Looking up - Sydney's history from a new angle


Living with sharks on the Georges River

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on October 29, 2014. [No comments]

Beryl Morrin, who lost both arms as a result of a shark attack in the Georges River on New Year's Eve, with a nurse at Canterbury Hospital 10 February 1935. By Sam Hood. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, hood_11846 / Home Away 11846, Mitchell Library

If you grew up beside a tidal river in Sydney, chances are you have heard local stories of shark attacks. Some of these have been documented in a new article by Sharyn Cullis as part of our Georges River Project, which we proudly launched last Thursday evening.

The danger of sharks has never been great. The statistical record of shark attacks in NSW from 1791-2009 reveals that before 1974, people were far more likely to be the fatal victim of a shark attack than since and the danger has been greater in estuaries (tidal rivers and their mouths) like the lower George River and Botany Bay.

While shark attacks were recorded in Sydney Harbour and the Parramatta River from 1791 onwards, the first attack for the Botany Bay/Georges River system was recorded in January 1906. This does not mean sharks were not present in earlier days: far fewer swimmers were widespread in the Georges River, confined instead to areas like the celebrated Brighton Baths in Botany Bay, established in the 1880s.

A series of attacks – both fatal and serious maullings – were reported in local papers in the 1930s and 1940s. Summer was particularly dangerous. Newspapers reported these shark attacks in the Georges River and framed the events in terms of innocent swimmers, marauding monsters and brave rescuers. Our article gives details of several locally “famous” attacks, including Beryl Morrin, a 13 year old who lost both arms as a result of a shark attack on New Year’s Eve in 1934. Beryl was not expected to live but mirraculously did so. She went on to become a local legend, showing pluck and resilience after such a serious setback, riding bikes and swimming on regardless. We have a photograph of plucky Beryl recuperating at Canterbury Hospital.

One trend that wasn’t regularly reported is the number of people who were attacked outside of shark nets. Netting of river beaches and favourite swimming spots was a practical protection that many ignored to their own peril. There have been no recent fatal human shark attacks in the Georges River, yet studies confirm that sharks still move up as far as Liverpool Weir, 45 kilometres from the sea.

Sharks live on in the river and in our collective imagination. Stories today are shared in online chat forums by kayakers, wake-boarders and people who fish the river. One fisherman in 2009 boasted of catching a bull shark in shallow water at a popular prawning spot on the Georges River. Characteristically, catching prawns requires standing in the in shallows with hand nets, on nights in the dark period of the moon cycle, so the fisherman issued this sinister warning: ‘It’s only a matter of time’.

You can hear Lisa’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning here and read more about our Georges River Project on the Dictionary here. Don’t forget to listen in next Wednesday morning for more Sydney history at 8:20am, 107.3


Happy 50th birthday Gladesville Bridge!

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on October 1, 2014. [1 comment]

Gladesville Bridge at the time of its official opening, October 1964

Gladesville Bridge at the time of its official opening, October 1964. By Paul Percival. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, d7_17540 / APA 17540, Mitchell Library

Tomorrow is a significant birthday for one of Sydney’s bridges. The Gladesville Bridge which spans the Parramatta River is turning 50 years old! The structure was officially opened to the public on 2 October 1964 by Her Royal Highness Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent.

The Gladesville Bridge was one of 13 bridges built by the Department of Main Roads during the 1960s, but it is certainly the most spectacular. Other concrete bridges included the Fig Tree Bridge (1963) over the Lane Cove River at Hunters Hill, the Captain Cook Bridge (1965) over the Georges River, and the Roseville Bridge (1966) over Middle Harbour.

The Gladesville Bridge replaced an earlier two-lane multi-span lattice iron bridge that had been built in 1881. The first Gladesville Bridge opened up road transport to the city. It remained the only roadway crossing of the Parramatta River to take road transport into the city until the Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932. A horse-drawn bus service started up, offering an alternative to ferry transport. Then in 1910 the tramline was extended through to Gladesville and eventually to Ryde. This reliable transport along the Great North Road, later Victoria Road, encouraged suburban residential subdivision.

By the 1950s the two-lane Gladesville Bridge had become a bottle-neck and a major congestion point on Sydney’s roads, particularly in peak hour traffic.

The new Gladesville Bridge was an engineering marvel and it claimed two international honours. It was the first large bridge in the world to be designed by computer. The enterprising design was by consulting engineers G Maunsell and Partners of London. At the time of construction, the Gladesville Bridge was the world’s longest concrete arch span, with a clear span of 1,000 feet or 305 metres. The bridge held this honour for 16 years.

The arch consists of four concrete-box arches constructed independently and then stressed laterally together. This shares equally the loads from the deck structure above. The placement of each of the concrete-boxes was a slow, precise business. The completed Gladesville Bridge weighs 78,000 tons, almost double the weight of steel in the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Like the Sydney Harbour Bridge before it, the emergence of the span across the Parramatta River captured the imagination of Sydneysiders. Artists sketched the massive structure and sightseers snapped souvenir photographs.

