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Ku-ring-gai Historical Society

The Ku-ring-gai Tribe

St Ives














This material is extracted from Focus on Ku-ring-gai, a well illustrated book published by the Ku-ring-gai Historical Society and which is available from the Society and Ku-ring-gai bookshops priced at $23.95.
Order a copy of Focus on Ku-ring-gai

What is Ku-ring-gai? The name is that of one of the area's aboriginal tribes, the variously spelled Gurringai. In 1894, the tribal name was adapted for the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park. In 1906 it was also taken by the first local government authority for the area, the Ku-ring-gai Shire Council.

The municipality of Ku-ring-gai is a predominantly residential area of 8500 hectares (85 square kilometres), stretching from Roseville, 108 metres above sea level and 10 km north of Sydney harbour to Wahroonga, 210 metres above sea level and 20 km from the harbour. It is surrounded by three major national parks and is home to some 107,000 people. The average annual rainfall is 1118 mm. There are many tree lined streets fronting substantial homes. Many of the older homes are architect designed and surrounded by attractive gardens.

Ku-ring-gai has the reputation of being conservative, with a relatively homogeneous and stable population. Of recent years that character has been modified slightly. At the 1991 census, more than a quarter of the inhabitants were born overseas. Of these, almost half come from non-English speaking countries. There is much greater cultural and culinary diversity than twenty years ago. Yet Ku-ring-gai remains essentially a conservative area, where traditional values are respected. It is a pleasant part of Sydney in which to live.


What has made Ku-ring-gai so distinctive? Many observers point to its architectural heritage. Real estate agents highlight its ‘gentlemen’s residences’, its larger than average suburban allotments, its building covenants, its social composition. Others note its many fine gardens, its retention of native eucalypts, its surrounding bushland reserves. With its restricted commercial development and its want of any industrial area, it has been described as Sydney’s most successful attempt to create a ‘peculiarly Australian Suburban Arcady’. (Robert Moore, Helen Proudfoot and others, Municipality of Ku-ring-gai. Heritage Study, 1987)

None of these factors, however, adequately explains what gives Ku-ring-gai its special character. To do so, we need to look at its history and to observe particularly what happened in the decades of Australian federation, between 1890 and the first World War.

The settlement and expansion of the Australian colonies in the 19th century revealed two problems peculiar to this continent: the immensity (what the historian Geoffrey Blainey has called ‘the tyranny’) of distances and the want of an adequate rainfall or water supply over much of it. Throughout the 19th century the settlements north of Sydney Harbour remained isolated rural communities, whose inhabitants were largely self-sufficient, earning their livelihood from timber-getting, fruit growing and market gardening. In this they were little different from other rural communities within range of the Sydney markets, such as Dural, Windsor or Picton or the Illawarra region.

The isolation of the district had long concerned its more progressive residents. As early as 1874, J G Edwards had got up a petition for a railway from St Leonards to Pearce’s Corner. It was rejected. The line was said to run ‘from nowhere to nowhere’, not radiating (as did all existing lines) from the central railway station, the present Redfern. In 1875, a public meeting was held at the Greengate Hotel in Killara. Twenty residents met and elected Edwards to present their proposal to government. The first stage of the line, from Hornsby to St Leonards, was eventually opened in 1890. The first train on the extended line from Hornsby to Milson’s Point, ran on 1 May 1893.

The other deterrent to population growth, the want of a regular water supply, was also solved at much the same time as the railway was opened. In the 1890s, the colonial government constructed water tanks at Wahroonga and Pymble which connected the district to the Sydney metropolitan water supply, based on the Nepean catchment. In no other part of suburban Sydney did these two initiatives coincide so closely.

The character and population density of the region was changed forever. In the 1880s, the colonies were brought in touch with ideas of the garden city, by British architects like (Sir) John Sulman, who built his own residence, Ingleholme at Turramurra. The ideal lifestyle was one in individual homes, not terraces close to employment. Private gardens and vegetable patches and later, tennis courts, became much valued. The ‘suburban sprawl’ began.

