Walter D. White, writing in the Kiama Reporter in 1923 waxed lyrical about his town.
The fairest jewel, fringed by the sounding sea,
This gem of Illawarra’s diadem.
This spirit still represents the attitude of the current residents. To them Kiama is the jewel in the crown. Recent real estate prices have reinforced this perception. But Kiama had humble beginnings.
The first European record of the area was by James Cook in the Endeavour on 23 April 1770. This was followed by George Bass who, on 6 December 1789 while undertaking his whaleboat expedition down the NSW coast, sheltered in the bay that was to become Kiama Harbour. He must have walked over to the basaltic rock formation at the end of Blow Hole Point because he described the Blow Hole.
Towards the centre was a deep ragged hole of about 25 to 30ft in diameter and on one side of it the sea washed in through a subterranean passage … with the most tremendous noise …
In an article in the Kiama Independent of February 1893, it was asserted that Kiama was a corruption of the Aboriginal word kiaram meaning ‘where the sea makes a noise’. This is an obvious reference to the Blow Hole. However, others contended that the Aboriginal word meant ‘plenty of food’ or ‘good fishing ground’ or even the more generic ‘fertile district’. Others saw it as a reference to ‘a mysterious spirit’ or ‘the creator’.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the NSW coastline was being examined to determine the presence of cedar, the most valuable timber in the bush lands of the coastal districts. The cedar trees were frequently one to one-anda- half metres in diameter and towered above the canopy of the other trees. However, cedar trees were often entangled in vines that had to be cut away before they could be felled.
The gathering of cedar was not a start to settlement.
Cedar cutters were generally itinerants who found the trees, felled them and established a sawpit to cut the logs into sawn timber. The cutters did not seek land grants as they moved from felling site to felling site. It is recorded that cedar was being harvested from as early as 1810 in the Lake Illawarra district.
In 1802, the government issued orders that no cedar could be cut down without the permission of the authorities – it was to be regarded as the property of the Crown. Thus cedar cutting remained a clandestine activity but this was not pursued in the Illawarra because of the abundance of cedar being taken from the Hunter and the NSW north coast. When Macquarie visited the Illawarra in January 1822, he noted that cedar cutting was well established.
In October 1819, The Surveyor- General John Oxley explored the Kiama coastline by sea. Oxley called the district Kiarmi.
Meanwhile, James Meehan, the Deputy Surveyor-General, led an expedition on land, approaching the coast from the Bowral/Bong Bong area. When Barron Fields visited the district in 1822, he noted that the Government had not secured any portions of the cedar grounds but in July 1825, a notice in the Government Gazette stated that future permission must be obtained from the Colonial Secretary for cutting cedar from unlocated grounds.
Penalties also applied to ships that transported this illegally cut timber. In the Illawarra, cedar grew in small stands along the mountain slopes and along almost every stream. There was a large stand in the Dapto region, at Jaspers Brush near Nowra but the biggest resource was to be found between Kiama and Jamberoo. Cedar grew from what is now the Queensland border to as far south as Ulladulla. The cedar harvested from the Kiama/Jamberoo district was manually hauled up the escarpment over a rough track to the Bowral area and then sent to Sydney. Alternatively, the timber was shipped with the principal port being Kiama.
The first European settler in the Kiama district was David Smith who began cutting cedar as early as 1821. By July 1826, a detachment of the 40th Regiment was sent to Kiama from Wollongong under the command of Captain Bishop. His instructions were, ‘to protect settlers from cedar getters, bushrangers and vagabonds’. It is thought that he was also there to protect both cedar getters and settlers from the troublesome local Aborigines but this is not stated in his instructions.
Also in 1826, the site of the town of Kiama was reserved and in 1829 Surveyor Knapp was instructed to make a plan in preparation for the laying out of the township. Knapp was followed by the surveyors Hoddle in 1829 and Jacques in 1831.
By 1827, David Smith had built the first private home in Kiama. Smith was born in Portsmouth in 1799 and in 1818 was convicted at the Suffolk Assizes and sentenced to seven years transportation. He arrived in Sydney aboard the transport John Barry on 7 October 1819 and in 1821, he was sent by a coastal trader to cut cedar in the Kiama district.
