Watsons Bay History

As well as being one of the most beautiful suburbs in Australia, Watsons Bay has a very special place in our nation's history.

Aboriginal Australians from the Cadigal community camped, fished and collected shellfish around what is now Watsons Bay and there are numerous carvings of animals, fish and people on the rocks overlooking the ocean and harbour.

The first European landfall in Sydney Harbour occurred in Watsons Bay on 21 January 1788, when Captain Phillip and his party came ashore and camped overnight at Camp Cove on their way to select the site for what is now Sydney.

A lookout was built on the cliffs of Watsons Bay by colonists in 1790 before a signal station took over the job of notifying the city and local pilots of the arrival of ships in 1838. To the south of the signal station stood Macquarie Lighthouse, which was later replaced by a near identical building. After the famous 1857 wrecking of the Dunbar on the rocks below The Gap, the distinctive red and white striped Hornby Light was also constructed.

Initial fortifications for the defence of Sydney Harbour were erected on the cliffs of Watsons Bay in 1854, though they were only armed in the 1870s. The First World War resulted in further military installations on the cliffs, and an artillery battery was added during the Second World War. Military training has long taken place in the area, and HMAS Watson was established in 1945 and is now Australia’s major maritime warfare training base.

In the early days of the colony, homes were built in Watsons Bay for government officials working at the lookout, signal station and lighthouses, as well as in the military. Many early members of Sydney's elite also chose to live in the area, including two 19th century NSW premiers.

Besides government officials, fishermen, private pilots, tradespeople, shopkeepers and hoteliers made their home in Watsons Bay, with its population growing from three dozen in 1828 to 122 in 1841. In the 1850s the land around Camp Cove was subdivided into domestic plots and many of the weatherboard houses built around this time still stand. By 1880 the village of Watsons Bay comprised 64 households, three churches, a school, grocers and a post office.

Because of its extraordinary physical beauty sightseers have always flocked to Watsons Bay, with a regular ferry service beginning in the 1870s, leading to the establishment of a number of hotels as well as the tea rooms which later became Doyle's Restaurant. A tram line to the Signal Station was built in 1903 and subsequently extended to Watsons Bay before it stopped operating in 1960.

Ferries remain the most popular way for Australian and overseas visitors to see the natural beauty, historic heritage and charm of Watsons Bay.

View of the Heads at the entrance to Port Jackson

Photo: 'View of the Heads at the entrance to Port Jackson' by Joseph Lycett, from 'Views of Australia', 1824

For a fuller history of Watsons Bay and area, click here (pdf 1.7mb).

More History

Follow the links below to learn more about the history of Watsons Bay:

People of Watsons Bay
Places of Watsons Bay

History (PDF 1.7mb)