McMahons Point

2008
CC BY-SA 2.0
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McMahons Point

McMahons Point on Lavender Bay was not always a place of luxury residential dwellings with superb views to the harbour and the city of Sydney. From the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century it was an important industrial waterfront landscape which provided northsiders with workers' cottages, ferry wharves and boatbuilding yards. It is west of Lavender Bay, previously known as both Hulk Bay, after the convict hulk moored there, and Quiberee Bay, an Aboriginal word meaning a fresh spring of water. Other Aboriginal names for the Blues/McMahons Point peninsula are Warung or Warrungarea. [1]

The Cammeraygal

The Aboriginal people who inhabited these foreshores, rocky cliffs and points were known as the Cammeraygal. Their land covered most of the lower north shore and included what is now McMahons Point. As early as the 1790s, soon after European settlement in Port Jackson, large land grants displaced the Cammeraygal, as did the land granted to William Blue in 1817. Blues Point, as it became known, is the southern tip of the peninsula which includes McMahons Point. Before European settlement and use of the southern peninsulas of northern Sydney as transport corridors, Aboriginal tracks linked the Cammeraygal land. One of these tracks originated further up the shore at Crows Nest, winding its way to McMahons Point and other special places along the foreshores. [2]

Michael McMahon, brush maker

Although originally part of the Blue land grant, the larger area of the peninsula became known as McMahons Point in honour of Michael McMahon. From the 1860s, McMahon had made the north shore of Sydney his home and practised his trade as a brush maker. His work was widely appreciated, which led to a government contract and a bronze medal at the Intercolonial Exhibition in Victoria in 1867. [3]

In 1870 the Borough of Victoria incorporated, taking in McMahons Point and Blues Point and stretching from the shores of Lavender Bay (named after George Lavender, boatswain on the convict hulk The Phoenix) to Berrys Bay.

As a local politician, Michael McMahon loudly proclaimed the rights of northsiders to have a regular fresh water supply. He also forcefully defended his constituents, especially their rights to reliable transport. Unhappy with private ferry services, he called for the government to run ferries to ensure a consistent and official timetable. He was known for his stand on a harbour crossing, and served on the committee to investigate a tunnel option. When the cable tramway from Milsons Point to St Leonards Park opened in 1886, McMahon, as the mayor of Victoria, welcomed the governor with an impassioned speech for a proper railway for the north shore, not just trams and ferries. [4] During the Royal Commission on City and Suburban Railways in 1890, McMahon, now an alderman on the newly-formed North Sydney Council, pressed for McMahons Point as the northern arm of the bridge from Dawes Point.

Boatbuilding on the point

McMahons Point on Lavender Bay was known for its boatbuilding and repair industry from the late 1800s. William Dunn established a business on the western side of the bay, and small boatyards sprang up on its eastern shore. The twentieth century saw these small businesses grow into a thriving strip of engineering workshops and boatbuilding yards. One of the largest was the Neptune Engineering and Slipway Company. It occupied the western edge of the mouth of the bay until 1987, when it were replaced with luxury apartments. Four generations of the Meredith boatbuilding family worked in the slipways and repair works, and during World War II were busy working on merchant and naval shipping repairs. Neptune designed and constructed the first marine diesel engine on this site. The Merediths had moved into this site when it was vacated by WL Holmes & Company in 1904. William Holmes moved further up McMahons Point and continued to build yachts, trawlers and lighters. His company also worked for the navy during the war.

We worked probably seven days and seven nights a week during the war. Every ship that came in had a wooden life boat on. There was not a wooden lifeboat that would have floated. I remember them burning the paint off some of the lifeboats and we'd come to the grey from the first world war underneath. [5]

The Holmes boatbuilders were also associated with a bit of infamy: the Shark Arm case. The investigation of this mysterious Sydney crime case led police to the Holmes boatyard after a captured shark disgorged a tattooed arm in the Coogee Aquarium in 1935. The dead man, identified by his tattoo, was a known small-time criminal who had a connection to Holmes.

At the end of the twentieth century, only traces of this industrial landscape survived. In spite of the residential development on the Neptune site, Bob Gordon, a small-scale builder of wooden boats, finished his last boat at the mouth of the bay amongst the remnants of the machinery and slipway which survived the redevelopment.

Redevelopment and change

Michael McMahon's advocacy for the rights of the residents of McMahons Point in the nineteenth century can be seen as a forerunner of the fights against the 1950s scheme for the whole of the area to be bulldozed and turned into a landscape of high-rise and medium-density residential apartment blocks, proposed by a consortium of architects and developers, including Harry Seidler.

