A lot may have changed since the 1800s, but neighbourhood politics and disputes remain pretty much the same.
From drainage to health concerns and even parking, we explore what got Elizabeth Bay residents hot under the collar in the 1800s.
Back in colonial times …
Elizabeth Bay is one of a few places around Sydney Harbour that has been officially designated a dual-named place by the Geographical Names Board (GNB), so it can go by the name of ‘Elizabeth Bay/Gurrajin’. Gurrajin is Elizabeth Bay’s Indigenous name.
Aboriginal people occupied Elizabeth Bay/Gurrajin long before Governor Lachlan Macquarie decided to establish a village there called “Elizabeth Town”. This was an attempt to encourage the local Indigenous community to become more settled and live as fisher-farmers, according to the website Sydney Barani.
On 28 March 1820, Macquarie rowed into Elizabeth Bay with “three boats full of the natives” and selected the location of the village behind the beach, in what would probably be Beare Park today. A local resident at the time described how “bark huts were erected about the bay for their use, and two assigned men [were] appointed to look after the settlement”. The residents of Elizabeth Town were issued with a fishing boat, tackle and salt and casks to preserve their catch. But by 1824, the settlement had been abandoned.
Two years later, in 1826, its land was part of a grant to the Macleay family, who, in 1835, built Elizabeth Bay House.
A growing suburb
An 1854 City of Sydney Map shows that not much existed east of a quiet Macleay Street, except Elizabeth Bay House and its surrounding gardens and land.
“The recent rains have entirely destroyed the Elizabeth Bay Road,” they wrote. “All access to the Elizabeth Bay House and other residences has been cut off … and a large body of water came down from Macleay Street…rendering the approach to the allotments on the said estate impassable.”
Again, in 1869 a group of residents petitioned for improvements, asking that “one or more lamps” be placed along Elizabeth Bay Road. In 1870, the locals, growing increasingly desperate about road conditions, lodged yet another petition with Sydney Corporation.
In 1871, a Mr Holdsworth wrote to the Mayor, requesting permission to run an omnibus to Elizabeth Bay once or twice a day “as desired by the residents”. In his letter, he diplomatically proposed to extend all Coaches running to Woolloomooloo so as “to not excite jealousy amongst the Proprietors”.
Mr Holdsworth wrote again in 1874, this time complaining about the filthy rubbish that had been deposited on Elizabeth Bay Road near his residence.
Complaining about the neighbours
In 1877, Mr William Godworth also wrote to the council to request that Elizabeth Bay Road be kerbed and guttered to prevent runoff from heavy rain coming through his property. He complained that it caused issues including “damaging my hay, corn and bean”.
His politely made requests in neat copperplate handwriting were also prefaced with some humour, writing:
“Sir, I am not the person to write 10 or 12 letters per week to the Hon Council wanting this and that and worrying Your Worship and the Hon Alderman by day and night (as some of my neighbours do).”
William Godworth was a milkman who owned a dairy. Sadly, in 1878, William passed away from Typhoid after an outbreak in the Elizabeth Bay area.
A report on “Problems associated with Typhoid Fever” from the City Health Officer and Inspector of Nuisances found that the local outbreak had been caused by his dairy in Ithaca Road, by then run by his wife, Hannah Godworth. The Inspectors declared the dairy was neither properly drained nor set up for handling the milk. Hannah told the inspectors “that her two children were lying upstairs, who were recovering from typhoid fever”. While the cows were in good condition, the damning report said, “the kitchen itself was dirty”, and one room had an “offensive smell”.
Drainage problems seemed to plague the area, with a Mrs Gilder writing to the council a decade later, requesting the seaweed be regularly cleared from Elizabeth Bay itself to stop the sewerage building up within it. A debate between council workers ensued as to who may be responsible for the badly laid sewerage pipes that didn’t go far enough out into the bay. The buck was then passed for removing the seaweed to the Harbours and Rivers Department.
The first housing estates
In July 1882, 45 lots from the Macleay Estate were auctioned off, and you can start to see the Elizabeth Bay streets we know really take shape, with Ithaca Road and what was then called Billyard Lane and Onslow Lane. “For sale by auction at the rooms”, the Richardson and Wrench subdivision map proclaims, with “99-year leases”. More subdivisions followed in 1886.
Most of the homes were colonial or Victorian mansions. While few remain, their rough locations can be identified on the maps by names that may still be familiar today.
A newspaper report from 1872 proposed that “Among the delightfully situated houses and gardens which cluster about Potts Point, there are few, if any, possessed of more horticultural interest than Barncleuth, the residence of the Hon. Henry Moore, Esq., M.L.C.” Subdivision maps from the era show its large landholding extending towards the corner of Elizabeth Bay Road, where Roslyn Gardens and Ithaca Road intersect. By 1890, lots were being sold off from the Barncleuth Estate.
Today we have Barncleuth Lane. Meanwhile, an original Victorian home, believed to date as far back as 1848, still stands at 6-8 Barncleuth Square.
Not in my backyard
As the area developed, the petitions to the council continued from local residents.
In 1893, a missive with 14 signatures from the residents of Elizabeth Bay Road argued for installing in the reserve a fenced flower bed and notices preventing games. They wrote of the disturbance and “danger” from large numbers of boys and youths who were not connected to families from the road. Their offence? Playing cricket and other games in the “small triangular reserve known as Elizabeth Bay Reserve”, despite Rushcutters Bay being less than a minute away.
The residents believed the reserve was “primarily intended” for their own use. They complained that “some of your petitioners have repeatedly had their windows broken” and said they could not use the reserve due to the “rowdy games and obscene and disgusting language” of the boys.
A note on the file suggests that the work requested could be completed for £30, but the Mayor commented that the estate was leased and would revert to its owner in 60 years. This meant the council couldn’t legally undertake any works.
Other residents of Elizabeth Bay Road were busy complaining about stable doors that opened onto the street. These, they complained, didn’t just pose a danger, they also obstructed furniture from being delivered.
While it may be hard to imagine now, in 1894, a G Harding from Onslow Avenue wrote to the council to draw its attention to the “intolerable nuisance” of three cattle wandering the roads and vacant land of the area, “tearing hedges and pushing open garden gates”.
Archives from the following year show a quote to install a horse trough on Ithaca Road at the cost of £15. There was also an urgent request from a local resident for life-saving equipment on the pier at Elizabeth Bay to protect the many people and children who swam there. Then, in 1897, more residents lobbied the council for the widening of the esplanade, which ran in front of Ithaca, Melita and Glenisca.
They argued this was for the “betterment of the area”. However, a convenient byproduct of any road widening would be that they would be able to turn their vehicles around more easily.
Some things, it seems, never change…