freshwater Beach to Dee Why Lagoon, whereas now the name is restricted to the present suburb.

Transcribed as DY, later expanding to become Deewhy, the name eventually became the separate words Dee Why as it is today. Meehan could never have known how much debate and correspondence to the local newspaper those two letters D and Y would generate.

The Jenkins family and the Salvation Army

Matthew Bacon purchased William Cossar's grants and by 1825 James Jenkins owned the land. [2] James Jenkins arrived in Sydney in 1802 having been transported for stealing sheep. Jenkins's eldest child Elizabeth inherited land from family friend Alexander McDonald at North Narrabeen in 1821. By 1825 James and his daughter owned all the foreshore land from Mona Vale down to Dee Why. Eventually the Jenkins family owned around 1,800 acres (728 hectares) on the northern beaches.

Elizabeth Jenkins was greatly impressed by the work of the Salvation Army in Sydney, and in 1885 gave them 30 acres (12 hectares) at Narrabeen Lagoon. She went on to give them more land at Dee Why and donated £400, so that a Home of Rest could be built for Salvation Army officers in need of recuperation. [3] Now called Pacific Lodge, this building, opened by General Booth in 1892, still stands on the hill behind Dee Why Library and is a hidden treasure in the heart of Dee Why.

One of the myths surrounding Elizabeth Jenkins and her relationship with the Salvation Army is that she donated all of her land to them. In reality, apart from the land already mentioned, Elizabeth entered into a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Salvation Army. The collapse of the Australian Banking Company in 1892 left Elizabeth feeling potentially liable as a shareholder. An intensely religious person worried by her position in relation to the bank, she decided to transfer her land and property to the Salvation Army in return for an annuity paid to her and her family by the army.

Elizabeth never married and died in 1900. After her death, her nephew Phillip challenged the arrangements Elizabeth had made in her will, questioning both her mental health and the influence the Salvation Army held over her. Probate was finally granted to the Salvation Army and the annuity ended with Phillip's death in 1931. [4]

After Elizabeth's death, the Salvation Army owned much of the present day area of Dee Why. This land acquired from Elizabeth was used to further the community work undertaken by the Army. An industrial farm and Boys' Home occupied the flat land to the east of Pittwater Road, and a Home for Little Girls was built to the south of Dee Why Lagoon. [5]

Eventually the Salvation Army concluded that it owned too much land in the area. The proceeds of the sale of the Dee Why land could be put to good use to expand community work in other parts of Sydney. The subdivision of the Dee Why Salvation Army land holdings began after 1911, and with subdivision by other landowners around the same time, the town centre of Dee Why began to develop.

Dee Why develops

Land in the Dee Why area had originally been granted to John Harper, James Wheeler and John Redman, as well as to James Jenkins. Ownership by the Salvation Army of the Jenkins land and lack of transport meant that Dee Why was slow to develop. Availability of transport has always been a limiting factor in the development of the Warringah area. Tramlines were extended from Manly to Brookvale in 1910 and further north to Collaroy in 1912. The tramline reached Narrabeen in 1913 and this was as far as the service ever reached.

In 1911 there were only five dwellings in Dee Why with a population of 62, which reflected the Salvation Army's ownership and use of the land. With the Salvation Army releasing land for sale and the transport links to the area improving, Dee Why was set to grow. Land sales promoted the beautiful natural environment with its carefree healthy lifestyle and the potential for weekenders and holiday homes. [6] A postal service was established in 1915, by which time there were about 125 houses in the area. Many of these houses were used as weekenders and holiday houses. [7]

Signs of permanent settlement in Dee Why were firmly established by 1922, with the opening of Dee Why Public School, which has the black swan as its emblem. It had taken local residents and Warringah Council since 1917 to bring about the establishment of the school. The Department of Public Instruction bought land from the Salvation Army in 1918. The proposal by the Salvation Army to establish a Boys' Home hastened the decision by the department to start building the school. [8] St Kevin's Catholic Primary School opened in 1925, and Fisher Road Special School in 1953. St Luke's Girls' College opened in the 1960s and in 1993 St Luke's Girls' College, Peninsula Anglican Boys' School and Roseby Preparatory School combined to become St Luke's Grammar School.