In 1832, Smith married Ann Davis and built a house of bricks and wood, large enough to house him and his wife, their two children and three male domestic servants. Their house was on the corner of what is now Bong Bong and Shoalhaven Streets and was built on a half-acre block. It was the first built in Kiama. In 1837, he converted the house into an inn that he named ‘The Gum Tree’, the licence being issued on 3 July 1837.
David Smith died 13 December 1883 and is buried at the Kiama General Cemetery, Bombo. His grave was restored by 11 December 1983 in time to commemorate the centenary of his death.
Settlement in Kiama proceeded with the first pioneers residing near the harbour. The village was planned and approved by Surveyor-General Thomas Mitchell on 16 February 1839. Plans show a government cottage, Smith’s house and the burial ground.
Kiama is located on a bay originally named after David Smith and now generally referred to as Kiama Harbour. From the earliest days, the European settlement was served by small coastal sailing vessels. These anchored in the bay and boats loaded and unloaded their cargoes and passengers from Black Beach. The site was near a Moreton Bay fig tree that was also used as a bollard for a ship’s mooring line. Although this tree was destroyed by a storm in 1964, a new tree has been planted in its place. Sailing ships Bee, Charles, Pedlar and Dolphin were regular visitors to Kiama by 1847.
However, the harbour was badly affected by the weather. Nor’easters made conditions difficult during the summer months, and southerly weather that swept across Storm Bay (the cove immediately south of the Blow Hole peninsula) and through a gap into the harbour, often making conditions there unsafe and unworkable. Sometimes the harbour was rendered unusable for days on end.
The first jetty and an adjoining shed were built in the harbour in 1849 and the wharf extended in 1852 when steamer traffic became a regular feature. A grant to extend the wharf was successful in 1856. To cope with ships entering the bay during a nor’easter, chains were laid across the bay that could be caught by a ship trailing an anchor. This slowed and eventually stopped the vessel so it could manoeuvre and dock at the wharf. It seems like the same principle as trip wires on an aircraft carrier.
By the end of 1849, the exports from Kiama included wheat, barley, pork and bacon, butter, ale and timber. The first regular steamer service to Kiama was the paddle-wheel steamer Kiama of 104 tonnes and owned by the Kiama
Steam Navigation Company. That company had been formed in 1853. The ship was built in Scotland and completed her maiden voyage to Sydney in 114 days. She arrived on 3 April 1855 with Capt Samuel Charles as Master. She began regular twice-weekly services between Kiama and the Shoalhaven to/from Sydney, sometimes calling at Gerringong.
In 1857, the Kiama was augmented by the Illawarra, a paddle-wheeler and the Nora Creira, both owned by Edye Manning (later of Parramatta River ferry fame). Later that year, Manning became Co-Manager of the Kiama Steam Navigation Company. In 1858, the company bought William IV and Hunter but in October, was absorbed into the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company that traded successfully for the next 100 years.
With the increased activity of the port, a signalling flagstaff was built at Blow Hole Point. However, it was not until 1886 that the lighthouse was in operation, originally operating on oil then upgraded to gas in 1908, acetylene in 1920 (and from then was not manned) and mains electricity in 1969.
Two hundred and twenty-one Kiama residents partitioned for the building of a shipping basin to enable better use of the harbour. The Belmore Basin at Wollongong got the nod before Kiama and it was not until July 1871 that the construction of the coffer dam began.
The breakwater and coffer dam used stone quarried nearby, supplemented with local timber. Thirty men were employed in this construction phase in 1872 and by October of that year, water had been pumped from the site and construction of the basin begun.
Stone dug from the basin was used to fill the depression between Storm Bay and the harbour thus linking Blow Hole Point with the mainland. This reduced the impact of the southerlies on the harbour.
– Long-term readers of Afloat, will remember a series of articles on the history of Kiama and the blue metal trade. These were titled ‘The Stone Fleet and the Blue Diamond Trade’ and were written by the late Jack Clark. They appeared in December 2002 and January, February and March 2003. They are all archived on the Afloat website which is at www.afloat. com.au. This and other articles that follow will expand on that content. Ed.
Next month: The Robertson Basin and the beginnings of the blue metal boom.
*Gregory Blaxell is an historian and author. He has been boating offshore and in the harbour for more than 25 years. His latest book is The River: Sydney Cove to Parramatta.