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The Growth of Watsons Bay

The 1841 census recorded 13 households with 122 people in all. In 25 years the population grew from 122 in 1841 to a recorded population of 237 people. As subdivisions continued and the number of houses grew, the size of most of those households reduced, so that the 2006 Census recorded just 691 residents of Watsons Bay in 241 occupied private dwellings.

The growth of civil government and military use, residence and visitors had its impact on the landscape. Images of Watsons Bay, The Gap and South Head from the mid 19th century onwards show barren rocky treeless wastes stretching between buildings, while livestock browsed. Today's rich natural vegetation and parks are the effort of recent decades and changed ownership of open spaces.

The class mix of Watsons Bay continued long into the 20th century. Expensive modem houses, the equivalent of the 19th century 'marine villas', continued to be built alongside the small weatherboard cottages originally occupied by fishermen, government officials (including now the military) and local traders. An artistic community was also drawn to this area. Famous residents included novelist Christina Stead who used area in her writings. Some families remained in Watsons Bay across several generations but property prices and the high value of land in the area have made a gradual and irreversible transition. The heritage value of Watsons Bay has been reflected in successive planning strategies adopted by Woollahra Council.

Watsons Bay in the 19th century was an hour by horse and carriage and half an hour by boat from Sydney. Even the growth of ferries and trams was focussed on the needs of tourists, not residents. Until the development of private car ownership, local shops therefore served the needs of the residents of Watsons Bay and in the 20th century those of the growing population of adjacent Vaucluse (a suburb which grew to thirteen times the residents of Watsons Bay). At different times Watsons Bay had its own bakery, butchery, general store, haberdashery, barber, pharmacy, newsagent and fuel merchant, even service station. There had been a part time post office from 1854 and a permanent building from 1889 to 1988.

In the early years of the colony, Watsons Bay was of interest to the government because of its location: the site for staff of the lookout and Signal Station, for the lighthouses, for pilots and the water police. Its military importance grew with the fortification of South Head from the 1850s. Land grants were initially given to public servants whose role brought them to this extreme end of the city. The development of a mixed and larger community, especially after the subdivision of Laing's grant in 1855-6, brought the area's development more into the sphere of Woollahra Municipality (established 1860). But with the growth of housing in adjacent Vaucluse, a Vaucluse Municipality was established from 1895. It took over the site of the former Gap Hotel in 1910 as the new Town Hall. This site remained in use until the move into Dunbar House in 1924. After that date the site was acquired by the Vaucluse Masonic Lodge and in 1926 divided into a Masonic Hall, and a cinema on Military Road.

As a place to live, a place to work, a place to visit, Watsons Bay history is intricately woven with that of South Head, Camp Cove, The Gap and HMAS Watson. It has developed churches and church meeting rooms and schools, had its own shops, services, post office, multiple hotels and tea rooms, a cinema and even a zoo; a destination for private boats and carriages, for trams and ferries, into the era of buses and private cars. The character if its residents may have changed, the number of its visitors too, but its dominant features defined by its access to harbour and ocean remain unchanged and unchangeable.

Published with thanks to the Dictionary of Sydney

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The Growth of Watsons Bay
Star Photo Co, State Library of NSW