Our local area’s amazing naval landmarks include Garden Island, the HMAS Kuttabul Memorial and a range of important heritage sites.
Step back in time to enjoy our city’s maritime history at Potts Point.
How the Navy has changed
Potts Point dwellers love that their precinct is steeped in so much rich maritime history – it’s really shaped the suburb in a unique way.
Back in WWI, the Royal Australian Navy numbered 16 ships and 3,800 personnel – and it has grown to be one of the largest and most sophisticated naval forces in the Pacific region. Today, the Navy has nearly 50 commissioned vessels and over 16,000 personnel.
Some say that the heyday of Kings Cross was in the post-WWII years when hundreds of American naval personnel spent time in the area. They took the notion of R&R to a whole new level and the area heaved with nightclubs, strip joints, black-market trading and of course, ladies of the night.
Did you know that Garden Island was a veggie garden before it ever became a Naval base? Back in 1788 when the First Fleet founded the European Colony, the island was given to sailors to grow vegetables (initially corn and onions, according to ship logs).
For the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, who called the island Booroowang – ‘a fishing place’ – this was one of the first times they interacted with the sailors and new settlers. It wasn’t all friendly according to historical reports, although there is some evidence that gardening practices and cultivation techniques were shared.
In 1858, Garden Island was established as a naval base and a site for repairing ships. It wasn’t until 1942 that this little strip of land became connected to Sydney’s mainland when the Captain Cook Graving Dock was built (and in doing so, obliterated the waterfront of Wyldefel Gardens, a gorgeous residential home which was re-built, brick by brick, across the harbour in Neutral Bay).
The old veggie garden was reportedly turned into a lawn tennis court in 1871 – possibly the first ever tennis court in Sydney.
Garden Island is still a working base for the Australian Navy, but it’s easy to do a heritage tour of the area and explore some of its most famous landmarks (bookings are required).
The Naval Chapel and Rigging Shed are two of these – the Shed is the oldest building on the island and the Sail Loft was converted into the Naval Chapel in 1902. It features a unique stained glass commemorative window to Australia’s first two submarines – AE1 and AE2, based at the island and lost at Rabaul (1914) and near Gallipoli (1915) respectively.
The HMAS Kuttabul Memorial is also a must-see – this commemorates the sailors who sadly perished while onboard the HMAS Kuttabul. They were on the depot ferry on the night of Sunday, 31 May 1942, when three Japanese Midget submarines attacked Sydney Harbour and a torpedo missed its prime target and sank the ferry instead.
RAN Heritage Centre
Maritime history abounds all over Sydney and some of the best examples are in museums and at The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre, which opened in 2005.
Over 3000 artefacts from Australia’s naval history – from large weapon systems right down to sailors’ personal items – are on display, many of which have never been seen by the general public. You can check out the first documented piece of graffiti in Australia, made by First Fleet sailor Fredrick Meredith when he carved his initials into a sandstone rock. Or, experience what it’s like to live at sea on a warship,including the hammocks on a Mess Deck from World War II.
There’s also a simulated open bridge of a WWII destroyer, perfect for indulging your inner ship Captain. You can also peep through a periscope from an Oberon Class submarine – or check out a M-22 Japanese midget submarine, which launched a 1942 attack on Sydney Harbour.
Don’t forget to stop for a bite to eat or a coffee from the Salthorse Café on site – it has breathtaking views of the harbour.
Part of a bigger naval history
Garden Island is just one small part of Australia’s proud naval history. And life in the navy includes many treasured traditions. One of these is christenings, which can be held on board ships in port for the children of crew members, enabling families to come together. At the Maritime Museum, which is just a hop skip and a jump away in Darling Harbour, you can view a big bell from the HMAS Onslow, where the names of all the crew members’ children christened on board are inscribed inside.