At the same time, public health authorities showed convincingly that infant mortality and outbreaks of diseases like typhoid fever and bubonic plague could be dramatically reduced, even eliminated, by supplying running water and eventually sewerage. Being well above sea level, with a healthy climate and adequate transport to the city, the suburbs along the new railway line became attractive to those who could afford to move out from the inner suburbs.

In the two decades from the opening of the railway to the outbreak of the first World War, the character of the upper north shore was firmly established. Subsequent generations have reinforced that character.

It is only over the past decade that many of its distinctive features, its larger allotments, its building covenants, its gardens, its heritage features and even its social composition, have come under threat. An increasing volume of vehicular traffic (but not public transport) and pressure to find land for medium and high density development, so as to contain the suburban sprawl, are endangering the life style of the area. It cannot be retained, nor its natural and built environment conserved, unless its inhabitants understand what it is they are preserving, and why.

Nineteenth century land use in the Ku-ring-gai region was governed by its topography. Like so much of Australia, Ku-ring-gai was once a sea bed. What is now a plateau was originally sandstone covered by Wianamatta shale which was gradually eroded. Rugged gullies were formed, leading to the Lane Cove River, Middle Harbour and Broken Bay. The higher ground kept its shale, but this was partly broken down into clay with a brown loam covering. The soil nearer the gullies is a sandy loam, over some clay and sandstone. In the gullies themselves, one tends to find just a little sand over the underlying sandstone.

It is not surprising, then, that the higher parts of the remaining plateau were the most fertile. The richer soils, combined with the highest average rainfall in the Sydney region, produced in the centuries before white settlement, almost impenetrable stands of fine, straight timbers, such as one can still see in the south western corner of Western Australia and limited parts of the Victorian Gippsland. The native timbers, the blackbutt, Eucalyptus pilularis, and the Sydney Blue Gum, Eucalyptus saligna, were noted by the first white explorers in the region, Governor Arthur Phillip in 1788, Governor John Hunter and in 1805, George Caley the botanist.

As early as 1791, samples of the timber to be found in the colony and on Norfolk Island had been shipped to England to be assessed by the Royal Navy. In 1807, Governor King gave a detailed report on the qualities of the colony’s timbers. Stringy bark, ironbark, box and mahogany were said to be the most suitable for shipbuilding. As a result, the Navy requested that stores of timber be kept ready. In the event, the Battle of Trafalgar (in 1805) ensured timber supplies from the Baltic and North America were not endangered.

Of greater concern was the need for good quality timber to construct government and private buildings in Sydney. These included the Hyde Park barracks, the Mint building and a court house, soon redesigned as St James’ Church. As a result, from around 1805 to the 1840s and 1850s, timber-getting became the first industry of the region north of the harbour.

Timber-getters, some convict, some emancipist, as well as some free settlers, worked the more accessible stands. Other settlers occupied lands on the promise of a grant. The first grants gazetted were along the ridge where the good soils produced the best timbers. The land district was then known as Lane Cove. The parish of Gordon was surveyed around 1835, and covers most of the area that became Ku-ring-gai Shire in 1906. It is a section of the 1835 survey map of the Gordon parish that features in the front of this book.

As early as 1805, Governor King established what was known as the Lane Cove Sawing Establishment, on the Lane Cove River, at the end of Fiddens Wharf Road. At one time it employed 48 convicts. They prepared spars for colonially built vessels, timber for public buildings, shingles for roofing and even charcoal for foundries. This establishment closed about 1819, when another was opened at Pennant Hills.

Settlers soon occupied the area, on the promise of a grant. The first grants, gazetted in 1821, were along the ridge where the good soils produced the best timbers. The settlers, either emancipists or those arrived free, were granted convict labourers in proportion to the size of their holdings.

The first inhabitants were itinerant. They were there to work the land, not to live on it. The timber-getters built houses that were haphazard and crude - bush huts made of a few sheets of bark.

The timber-getting era in the 1820s and 30s was busy and profitable. The free settlers and crown grantees could be allocated free and convict labour to work not only their own land, but also crown land over which they bought timber rights. Timber-laden bullock drays and jinkers were a common sight in those days, pulling heavy loads along the Pennant Hills Road, then down to the Lane Cove River, along tracks formed by convict labour.

