Following on from last week’s exploration of literary Sydney, this week we take a look at the venue of the Sydney’s Writers Festival at Walsh Bay.

The finger wharves at Walsh Bay and Woolloomooloo are tangible reminders of Sydney now lost working harbour. Although the wharves are today home to residential apartments, they were built in the early 20th century as part of Sydney’s extensive wharfage network.

Aerial view west towards the city showing the finger wharf at Woolloomooloo Bay, 1930s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC24678)
Aerial view west towards the city showing the finger wharf at Woolloomooloo Bay, 1930s (City of Sydney Archives, SRC24678)

From the 1860s, a number of shipping wharves were built at Woolloomooloo Bay to enable trade and commerce to Sydney. In the early 20th century, this early wharfage was demolished, and work began a new 400 metre long ‘finger wharf’ in 1910.

Known as the Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf, it took six years to complete. Although it was officially opened in 1916, the wharf been used for loading and unloading cargo since 1913 and in late 1914, soldiers of the first infantry unit of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) departed from the wharf for active service in Egypt and Gallipoli.

Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf redevelopment in 1998 (City of Sydney Archives, Brian McInerney Industrial Images Collection: 76614)
Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf redevelopment in 1998 (City of Sydney Archives, Brian McInerney Industrial Images Collection: 76614)

Woolloomooloo Bay Finger Wharf was designed by Irish-born engineer Henry Deane Walsh, who became the namesake for Walsh Bay.

Work began on the construction of five timber piled finger wharves in the small bay between Dawes Point and Millers Point in 1912.

Similarly to the 400 metre long finger wharf at Woolloomooloo, the wharves (along with the associated shore sheds, warehouses and stores) were designed by Sydney Harbour Trust’s Engineer-in-Chief Henry Walsh. Likewise, the wharves were also intended and used for deep sea shipping. The bay was named in honour of Walsh in 1919.

With the introduction of container shipping in the late 1960s, the handling of the cargo from ship to shore became increasingly mechanised. New ‘roll on, roll off’ wharves to meet the demand were built at nearby Darling Harbour and at Botany. This new type of shipping meant that cargo coming off the ships didn’t need to be manually handled by wharf labourers any longer.

Walsh Bay in the 1960s (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews 'Working Harbour' Collection: 86715)
Walsh Bay in the 1960s (City of Sydney Archives, Graeme Andrews ‘Working Harbour’ Collection: 86715)

The finger wharves at Walsh Bay and Woolloomooloo became obsolete. They lay neglected for many years and were earmarked for demolition but after much community agitation, they were saved.

Both places were state heritage listed and are regarded as the only examples of their type in the world.

The distinctive timber piled finger wharves at both places were converted into apartments in the late 1990s – although Walsh Bay had been home to Sydney Theatre Company from the mid-1980s and continues to seek a reputation as a cultural quarter for the city.

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