One famous resident of Dee Why was Edward (later Sir Edward) Hallstrom, who in 1923, after studying refrigeration and patents in the field, experimented in his backyard shed and developed the Icy Ball absorption refrigerator which ran on kerosene. The Silent Knight upright models, run on gas or electricity, were also developed at his home at Dee Why. When the business expanded he moved production to Willoughby and relocated the family to Northbridge. [9]

Land sales were given a boost when the Spit and Roseville bridges were opened in 1924 providing improved access to Warringah. Local residents petitioned for a hotel in Dee Why in 1929, although a covenant existed which stipulated that no liquor should be manufactured or sold on land which was previously owned by the Salvation Army. The residents were successful and the Dee Why Hotel opened in 1930. In 2007, the original Dee Why Hotel building was demolished and a new hotel was developed on the site.

The Dee Why-Collaroy Sub Branch of the Returned Services League (RSL) was formed in July 1937 in a hired room on the corner of Pittwater Road and Dee Why Parade. In October of that year meetings were held further north along Pittwater Road in Luana Hall. By 1948 the sub branch had finalised the purchase of Luana Hall for a sum of £6,000. The licensed club known as Dee Why RSL came into official existence in 1947.

World War II saw a flurry of activity as the army moved to occupy strategic areas along the coast, and residents mobilised to assist the war effort. Air raid shelters were built and barbed wire entanglements and concrete tank traps fortified Dee Why Beach and Lagoon against possible invasion.

The population of Dee Why grew dramatically after the war, and building activity was rapid. In 1947 there were 5,940 people living in 1,631 dwellings in Dee Why, and by 1956 the population had grown to 11,770.

One of the first industrial enterprises to be established in the Dee Why area was the Top Dog Men's Wear Production Centre, which began operations in 1951 at 800 Pittwater Road. Many migrant women, particularly Italians, who had come to the area after the war, were employed as machinists in the factory.


Not generally noted for its architecture, Dee Why nevertheless boasts two Sulman Award-winning buildings. Top Dog Men's Wear Production Centre won the Sulman Award for Architecture in 1950. Of the original building only the facade remains today. The Dee Why Library building, designed by Col Madigan, won the Sulman Award in 1966. Dee Why became the centre of local government in Warringah with the relocation in 1973 of the council from Brookvale to another Col Madigan-designed building, the Civic Centre, on the land adjacent to the library.

Multi-storey flat and unit developments began to spring up in Dee Why during the 1960s and 1970s, and Dee Why has a higher proportion of residents living in medium density housing than other suburbs in Warringah. The beachfront and the shopping strip opposite the beach have been revitalised with new landscaping and a variety of cafes and restaurants along The Strand.

The town centre of Dee Why is yet to undergo the same transformation. In 2008 there was a proposal to redevelop the town centre of Dee Why by building a series of residential towers. The proposed height would facilitate open space at the base of the towers. This site, known as Dee Why Square, was originally developed in 1963 by Westfield with McDowells (later Waltons) as the flagship department store of the centre. The shopping area of Dee Why has always struggled to compete with Warringah Mall, which also opened in 1963 in the neighbouring suburb of Brookvale.

The diverse nature of the community in Dee Why is reflected in the diversity of the built environment. Shops include Italian restaurants and delicatessens, Vietnamese bread shops, Asian and Indian supermarkets. A broad range of churches can be found in Dee Why, including Tongan congregations, a mosque, a Jehovah's Witness Hall as well as the continuing presence of the Salvation Army. Dee Why is home to the largest Tibetan community in Australia. [10] The 2006 Census showed that Dee Why differs from the rest of Warringah in having a larger proportion of people born overseas and from a non-English speaking background. The dominant non-English speaking country of birth is China.

Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club

The Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club, with the black swan as its emblem, came into being in 1912 after the Salvation Army had relinquished ownership of the beach. Like other surf clubs, the Dee Why Surf Life Saving Club was active in promoting and improving its local area. The Norfolk Island pines along the beachfront were planted at this time by surf club members. The club was also responsible for building the rock pool at the southern end of Dee Why Beach. Work began on the pool in 1915 and Warringah Council helped with its enlargement and modernisation in 1919. A war memorial and flagpole were built on the beachfront reserve by the club to commemorate those members who served in World War I. [11]

Dee Why Lagoon and the black swan

Natural forces have taken their toll on Dee Why Lagoon which once boasted sand dunes about twenty metres high. The Dandenong gale of 1876 resulted in much of the sand from the dunes being blown into the lagoon. [12] Once the home of large numbers of black swans, the lagoon has, in recent decades, also been adversely affected by urban development in its catchment area, leading to a more rapid rate of siltation than would occur naturally. The wetlands surrounding the lagoon, once considered useless swamp, have been reclaimed. As a result, conditions in the lagoon are no longer ideal for the growth of sea grasses on which the black swans feed.

The black swan became the symbol of Dee Why as the suburb developed, appearing on the emblems of many local organisations, including Dee Why Public School. Sandstone carvings of the black swan mark the boundaries of the suburb on the southern and northern approaches along Pittwater Road. Today the black swan is a rarity, and the presence of a family of black swans on Dee Why Lagoon in recent years caused great excitement in the local community. The lagoon was recognised for its environmental value in 1973, when it was proclaimed as a wildlife refuge by the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service. The refuge has since been placed on the Register of the National Estate.

Stony Range Botanic Gardens

Another of Dee Why's hidden treasures is the area now occupied by Stony Range Botanic Gardens, which was gazetted as a public recreation reserve in 1886. The name Stony Range was in use as far back as 1867 when a traveller documented the trip from Manly to Pittwater:

After crossing the Manly Beach lagoon there is a rather rugged bit of road over what is termed the Stony Range; and beyond some severe undulations, there is little to interest the traveller until he arrives at Dewi Lagoon. [13]

During the 1920s the Deewhy Improvement League with their slogan 'Amusement for Improvement' held annual carnivals on the beachfront at Dee Why, from Boxing Day to New Year's Day. Attractions included a Grand Procession on Boxing Day, 'a popular man competition to determine the King of Deewhy', baby show, tug-of-war, sand modelling, great illumination display, continental concerts, community singing and 'all the latest carnival attractions'. Stony Range Reserve was the beneficiary of some of the funds raised. Other projects to benefit were the Dee Why sea wall, the rock pool, Dee Why Park, dressing sheds and shelter kiosks. [14]

A letter from Warringah Council to the Deewhy Improvement League in August 1928 indicated that council had received a request from the Pride of Warringah Lodge (Ancient Order of Druids) for sole use of Stony Range. The lodge wanted to use the reserve as a sports ground for the use of the Juvenile Lodge and other children in the district. The plan, to level the site for cricket and football, [15] did not proceed, and Stony Range was developed as a flora reserve from 1957 onwards and officially opened in 1961. Today Stony Range Botanic Garden is a tribute to the many volunteers who have worked to develop and maintain the 3.3 hectares of Hawkesbury sandstone, which is home to both indigenous local flora as well as species from all over Australia.

En plein air – art in Dee Why

In 1918 James Muir Auld settled at Dee Why near fellow artists Roland Wakelin and Lawson Balfour. Dee Why at that time was mainly bush, and the environment suited Post-Impressionist plein air painting. [16] Other artists settled in the hills around Delmar and Pacific Parades including GK Townshend, Frederick and Constance Tregear, and cartoonists Mick Paul and Cecil Hartt. [17] The etcher Bruce Robertson lived on the western side of Pittwater Road on the hill leading to Narraweena.

