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On 2 March 1788 Captain Arthur Phillip sailed north to the inlet described by Captain James Cook in 1770 as a "broken land". Phillip explored the southern arm of Broken Bay and declared it "the finest piece of Water I ever saw". He "honoured [it] with the name of Pitt Water", after William Pitt, the Younger, who was Prime Minister of England.

Phillip was searching for the farming land he needed to feed the new colony at Port Jackson. While Pittwater was unsuitable farms were established on the fertile land along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Produce was transported by ships, which waited to form a convoy in Pittwater, before sailing together to Sydney.

Initially, the area was beyond the law, harbouring escaped convicts and smuggled rum. These convicts lived in caves or rough shacks and attempted to survive as best they could in the bushland. In 1819, a constable was appointed to bring the rule of law to Pittwater. In 1843 a customs house was built at Barrenjoey in an attempt to limit rum smuggling.

Beginning in 1810, land grants were allocated to pardoned convicts and free settlers. Initially people made a living by cutting shingles from casuarina, (she-oaks) and ironbark trees, for roof tiles, extracting salt from seawater and fishing. The many Aboriginal middens around the foreshores of Pittwater provided a rich supply of shells which were burned to yield lime for construction of buildings in Sydney and Parramatta. Some land was cleared for cultivation and to provide timber for building and fuel. Later the Pittwater area became a farming district grazing sheep, cattle, horses and pigs and producing butter, milk, vegetables, fruit and wheat.

Pittwater was isolated and access was mainly by ship to Barrenjoey. The earliest land explorations followed Aboriginal tracks through the bush. Gradually, a rough bush road was established from Manly, which ran close to the coast as far as Narrabeen. In 1883 a bridge spanned the ford at Narrabeen and the route extended to Mona Vale. Here the Rock Lily Hotel was opened in 1886, where travellers could refresh themselves and horses could be changed. The route then forked with a road to the northwest to Bayview and Church Point, passengers for Newport changed to a smaller coach and took the route to the northeast.

By 1913 trams had replaced coaches and ran as far as Narrabeen. Passengers journeying further north could connect with a bus service, which was established in 1920. After The Spit (1924), Roseville (1924) and Sydney Harbour (1932) bridges were opened, the Pittwater peninsula was more easily reached. Especially with the increasing number of private motor cars, a holiday or day-trip to the area became more feasible. Many homes in the area were holiday shacks, used only a few times per year.

Since the 1950s Pittwater has become predominantly residential in character and a suburban region of Sydney. It has however largely retained the beauty for which it was renowned in the early days of European settlement. The region integrates suburban development into a natural setting of bushland and waterways, which include nine coastal beaches, the magnificent Pittwater estuary and Narrabeen Lagoon.


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Beau McFee of Bayview describes his role in Pittwater during World War II

"In June ‘42 the order was given to evacuate all craft (including dinghies) from Pittwater and moor them in Cowan Creek (upstream from the Galston Punt). Three boat builders, Cedric Williams (Bayview), Solomans (Newport) and Goddards (Palm Beach) were authorised to perform the work. As the coxswain of the pre-war Pittwater Aquatic Club’s Eight (housed in the current Scout Hall), I was teamed with Cedric Williams as his only crew. We selected a solid, twin-engined 40ft cruiser as our tug and proceeded to remove all boats from moorings, boat sheds and onshore and to tow them to Cowan. Cedric’s elder brother, Jack Williams operated a similar unit. We lived on the boat for about 3 weeks and travelled most of the night and all day. Not much studying for the Leaving [certificate] was achieved. However, I was on the Department of Supply payroll as compensation.

After about 60% of the craft were in Cowan Creek, torrential rain caused a massive flood in the upper regions of Cowan. The boats broke the steel cable mooring lines, then the Punt cables (crushing scores of boats in the process) and the whole armada floated into the Hawkesbury and down to West Head. Next day we started collecting boats as they drifted down the river and towed them back to Cowan. The river was littered with debris and the damage enormous. Owners were subsequently compensated and Cedric Williams later in the war, as an Army Lieutenant in the small ships section, spent 1-2 years handling compensations. I spent the next 3 years in New Guinea, Darwin and Borneo and returned to Bayview in December 1945, in time to receive our family's old 12ft skiff from the Cowan storage - all in one piece, whereas many fine craft were lost or damaged."