A public relations film was commissioned by the DMR to share with the general public the massive engineering enterprise. Each aspect of the construction is narrated in layman’s terms, accompanied by a cocktail lounge music score – you can view the clip here. It is a real retro piece that has been digitised by Australian Screen as part of our audiovisual heritage and the full 30 minute film can be viewed on the Roads and Maritime Gladesville Bridge 50th anniversary page.

The Gladesville Bridge connected Gladesville and Drummoyne and was envisaged to form part of the North Western Freeway that would connect the city to Newcastle through Glebe, Annandale, Lane Cove and then connect up with the freeway at Wahroonga. Community protests led the Wran government to abandon the project in 1977.

The Bridge’s anniversary is being marked by the unveiling of an Engineering Heritage International Marker. Roads and Maritime have also digitised photographs, programs, oral histories and films associated with the bridge. Happy 50th birthday Gladesville Bridge!

Department of Main Roads, The Roadmakers: A history of main roads in New South Wales, DMR NSW, 1976
Margaret Farlow and Angela Phippen, ‘Gladesville’, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008, http://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/gladesville 
Don Fraser (ed), Sydney: From Settlement to City – an engineering history of Sydney, Engineers Australia Pty Ltd, Sydney, 1989
Roads and Maritime, ‘50 year anniversary of Gladesville Bridge’ website

If you missed Lisa’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning you can catch up on the podcast via their website. Don’t forget to listen in next Wednesday morning for more Sydney history brought to you by the Dictionary and 2SER at 8:20am, 107.3



Cocky Bennett the Cockatoo

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 24, 2014. [No comments]

Cocky Bennett, Sea Breeze Hotel, Tom Uglys Point c1914. Image courtesy of the State Library of Victoria, Acc No:H23120

Cocky Bennett was a remarkably long-lived cockatoo who, after sailing the South Seas, became a fixture at the Sea Breeze Hotel at Tom Ugly’s Point in Blakehurst. This is one of the intriguing stories uncovered by the Dictionary in their recent Georges River project.

Now sulphur-crested cockatoos have long lives, sometimes up to 80 years. But in Sydney, Cocky Bennett smashed all these records. He was reputed to be 119 years old when he finally died. So his life spanned the eighteenth, nineteenth and part of the twentieth centuries.

Cocky spent his first 78 years travelling the world with Captain Ellis, his owner, who plied his ship in the South Sea Islands’ trade. The parrot’s confinement, and the Captain’s loneliness, could account for the bird’s talkativeness and his contact with other members of the crew, less literate than his owner, probably coarsened his vocabulary. He was an apt learner and a natural chatterbox.

Captain Ellis died and Cocky was bequeathed to publicans Joseph and Sarah Bowden. The bird moved to Melbourne but came back to Sydney in 1889 with Sarah after her husband’s death. She married Charles Bennett, another publican, and they moved in to Tom Ugly’s Point where Charles became the publican of the Sea Breeze Hotel.

Before motor traffic and modern bridges changed the scene, the Sea Breeze Hotel enjoyed great popularity as it was a convenient place to wait for the steam punt across the Georges River at Tom Ugly’s Point and it had an excellent reputation for its cuisine, especially the seafood. When Charles died in September 1898, Sarah continued as licensee until she retired in 1915.

Cocky lived in the hotel and for many years he ruled as ‘Cock of the Bar’. He was extremely talkative and popular and known to many thousands of residents and visitors far and wide who became acquainted with his colourful character.

Cocky had a cage on the hotel’s front verandah where he could watch the passing parade, greeting old friends in his raucous and inimitable style. His repertoire included phrases appropriate to a public house like ‘one at a time, gentlemen, please’. As he got older, Cocky started to lose his feathers. An oft-repeated saying quoted by his amused admirers was ‘If I had another b…y feather I’d fly!’ This usually came out of his mouth after a patron had given him a sip of beer.

Attached to the cage was a collection box to raise funds for St George Hospital and so generous was the response that three beds were endowed to the hospital. Each bed bears a plaque acknowledging the feathered collector.

So popular was Cocky Bennett that on his supposed birthday, the 1st September, thousands of cards flooded in to the hotel from his admirers.

When Sarah Bennett left the Sea Breeze Hotel in 1915 she presented the bird to her nephew, Murdock Alexander Wagschall, then licensee of the Woolpack Hotel, George Street, Canterbury, where Cocky was installed in the bar.

When Cocky died in 1916, at the grand old age of 119 years, his passing caused much lamentation. The Sydney Morning Herald printed his obituary on Saturday 27th May 1916 in which they called him ‘The Venerable Cockatoo’. He maintained his ‘patter’ till the end. Wagschall announced his intention to have the famous old bird stuffed and mounted by Tost and Rohu, then well-known taxidermists.

