They camped in sandstone caves on the harbour foreshore and lived on a diet of fish, possum and kangaroo, as well as native roots and berries. During the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial activity disturbed the land that now hosts Sub Base Platypus, and no evidence of Aboriginal habitation remains.
In the early 19th century, the areas surrounding Sub Base Platypus were known by two Aboriginal names – Wurru-birri, which referred to the western side of Kurraba Point, and Wéyé Wéyé, which referred to the head of Careening Cove. Although these names may have included the site of Sub Base Platypus, there is no official record of this.
Neutral Bay Gasworks
In 1876, a small gasworks 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 gasworks 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. Two years later, 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 gasworks 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 Gasworks ceased operating in 1932.
Australia enters World War II
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 Gasworks 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 World War II.
After the war ended the torpedo workshops continued to service the British Navy submarine fleet based at HMAS Penguin and the Australian Navy’s destroyer fleet.
Thirty years of HMAS Platypus
In 1967, with World War II 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 Commonwealth Government announced the handover of the former HMAS Platypus site to the Harbour Trust for the purpose of rehabilitating it as a public park. The Harbour Trust consulted extensively with the community, and developed the Platypus Renewal Project.
The vision for the area is one that maintains the site’s distinctive heritage and cultural values, while allowing a mix of cultural, community and commercial uses. Income from the reactivation will contribute to maintaining the site, which was rechristened Sub Base Platypus in August 2017.
Sub Base Platypus today
When Sub Base Platypus was officially launched in May 2018, it was the first time the site had been opened to the public in 150 years. Today, visitors can enjoy a shaded BBQ area with seating, a pocket playground, and a scenic overwater walkway that links to Kesterton Park and the North Sydney Ferry Wharf. Works to revitalise and enhance the site are ongoing, which mean that Sub base Platypus is destined to become a premier visitor destination.
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.