Dictionary of Sydney

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Neutral Bay

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Neutral Bay

Neutral Bay is on the traditional land of the Cammeraygal people. Today it is a diverse residential neighbourhood with areas of relatively low-density bungalows, medium-density town houses and some postwar high-rise buildings. The suburb's northern boundary is just north of Military Road. Its western boundary adjoins the Warringah Expressway and North Sydney, and it abuts Cremorne to the east.

European arrival

Neutral Bay was named by Governor Phillip, when he decreed in 1789 that all non-British 'neutral' ships visiting Port Jackson were to anchor there. A small unnamed creek which ran intermittently into the bay was used by these ships to replenish stores of fresh water. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, ships had to pay for the water. In the latter half of the 1800s the area was generally known as East St Leonards.

The original vegetation included Xanthorrhoeas (grass trees), Angophoras and smaller grevilleas and banksias close to the water, with Sydney blue gums and blackbutts on the ridges. Recalling the place in the 1860s, local historian and resident GVF Mann wrote of the ferns and small waterfalls still evident above the foreshore rocks. He recalled Ben Boyd Road as a track through 'thick bush' to Middle Harbour.

Early estates

Much of the area was part of 700 acres (283 hectares) of land bought in 1816 for Alfred Thrupp as a wedding gift by his father-in-law Captain John Piper. Thrupp built a cottage near the Hayes Street waterfront, but evidently never occupied it, as he soon after moved to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) where he settled for the remainder of his life. Piper became bankrupt in 1827 and sold all his land, including the Thrupp estate, to Daniel Cooper, a wealthy merchant and land speculator. Cooper's nephew, John Cooper, was appointed manager of the estate in 1854.

A large house called Craignathan was built on the waterfront of the bay in the 1830s. It was a largely self-sufficient homestead with water tanks carved out of the sandstone on which it stood, and five ovens in which to bake bread. The whaler, trader and blackbirder Ben Boyd lived there in the 1840s. Boyd built a dam above the house to catch water for wool washing.

During the 1860s and 1870s, residential development centred on the lower reaches of the suburb, along the waterfront east and west of the present Hayes Street wharf and extending around Kurraba Point. The sandstone home Honda was built on the first parcel of land leased from the Coopers in 1858. Honda had panoramic views of the harbour and was occupied by the Harbour Master EO Moriarty in the 1860s and then WC Bennett, the commissioner for roads and bridges in New South Wales. In the report 'Bridge to the north shore', presented to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1883, Bennett cast doubt upon the viability of a high level bridge across the water, in part because of its visual impact upon the waterway – 'such a structure would, I think, be by no means an ornament'.

Roads and transport

A track running along the ridge from North Sydney to supply the newly-installed fortifications at Middle Head was formed in the early 1870s. Shops and businesses gradually opened up around this Military Road. The Oaks Steam Brick Company, operated by the entrepreneur Patrick Hayes from 1880–91, was one of the most prominent. Hayes had already established a soap making works at Kurraba Point and the short-lived Neutral Bay Ferry Company. Hayes Street, running down to the ferry wharf in the bay, was named after him.

When the tram network was electrified in 1909, the brickworks site became the Neutral Bay Tram Depot. The tramways extended along Military Road to Mosman and The Spit, and the depot was one of the biggest employers in the area. Many of its employees were Labor-voting Catholic men. The tram workers were also integral to the introduction of the working-class Rugby League football code to the area.

When trams were phased out of service during the mid-1950s, the northern portion of the depot was retained as a bus depot (fronting Ernest Street) and the southern portion facing Military Road was converted into the Big Bear Supermarket – one of the first self-service supermarkets in Sydney.

A pub and a public school

The Oaks Hotel was opened in 1880; named for the adjacent brickworks. It has remained something of a lower north shore institution. The pub that currently occupies the site was built in 1938 by Tooth & Co Ltd. The garden lounge addition was designed in 1957 by the architects Morrow and Gordon, who had just completed Greenway Flats in Milsons Point/Kirribilli.

In 1885 the Cooper family returned to England and the trustees of the estate continued to further subdivide the former Thrupp grant into leaseholds. These were converted to freehold by the 1930s.

Neutral Bay Public School was built in 1886 and Dame Mary Gilmore (then Mary Cameron) taught there in 1890. A post office, churches, fire station and shops were established to serve the growing community, clustered at the Military Road/Wycombe Road hub. Tram services down to Neutral Bay Junction and later to the Hayes Street wharf also encouraged further urban development of the suburb lying south of Military Road towards the waterfront.

By the end of the 1880s, there were approximately 20 leaseholders within Thrupp's grant and these leases were gradually being subdivided into smaller allotments. Roads were beginning to spread out from Military Road and the waterfront. However, the vast majority of the almost 190 houses built in Neutral Bay by 1888 were located on Ben Boyd Road, Wycombe Road (formerly called Cooper Street), Undercliffe Street and Kurraba Road (then named Thrupps Point Road).

Walter Liberty Vernon

In 1884 the architect Walter Liberty Vernon leased land from the Cooper family, with the intention of subdividing and building large villas on sites along Wycombe Road and Hayes Street. In the same year, he was elected to East St Leonards council and agitated for the provision of water, gas and sewerage that would benefit his proposed subdivision. He had Cooper Street renamed Wycombe Road after his home town in England and, with the merchant David Jones, Vernon formed the Neutral Bay Land Company.

