Maritime history

Barangaroo holds an important place in the story of Sydney's maritime heritage.

The site of Barangaroo was part of the territory of the Gadigal of the Eora Nation, the Traditional Custodians of the Sydney city region. Local Eora women paddling their canoes to catch fish and collect shellfish made the first economic use of the Barangaroo area.

Large shell middens and numerous rock engravings close to the site indicate Aboriginal occupation dating back some 6,000 years. You can read more about Aboriginal culture at Barangaroo and the story of the woman for whom the place is named here.

Soon after European colonisation, the site began to flourish as maritime and industrial activities grew. Millers Point and the city’s western foreshore started to play a pivotal role in the growth of Sydney.

What had been one of the spectacular ring of headlands surrounding Me-Mel (Goat Island) in Sydney Harbour was gradually whittled away to make way for wharves and, by the 1960s, Sydney’s container port.

In the 1820s, the first wharves were constructed and facilitated the colony’s first exports - a colourful trade of sandalwood, cedar and turtle shell, as well as the whaling and sealing industries.

In the mid-1800s, the Millers Point Gasworks brought the first gas light to Sydney and today's Barangaroo buzzed with the exotic life of a South Pacific port.

Within decades, the wool trade stepped in, requiring more wharves, warehousing and storage facilities at Millers Point. The ships became highly specialised with triple-masted clippers racing each other to get the first cargoes of wool back to Britain.  

Major shipbuilder John Cuthbert made this central part of the harbour the site of his new shipyard - building these iconic clippers alongside Australia's first naval vessel, the Spitfire.

Cuthbert’s neighbours were some of the biggest names in Sydney at the time - the colourful entrepreneur Robert Towns with his own wharf, the Australian Agricultural Company, P&O and the Australasian Steamship Navigation Company.

The 1840s gold rush brought unprecedented growth and for a short time the streets of Barangaroo were paved with gold, drawing a flood of immigrants seeking their fortune. The lure of the gold rush also gave labour the upper hand over the employers.

Robert Towns complained that “workmen were scarcer than nuggets” as they gained four wage increases in under two years. Workers began to organise and these early labour movements shaped the character of the Millers Point community in later years.

Growing industry also changed the physical character of Millers Point - local merchants Henry Moore and Robert Towns smoothed out the irregular shape of Walsh Bay. Cuthbert and Smith filled the southern side of the headland. The original shoreline was obliterated by the end of the 1860s.

From the 1870s, demand for warehouse space made land too valuable for other industries and Cuthbert’s Shipyard was one of the first to go. The introduction of hydraulic power intensified everything - shifting larger loads meant more storage and wharves were required.

Dibbs Wharf alone could handle seven 40,000 tonne ships at once. The older wharves like Towns were dwarfed by their new neighbours, Dalgety’s 340ft long jetty.

For the rest of the 19th Century, this entire waterfront bustled with the unregulated seediness of a working port. When the Bubonic Plague hit Sydney in 1900, the NSW Government seized control of the area to clean it up and build shipping infrastructure for the new century of trade.

In 1909, the Sydney Harbour Trust began the work of creating Hickson Road, dramatically cut into the landscape, and lined East Darling Harbour with long wharves and shore shed buildings. Examples of the finger wharves can still be seen at Walsh Bay.

Other chapters in the maritime history of Barangaroo include untold arrivals and departures from this waterfront – of migrants coming to a new land and the tearful farewells for Australian troops during World War II.

In the 1960s the shipping container revolution led to the creation of a vast, featureless concrete apron, obliterating any sign of what had gone before.

Changes to shipping technology and the inability to create heavy freight rail access to the site made it unsustainable as a modern stevedoring port facility for the late 20th and early 21st century. In 2003, the NSW Government announced that Sydney Harbour’s life as a working port would end and the stevedoring facilities would move to Port Botany. The wharves at East Darling Harbour were to be redeveloped into a new urban precinct.

After a naming competition, it was decided the site would be named after a powerful Cammeraygal woman who was a leader of her people at the time of European colonisation. You can read more about Barangaroo the woman here.

During construction of Barangaroo Reserve, the works uncovered and preserved historic features, including Munn’s sandstone Slipway from the 1820s, Cuthbert sandstone seawall from 1865, a sewer pumping station from 1900s and a sandstone seawall from 1903. The old pumping station was moved and restored, and now serves as the amenities block near the Towns Place entrance to the Reserve.

The development at Barangaroo has opened up this waterfront precinct to the public for the first time in more than 100 years. And in doing so, the rich Aboriginal history has been woven into the fabric and essence of Barangaroo, resulting in an authentic and dynamic destination for all to enjoy.