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North Head Sanctuary

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10 min read
North Head, Manly – including North Head Sanctuary – has enduring significance for the Traditional Owners, the Gayamagal People, and occupies a notable place in the nation’s quarantine and military narratives...

North Head originated during the last Ice Age when erosional forces separated it from Hornsby Plateau, transforming it into a ‘tied island’, linked to the mainland by Manly’s sandspit. Of note, the central area of North Head Sanctuary features dunes made up of wind-deposited sands dating back 140,000 years to the Pleistocene Epoch.

Car-rang-gel and the Gayamagal People

North Head is known as Car-rang-gel by the Gayamagal People and was once used by their Koradgee (medicine men and women healers) for spiritual ceremonies and rituals. Rock engravings, rock art, campsites, burials, and middens are reminders of the Gayamagal People’s connection to the area.  

Some of the early interactions between First Nations Peoples and the European colonists occurred in the North Head area. Notably, the First Fleet – led by Captain Arthur Phillip – made contact with the local Aboriginal People in 1788.

The following year, three locals –Arabanoo, Bennelong and Colbee – were captured by early settlers who intended to use them as interpreters. In 1790, at nearby Collins Flat Beach, Governor Phillip was speared in the shoulder at a feast conducted over a stranded whale. 

The Third Quarantine Cemetery

In 1833, the North Head Quarantine Station was established when Richard Bourke, then the Governor of NSW, declared land within a quarter of a mile of Spring Cove a quarantine area. The construction of the nearby Third Quarantine Cemetery, in 1881, coincided with a smallpox epidemic

By the time of the cemetery’s closure in 1925, more than 240 people – including Annie Egan – had been interred there, having succumbed to ravages including influenza, the bubonic plague, smallpox and scarlet fever.

Egan was a young nurse who contracted the Spanish Flu in November 1918 while caring for ill soldiers at the North Head Quarantine Station. She died within a fortnight, aged 27, and was buried, with full military honours, at the Third Quarantine Cemetery.

Her story captivated the nation because authorities denied her request for a priest to be permitted into the station to administer the last rites to her and other Catholics. The Federal Government ultimately backed down and permitted clergymen to enter the station to administer to the sick and dying.

The Third Quarantine Cemetery (together with the North Head Quarantine Station) is included on Australia’s National Heritage List as a significant example of the nation’s evolving quarantine practices.

North Fort including the Plotting Room

Established at North Head in 1936, North Fort is a remnant military complex. Strategically placed at the northern entrance to Sydney Harbour, the now-demilitarised fort formed part of a defence system that spanned 300km of coastline during World War II. At the height of the war, North Fort was manned twenty-four hours per day.

Until 1952, the North Fort Battery featured two 9.2 inch calibre guns. Serviced by a 200-metre-long network of underground tunnels, each was capable of firing a distance of 26.4km. Target coordinates were relayed to these heavy weapons from the nearby Plotting Room.

Located eight metres underground, the concrete-reinforced, bomb-proof Plotting Room is accessible via a camouflaged, shed-like entrance. Despite its name, the structure actually consists of two rooms – the Fortress Plotting Room (FPR) and the smaller Battery Plotting Room (BPR).

The Plotting Room was vital to Sydney’s coastal defences during World War II, receiving enemy craft intel from – and sending it to – artillery batteries located along the coast from Port Stephens to Port Kembla, collectively known as Fortress Sydney.

Target course and speed was sent via telephone from observation posts to the Fortress Plotting Room and then onto the Battery Plotting Room, which relayed coordinates to North Fort’s guns.

The Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) began filling key wartime positions at North Fort, including the Plotting Room, after being authorised by the government, in August 1941, to “release men from certain military duties for employment in fighting units”.

The men and women who operated the Plotting Room, including Patricia Talberg, played a crucial role in the Defence of Sydney during World War II. Due to the highly classified nature of their work, however, their exploits were not revealed to the general public. In fact, to maintain the veil of secrecy around the underground facility, the Army prohibited photography. Except for a handful of photos captured by an official Army photographer in 1944, there is no other significant photographic evidence of the Plotting Room.

The Army School of Artillery

After World War II, the Army School of Artillery opened at North Head. Gunners lived and trained there from 1946 until 1998, when the school relocated to Puckapunyal, Victoria.

The former School of Artillery occupies the highest part of North Head and includes the Army Barracks. The Barracks complex contains a collection of art deco buildings that include a parade ground, service areas and sheds, as well as a large area of remnant bushland.

Harbour Trust stewardship

In the early 2000s, the Harbour Trust became the steward of an area of North Head that encompassed the Third Quarantine Cemetery, North Fort, the Army School of Artillery and surrounding bushland. Known as North Head Sanctuary, the site was opened to the public in 2007.

Today, the Harbour Trust volunteers facilitate guided tours of North Fort, including the underground tunnel complex and Plotting Room, enabling visitors to walk in the footsteps of the servicemen and women who defended our shores.

Additionally, the public can pay homage to those who have served and supported the defence of Australia on the Memorial Walk. This paved pathway links five monuments that were erected to remember the major conflict periods in Australia’s history.

North Head Sanctuary is home to a variety of businesses including a sculpture gallery, as well as health and well-being providers and a childcare centre and education provider.

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North Head originated during the last Ice Age when erosional forces separated it from Hornsby Plateau.