Once the great trees were felled, the land was turned over to farming and to orchards. As time passed and particularly as second generations came of age, much of it was subdivided. Permanent and generally more law abiding inhabitants settled there. The soils which had nurtured forests now yielded all varieties of fruits, both citrus and stone. Nearer the water courses, market gardens flourished. The area was given over to farming, for subsistence or to supply the Sydney markets. St Ives, the only district not served by the railway, remained a farming area until the 1950s.

By the mid 19th century, the major transport routes, by land and by water, had been established. Before the 1880s, river transport was more important than the road connection. There were several wharves on the Lane Cove River, including Hyndes Wharf and Fiddens Wharf. The principal road ran along the high ridge. Its importance has never been challenged. It was known variously as the Lane Cove Road, the Gordon Road (at the turn of the century) and eventually, by the 1920s, as the Pacific Highway. (It was not sealed until 1927.) This road was the link between the scattered settlements from St Leonards to Pearces Corner. The railway, when it came, followed closely the line of the road.

The subsidiary connections linked the ridge settlements either to water transport or to other outlying parts. Stoney Creek Road / Pittwater Road connected the district to Pittwater; Ryde Road led to the older settlements at Ryde and along the Parramatta River; Kissing Point Road was a track leading across the Lane Cove River to the old settlement at Kissing Point (now Ryde). Other roads, such as Fiddens Wharf and Grosvenor Roads, led to the Lane Cove River.

Although the area did not have a defined commercial centre, Gordon came close to filling that role. In the 20th century Gordon became the civic centre, partly because it is roughly in the geographic centre of the shire. But commercially, even at the end of the 19th century, the district remained a chain of settlements or suburbs. Each cluster of housing boasted local shops supplying basic needs: a bakery, sometimes a butchery or a produce store, and by the turn of the century perhaps a pharmacy, a tea room and a post office. Each neighbourhood was served by delivery runs for perishable goods like milk, butter, bread, meat and ice. The formation of progress associations and private sporting clubs in the 1890s, emphasised the extremely localised nature of community endeavour. Ku-ring-gai became a prototype of ribbon development along an access corridor.

The construction of the railway and the introduction of local government gave the area greater cohesion. It was transformed from a series of isolated farming communities to a line of much sought after suburbs. By 1900, the line from St Leonards to Lindfield was duplicated; by 1909 it was double track to Hornsby, with island platforms and brick station buildings, some of which still survive. In March 1906 the Shire of Ku-ring-gai was constituted, initially with six councillors. A modest Shire Council building was erected in 1911 on the main road, near St John’s Church in Gordon, replacing temporary offices in the grounds of that church.

The significance of private enterprise to the region cannot be over emphasised. Once the railway was constructed, private subdivision took place on a grand scale, initiated by men like J G Edwards, descendants of pioneer settlers. The architect-designed houses of the Federation and interwar periods, for which Ku-ring-gai is noted, were all built for private clients. Builders and contractors, carpenters and masons employed in their construction, made up much of the workforce of the district.

From the 1890s onwards, most schools in the district were likewise predominantly privately owned and managed. Some of them have since become leading educational institutions in New South Wales. But for generations of school children whose parents could not pay fees, State secondary education was only available outside the municipality, at North Sydney and Hornsby. The first State high schools in the area were not opened till the mid to late 1960s.

There is still no court house in the municipality, and the nearest branches of the Government Insurance Office are at Chatswood and Hornsby. The public hospitals are the Hornsby / Ku-ring-gai Hospital located in Hornsby and the Royal North Shore hospital at St Leonards.

From the 1890s onwards, Ku-ring-gai became celebrated for its superior residences. By adapting imported building techniques and architectural styles such as the ‘Queen Anne’ to suit the Australian climate, architects created homes that were both livable and aesthetically pleasing. They added touches of nationalistic fervour, especially in decorative features such as stained glass windows and wall and chimney tiles depicting native flora and fauna.