Vernon and his family settled in Neutral Bay/East St Leonards in Clytha House in Aubin Street, just west of the Neutral Bay Land Company subdivision. In 1885 he built himself a house called Penshurst Manor. It was a copy of his English home and designed in the Tudor style. Vernon also went into a business partnership with the architect Howard Joseland. They expanded their holdings with the purchase of Patrick Hayes's leasehold properties. By the time the company's prospectus was released in 1889, some 33 houses had been built. They were mixture of Italianate and Queen Anne styles. The company folded after the financial crash of the 1890s. By then, however, Vernon had been appointed New South Wales Government Architect. He moved to Normanhurst in the mid-1890s.

The turn of the century

Some of the original Neutral Bay Land Company houses survive, along with other large late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century homes along the steep streets that lead down to the water. These properties were owned or leased by wealthy merchants, senior public servants, graziers and politicians, among them Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Braund, MLA. He was the Member for Armidale and a practising Theosophist when war broke out in 1914. Braund commanded the 2nd Battalion with distinction before being killed at Gallipoli in 1915.

Ben Boyd Road became a major thoroughfare after the introduction of regular ferry services to Hayes Street wharf from the 1870s. Following the inauguration of the tram service along Wycombe Road to this wharf, Ben Boyd Road declined in importance, but has remained a minor commercial centre. The apparently chaotic arrangement of roads and streets in the area developed in response to the topography, with major roads following ridges and short secondary streets sometimes ending at cliffs and gullies.

In 1889 the borough of East St Leonards attempted to formalise the roads of Neutral Bay by gazetting at least 13 streets which 'it is declared expedient to open and make'. The steep and difficult terrain partly explains why large parts of Neutral Bay remained undeveloped until the twentieth century, especially in the middle and western section of the suburb. Many of the present surviving Federation and interwar buildings were built in the period between 1900 and 1920 on the subdivisions of the former leaseholds including Neutral Heights, Montpelier, Colindia, Undercliffe Heights and Urara estates.

By the 1930s, Neutral Bay had become a popular garden suburb, populated by a largely middle-class community. The shopping centre developed in the vicinity of Neutral Bay Junction, whilst a multitude of boarding houses, guesthouses and private hotels flourished in the lower reaches of the suburb close to ferry services. In the strip between the shopping centre and the waterfront, private homes on individual blocks and small apartment buildings predominated.

Local identities

Some of the private homes along the waterfront were serviced by maids. One of these was Margaret Tucker, a young Aboriginal woman taken from her family and trained at Cootamundra Girls Home for domestic service. She wrote of her experience working in the Neutral Bay home of a grazier's family in the 1920s, where she was required to call the children 'master' and 'miss' and frequently got lost while taking them for walks.

One of Neutral Bay's most famous residents was the artist and children's author May Gibbs – the creator of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the Banksia Men. She moved to the suburb during World War I and had a waterfront home built in 1925. Gibbs produced some of her most enduring work in her small studio at Nutcote. She died there in 1969. The house and garden were bought by North Sydney Council in 1991 to be preserved as a museum to commemorate the work of the artist.

Anderson Park (originally named Wallaringa Park) was created following reclamation of the mudflats at the head of Neutral Bay in the 1890s, at which time stormwater drains were constructed to the bay. On 17 July 1934, huge crowds enjoyed a rare spectacle when Air Commodore Charles Kingsford Smith and Captain P Gordon Taylor took off from the park on a promotional flight over Sydney to Mascot in Lady Southern Cross, a Lockheed Altair single-engined plane. The plane was 'landed' at the park by the floating crane Titan from the ship Mariposa. Kingsford Smith was to lose his life on 8 November 1935, when Lady Southern Cross crashed into the sea near Burma.

Neutral Bay rises high

Forsyth Park, north of the head of Neutral Bay, in the gully between the Ben Boyd Road ridge and Bent Street, was largely undeveloped until the 1920s. Topographically challenging terrain made subdivision of the former quarry and creek difficult.

In the mid-1930s and early-1940s, residents and aldermen began to express alarm at the increasing flat-building trend across the suburb. Local resident JM Knowles wrote to the council in November 1937, objecting to a proposed block of flats adjoining his house in Montpelier Street, arguing that whilst 'blocks of flats should certainly be restricted to one area' they should 'not [be] allowed to be built amongst bungalows and cottages of one storey and furthermore other residents in the locality also object to the flats being built'.

This has been a losing battle since the 1960s. The suburb's proximity to the central business district, allied with good public transport and local services, has made Neutral Bay a desirable inner city living area. Apartment buildings and town houses have become a popular style of housing and lifestyle, attracting a young, single, upwardly mobile population to Neutral Bay and, consequently, property prices and rents have risen sharply since the 1970s. Medium-density apartments and town houses have replaced earlier Federation and interwar housing; whilst along the Military Road corridor, mixed commercial/residential complexes have replaced the 1920s shopping village.


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

GVF Mann., North Sydney 17881938, North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 1938

LF Mann, 'Early Neutral Bay', Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, vol XVII part IV, 1932, pp 183–208

Neutral Bay Land Company, Neutral Bay, Neutral Bay Land Company, Neutral Bay, c1889

North Sydney Council, 'Gem of the Harbour: A Walking tour of Kurraba Point', North Sydney Heritage Leaflet Series No. 35, http://www.northsydney.nsw.gov.au/resources/documents/35_KurrabaPoint.pdf

Margaret Park, Designs on a landscape: a history of Planning in North Sydney, Halstead Press and North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 2002

Eric Russell, The opposite shore: North Sydney and its people, North Shore Historical Society and North Sydney Council, North Sydney, 1989