Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sydney Suburbs continued: Balmain, Balmoral

Sydney Suburbs


A suburb of the Inner West of Sydney, Balmain is located 6 km west of the Sydney CBD. It sits on a small peninsula that juts out of Sydney Harbour, directly opposite Milson's Point.

Name origin:
The area was part of a 550 acres (2.2 km2) grant to colonial surgeon Dr William Balmain (1762–1803), made in 1800 by Governor John Hunter. A year later, Balmain transferred his entire holding to settle a debt to John Bothwick Gilchrist before returning to Scotland. 


  • When I was a kid, Balmain was a blue collar area predominantly settled by wharfies, the people who manually loaded and unloaded ships at the wharves and docks. A friend of mine, Arthur, who grew up in Balmain, is fond of saying that “In the old days they would have given you a property in Balmain just for standing on the footpath and singing a song.” These days the area has been gentrified to the max: older homes have been preserved and renovated, including many of the original sandstone ones; prices have escalated, and parking in the narrow streets is nigh impossible. Prices are in the millions.
  • Balmain Labor Party Branch claims to be the oldest continuous Labor branch.
  • Balmain peninsula had become one of the major industrial centres of Sydney in the 1800’s. Industries clustered around Mort Bay included shipbuilding, a metal foundry, engineering, boilermaking and the Mort's Dock and Engineering Company works which opened in 1855. Increasing industrialisation at Balmain created a demand for cheap housing. This was satisfied by the dock owners selling small blocks of land to entrepreneurs who then built tiny cottages and rented them to the workers.
  • A coal mine was opened in 1897 beside what is now Birchgrove Public School. From the bottom of the shaft a decline led down to a block of coal situated under the harbour between Ballast Point and Goat Island. The mine closed in 1931 but the tunnels remain under Balmain.
  • Although the mines were closed many years ago, I have read and heard that Balmain sits on old mining tunnels filled with methane and that there is a risk that one day the methane may explode. maybe it's an urban myth.  Does anyone know?
  • As industry waned in the 1960’s, gentrification began. Increasing property values and waterfront development continued to push the suburb's remaining industry out. In 1996, the Lever Brothers site became a series of apartment complexes with a handful of original buildings preserved. The power station was demolished in 1998 to make way for apartments. However many aspects of Balmain's industrial past have been retained as heritage.
  • NSW Premier Neville Wran faced the Street Royal Commission in 1983 over claims by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) current affairs show Four Corners that he had tried to influence the magistracy over the 1977 committal of Kevin Humphreys, who had been charged with misappropriation of funds. Wran famously told the NSW Labor Conference at Sydney Town Hall: ''Balmain boys don't cry.''
  • Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating, in contrast, commented on the suburb's gentrification by referring to the "Basket weavers of Balmain".

Dr William Balmain
Balmain is reported to have operated on Governor Phillip’s shoulder to remove a spear thrown by an aborigine. In 1796 he became the principal surgeon of New South Wales, with one of his duties being to treat members of the Royal Navy who became ill whilst in port in Sydney. He was entitled to receive 13 shillings and six pence for every person he cured, collection to be in England, but no payment if the sailor died.

Darling Street, Balmain, c 1888

Another view of Darling Street, Balmain, 1891.

Lever Brothers Factory, Balmain, 1939

Balmain today
(Note Dawn Fraser Baths at left, centre, with green roof)

Balmain Court House, today

Beattie Street, Balmain, 1930’s

Construction of the Balmain counter weight system for the tramway, c.1903

The ferry stop at the end of Darling Street, Balmain involved a steep ascent/descent that originally saw tram passengers having to get off and walk the last kilometre.  Due to passenger dissatisfaction, the government of the day came up with a solution.  A system of cables and hydraulics, with counterweights, was established with underground tunnels to assist in going uphill and check speed in going downhill.  It was known as The Balmain Dummy and the aboveground bit is shown above.  The counterweight system was discontinued in 1955.

Above and below: Dawn Fraser Baths.
Built in the 1880’s and still operating, a visit to Dawn Fraser Baths (named after Olympic gold medallist and Balmain girl Dawn Fraser) is to take a delightful step back in time.  Both friend Arthur and my late mother's partner, Billy, who also hailed from Balmain, told me that they learned to swim by being tossed in the deep end of the above pool by their fathers. No wonder Balmain boys don't cry.



Balmoral is located in the suburb of Mosman in Sydney, New South Wales, 8 km north-east of the Sydney CBD. It is part of the Lower North Shore.

Name origin:
Balmoral is named after Balmoral Castle, the large estate house in Aberdeenshire, Scotland where England’s Royals live part of the time. Balmoral, the Scottish one, was purchased privately by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s hubby, not the other one) in 1852. It remains in the private ownership of the Royal Family and is not the property of the Crown.

  • The Australian Balmoral is primarily known for its beach, with expensive houses on the slopes looking over the water.
  • In 1923 the Theosophical Society erected The Star Amphitheatre, an open air temple intended as a platform for lectures by the expected "World Teacher" who was coming.  They sold tickets for people wanting to see this eventual Second Coming of the Messiah, including 25 year passes, but He never came and the group eventually disbanded. The ampitheatre came to be used for concerts and entertainment events, until it was demolished in 1951 and its foundations used for an apartment building that still stands on the site.

Tram travelling along the Esplanade, Balmoral, 1922

Former tram cutting to Balmoral Beach

Balmoral Beach, with fig trees and conservation area promenade in the foreground and part of the residential area in the background.

Balmoral Beach circa 1900

Balmoral Beach 1915

Rising nearly 70m in just a 420m stretch, Awaba Street at Blamoral is one of Sydney’s steepest, which is rather contradictory considering that Awaba is an Aboriginal word for a “plain” or “flat” surface. Once a year the street welcomes thousands of runners for the Balmoral Burn – an organised event that benefits the Humpty Dumpty Foundation, to raise money medical equipment for 229 hospitals. 

Once a year Cobblers Beach around the corner from Balmoral hosts the Sydney Skinny Swim, a nude swimming event where swimmers can take part by swimming a distance of their choosing sans clothing and swimming gear. It has been held for 6 years and will be held again in March 2017. The beach and swim are the only events nude, the festival is a clothed event, with the swim being a ticketed affair with no spectators allowed. Over a thousand people participate. More info at the website:


1 comment:

  1. There are a lot of interesting things about the different suburbs in Sydney to be honest. I don't think that it'll be easy to find out about all the history there is in storage about this area.


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