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- December 2020 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Colin Randall
Garden Island has always had trouble with the neighbours. The earliest recorded was in 1788 and the latest in January 2020. Over the intervening 232 years neighbours have resorted to complaining in different ways about Garden Island and the activities on and around the Island.
In March 1788 a group of 17 aboriginals visited the ship’s garden on Garden Island. This was no doubt with the view to ask What the ### are you doing on our land!!! For their troubles they were fired upon from HMS Sirius.
In 1820 the Governor of the Colony by Proclamation warned off anyone trespassing on Garden Island which was now in his domain. However, it became a very popular fishing and picnic spot. On 31 October 1883 Mr Richmond Thatcher wrote to the editor of the Sydney Evening News ‘…respecting the alienation of Garden Island and that it is a desecration to disfigure so romantic and easily accessible a spot with naval yards and stores. The island has a fine growth of native plants and small trees and some lovely glades. From its summit a grand panoramic view of the harbour is to be obtained. Near its thoroughly sheltered shores even the most inexpert fisherman can at all times depend on getting a few fish.’ He hoped that even the NSW House of Assembly would object to the proposed building of the Naval Depot on Garden Island and the impending loss of the beautiful island to the public. He remarked that he well remembered Pinchgut before the lovely little island was levelled in 1836 and Fort Denison was constructed, and the great loss that was to the people of Sydney.
Following the removal of the southern hill of Garden Island, starting in 1885, and the building of the sail loft and barracks on the levelled land a resident of Potts Point wrote to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, on 10 December 1889.
Sir- Garden Island, one of the most conspicuous features of the harbour, was formerly also one of the most beautiful; latterly nous avez changer tout cela. I now write to suggest that whoever has control of it might cause bougainvillea to be planted against the walls of the hideous stores thereon…and I have little doubt would do much to restore the beauty of this island in a new form. Even if no more is done than to get this beautiful creeper against these store walls, pleasure will be given to innumerable people at present deploring the recent changes at Garden Island.
On 27 May 1904 an article in the Sydney Evening Standard brought attention to the possible further destruction of the beauty of Garden Island with the potential levelling of the Northern Hill to make way for a major coal stockpile. At times up to 10,000 tons of Westport coal from New Zealand was stored on the Island.
The people of Sydney, and indeed, those of the State generally will hear with regret the rumour that the Imperial authorities are considering the advisableness of still further levelling Garden Island. More room, it seems, is wanted to provide for the construction of improved facilities for coaling warships also for the forming of an exercise and recreation ground for the seaman belonging to them.
To carry out these schemes effectively it is only too probable that the existing pretty north hummock of the island will share the fate of its southern companion and be reduced to the same level. Thirty years ago Garden Island was one of the most picturesque spots in the harbour, of which, notwithstanding the utilisation of the southern extremity by the naval buildings, it still remains a prominent adornment. With regard to a coaling wharf, there is little doubt that room could be found for such structure somewhere at the back of the island where it would be comparatively inconspicuous.
We sincerely hope, that the State Government will see its way to make a representation to the Home authorities on the subject of the defacement of Garden Island.
Another correspondent, Mr H. Croft of Mosman, in writing to the Sydney Evening Standard on 4 June 1904 referred to the potential levelling of the north with a letter headed ‘Garden Island and its Spoilation’. He writes: Well do I remember the above island being a pleasure resort. Have we not had already enough acts of vandalism by destruction of our beautiful landmarks? Had your readers seen Pinchgut Island only as far back as 1836, they would still remember the beautiful spot it was, covered by evergreen trees. At present to all appearances it is an island of St. Helena. Pinchgutbefore the lovely little island was levelled in 1836 and the Fort Denison was constructed and the great loss that was to the people of Sydney.
Some 36 years later, on 15 July 1940 Campbell of Petersham wrote a letter to The Sun proposing that the new Sydney Graving Dock should be built at Middle Harbour and not between Garden Island and Potts Point. In the event of the dock being so constructed off Points Point. We must picture the smoke and grime from the works of the dock, and, still more important, imagine what a traffic jam would occur through William Street, Macleay Street, and the bottle-neck at the Five Ways at Kings Cross, which is now more than overtaxed. We would say farewell to one of our most beautiful panoramic pictures of our glorious Harbour.
Another letter on 31 October 1940 to the Daily Telegraph strenuously opposed the location of the new dock with reference to it being …a perpetual eyesore and in the event of active warfare reaching Sydney, a dock in the harbour would be an added danger. The compulsory acquisition of part of the land and houses on Potts Point in the period 1940 through to 1943 brought about the final decline of Potts Point as a prime harbourside suburb. Two properties were most affected: Wyldefel and Clarens. The owner of the mansion Wyldefel in Macleay Street developed Wyldefel Gardens with architect John Brogan.
Around the time of the construction of the apartments, owner Crowle built himself a harbour front residence which he named Once Upon a Time. Upon resumption of that land for the foreshore dock works there was an agreement to move the home brick-by-brick to its current position at Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay in 1943. The other house most affected was Clarens and especially its gardens. The property was acquired in 1941.
Much of the lower garden was almost completely destroyed when stairs, statuary, paths and urns were smashed during construction of an underground substation. Today, the site of Clarens is incorporated into HMAS Kuttabul. In the 1970s Jack Gibbs, head gardener at Kuttabul, began excavating and reconstructing remnants of the Clarens garden.
The residents of the apartments in Wylde Street and others on Potts Point have complained about the noise and fumes from activities on Garden Island ever since the building of the Captain Cook Graving Dock was completed in 1945.
The latest trouble with the neighbours was in January 2020, when the building of a new substation was the occasion for local residents, with the support of the Potts Point & Kings Cross Heritage & Residents’ Society, to object to the removal of two trees that shielded their view of dockyard activities and the up-coming erection of a substation.
History tells us, as it has in the past, and will in the future, Garden Island will continue to expect trouble with its neighbours.