Bridging the gap

The Sydney Morning Herald, or its columnist Peter FitzSimons, has recently been fascinated by the story of Nellie Bishop, a Sydney woman who tried to jump off the cliff at the Gap in 1923, but was miraculously saved by a huge wave and two fishermen. Nellie lived a long and happy life after that, and FitsSimons has suggested that her example should be commemorated with a plaque to discourage would-be suicides at the Gap. The Black Dog Institute, a foundation that researches, raises funds and provides expertise in issues of depression, has reacted with caution, saying that any such plaque should be carefully worded.

South Head and lighthouse, Port Jackson, N. S. Wales, with the approach of a southerly squall c1825 by August Earle, from the National Library of Australia nla.pic-an2818274

But the Gap is far more than just suicides, as our article by Robin Derricourt indicates. A spectacular setting, the Gap has been a destination for tourists since the beginning of European settlement. A  tramline, hotels and restaurants, and other tourist attractions have been built in the park at different times, to cater to the visitors seeking the sublime view.

South Head, which the Gap is a part of, was home and ritual space to Aboriginal people, who made engravings of people, animals and fish along the cliffs, the earliest Aboriginal art seen by Europeans. Soon we will be publishing an article by Keith Vincent Smith detailing the Aboriginal campsites in this part of Sydney, where Aboriginal people continued to live, well into the nineteenth century. Bungaree’s sons Toúbi (or Toby) and Bowen were among the residents at Camp Cove.

For the Europeans, South Head was the entrance to the harbour, and became a lookout and signal station. Here the lookouts were stationed, at first desperately scanning the horizon for ships bringing supplies to the hungry colony.

Vue du phare du Port Jackson, Nouvelle Galles du Sud, 1830, by Jean Baptiste Arnout, Pl. no. 26 of: 'Voyage de la corvette l'Astrolabe, Atlas historique' by Durmont d'Urville, from the National Library of Australia nla.pic-an8134734

The Macquarie lighthouse was built in 1816 on South Head, and augmented with the Hornby lighthouse on the very end of the point in 1858, after the disastrous wreck of the Dunbar in 1857. In wicked weather, the ship had passed the Macquarie light, and turned before it reached the entrance to the harbour. It was smashed on the rocks at the Gap, with the loss of all but one on board. The death toll of 121 is still Sydney’s worst maritime disaster.

Wreck of Dunbar, South Head, painted c1862-83, from the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW a939035 / PXA 1983, f.34

South Head has also been an important part of Sydney’s defences,  with fortification from the 1840s, and artillery in place by the 1870s, as detailed by Dean Boyce in his essay for the Dictionary. HMAS Watson, a Royal Australian Navy training facility, is still there. Much of the rest of South Head is now part of the Sydney Harbour National Park.

South Head to Laings Point 2009, Courtesy of Airview, ref: 0903-1223-94


About Emma Grahame

Emma Grahame has been Editorial Coordinator of the Dictionary of Sydney since May 2007.
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