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Oatley is situated in the south-western corner of Kogarah municipality bordering the Georges River. It is named after James Oatley, a convict clockmaker, who arrived in the colony in 1815 to serve a life sentence. When he was pardoned in 1821 he received several land grants, including 300 acres (121 hectares) near the Georges River in the area that later took his name.
Today there is still evidence of Aboriginal occupation by the Kameygal band of the Dharug (Eora) language group in the area. Middens found along the river indicate that Aboriginal people camped there, and the caves in the rocky cliffs provided them with shelter close to the river. Their source of food was oysters and waterfowl.
The estate granted to James Oatley stayed in the Oatley family until it was sold to Charles Cecil Griffiths for £10,000 in 1881. A subdivision plan for 1,400 residential blocks was issued shortly after. Although the railway line was opened in 1886, Oatley remained isolated and was, for a long time, considered too remote to encourage many land sales. The incentive of cheap prices enticed only a few from the comforts of inner and western suburbs. Oatley remained a pleasant bushland area, with much of the early development taking place on the western or Mulga Road side of the railway station, which became a distinctive, separate community.
Early residents of the Oatley area were fishermen, oyster farmers, railway workers and the brick workers at Judd's Brickworks.
Railway and communications
One of the first families to live in the area was the Fletchers. Joseph Fletcher, a railway worker, came to Oatley with his family in 1885, and built a house of corrugated iron near the railway platform, opposite where the Oatley Hotel was later built. Initially, there was only a small wooden platform at the station, and Mr Fletcher attended to the few railway passengers and to traffic crossing between Frederick Street and Mulga Road.
In September 1903 a combined post and telephone office was opened at the train station, with a railway official, J McKervey, in charge. It took a further six years before the first public phone was made available to the community, when the post office moved to new premises on the site now occupied by the hotel.
The first shop was built in Douglas Cross Gardens. It was opened by Mrs Coleborne, and later taken over by her daughter and son-in-law, Gertrude and Arthur Phillips.
In 1905 the train line was upgraded and relaid, and Oatley Parade was moved from west of the track into Kogarah municipality.
Community and education
Oatley's need for a meeting place was filled by the building of the School of Arts. It soon became the centre of community life for the township. Situated at 26 Letitia Street, it was opened on Friday 13 October 1905. The building was designed by Harry Towers and WG Coleborne and was built by Mr Nicholson. It soon became a popular venue for concerts and social events.
The first Church of England, Methodist and Catholic Church services and the first public school classes were all held in the Oatley School of Arts. It also served as the centre for relief aid during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1919.
With the advent of picture theatres and other social venues, the School of Arts building went out of fashion as a meeting place, and the property was transferred to Kogarah Council. In 1971 the Oatley Branch Library opened in the hall.
By 1910 Oatley had grown. It had a railway station, well laid-out streets, a church with a thriving Sunday school, a post office, a School of Arts, and numerous young children in need of a local school. Initially, students had to travel to school in Mortdale, yet by 1917 the overcrowded situation here, had reached crisis point. Building a school in Oatley had been deferred during the war years, but in June 1921, a new building was completed on the corner of Letitia and Neville streets. The school consisted of three classrooms capable of housing 150 pupils; when it opened there were already 188 pupils enrolled.
Oatley Bay was always a favourite spot for picnickers. On public holidays special trains brought crowds to the area, where they were able to enjoy swimming, boating, fishing and picnicking in the bay, the park and the 'pleasure grounds'.
Oatley Park was proclaimed a public park on 29 May 1888. It was originally named Peakhurst Park but was renamed Oatley Park in 1922. The area retains much of its natural beauty, has carvings of the earlier Aboriginal occupation, and is a refuge for birds.
Harry Linmark established Oatley Pleasure Grounds, and his boatshed on the bay provided boats for fishing and picnic parties. It became an extremely popular venue and was the local sculling and swimming place before the era of home swimming pools. When Hartlands acquired the grounds they introduced a miniature zoo and also put in a wine bar that became noisy and controversial. In 1934, Kogarah Council bought the premises, closed the wine bar, extended the area of the grounds and renamed it Oatley Bay Reserve.
Development and depression
Electricity was installed in Oatley in 1923 and on 1 March 1926 the first electric train in New South Wales ran from Central Station to Oatley. The commencement of the electric train service encouraged more land buyers to the area and local businesses flourished; Malcolm Butters, saddler and bootmaker, Quinn's pharmacy, and Arthur Marsh, milk vendor, all opened in 1928.
Unfortunately this growth was short-lived. The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 began to affect people who depended on the land and the river for their livelihood, with local shops only paying for what they could sell and returning the rest.
Until 1930 the only paved street in Oatley was from the station along Frederick Street, past the shops to Rosa Street. The only finance available from the local council for Kogarah's West Ward was for garbage and night soil contracts.
In 1931 the full effects of the Depression were being felt. Many men were out of work and West Ward rates were greatly in arrears. Kogarah Council took the initiative and established unemployment schemes for men to work making roads and gutters. The brick kerbs and gutters they built are now a feature of Oatley and a reminder of those days. Improvements were also made to Oatley Park, roadways were constructed, and later in the 1930s, the pipeline was laid from Woronora Dam.
When the pipeline was brought across from the new dam at Woronora River, Kogarah Council acquired a large area of the former railway land. The Water Board agreed to put the pipeline underground and in 1941 Council engineer Mr Brewer drew the plans for the Memorial Park. The section called the Douglas Cross Gardens (named after a former Kogarah Council alderman representing West Ward, and member of parliament for Georges River) was later developed and officially opened on 10 May 1969 by the premier of New South Wales, RW Askin.
Oatley came into its own as a suburb in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A new concrete railway bridge was built to span the Georges River in 1973. In the same year, Judd's Brickworks closed and work commenced on the building of a new depot for the St George County Council and the Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education (now Georges River College).
A prominent feature of Oatley today is the Oatley town clock, built as a tribute to the village's namesake, James Oatley. It was unveiled on 29 October 1983 to commemorate 150 years since James Oatley was first granted his original deed. The clock was designed by students from the school of architecture at the University of New South Wales, under the direction of Clive Stevens.
'The Long case clock', The Sydney Monitor, 29 June 1833, p 3
DJ Hatton, Hurstville 1770–1850, Hurstville Historical Society, Hurstville NSW, 1979
DJ Hatton, Mr Oatley: the celebrated watchmaker [and] The Story of the Oatley family, the author, Sans Souci NSW, 1983
DJ Hatton, Oatley in Early Days, Hurstville Historical Society, Hurstville NSW, 1981
E Howard, Oatley: the working man's paradise, Oatley Lions Club, Oatley NSW, 1979
Hurstville Historical Society, The Story of James Oatley, Hurstville NSW, undated
Kogarah Council, School Resources Kit, Kogarah Council, Kogarah NSW, 2001
Kogarah Library, local studies vertical file, Oatley
J Lawrence, Pictorial Memories St George, Kingsclear Books, 1996
'Oatley, James (1770–1839)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 2, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1967, pp 291–292