Fred Grant who acted as driver for the officers who had to enforce this measure commented

"Naturally this upset a lot of people, in fact I thought we were going to have a fight on our hands, but the officers of the Fisheries and Maritime Services did a good job talking people into obeying these orders. I think when the Japs later attacked Sydney harbour and started to sink ships along our coast it made them realise how close the Japs were to invasion.

This project must have cost the government millions of pounds, the boats had to be looked after and what with floods destroying and washing many boats away…"

Australia Remembers Exhibition, 1995.


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"Pittwater,a splendid view of which can be obtained from Newport, is the widest arm of the Hawkesbury, and the one whence the Sydney traffic must come. It is about half a mile there, but below it spreads out to a width of two miles. On the eastern shore the country is hilly, but scarcely mountainous – although Mount Loftus rises to an altitude of over four hundred feet; but on the western side the hills attain twice that elevation. There are numerous inlets; some of them extending a long way among the hills, and which are almost strangers to the foot of man, and doubtless abound with wallaby and other marsupials."

Mills, Pile and Gilchrist, Description of Newport, Pittwater and Hawkesbury, c.1881

Sea trip to Pittwater on Queen’s Birthday holiday

"The Kembla started from the Circular Quay sharp to the time, 9.30a.m., with a full complement of excursionists, numbering about four hundred, leaving a large number behind; indeed, a second steamer had she been available, would have been well filled. Captain Skinner, however, does not seem inclined to come under unfavourable comment at the hands of the Marine Board, and for choice disappointed many rather than bring himself and owners into disrepute with the authorities. The passage was made under the most favourable circumstances, a clear sky and a smooth sea; everyone, from the hardened seaman to the more delicate of the fair sex, and even children, enjoying the ocean trip. On rounding Barranjoey a local pilot was taken on board, when the good ship sped on her way, affording ample opportunity for admiration of the magnificent scenery on both sides of Pittwater, with its many beautiful bays and inlets, and safely landing her passengers at the Newport Wharf about noon. Here a large number disembarked; others first partaking of the good and substantial viands provided by the ship’s providore; the others being fully satisfied with the regime of Host Farrell of Manly, who had an extension of license for this special purpose. The inward man being satisfied, the township and surrounding locality were fully explored and criticised, pleased astonishment with the character and beauties of the country being the general observation. Newport is but in embryo, but it promises much. Already the streets have been cleared, allotments marked out, and a commodious hotel of a dozen rooms is almost completed. Independent of local attractions, Hawkesbury tourists who do not care to encounter the sea voyage – which is not always as favourable as it was yesterday – will at Newport find a pleasant resting place via Manly, from which coaches now run regularly to meet Mr. Jeanneret’s steamer to Windsor, one of the most delightful trips we know. All parties having fully enjoyed themselves, the steamer’s bell gave out its warning sounds, and at the nominated hour, 4 o’clock punctually, the good ship Kembla left Newport Wharf, passed down Pittwater, and when off Barranjoey, having landed her pilot, Captain Skinner gave his visitors a view of the great and beautiful Hawkesbury as far as Cowan Creek, when turning the ship’s head for Sydney, she passed the lighthouse at 6.15p.m., and rounding the southern head of Broken Bay a brilliant display of blue lights, rockets, and other fantastic fireworks was exhibited from the ship’s deck, the glorious full moon adding all her charms to the scene; and the whole number carried so comfortably on board the favourite old Kembla were safely landed without a single accident at about 8p.m., everyone seemingly much pleased with the experience of their seagoing Pittwater picnic."

Sydney Daily Telegraph, 25 May 1880

Further reading

Top  Memories  Reading  Further Reading

Nan Bosler, Fascinating History of Pittwater, Vols1-4, 1997-2000.
General history

S & G Champion, Manly Warringah Pittwater 1788-1850, 1997.
S & G Champion, Manly Warringah Pittwater 1850-1880, 1998.
General history

PW Gledhill, Manly and Pittwater. Its Beauty and Progress, 1946.
General history

Joan Lawrence, Pittwater Paradise, 1994. Pittwater Pictorial History, 2006.
Historical and contemporary information.

James Macken, Martin Burke, The Father of Pittwater, 1994.
General history nineteenth century

James J. Macken, Pittwater's War, Sydney, 2002.
Local defence during World War II.

Alan Sharpe, Manly to Palm Beach, 1983.
Pictorial history.