Dictionary of Sydney

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Kirribilli is on the traditional land of the Cammeraygal people. It is located in the North Sydney local government area, on the north side of Sydney Harbour. The suburb extends from the foreshore directly opposite Bennelong Point east and north around to Careening Cove (called Weeyah Weeyah by the Cammeraygal), where it meets the suburb of North Sydney. It adjoins Milsons Point to the west.

The suburb's name probably derives from the Aboriginal word kiarabilli, a reference to the place being a good fishing spot. Another theory suggests that Kirribilli is an adaptation of 'Carabella', the name given by early colonist James Milson to his first house.

Early land grants

The land which comprises most of present-day Kirribilli was granted in 1794 to Samuel Lightfoot, a convict whose sentence had expired. There is no evidence that he occupied the land. There is evidence, however that this alienation occurred while there was still a large group of Cammeraygal people living in the area. David Collins's Historical Account of New South Wales, published in 1798, includes a detailed description of significant Cammeraygal involvement in an initiation ceremony at Yoo-lahng (Farm Cove) in 1795. It is unlikely that the Cammeraygal were consulted about the grant to Lightfoot.

The alienated land was sold illegally to Scottish political exile, Thomas Muir. After he escaped from the colony in 1796, the grant was retracted and reverted to the government. Eventually 30 acres (12 hectares) of Lightfoot's grant was included in the 120-acre (48.5-hectare) grant to Robert Ryan, a member of the New South Wales Corps. Around 1806 he sold his land to Sydney merchant, Robert Campbell, then the largest private owner of cattle in the colony. In 1822 Campbell leased the whole area to James Milson, the first white person to permanently settle there. Milson supplied ships in Sydney Harbour with fresh provisions and water, as well as ballast from a quarry near Careening Cove. Over the following decades he and his sons built several large homes in the immediate area: Grantham, Wia Wia, Elamang and Coreena. Milson and Campbell disputed each other's title to the land. Campbell was eventually recognised as the owner without registered title and Milson the permissive occupant.

Aboriginal Kirribilli

By this time, the social structures of the Cammeraygal people had been undermined and any surviving members of this clan were compelled to join other groups of Aboriginal people around the harbour or upriver towards Lane Cove. One band regularly stayed at Kirribilli. When the Russian scientific expedition under the command of Captain Bellingshausen conducted astronomical observations around Kirribilli in the 1820s, they encountered a group of Aboriginal people feasting, dancing and singing in a clearing amongst banksia trees. It is probable that this was the group that had gathered around Bungaree, a prominent Aboriginal man from Broken Bay, who camped with his wife and others around the harbour. Both men and women ate 'fish and mussels' that had been cooked over a small fire. Their bodies and faces were painted with 'patches of red ochre'.

New residents

Bungaree died on Garden Island in 1830. The bushland that he frequented around Kirribilli was subdivided in the following decades and, in the late 1830s and the early 1840s, 'marine villas' were erected. These were sandstone homes designed in the picturesque fashion popularised by English architects such as JC Loudon. Among the earliest were Wotonga (enlarged considerably in the 1890s as Admiralty House), Beulah, Woodlands (later Thuelda) and Carabella. More intensive development, however, was hampered by the lack of regular and cheap ferry services, and so early settlers of the area were largely merchants and colonial administrators who were attracted to the north shore for the cleaner air and environment and proximity to the city. The Royal Engineer, Colonel George Barney, was among them. He owned and lived in Wotonga in the 1850s while supervising the installation of harbour fortifications on Pinchgut and at Kirribilli Point. The gentlemen of Kirribilli paid private watermen to transport them across the Harbour.

Further subdivision of the land in the late 1850s attracted more professionals and merchants. Kirribilli House was built by the trader Adolph Feez soon after 1854. With the formation of the North Shore Steam Ferry Company in 1861, and the subsequent provision of cheap and regular ferry transport, the development of Kirribilli Point and the North Sydney area quickened. The construction of a road network and services such as piped water supply, gas, schools, churches, along with the promise of a harbour bridge or tunnel crossing from the 1880s, made the area even more attractive. Away from the water, there were smaller cottages and terrace houses for local workers. Many of these survive today along McDougall, Hipwood and Willoughby streets.

Waterfront industry, culture and education

The Kirribilli waterfront extends around to Careening Cove. The European name for the inlet is derived from the use of the mudflats there for careening, or scraping ships' hulls. John Milson built a large waterfront home there he named Wia Wia – derived from the original Cammeraygal name. He also constructed a waterfront slaughterhouse which reputedly used timbers salvaged from the harbour after the wreck of the Dunbar in 1857.

