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Early Watsons Bay

In March 1791 Elizabeth Macarthur, visiting what would later be called Watsons Bay, recorded the presence of 'a few huts' for the crew of the lookout post: whitewashed cottages and a garden. 56 years later, in 1847, she was back, in one of the area's now grand 'marine villas'. Around these fine houses were spread the family homes of fishermen, tradesmen, pilots and their crews.

The history of Watsons Bay represents the interactions and needs of four communities. Government officials lived and worked here because of its proximity to Port Jackson and its entrance to the ocean. Others made Watsons Bay their home because of their work in or from the area – as fishermen, or pilots, or as traders in the community. The appeal of the location attracted colonial gentry to establish grand houses in Watsons Bay, from the 1830s onwards. And the largest group of all was the visitors who came to Watsons Bay from the city of Sydney, from further afield in Australia and abroad, because of its vistas over the harbour and ocean.

In May 1792 a fishery was established here 'exclusively for the use of the sick' under a man named Barton who was also to act as a pilot for ships. Watsons Bay remained the base for pilots for over a century. Robert Watson, living near South Head and undertaking some piloting duties since at least 1809 were formally appointed in 1811 as pilot of Port Jackson. He gave his name to the area: Governor Macquarie recorded a visit on 9th April 1811 'To Camp Cove, now called Watson's Bay, where the native fig tree spreads its foliage into an agreeable alcove.'

Robert Watson became harbourmaster in 1813, and the first keeper of the Macquarie Lighthouse in 1818. The government allowed Robert Watson land on which he built a stone house, still standing to 1830.

To reach arriving boats, pilots used open 'whaling' boats. A 'tent' at Camp Cove was the home for pilot George Bainbridge and seven others, six classified in the census of 1841 under 'Mahomedans and Pagans' being probably Maori who had left visiting shipping to work in the pilot boats.

By 1847 Portuguese sailors who had settled in Watsons Bay provided pilot services as well as being fishermen. In 1860 the Government bought back land to build a Pilot Station, and the service has varied between public and private control from that time. In 1875 there were five pilots and a dedicated pilot vessel, the Thetis, available to shipping. The most recent pilot station was closed in 2008.

Watsons Bay was long a base for fishermen – in the first half of the last century they would sell their catch from around the tree near the end of the Watsons Bay wharf. Some, like several Portuguese and the Afro-American 'Black Peter', had arrived in Sydney as crew of foreign vessels and decided to stay. The wharf has been a base for game fishermen, host to famous visitors including Zane Grey.

Other government officials at Watsons Bay have included police, postal officials, military families and support staff for lighthouses and Signal Station.

The land to the east and south of Watsons Bay beach itself, apart from some government reserves, was gradually disposed of in land grants from the 1830s, whose subsequent subdivision marked the development of the suburb and its extension to Vaucluse.

Thomas Watson, master mariner and pilot, built a 'marine villa' on his 1834 land grant – the site of today's Robertson Park - but rented and then sold it to Hannibal Hawkins Macarthur from 1837/8 and it he named it Clovelly. In 1848 it was sold to Henry Watson Parker, son-in-law of John and Elizabeth Macarthur and future premier of New South Wales. From 1864 Clovelly was occupied (and later bought) by (Sir) John Robertson, several times premier of NSW. Clovelly fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished in 1903. The site and adjacent area were resumed by the government and became today's Robertson Park, mainly recreational but in World War II containing an air raid shelter.

Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney

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Early Watsons Bay (Clovelly 1884)
State Library of NSW