Many years ago in the days before ‘economic rationalism’ some government departments and certain commercial entities provided houses for their staff. In this way these staff were nearby when needed, even outside normal hours. The modern way in Sydney, it seems, is to ensure one’s employees live as far away from the job as is possible.*
The Sydney Harbour Trust, when it was formed in 1901, was responsible for the rebuilding of the commercial port of Sydney and the job was enormous. One of the first things it did was to consolidate its large force of working vessels on the centrally-positioned Goat Island.
A shipyard with repair facilities and slipways was established on the western side. On the other sides of the island the dredging service with its tugs, barges and staff was established along with the marine fire brigade, which is claimed to have been the first organised government fire brigade in Australia.
To operate this considerable body of equipment required many people. The requirement for the marine fire brigade to be quickly available in those pre two-way-radio days meant that it was preferable for additional staff to be nearby, something that was difficult on an island if the staff lived ashore. There was plenty of room on Goat Island’s roughly 500m by 300m.
From the end of World War One for perhaps a decade, two rows of self-contained houses and a single-men’s barracks were built on the crown of the island and along the lower part of the eastern side. The houses were fairly standard solid cottages of the period and were of various sizes according to the family needs or staff seniority of the intended occupants.
In pride of place was the magnificent two story Harbourmaster’s house with its strategically-placed balcony from which this august individual, armed no doubt with a telescope and a signalman nearby, could keep an eye on the commercial activities of the port.
Not counting the single men’s barracks which was used, mainly, by the duty fire crew, there was a dozen homes on the island. Of these only two were not purpose built. On the southern end of the island is the stone-built officers quarters, dating back to the 1830s when the island was used as a convict gaol. The separate kitchen and storeroom area was in use as a family home when I began work on the island in 1980.
On the eastern point of the island, facing directly towards the Harbour Bridge was and is House Number 12. This started life as the headquarters of the Water Police which had earlier been known as the ‘Rowboat Guard’ (Afloat Nov’89) and who probably still used oars and sails to patrol the port. According to an old Maritime Services Board publication the building was erected in 1838 and it also served to accommodate some, perhaps, of the soldiers who were required to control the convicts which were kept on the island.
When I was working on the island at various times between 1980 and 1990, the old Police Building was in a bad state of disrepair and only five of the purpose-built houses, including the Harbour Master’s mansion, were still standing and lack of maintenance was starting to show.
Several families still lived on the island but following the introduction of the Greiner government with its dogma of ‘user pays’, rents asked for the properties on the island began a steep rise. An article in a Sydney paper berated the government for allowing low paid workers to have the benefit of ‘million dollar views’ at peppercorn rates. The no-doubt, well paid author of this tripe failed to understand the idea that having people immediately on hand was an intangible bonus for the port authority.
By the late 1980s the last families had left the island and moved many kilometres north or west. An unusual, almost unknown way of life had ended.
Many years ago I worked for the same press company as did aviation writer Ben Sandilands and he told me of his early childhood on the island and of going to school by launch from the island to Woolwich. More recently he has commented on the web about living in House Number 4 which was built in 1922 and about the joys and delights of a child’s life on the island in the 1950s.
Arthur Hocroft, a long-term member of the Sydney Heritage Fleet and ex-Burns Philp seaman, grew up on the island before World War Two and he told me of the dance parties and socials that were organised in the island’s meeting house near the tennis court, of chasing the sheep that acted as mobile mowers (no goats at that time) and of swimming in the small sea water pool that was formed at the northern end of the convict-made cutting that divides the eastern side of the island.
In those days the Parramatta River ferry service made on-demand calls at the wharf on the northern side. Several well-maintained paths allowed traffic for the shipyard to reach the area.
While certain aspects of life on Goat Island may have been idyllic there were less ideal aspects. Medical help, particularly during pregnancies, required either phone calls to the city and a launch trip to meet an ambulance or a prior arrangement for doctors to come to the island using the Board’s launches. Shopping was difficult and travel was always by public transport. Several of the parents of the last island families had to learn to drive after they were ordered to leave the homes they had grown up in.
After WWII, Sydney Ferries Ltd reduced its Lane Cove and Parramatta River services, and the island took over its own traffic system. The 36ft ‘G’ launches which were built on the island from about 1947 onwards, were used for many general duties including as light tugs.
For about 18 hours a day, one of these launches was used on what became known as the ‘Sputnik’ run. The Soviet Union’s world-first earth satellite was known as Sputnik and it went around and around the globe. The Sputnik launch went around and around Goat Island.
The route was from Dredge Steps beneath the Old Police office on the eastern end, to Ferry Steps on the eastern side, then, anti-clockwise, to the shipyard steps and from there to Darling St ferry wharf Balmain (if required). Next stop was Central Steps at Millers Point (near the present marine base of Sydney Port Authority).
From there the run was into Sydney Cove to the Commissioners’ Steps which were (and are) roughly level with the ferry wharves on the western side of the cove. This was an easy walk to the MSB HQ now the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Some of Sydney’s more knowing citizens were aware of the Sputnik route. It was not unusual for office workers to step on board, looking very casual to enjoy their ‘sangers’ during the roughly 40 minute trip. There was always a constant stream of people going to some part of the island on duty or on business and the coxswain of the launch was never instructed to check the bonafides of the 25-odd people that might be aboard.
* Several NSW departments required staff living in cheap harbourside accommodation to leave.
One such was the NPWS staff member, living in an old and ramshackle cottage on Steel Point in Nielsen Park. He and his family certainly had ‘million dollar’ views westward towards the Harbour Bridge. But, out of working hours he patrolled the park in his own time, without pay, and provided constant supervision.
When his employer priced him out of his ‘perk’ he moved back to his own home in Granville and attended work by public transport from then on. His employer soon found it necessary to pay for private security patrols overnight and weekends at a cost much greater than the amount of rent foregone. Odd that!
In Part 2, I’ll discuss the end of the island as an integral part of a busy port and query the value and effect of the last 20 years of occupation by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife.