Wednesday 30 September 2020

Winter Wanderings Series: Woolloomooloo Bay

View from Rose Bank villa, Darlinghurst into Woolloomooloo Bay
Conrad Martens, 1840

We have a final tour to take today, Dear Reader, to complete the trio of bays which encircle the Urban Island we Pipistrellos call home, where most of the winter perambulations have taken place, and which has the most colourful name of all, viz., Woolloomooloo. The 311 bus will obligingly descend the hill to the waterfront but, as we are wandering, we necessarily must tackle stairs. But let us pause first to take in the surprising modern view.

Hullo, Sailor!

Your eyes do not deceive you. This is indeed our local naval base, HMAS Kuttabul, a.k.a. Garden Island, seen from Embarkation Park, which is itself atop the Navy carpark built alongside the cliff face. There are perhaps not many cities about where a deep-water harbour shelters a working navy in almost full view of residents, tourists and plenty of opportunistic seagulls. Not to mention the similarly shrieking, St Trinian's-styled Catholic schoolgirls in the Convent school we have to dodge to enter said park.

Busy, busy on the bay.
The city just yonder.

The Navy is a reasonably companionable neighbour, and often plays host to visiting, non-nuclear-powered ships, (but not since the Plague descended, obv.), so sailors of all colours and stripes are seen in our local shops and cafés when they come ashore. I have seen a sign at the gate to declare Photography Verboten, however benches in the park where these photos were taken give you a perfect vantage.

The restored wharf now home to a luxury hotel and apartments.

And neither can the residents and visitors to the Finger Wharf above resist their even closer view. I gather that there is a nuisance factor for the residents who live closest to the action in the form of hopeless radio and television reception, which is disturbed by the goings on, and when there is a particularly stinky, old ship idling with its engines humming, For No Good Reason, the pong requires us to close our windows if the wind brings it our way, but the general colour & movement makes for a rather unique neighbourhood.

 Sali Herman, 1944
Taking some artistic license with the scale of the McElhone Stairs

The circa 1902 McElhone Stairs, adjacent to Embarkation Park, bring us to sea level in 113 steps, and we are but moments away from the gentrified, timber Finger Wharf which is a the latest incarnation of Woolloomooloo's marine character.

Another Conrad Martens view of Rosebank, 1840
Where yakking over the backyard fence was already in vogue

The gardens and villas built in the early nineteenth century around the picturesque horseshoe bay, to a lofty plan specified by the then Governor of the Colony* to be both encouragement and rebuke to the grotty convicts in the next cove, gave way through subdivision to more workers cottages and boarding houses when a proper wharf was constructed. And as is the way of such places, in no time the fishing and coastal shipping trading which sprang up brought their own support industries like pubs and brothels and gaming houses. And lo!, there goeth the neighbourhood.

Original fish market, 1892

Of course, slums and gangs and occasional outbreaks of plagues and pestilence subsequently furnished most of the headlines for the area until the buildings were razed, the fish market was moved elsewhere and the Finger Wharf was built to unify the chaos of the small wharves during the Edwardian era. 

Troops ready for embarkation, 1916

After which, it settled down for a while to just a regular old shabby and impoverished area, notable for being the embarkation point for soldiers heading to war from the Boer War on, the landing point for the twentieth century immigrants arriving before the advent of affordable air travel, and, of course, a major dispatch point for the country's wool export, whose various baling paraphernalia are still found decorating the interior of the newly renovated wharf.

Here be dragons! Of the steel chain variety.
Mike Van Dam, 2015

Which is where we are today. The wharf is now home to an up-market hotel, fancy apartments where such glitterati as the likes of Russell Crowe** may be found living, an attendant marina, and a row of very expensive, waterfront restaurants. And while the gentlemen and naval sailors may not be the reliably pugilistic crowd as could be found in times past, they and the millionaires now living on the water have certainly lifted the tone of Woolloomooloo Bay again.

Which reminds me, we were happy with the Game of Thrones denouement,
Even if it went a bit rogue from the books ... Still waiting, G.R.R.M!

More stairs, such as those behind our dragon, who mysteriously moved to guard them this winter, lead directly up to the western flank of the bay where we find the Art Gallery of New South Wales cheek by jowl with the Royal Botanical Gardens and our nearest outdoor swimming pool, the Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool, and Mrs Macquarie's Chair (for another day).

The pool on a sunny pre-plague day,
Where the narrow bay can be monitored (or ignored) by all comers

And to complete a wander that seems longer in the reading than the walking, we can head back home, more or less retracing our steps. As there is slightly less vigour required, we'll bypass the McElhone Stairs and take instead the 1882 Butler Stairs, with their mere 103 sandstone steps, as we can wave a cheery Hullo! to J&P who live at their foot, and they deposit us slightly closer to the roost.

The Butler Stairs and view across Woolloomooloo to the City,
Frederic Schell wood engraving, 1892

* One Ralph Darling, who will make a future appearance around these pages, as he lends his quaint name quite liberally around the 'hood.

** Or has he moved? I do not know. I rub shoulders with such as he, not!

Image credits: 1, 5: National Gallery of Australia; 2-4, 9-11: Flying With Hands; 6, 7: State Library NSW; 8: via Flickr; 12: Internet Archive


  1. I presume that Wooloomooloo-loo-loo is an Aboriginal name; they do seem obsessed with double 'O's.

  2. Cro: I'm not entirely sure that it is Aboriginal, but it sounds for all the world like one. Or yes, the coiner just loved looping his 'O's!

  3. This is absolutely fascinating, I enjoy seeing all the images - quite some change of view from that of Rosebank Villa in 1840!

  4. Rosemary: Thank you. It's rather like the story of a much older city in England in fast motion! For the Aboriginals who were muscled out, they would have had no conception of what was to come, and even for the convicts & co who tumbled ashore just around the corner in 1788, the place changed beyond all reckoning in their own lifetimes. It still happens today; turn your back for 5 minutes and something will have changed.

    SO much interest at YOUR DOOR STEP!

  6. Contessa: Haha, no! Is is a proverbial island in that if you chose to, you need not venture out of the little headland where our neighbourhood sits. It's rather self-contained and has water on three sides. Almost an island! xx

  7. I love that metal dragon, he looks like he might come to life. The mini-history notes are interesting. I live near water too, the Pacific Ocean is very near my house.

  8. Terra: Yes, he's a beauty! Living near water is wonderful, so I'd say we're both lucky.


Thank you for commenting, it is greatly appreciated.

It can be a challenge to persist in the matching up of street signs and other exciting pastimes this comment feature may send your way, so if it gets too annoying, feel free to email your comment to me at pipistrello (at) flyingwithhands (dot) com and I'll post it for you.

Bats In The Belfry