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There has long been a track between Manly Cove and Ocean Beach, worn by the local Aboriginal people, the Kay-ye-my, over many centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Henry Gilbert Smith, the earliest developer of Manly, had a vision for this stretch of ground as a promenade with hotels, tearooms and entertainment. Named after the Via del Corso in Rome, it was to be the focal point of his planned new resort, called New Brighton or Manly Beach. The Corso, initially built as a boardwalk in 1855, allowed tourists to cross the sand spit between the harbour pier and ocean beach.
Realising that refreshment was essential, Smith established a hotel at each end of the Corso – the Pier, built in 1856, and the Steyne, built in 1858–59. The colonial architect Edmund Blacket designed the Steyne Hotel, as well as St Matthew's Anglican church, halfway along the Corso, which was built in 1864–65 and partly paid for by Smith. By 1861 there were three hotels and a temperance hotel, which only sold soft drinks. Twenty years later there were six hotels, three of which survive today.
By the 1880s, most of Manly's commerce centred on the Corso, with many families living above their businesses. Entertainment flourished, including an Aquarium and, later, 'Sovereign' Smith's Gallery of Amusements.
The first large general store, White Brothers, opened in 1907. This later became Campbell's General Merchants, a Corso landmark for many years. By the 1920s, the Corso was the shopping centre for Manly and the northern beaches, and a gathering point for festivals and fairs such as the Venetian Carnivals mounted by the surf clubs. In 1928 St Matthew's church was demolished because it projected into the road, causing congestion. The Victoria Hall next door was also lost. The new St Matthew's opened in 1930.
On Friday nights during the Depression of the 1930s and later decades, families walked along the Corso, window-shopping and meeting friends. On Saturdays, children went to the Saturday matinee feature films and serials at the Rialto cinema (later the Odeon).
When Warringah Mall, an American-style shopping centre with ample parking, opened in Brookvale in 1963, the Corso shops declined – among them household names such as Campbell's, Cooper's, Little's, McIlrath's, Buckingham's, Snow's and HG Palmer's. Woolworths closed, too, and in 2008 only Coles remains of the larger stores. However, a new vitality has been given to the street by the presence of surf shops, such as Billabong.
The Corso gradually lost its family shopping appeal, despite the provision of parking nearby, the partial recreation of a pedestrian walkway during the 1970s and a major upgrade of facilities during the 1980s. Further upgrading took place from 2006. The Corso still provides refreshment and shops and remains the main pedestrian route between the harbour and the sea. A ferry trip to Manly with a walk along the Corso remains a favourite Sydney weekend activity.