Bantry Bay by Alan Lucas

Sydney Harbour’s Bantry Bay is a scenic gem, an historical treasure and a reason to sympathise with landlubbers for their inability to absorb its special atmosphere from the deck of a boat.
But landlubbers have an option: they can descend the hundreds of steps from Seaforth Oval to enjoy a picnic or wet a line near the old jetty and – if not conserving energy for the climb back up, they can continue walking right around the bay to Roseville Bridge through the Garigal National Park.
The only landing in Bantry Bay is in a sorry state of disrepair, making the sign irrelevant to fi shing families and boaties trying to get ashore.Whether arriving by boat or shank’s pony, the law against venturing onto the bay’s western bank to scrutinise the old brick buildings is common to us all because that is where hundreds of tons of explosives were once stored. These magazines are well-built brick structures set back into cuttings of solid rock, and the idea of seeing them up close is appealing.
Prior to its explosive past, Bantry Bay almost certainly witnessed a fair level of debauchery when, like so many remote areas of Sydney, it offered dancing, roundabouts, swings and other means of amusement. The site was known as ‘Pleasure Gardens’, which possibly started as early as 1866 and closed down in 1907 after reaching its peak towards the end of the nineteenth century.
Scattered around the harbour were a number of similarly remote venues where pleasure-bent folks could arrive by ferry to let their hair down then return home the same way – but not necessarily in the same condition – after a jolly good time away from populated centres. And while it must be presumed there were very responsible revellers among them, it is equally probable that the Bantry Bay dance hall attracted – and possibly gave its name to – one of the many ‘push gangs’ of the era, the local gang being called the Bantry Bay Devils.
The old Bantry Bay explosives storage sheds are out of bounds to visitors, but anchorage off in deep water is possible when the public moorings are all occupied.In the language of thieves, the term ‘push’ referred to a crowd of people whether in the street or in a place of entertainment. At its milder end, it included larrikins who gravitated towards, but not necessarily participated in, the numerous push gangs that sprang up in the 1870s and survived through to the 1900s.
Perhaps the need to join a gang of miscreants had something to do with people-pressure, Australia’s population nearly tripling during their era. Whatever: as well as the Bantry Bay Devils, there were gangs all over Sydney such as the Millers Point Push, the Blue’s Point Mob, the Rocks Push, the Gore Hill Tigers and even the Crutchy Push whose favourite weapon during a free-for-all was – would you believe – a crutch!
The stumps of Bantry Bay’s old dance hall still paddle in knee-deep water at high tide next to a derelict slipway and a dilapidated public jetty, the latter irresistible to fishing folk and boaties looking for a place to put ashore for the above-mentioned walking tracks. Perhaps if National Parks and Wildlife is ever paid its worth, we might even see the heritage-listed explosives magazines properly restored, maintained and opened to the public (non-smokers only of course). Meanwhile, we must remain on our boat or on a circling bush track and marvel at this unique piece of Australian history from a distance.
Though privately owned, Innisfallen Castle is close to a walking track for lovers of old architecture.For me, thoughts go back to my days of commuting by ferry between Valencia Street and Circular Quay and being spellbound by the lovely work-boats involved in the transfer of explosives from overseas ships to Bantry Bay by such lighters as Alfred Nobel, Laura, Nancy and Thrush.
According to Gavin Souter’s splendid little book Times and Tides, the need for an isolated powder magazine was first realised in 1866 when two cases of nitro-glycerine exploded in the city at number 17 Bridge Street. Officials were apparently unconvinced of the danger because 16 years were to pass before explosives were moved to Powder Hulk Bay, Seaforth, where they were stored in two hulks before being given a permanent home in nearby Bantry Bay.
In her Pictorial History of Manly, Virginia Macleod tells us that there were actually three vessels moored in Powder Hulk Bay, these being the Behring, loaded with 30 tons of detonators, the Pride of England, with 500 tons of explosives and the aptly-named Alacrity where the crew lived, their job being to guard these terrifying cargos. No doubt news of the British battleship Bulwark blowing up whilst loading ammunition in Sheerness, in 1914, with only twelve of her 750 crewmembers surviving, would have sharpened their wits.
For a moment of decadence in a bushy retreat, there is nothing like a cappuccino in isolation.Because of its surrounding bushland, Bantry Bay was developed as a powder magazine in 1917 (also recorded as 1915), storing up to 450 tons of non-military explosives used in the development of Sydney’s infrastructure until its closure in 1974. The buildings had double brick walls, parquetry flooring and water-cooled roofs. Parquetry would have been chosen for its absence of metal fastenings and it is probable – though not confirmed, that the lighters plying this dangerous trade were tree-nailed.
In this lovely part of Sydney, Middle Harbour is mostly lined by waterfront homes, many being architectural masterpieces, others just snug and comfortable whilst a few make a stack of shipping containers look positively attractive by comparison. But upstream from Castlecrag, all the way to Roseville, the harbour is surrounded in bush- clothed hills with just an occasional reminder that houses line their ridges.
One such house is ‘Innisfallen Castle’, better known locally as Willis’s Castle, named after her owner who was elected to the House of Representatives for Robertson early last century. The castle remains privately occupied but can be seen from aboard your little ship as you emerge from The Spit Bridge and head for Bantry Bay.
The superb nature reserves and national parks in this part of Middle Harbour are riddled with tracks where sailors can put ashore and stretch their legs for hours on end entirely within a bush environment: or use them as a route to a sealed road along which a shopping centre is bound to appear.
For all its surrounding attractions, Bantry Bay stands centre-stage as Middle Harbour’s – indeed Sydney Harbour’s – most popular cruising drawcard. Its eight public moorings fail dismally to meet summer demand, but in winter vacancies are common at a time when this scenic gem becomes the domain of the lucky few.