Colonial Darling Point was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of nearby Sydney town.
But right from the start, the suburb attracted some of the colony’s wealthiest and most influential people.
The early days
Although Europeans had been in Australia since the 1780s, they left Darling Point untouched for some time. The land – traditionally belonging to the Cadigal people – was steep and heavily wooded, and, coupled with its unstable shore, access was difficult. Construction of a new road in 1831 changed that, and the land was reserved for sale via public auction.
Initially named “Mrs Darling’s Point” (after Eliza Darling, wife of the NSW governor Ralph Darling), the area attracted much interest. The first allotments were sold to Elizabeth Pike, a hotel keeper, James Chisholm, a soldier and wine merchant, and businessmen Joseph Wyatt, Thomas Smith, James Holt, Thomas Barker and William MacDonald. The Colonial Astronomer James Dunlop was granted an allotment in 1835 on condition that he build a dwelling valued at £1500 on the land.
The land was a bargain at £10 an acre. The suburb’s appeal was obvious even in those days, with one letter-writer to The Australian calling it “the most beautiful and picturesque place on the margin of Port Jackson” and adding that the price “certainly ought not to have been less than £500 per acre”.
At the time, indigenous people still lived in the area, with a description of a corroboree included in a letter to The Sydney Monitor in 1837. The traditional owners called the area Yaranabe after a local leader.
Darling Point’s early residents
Colonial Darling Point attracted some of Sydney’s wealthiest citizens. The suburb was exclusive from the start, and it was believed that “Darlingpointians” had their own customs and manners. The homes they built were much envied in the colony, and a few still exist today.
Of those who bought the first allotments, Thomas Smith was the only one to build a home at Darling Point. His house, Glenrock, was built in 1836 after he’d already realised the value of Darling Point’s land and sold off some of his original holdings. While Glenrock still stands today as part of Ascham School, it’s a slightly newer version, with the original demolished and rebuilt in the 1870s by its later owner, parliamentarian John Marks.
Meanwhile, merchant and local government councillor Thomas Woolley built his home, Percyville, in 1841. When just three years later, the house was sold to Thomas Sutcliffe Mort, it formed the foundations of the much grander Greenoaks, now known as Bishopscourt, after being bought by the Anglican Church in 1910.
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But the earliest Darling Point home you can still see – and visit – is Lindesay. This elegant Georgian home was built in 1834 by Colonial Treasurer Campbell Drummond Riddell and today hosts weddings and community functions.
What did colonial Darling Point look like?
The census states there were 709 people living at Darling Point by 1891. Contrast this with the 2021 census, where almost 4000 residents were recorded, and you get a sense that the area must have appeared sparse in comparison.
In colonial times there were fewer people still, and paintings give us a glimpse into what the new suburb might have looked like. One early work by Robert Russell shows a few modest buildings, washing hung out to dry, and three figures crouched on a basic dirt road. The watercolour, dated to 1835 and titled “Sketch at Mrs Darling’s Point”, possibly depicts either local indigenous people or some of the labourers who built the fledgling suburb’s new roads.
Another painting from 1846 shows Glenrock on an elevated ridge surrounded by bushland. Other early paintings depict Carthona (built-in 1841 by Sir Thomas Mitchell, Surveyor-General) and Lindesay, similarly surrounded by trees. While some of the colony’s grandest homes were being built here, it was clearly still dominated by the natural landscape.
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Photo credit: Wkimedia