The Traditional Custodians
Cammeraygal Country encompasses North Sydney, including the site of Sub Base Platypus, and this area was a historic source of food, shelter, medicine and tools for the Traditional Custodians. For example, the Cammeraygal people camped in sandstone caves on the harbour foreshore, and their diet consisted of fish, possum and kangaroo as well as native roots and berries.
By the early 1800s, however, very few Cammeraygal people still lived on their traditional lands, and it is believed few survived beyond the late 1800s. Further, industrial activity during the 19th and 20th centuries eroded visible signs of inhabitation by the Traditional Custodians in the vicinity of the future Sub Base Platypus site.
There is no record of a traditional name for the area that immediately encompasses Sub Base Platypus; however, the surrounding areas were known by two First Nations words during the early 1800s. Wurru-birri referred to the western side of Kurraba Point while Wéyé Wéyé referred to the head of Careening Cove.
Neutral Bay gas works
In 1877, a small gas works was established at the northern end of the site, fronting Neutral Bay, by James Fell and Charles Watt. Both former AGL employees, the business partners wanted to capitalise on a new opportunity; namely, NSW Parliament had recently authorised the manufacture and supply of gas to residents of the North Shore.
Coal was delivered to the gas works by boat and heated in large ovens known as retorts. This process caused the gas to condense, after which it was purified in a lime solution, and then either stored under pressure in a holder or (distributed by a network of pipes) reticulated to customers.
Following Fell’s death in 1882, the business partnership was liquidated. In 1883, the North Shore Gas Company assumed control of the plant and steered it through a period of major expansion as the population of the North Shore continued to grow. Notable additions included the construction of a coal store – a direct response to a coal miner strike in 1889 that had disrupted the supply of coal to the site.
Consumer demand for gas increased during the early 20th century, which led to the North Shore Gas Company establishing a larger plant at Oyster Cove, Waverton in 1917. This gas works used modern vertical retorts, which were more economical than the inclined retorts in use at the Neutral Bay. With the onset of the Great Depression, the company was no longer in a position to bear the costs associated the ageing infrastructure at Neutral Bay. Consequently, the Neutral Bay gas works ceased operating in 1937.
The Second World War
Galvanised by the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Commonwealth began equipping the nation’s forces to retaliate against attacks on Australia. Relevantly, the government took possession of the former Neutral Bay gas works in March 1942 and converted it into a torpedo factory.
Despite being the primary source of torpedoes for Allied Navies in the South Pacific, none of the torpedoes built at the factory were ever used during the Second World War.
After the war ended the torpedo workshops continued to service the British Navy submarine fleet based at HMAS Penguin and the Royal Australian Navy’s destroyer fleet.
Thirty years of HMAS Platypus
In 1967, with the Second World War long over, the site was commissioned as the base for the Royal Australian Navy’s Oberon-class submarines and other visiting submarines. It was named HMAS Platypus, and provided the operational headquarters and communications base for the Australian Submarine Squadron.
It is believed the Navy chose the name HMAS Platypus due to the similarities between the duck-billed monotreme and submarines. Platypuses use electro receptors in their bills to locate food underwater just as submarines use sonar to detect objects.
When the Navy upgraded to new Collins-class submarines in the 1990s, the Commonwealth determined the site was inappropriate for these vessels. Consequently, the submarine base was relocated to Western Australia, the torpedo works were transferred to a missile maintenance facility in Kingswood, and the site closed in 1999.
The Platypus Renewal Project
In 2005, the Australian Government announced the handover of the former HMAS Platypus site to the Harbour Trust for the purpose of rehabilitating it as a public park. Thereafter, the Harbour Trust consulted extensively with the community on the future of the site and developed a scope for its Platypus Renewal Project.
Between 2010 and 2016, the Harbour Trust carried out remediation works to address contamination arising from former gas works and submarine base. In August of the following year, the Harbour Trust rechristened the site Sub Base Platypus and – to mark the 50th anniversary of the commissioning of HMAS Platypus – unveiled a memorial, honouring Australian submariners who had lost their lives.
Community recreation and work hub
In May 2018, the Harbour Trust officially opened Sub Base Platypus, providing Sydneysiders with access to a new community recreation and work hub. This marked the first time the site had been accessible to the public in 150 years. Amenities available from this time included an overwater walkway, linking the site to Kesterton Park and the North Sydney Ferry Wharf, as well as a harbourside promenade and park. Featuring a shaded BBQ area as well as maritime-themed pocket playground, Oberon Park was named for the class of submarine based at HMAS Platypus.
In late 2019, the Harbour Trust completed works to revitalise a pair of historic buildings for contemporary uses – the former Submarine School (Building 2) and the Fleet Workshop (Building 10). Additional works completed during 2019-20 included new public squares, a carpark and improved public access across all levels of the site.
In November 2021, the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) awarded Sub Base Platypus the Walter Burley Griffin Award – highest honour, nationally, for urban design. This was recognition of work by the Harbour Trust to transform the former submarine base into a public domain and facilitate the adaptive reuse of the site’s significant heritage structures.
A new precinct and foreshore park
The former Torpedo Factory underwent a renewal process between July 2022 and September 2023. As part of this project, the Harbour Trust partially demolished the former factory and revitalised it as a sheltered public space that respectfully incorporated the original building’s heritage qualities. In addition to a car park, the new Torpedo Factory Precinct featured a vantage point of Neutral Bay, a three-piece mural by Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay artist Dennis Golding and a storytelling space featuring a decommissioned torpedo and other artefacts.
With the opening of the new Torpedo Factory Precinct in September 2023, the Harbour Trust has turned its efforts to opening a new foreshore park. Wirra Birra Park will be situated on the sandstone bench at the foot of the new Torpedo Factory Precinct and will provide visitors with a landscaped space where they can connect with Country and learn about native plants. The Harbour Trust looks forward to unveiling Wirra Birra Park to the public this coming Easter 2024.
Online exhibition: The Story of Sub Base Platypus, North Sydney
Join us as we vividly chart the evolution of the site in response to the nation's changing energy and military requirements throughout the 19th and 20th century. Plus, discover how the public domain, which opened in 2018, pays homage to the different layers of history.