Improvements in the manufacture of bricks allowed them to be used without stucco for walls. Cavity brick construction, an Australian innovation, became standard practice by 1895. This technique, combined with the introduction of damp courses, offered protection from ‘rising damp’, accentuated by sudden thunderstorms, to which the north shore is particularly liable during long, hot summers. Special attention was paid to roof lines, often elaborate and turreted. Pymble and Turramurra, Warrawee and Wahroonga were especially noted for their fine ‘Federation’ homes, many of which can still be seen, in such streets as Ku-ring-gai Ave (Turramurra), Burns Road (Wahroonga) and Hastings Road (Warrawee).

Within the space of little more than twenty years, between 1890 and 1910, Ku-ring-gai had become a noted residential area of suburban Sydney.

The interwar period was one of urban consolidation. State funded improvements helped. The first Roseville Bridge was opened in 1924, and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. The Harbour Bridge made possible a direct road and electrified rail link to the central business district of Sydney and to other parts of the metropolitan area. The State Electricity Commission built sub-stations to provide electricity to all homes in the municipality. By 1939, the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board had connected two-thirds of Ku-ring-gai homes to the sewerage system.

Local government also expanded. After 1920 the number of building applications in the shire increased considerably. More councillors were needed. In 1928 the Shire was converted into a municipality with four wards, Wahroonga, Gordon, Killara and Roseville, each with three aldermen. The original section of the present Council Chambers, in Georgian Revival style, was opened in 1928.

Private development remained the main feature of the area. Almost all of the municipality was designated an area for ‘pure’ residential development, as opposed to ‘mixed’ development (commercial and industrial). In 1925 a council proclamation attempted to prohibit the use of any building ‘for the purpose of any trade, industry, manufacture, shop or place of public amusement’. Advertising hoardings were also prohibited. Though these regulations had to be amended after they were challenged in the High Court, the concept of a strict separation of residential and commercial districts was maintained.

Residential building was also restricted by local government building covenants prohibiting the use of certain building materials such as weatherboards and corrugated iron roofing. ‘Flats’ were frowned upon, both for moral reasons -- they were said to attract ‘the flotsam and jetsam of Darlinghurst’ -- and because it was claimed they depressed both the environmental quality of the suburb and its real estate values. Very few blocks of flats were permitted before 1940.

The building styles of this period were imported and adapted. The ‘Californian bungalow’ was much favoured in the decade after the first World War. The Georgian Revival style was introduced by such leading architects as Leslie Wilkinson, foundation professor of architecture at the University of Sydney in 1917. In the 1930s, two-storeyed, half timbered houses in an imitation Tudor style were fashionable.

Most houses were within walking distance of railway stations. Ku-ring-gai had become a dormitory area. Children travelled out of the area to secondary schools; fathers travelled by train to offices and professional suites in the city; married women stayed at home. What community and social activities were offered were those provided by private institutions. Churches encouraged scout groups and tennis and cricket clubs; sporting clubs fostered golf, bowls and tennis.

The decades after the second World War, from 1950 to 1980, were marked by population pressures, arising from post war marriages and immigration. As an almost exclusively residential area, Ku-ring-gai has been particularly subject to these pressures. Between 1950 and 1980, its population doubled, from roughly 50,000 to 100,000. The increase since 1980, to approximately 110,000 at present, has been much less rapid.

In the 1960s and 70s, tracts of crown land were rezoned residential. Housing developments spread to new extensions of all suburbs: East Wahroonga, North and South Turramurra, West Pymble, East and West Gordon, East Killara, East and West Lindfield and Roseville Chase. The State Planning Authority demanded that new blocks be fully serviced, with water, sewerage and electricity connected, before they could be sold. The average price of these allotments was higher than in other parts of the metropolitan area. This helped sustain the conservative character of the municipality. Ku-ring-gai remained a relatively expensive housing area.

Land near water courses, earlier rejected both for farming and for residential development, now became spectacular building sites. Some featured exposed sandstone; others were on precipitous slopes which required new building techniques. Following post-1960 town planning practice, the streets of these subdivisions follow more closely the land contours: they are never straight.

Population pressures have inevitably threatened the ‘Suburban Arcady’ for which Ku-ring-gai has been renowned. Houses have been demolished or their gardens truncated to make way for road widening, particularly along the Pacific Highway, which now carries six lanes of traffic. At peak hours, that traffic is bumper to bumper. The opening of the Newcastle freeway, which terminates at Wahroonga, has increased the flow of traffic, particularly heavy traffic, on the highway, so that it now divides suburbs and shopping centres in two. The commercial centres of Turramurra, Gordon, Lindfield and Roseville are all badly affected.

