Watsons Bay was named after
Robert Watson (1756-1819), formerly the quartermaster of the first fleet vessel, the HMAS Sirius. He was still serving in that
capacity when the ship was wrecked at Norfolk Island in 1790. The following year he obtained and cultivated a
grant of sixty acres (24 ha) on the island. He sold the farm in 1793 to bocame mate of the schooner Francis,
retaining that post until 1805 when the ship was wrecked off Newcastle. Meanwhile in 1801 Governor Philip Gidley
King had granted him land at South Head, Sydney, and there he settled, later becoming boatswain of the
dockyard. Watson was appointed harbour pilot and
harbourmaster of the port of Sydney in 1811 and the first superintendent of Macquarie Lighthouse in
The first grant of 20 acres
(81,000 m2) was made to Edward Laing in 1793 in the Camp Cove Area. Watsons Bay was an isolated fishing village
until development began in the 1860s.
The Town of Watsons Bay subdivision was the second attempt to subdivide and release for
sale the twenty-acre Roddam Farm property, initially granted to Edward Laing in 1793. The grant area took in,
in current terms, the localities of Camp Cove, Laing’s Point, the waterfront area of Watsons Bay and part of
present-day Robertson Park. Laing did not stay for long, and left
the colony in 1794. The grant passed through a number of hands
before purchase by members of the Donnithorne family, who like earlier owners appear to have had no intention
of occupying the land acquired. Judge Donnithorne was a seasoned investor in land and the family was settled
throughout his lifetime and beyond at Cambridge Hall in Newtown. Here he died in 1852, and here his daughter
Eliza was to later gain notoriety as a celebrated recluse, arising from which grew unsubstantiated suggestions
that her story provided Dickens with the basis of his fictional character Miss Havisham.
The Donnithorne family attempted to sell their Watsons Bay holding in 1843, subdivided into
portions described as ‘suitable for marine villa residences’. The sale was advertised in the Sydney Morning
Herald, the promotional literature extolling the low-lying area between Camp and Cove Streets as a ‘rich,
swampy spot’, at the centre of which was a source of water ‘known to many a sportsman of former days as the
Wild Duck Pool’. This same area was, the advertisement stated, at one time reserved for general use as a
public water supply: ‘a circular spot is kept back as a reservoir’. After extensive filling in the early years of the twentieth century
the area referred to would become Camp Cove Reserve.
Donnithorne’s subdivision was withdrawn from sale only two weeks after advertisement, and without
explanation. It is possible that Judge Donnithorne withdrew for
the same reason as later vendors were forced to postpone sales – because this same ‘rich, swampy’ locality was
subject to flooding, and that this liability was exposed at an awkward time for the nineteenthcentury sales
campaign. After Donnithorne’s abrupt newspaper announcement it would be over a decade before any further
attempt was made to sell Roddam Farm.
In March 1854, Sydney merchants Ralph Meyer Robey and Elias Carpenter Weekes purchased Roddam
Farm for £600 and readied the land for sale as 141 allotments – the first substantial land sale in the Watsons
Bay area. The forthcoming sale of the land was announced one year after their purchase by auctioneers Bowden
and Threlkeld through the pages of the Illustrated Sydney News under the name ‘The Town of Watsons Bay’.
Several defensive fortifications
are located on the shores and cliff tops of Watsons Bay, such as the Signal Hill Battery, which was constructed
in 1892 and was intended to defend the town of Sydney from bombardment by an enemy vessel standing off the
coast. The battery is still intact and is located next to the Signal Hill Lighthouse on Old South Head Road
adjacent to the lighthouse.
Also located in Watsons Bay is
the Steel Point fortifications in Nielsen Park. Built in 1871, it originally accommodated three 80 pounder
rifled muzzle-loaders (RMLs) that were replaced sometime during the 1890s with 5 inch breech-loading guns that
were removed in 1910. In the 1950’s the RAN degaussing station was constructed over part of the Steel Point
fortification. The degaussing station was a countermeasure against magnetic mines. Shark Island was used for
this purpose during WWII, naval ships would pass over cables laid under the harbour and were effectively
demagnetized. During WWII the Nielsen Park area was used as an anti-aircraft base with interim wooden barracks
that included searchlights and anti-aircraft guns.
In In 1942 during the Second World War the Sydney Harbour anti-submarine boom net was
constructed on Georges Head and was designed to prevent enemy submarines from entering into Sydney Harbour.
The boom net spanned the entire width of Port Jackson and a boom net winch house was located on Liangs Point,
Watsons Bay. On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines attempted to enter Sydney Harbour
in what became known as the Attack on Sydney Harbour. One of the
Japanese midget submarines became entangled in the boom net and after unsuccessful attempts by the crew to
free the submarine they detonated charges within the sub, killing themselves and destroying their sub in the
SYDNEY HARBOUR BEACON:
Within one year of the First
Fleet arriving to settle New South Wales in 1791, a flagstaff was erected at South Head. A wood and coal fired
beacon, a basket on a tripod, was established in 1793 and was the only guiding light for the next 25
The very first lighthouse
structure in Australia was built in Watsons Bay. it was started in 1816 at the command of Governor Macquarie,
and was completed two years later. The work was undertaken by
Francis Greenway, the famous convict Architect, responsible for many significant and beautiful buildings in
early Sydney. So pleased was Governor Macquarie with the quality of
the work that Greenway was producing that he granted him emancipation for his efforts. Greenway, however, had warned
that the poor quality of the sandstone being used would result in the rapid deterioration of the new tower, and,
as predicted, the building started deteriorating within 5 years when several large stones fell
away. Large iron bands were placed around the tower to prevent
further movement. The state of the tower was so parlous by 1878 that the New South Wales Government
determined to build a new tower.
The construction of the current
Macquarie Lighthouse was begun in 1881 and the light was first exhibited in 1883. It was designed by James Barnet and is a replica of the original
The electric lighting apparatus
at the time was described by the builder, Chance Brothers, of Birmingham as the most efficient in the world. One
of the de Meritens generators is owned by the Powerhouse museum..
The electric apparatus was only
used in bad weather. When the weather got really bad the second magneto was brought into operation producing a
light of 6,000,000 candelas, the most powerful in the world at the time. The power generators for the new light
proved too expensive to run and in 1912 the apparatus was was converted to a vaporised kerosene incandescent
mantle system. With the connection of the city power supply in 1933
the light was converted back to electricity. At the time a smaller lens was installed and this is basically the
mode of operation we see today.
The lighthouse was fully automated in 1976.The keepers were eventually
withdrawn in 1989.
The need for a lighthouse was demonstrated by the loss of the Dunbar in
1857 On the 20th August the Dunbar was shipwrecked against the cliffs below The Gap, with 121 lives
lost. The skipper had mistaken the bay of The Gap for the harbour entrance. Today, The Gap is known as a
notorious suicide spot, with about 50 deaths occurring there each year.