The cove remained an important site of small-scale waterfront industry and also recreation – uses that would continue for the next century. Wrixton's Boatyard was opened in 1888 off Willoughby Street. Henry Younger also built boats on the cove. The North Shore Rowing Club had a club house there from 1879. The mudflats around the mouth of Careening Creek, which flowed into the cove, were reclaimed in the 1890s to create Milson Park – an 'improvement' that was repeated in many of the smaller coves of the harbour. ED Pike's timberyard was established in the 1920s. The Sydney Flying Squadron relocated to a boatshed on the water in 1937. Patton's Slipway was built in the 1960s.

The Ensemble Theatre moved into an old boatshed in 1960 and become Sydney's first harbourside theatre. It opened on 7 January 1960 with a production of Mel Dinelli's The Man.

Sixty years earlier, the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron had acquired the residence Carabella and turned it into an exclusive marine complex for members. The purchase and reuse of large homes by private schools had also been occurring across the lower north shore since the 1870s. In 1907, the Loreto Sisters bought Elamang, the old Milson family home, and converted it into a Catholic girls' school, Loreto Convent. The school flourished and adjoining properties, such as Coreena, were acquired throughout the twentieth century. The school now occupies a large campus overlooking Careening Cove.

Commuting to Sydney

Despite the absence of a fixed harbour crossing before 1932, the area was just a short ferry ride away from the city, and developers saw opportunities to build desirable flats and up-market boarding houses. Those around the foreshores offered prime views of the harbour as well as a short ferry commute to work and home again. The Residential Guide to Sydney and Suburbs, published in 1915, described it as

a select rising suburb, situated on the Northern foreshores of Sydney Harbour. There are many handsome residences and fine streets, being of high elevation it commands perfect views of the harbour.

One of the first blocks of flats erected on the Kirribilli waterfront was at 1 Waruda Street in 1907. Others followed soon after. These buildings often occupied the sites of large and run-down mansions built during the 1800s by wealthy landowners, who were selling up or subdividing to take advantage of the rising property prices.

Even here, there was mixed use. The huge Pastoral Finance Association wool store dominated the waterfront opposite Sydney Cove from the 1890s until its destruction by fire in 1925. The opportunity for waterfront redevelopment prompted social reformers such as John Sulman and Dr Mary Booth to push for the creation of a public park. The land, however, was sold to developers and filled with apartment buildings in keeping with the residential character of the rest of the area.

Booth's name, however, is commemorated at the nearby Mary Booth Lookout – a pocket park created in 1961. She had established the Memorial College of Household Arts and Science at 63 Kirribilli Avenue, to provide domestic science courses for young women. Booth was awarded an OBE in 1918 for her work.

High density and public housing

The construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge from 1924 to 1932 touched the western boundary of the suburb, but affected neighbouring Milsons Point far more severely. Far more demolition occurred in the postwar years, as private developers continued the pattern begun in the early 1900s and built ever-higher blocks of flats on the sites of older housing stock. Consideration of heritage in planning was still in its infancy. Among the many large nineteenth and twentieth century homes demolished for high-rise flats was Miandetta, the 1890s home of Australia's first Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, in Carabella Street.

The suburb also contains one of Australia's most significant public housing developments – Greenway Flats. It was commenced in 1948 on a triangle of land cleared and left vacant after the construction of the Bridge. The site was then in Milsons Point but is now part of Kirribilli. Greenway Flats was the largest flat development in the country when opened in 1954. They were designed by Morrow and Gordon, and drew upon functionalist styles popular in Europe and the United States. The complex bears a striking similarity to the contemporaneous Stuyvesant Town project on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The flats were built during a severe housing shortage and tenancy was granted by means of a Housing Commission lottery. Their location in this area was indicative of the need to provide affordable housing close to the city and also the varied social profile of much of the waterfront on the north side. Publicity at the time favourably compared them to the Victorian terraces nearby. The latter were referred to disparagingly as slums.

Many of these terraced houses survive and are highly valued for their style and proximity to the Harbour. Greenway Flats are still public housing. Their survival is an interesting, if somewhat anomalous, story in the history of one of Sydney's most desirable suburbs – home to the Prime Minister at Kirribilli House and the Governor-General at Admiralty House and, with uninterrupted views of the Opera House, Bridge and city skyline, some of the most expensive real estate in the country.


Geoffrey W Barrett, Greenway the Great Survivor: Fifty years in the life of a Public Housing Estate, North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 2004

From Milson to Medium Density: A Walking Tour of Kirribilli, North Sydney Heritage Leaflet Series No 36, available online at http://www.northsydney.nsw.gov.au/www/html/2408-leaflets-and-walks.asp, viewed 20 January 2009

Lianne Hall, Down the Bay: the Changing Foreshores of North Sydney, North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 1997

Ian Hoskins, Aboriginal North Sydney: an outline of Indigenous history, North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 2008

Michael Jones, North Sydney, 1788–1988, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards NSW, 1988

Margaret Park, Designs on a Landscape: A History of Planning in North Sydney, Halstead Press and North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 2002