Increased population creates pollution problems and it introduces transit traffic to residential areas outside the shopping centres. Aircraft noise is another menace, especially since a locator beacon for aircraft approaching Kingsford Smith airport was installed in West Pymble. Pressure to ‘capitalise’ on valuable residential land has led to the demolition of older homes and smaller dwellings over fifty years old. Others have been substantially extended. Many are being replaced with villa and town housing and two storey ‘Federation’ homes. Many older residences have lost their heritage features through unsympathetic additions, especially second storeys and new fenestration.

Ku-ring-gai has always had minority immigrant settlers. In the 19th century, Jonas Lofberg from Sweden settled in the West Pymble area (now Bicentennial Park), and built a wharf on the Lane Cove River. His descendants still live in the area. A section of what is now North Turramurra was once known as Irish Town. Chinese market gardeners supplied fruit and vegetables to most suburbs, and did so till well into the 20th century. In the early 1920s, a number of Italian families settled in St Ives, while after the World War II ‘new settlers’ (chiefly of British stock) were housed in the former army camp at Bradfield (now West Lindfield). Some of them settled locally.

However, over the past fifteen years, the ethnic diversity of Ku-ring-gai has become more pronounced. The 1991 census shows that Ku-ring-gai has the highest concentration in Sydney of persons born in Hong Kong, and the highest percentage in Australia of Japanese-born immigrants. Many South African immigrants have settled in Pymble and St Ives.

 The district has not been immune from natural disasters. In April 1927, a sudden storm hit Pymble and caused much damage in the shopping centre. Wahroonga and Pymble in particular and surrounding suburbs were devastated by a ferociously strong thunderstorm late one January afternoon in 1991. It swept up from the south west, along Fox Valley Road, and a plot of the path of the storm shows that it was actually centred on Pentecost Avenue, in Pymble. Damage to houses and other property was widespread, much more severe than anyone could remember.

The January 1991 storm caused devastation also to Abbotsleigh school: it was extremely fortunate that major casualties were avoided when this massive tree fell on the 3-storey school hall.

The destruction of many hectares of bushland in the devastating fires that swept the state in January 1994 caused some residents to examine the balance between the pleasures and the dangers of homes close to bushland. Due to quite heroic efforts by volunteer bushfighters, damage to life and property was minimised. On the western side of Lindfield and Killara, however, homes such as this one in Albert Drive were destroyed. The bush itself, as shown in these photos in sequence, regenerates very quickly.

Ku-ring-gai Council has played an important role over the years in helping the municipality maintain its ‘Arcadian’ character, notwithstanding the pressures with which it has contended during periods of rapid development and population growth. Successive councils have built or supported local amenities such as the public golf courses at Gordon and Turramurra, tennis courts throughout the municipality, a library with several branches, an arts centre at Roseville, a youth centre at St Ives, and a swimming pool at Pymble. Another amenity created by the Council is the Wildflower Garden at St Ives.

It has also carried out routine tasks such as maintaining the road system, parks, railways station gardens and attending to waste disposal.

Council has been supported by active community groups. Indeed many of the Council’s initiatives are the result of suggestions from resident groups. The citizens of Ku-ring-gai have always been aware of the important contribution congenial surroundings make to the quality of life, and have jealously nurtured the area’s natural and built environment. In early decades local progress associations played an important role in initiating community improvements. In more recent times, this task has been taken over by a wide range of service clubs and special interest action groups. These include groups focused on the aged and disabled and on children, and a great variety of cultural, craft and ‘hobby’ activities.

Some of the recent changes affecting the lifestyle of residents are beyond the scope of local control. Aircraft noise and transit traffic are examples. With an appreciation of the history of their suburbs, it is hoped that residents will understand how recently some of their present concerns have evolved. They will also learn to value the heritage of the municipality and help to preserve it.

From 'Focus on Ku-ring-gai'. Copyright The Ku-ring-gai Historical Society.  Reprinted with permission.
Order a copy of Focus on Ku-ring-gai

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