In a location that attracted workers who needed to cross the harbour, and with the growth of transport services, apartment blocks were constructed as early as the 1920s and 1930s. This provided more affordable housing close to the city. The recurrent need for more residential redevelopment helped sweep away any remnant of the early ferry trade and boatbuilders that dotted the foreshores. In the1950s, during the making of the County of Cumberland Plan, the whole of the peninsula was designated for industrial use. As North Sydney already had gas works, oil storage depots, boatbuilding yards and ferry wharves, it was assumed that continuation and extension of this activity would be readily accepted by the local council and residents. This was not the case where it concerned the residential areas of the point, and objections were lodged by North Sydney Council. With support from residential groups, such as the McMahons Point/Lavender Bay Progress Association, the decision was eventually overturned.

However, this did not easily translate to a peaceful and residential McMahons Point. Support for revoking the industrial zoning came from architects such as Harry Seidler, Lyle Dunlop and Harry Howard, representing the McMahons Point Redevelopment Scheme. They proposed a 'blank canvas' for the area, comprehensive demolition of the 'industrial blight' and a unique opportunity for urban renewal, a modern planning concept for a progressive city. [6] Following a successful resident action, widespread demolitions did not proceed and the only building approved for construction at that time was the Blues Point Tower (designed by Harry Seidler) which dominates the foreshores of North Sydney.

Some demolitions occurred and the subsequent high-rise boom of the latter half of the twentieth century did not bypass McMahons Point. However, many of its older workers' cottages and Victorian terrace houses have survived, and have been upgraded as part of the gentrification of the peninsula. In the late twentieth century, McMahons Point was no longer just the home of ferry workers, railwaymen, fishermen and boatbuilders, and appealed to those who could afford to purchase, restore and preserve these earlier dwellings. It is now a conservation area under North Sydney Council's Local Environment Plan 2001. [7]

Views, architecture and art

McMahons Point's location on one of the north shore's prominent peninsulas has attracted people over the centuries. Its views and vistas, and its pathways to the waterfront, created an intricate web of tracks and laneways, eventually building into a vibrant community with shops, such as Willington London Store at the corner of Blues Point Road and King Georges Street. This nineteenth-century stone building was a popular grocer's store run by the Willington family. Mr Willington was one of the council clerks of the Borough of East St Leonards.

McMahons Point's residential streetscapes provide windows into its architectural past, from Princes Street with its fine rows of terraced housing and examples of the 1920s California bungalow style. Other streets feature 1920s-style apartment buildings which provided more affordable housing in this densely populated area of North Sydney. This aspect, combined with the area's environmental attributes, brought artists into the area, such as Roland Wakelin and Will Ashton at Berrys Bay, and later, Lloyd Rees at East Crescent Street, McMahons Point. A small park at the end of Middle Street with views over the harbour is named in his honour.

References

Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington NSW, 2003

Godden, Mackay Pty Ltd, North Sydney Heritage Study Review, North Sydney Council, North Sydney NSW, 1993

Lianne Hall (compiler) Down the Bay: The Changing Foreshores of North Sydney, North Sydney Council, North Sydney NSW, 1997

Michael Jones, North Sydney 1788–1988, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988

Joan Lawrence, Lavender Bay to the Spit: pictorial history, Kingsclear Books, Crows Nest NSW, 1999

Margaret Park (compiler), Naming North Sydney, 2nd edition, North Sydney Council, North Sydney NSW, 1996

Margaret Park, Designs on a Landscape: A History of Planning in North Sydney, Halstead Press, North Sydney NSW, 2003

Eric Russell, The Opposite Shore: North Sydney and Its People, North Shore Historical Society and the Council of the Municipality of North Sydney, North Sydney NSW, 1990

Notes

[1] Val Attenbrow, Sydney's Aboriginal Past, University of New South Wales Press, Kensington NSW, 2003, p 10; Margaret Park (compiler), Naming North Sydney, 2nd edition, North Sydney Council, North Sydney NSW, 1996, p 62

[2] Dennis Foley, Repossession of our Spirit: Traditional owners of northern Sydney, Aboriginal History Inc, Canberra, 2001, p 15

[3] Joan Lawrence, Lavender Bay to the Spit: pictorial history, Kingsclear Books, Crows Nest NSW, 1999

[4] Eric Russell, The Opposite Shore: North Sydney and Its People, North Shore Historical Society and the Council of the Municipality of North Sydney, North Sydney NSW, 1990, p 130

[5] Reginald Holmes, quoted in Lianne Hall (compiler) Down the Bay: The Changing Foreshores of North Sydney, North Sydney Council, North Sydney NSW, 1997, p 46

[6] Margaret Park, Designs on a Landscape: A History of Planning in North Sydney, Halstead Press, North Sydney NSW, 2003, pp 165, 77–81

[7] Margaret Park, Designs on a Landscape: A History of Planning in North Sydney, Halstead Press, North Sydney NSW, 2003, p 165

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