Musicians also congregated around this part of Dee Why in the first half of the 1900s. Frank Hutchens, pianist, teacher and composer, was probably attracted to the area by Henri Verbrugghen who was foundation director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Keith Barry, medical practitioner, musician and journalist, and John Robinson, trumpet player with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, both lived here for a time. [18]

Dee Why today

Dee Why today is a suburb of contradictions. Modern luxury apartment blocks sit alongside the red brick three-storey flats of the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the most expensive real estate in Warringah sits alongside some of the cheapest.

Dee Why has a busy, cosmopolitan atmosphere. The beachfront has been redeveloped and is a popular place for tourists and locals alike, while the town centre is run down and awaiting redevelopment.

Letter writers to the local newspaper often bemoan the state of the built environment of Dee Why, yet artists were once drawn to the place for its light and beauty. Dee Why Beach, with the lagoon behind and Stony Range Botanic Garden, offer refuge in a busy suburb and still give a glimpse of the qualities which drew artists to Dee Why a century ago.


[1] Tony Dawson, James Meehan: a most excellent surveyor, Crossing Press, Sydney, 2004, p 68

[2] Shelagh Champion and Manly George, Warringah and Pittwater 1788–1850, Sydney, 1997, p 35

[3] DK Muir, The Jenkins Road: the story of James Jenkins c1776–1835 – his family's life in Australia and their legacy to the Salvation Army, Manly, Warringah and Pittwater Historical Society, 1995, pp 1–6

[4] DK Muir, The Jenkins Road: the story of James Jenkins c1776–1835 – his family's life in Australia and their legacy to the Salvation Army, Manly, Warringah and Pittwater Historical Society, 1995, pp 1–6

[5] Ross McCowan, 'Outline history of the Dee Why area', Manly-Warringah Journal of Local History, vol 5 no 1, November 1992, p 8

[6] Ross McCowan, 'Outline history of the Dee Why area', Manly-Warringah Journal of Local History, vol 5 no 1, November 1992, p9

[7] 'Petition for post office and public telephone bureau Dee Why', Australian Archives (New South Wales) Australian Postmaster General's SP 32 Post office Files A–Z 1859 – Post office: Dee Why

[8] Richard Michel, 'Dee Why Public School 75th Anniversary 1922–1997', Dee Why Public School, Dee Why NSW, 1997

[9] Audrey Tate, 'Hallstrom, Sir Edward John Lees (1886–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 14, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp 359–361

[10] Tibetan community of Australia (NSW) Inc, 2006, viewed November 2008, http://www.tibetancommunity.org.au/TCA_press3.html

[11] EJ Thomas, The Drowning Don't Die: fifty years of vigilance and service by the Deewhy Surf Life-Saving Club 1912–1962, Deewhy Surf Life-Saving Club, Dee Why NSW, 1962

[12] Richard Michel, 'Dee Why Lagoon the shape of things to come', Manly-Warringah Journal of Local History, vol 5 no 1, November 1992, pp 18–23

[13] Shelagh Champion and Manly George, Warringah and Pittwater 1788–1850, Sydney, 1997, p 108

[14] Deewhy Improvement League correspondence file held in Local Studies Collection, Warringah Library Service

[15] Deewhy Improvement League correspondence file held in Local Studies Collection, Warringah Library Service

[16] Bernice Murphy, 'Auld, James Muir (1879–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 7, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1979, p 122

[17] William Moore, The story of Australian art: from the earliest known art of the continent to the art of to-day, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934, p 119

[18] 'Some reminiscences of Horace Flint Hayman born 1894 died 1983 Resident of Manly-Warringah from 1911 to 1983 as recalled in 1977 at the age of 83', Local Studies Collection, Warringah Library Service