The granddaughter of Mr Wagschall donated the stuffed Cocky Bennett to Kogarah Historical Society, where he remains on exhibition at the Carss Cottage museum.

This is just one of the remarkable stories we have uncovered as part of the Georges River Project. Thanks to Kogarah Historical Society for their research on Cocky Bennett, and thanks to the Department of Environment and Heritage for the Your Community Heritage grant that supported the Georges River project.

Eighteen new stories on or around the Georges River have just been uploaded to the Dictionary and we’ll explore a few more over the coming weeks.

You can hear Lisa’s segment with Mitch on 2SER Breakfast this morning here and read more about Cocky on the Dictionary here. Don’t forget to listen in next Wednesday morning for more Sydney history at 8:20am, 107.3


Prince Alfred’s ill-fated tour

Posted by Lisa Murray in Blog on September 17, 2014. [No comments]

HRH Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh 1867-8. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales a4157018 / P1/18, Mitchell Library

Last week we talked about the Duke of Edinburgh’s visit to the Australian Museum and Henry Parkes’ mongoose. It was quite an eventful tour for Prince Alfred, who was the second son of Queen Victoria. His visit to Sydney was part of a world tour on his steam frigate HMS Galatea and marked the first visit of British royalty to our shores.

In the Australian colonies he visited Adelaide, Melbourne, Hobart and Brisbane, as well as coming twice to Sydney. He received a warm reception and there were many events hosted in his honour, including an impromptu fight between a snake and a mongoose at the Australian Museum.

But it was during his second call into Sydney that things hotted up. This was a time of simmering sectarian tension in the colonies, between Irish Catholics and non-Catholics. On the Prince’s visit to Melbourne, there had been a shooting incident between Orange and Catholic factions, as well as a riot at a free public banquet.

Despite rumours in Sydney of possible sectarian strife, he agreed to attend a picnic at Clontarf, a popular picnicking spot, on 12 March 1868. The picnic had been organised as a fund raiser for the Sydney Sailors’ Home by Sydney barrister and politician William Manning.

During the event, an Irishman who had suffered considerable mental illness, Henry James O’Farrell, attempted to assassinate the Prince. Although O’Farrell fired his pistol at close range, the bullet, on striking the prince’s back, glanced off the ribs, inflicting only a slight wound.

William Vial, a coach-maker from Elizabeth Street who was standing nearby, wrestled the gunman to the ground, preventing further shots from being fired. For valiantly saving the Prince’s life, he was presented with the Prince’s fob watch (which is now in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales). The perpetrator, Henry O’Farrell, only narrowly escaped lynching by the crowd, and was immediately arrested. The wounded prince was nursed by the newly arrived Lady Superintendent of Sydney Hospital, Lucy Osburn.

An assassination attempt on the Prince was a national scandal and wounded colonial pride. We almost killed the Prince! There was an outpouring of prejudice and racism towards Catholics and Irish. The day after the attempted shooting, 20,000 people attended a meeting in Sydney to express outrage at the assassination attempt. By the following week, there were daily ‘indignation meetings’ everywhere.

O'Farrell in Darlinghurst 1868. By Francis Charles Needham Newry. Viscount. Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6332101

O'Farrell in Darlinghurst 1868. By Viscount Francis Charles Needham Newry. Contributed by National Library of Australia nla.pic-an6332101

Anti-Irish sentiment boiled over, even in Parliament: the New South Wales Government, including Henry Parkes, passed the Treason Felony Act on 18 March, making it an offence to refuse to drink to the Queen’s health, and tried unsuccessfully to uncover a conspiracy.

To atone for the sin of a madman, citizens of New South Wales opened a public subscription fund to build a hospital as a memorial to his safe recovery. The Prince authorised his coat of arms to be used as the crest for the Prince Alfred Hospital (later Royal Prince Alfred Hospital), in Camperdown. Prince Alfred Park, on Cleveland Street, city park and Alfred street at Circular Quay were also named after Prince Alfred.

Prince Alfred made a full recovery by the end of March 1868, left for England on the Galatea in early April and arrived on 26 June.

And what was O’Farrell’s fate? Clemency for O’Farrell was refused, despite the prince’s own proposal to refer the sentence on O’Farrell to the Queen. He was convicted of attempted murder, despite his evident mental instability, and hanged on 21 April at Darlinghurst Gaol.

Further reading:

Assassination attempt on Prince Alfred 1868, Dictionary of Sydney, 2008
‘Attempt to assassinate HRH Prince Alfred, at Clontarf’, The South Australian Advertiser,  28 Mar 1868, p 2

You can listen to the podcast of Lisa’s segment on 2SER Breakfast with Mitch Byatt this morning here.


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