May Gibbs’ Neutral Bay Walk

Take a Walk in May Gibbs’ Neutral Bay

Starting from May’s home at Nutcote, walk to her other homes and to houses designed by the Nutcote architect, B.J.Waterhouse and to other features of interest.

Neutral Bay was the home of Cecilia May Gibbs for most of her working life. Born in England in 1877, she migrated to South Australia with her family in 1881 and then to Perth. She spent two lengthy spells studying and working on London between 1901 and 1912, during which her first book (About Us) was published. When she returned to Australia in 1913, she settled in Neutral Bay and began establishing herself as a professional illustrator. In 1914 she produced a Lone Hand magazine cover featuring Gumnut babies peeping from behind gum leaves an during WWI she created popular bookmarks, calendars and postcards with these motifs. In 1916 five bush babies booklets appeared and Snugglepot and Cuddllepie followed 1918. It sold 17,000 copies almost immediately and has never been out of print.

In 1918 she met in Perth, and within a year married, James Ossoli Kelly, a mining engineer. She was 41, he 51. They returned to Neutral Bay where they lived in various rented accommodation. More books appeared, including Little Ragged Blossom (1920) and Nuttybub and Nittersing (1923), and in 1924 the Gumnut babies were adapted into a popular newspaper comic strip, Bib and Bub, which continued until 1967. In 1925, the Kellys moved into their own home, Nutcote, specially designed and built to suit May’s needs by B.J. Waterhouse. The work continued but with the death of her husband in 1939 and her parents in the next couple of years, May’s lifestyle became increasingly retiring. Her last book, Prince Dande Lion appeared in 1953. Two years later she was awarded an MBE, and, in the last months of her life, a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension when it was realized that she was living in near poverty. Witty and sprightly to the end, she died on 27 Nov 1969, aged 92.

A Neutral Bay…

Although the submarines of former HMAS Platypus may make the name seem incongruous, Neutral Bay (or Harbour) was so named because it was designed as an anchoring place for foreign vessels by Governor Phillip in 1789. It had sandy beaches, good water supply, and safe anchorage. A walkway across the turning circle in front of Neutral Bay Wharf offers a glimpse of original shoreline.

One prominent early white settler, Benjamin Boyd, established his fine home Craignathan near the present Wharf in the 1830s, along with a woolstore, a fresh water dam and a row of bake ovens to supply waiting ships. Boyd owned or leased a million hectares of pastoral land and established a major whaling industry at Twofold Bay but like many a subsequent corporate high flyer he crashed in the depression of the 1840s, eventually disappearing in the Solomon Islands.

Kurraba Point, also known as Ballast Point was quarried for ballast for woolships returning to England, and some 8,000 tons of its sandstone also went to built Fort Denison in 1855-1857. The Point was first known as Thrupp’s Point after Lt. Alfred Thrupp, who arrived from London in 1814. NSW Government Architect and local resident, W.L. Vernon, was responsible for the renaming to Kurraba in the 1890s, by which time the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Co. had bought the Point itself for a ferry workshop and coaling station. The workshops moved to Balmain in the 1950s and the land was saved from development by local action.

The Architect of Nutcote: B.J. (Bertrand James) Waterhouse (1877-1965),

Born in Yorkshire, Waterhouse came to Australia and joined the Government Architects, leaving in 1907 to begin private practice. His fashionable and well constructed designs generally features steep pitched roofs, bay windows, inglenooks and arched entrances, with stucco, stone and shingles in the English Arts and Crafts Style. A Neutral Bay resident, himself, he was President of the Art Gallery 1939-58, President of Board of Architects of NSW 1928-49, and Chairman of Canberra’s National Capital Planning and Development Committee. Several of his houses can be seen on this walk and demonstrate clearly how Nutcote was a unique departure from his main style.

The Walk

  1. Nutcote, 5 Wallaringa Ave. A Mediterranean style home designed and built 1924-25 by B.J. Waterhouse to suit May Gibbs’ specific needs. On a steep slope running to the waterfront, its sunlit studio overlooked gum ad banksias trees. It features a long living room with arched windows at either end, carved rafters, recessed bookshelves and rough cast stone-coloured walls, opening onto the balcony where large arches and iron railings frame the bay. May Gibbs and JO Kelly moved here on the house’s completion in 1925. After May’s death, on 27 Nov 1969, the home was left to UNICEF which sold it and its contents at auction. Although in the hands of developers, Nutcote remained largely unaltered until the community battle to save it began and with North Sydney Council purchasing Nutcote for $2.9m. It was restored and reopened to the public in 1994.
  2. Walk east along Wallaringa Avenue to Spains Wharf Road. The latter was so named due to Spain’s Wharf, formerly owned by the Spain family. The wharf is now abandoned. A flight of stairs leads down to the harbor at this point but there is no further access along the harbour.
  3. Continue up Spain’s Wharf Rd and turn left into Kurraba Rd.

  4. No. 146 Kurraba Rd: Hunter (originally Hollowforth 1892-3) Designed by E Jeaffreson.
    Jackson for Professor R Threlfal. Jackson produced romantic designs for the harbourside upper middle class and Hollowforth is his most acclaimed house. The use of curves seems to make its shingles, turreted dormers, gables over bays and tall chimneys swirl and flow.
  5. Retrace your steps along Kurrraba Rd and continue down the hill.

  6. 115A Kurraba Rd: Once Upon A Time (1935) Turn down the steps to Kurraba Wharf to see this inter-war modern (or P&O) style building. Former home of William Alfred Leopold Crowle, its entrance gates are presided over by a stone lion ( formerly two) supposedly bought from the London Houses of Parliament after the WWII blitz. Nearby are verses from Goethe, including (in German) “When someone makes a journey they have a story to tell”. This is a house with a journey and a story to tell.

    Crowle was a Sydney importer, businessman and inveterate traveler and collector. In 1935-36 he had designed and built Wyldefel Gardens stepping down a hillside in a ‘V’ to the waterfront at Potts Point. This townhouse development with its flat roofs and modern styling was a radical innovation for Sydney. At the water’s edge, he built his own house, Once Upon A Time, the bottom floor being the boatshed for his yacht. Returning in 1940 after three years of traveling, Crowle found that the navy was about to acquire his estate for the development of Captain Cook Graving Dock and to connect Garden Island to the mainland. Rather than lose his house, he had it dismantled and bought across to Kurraba Point on barges for reassembly. Crowle died in 1959 and his enormous collections of artifacts and books were auctioned off. Once Upon A Time is now three apartments.

  7. Kurraba Wharf is a long climb down steps but gives access to ferries back to Circular Quay and an excellent view of Once Upon a Time.
  8. In Kurraba Road, immediately past the little shop, was the now demolished Runnymede. After leaving Rothesay in 1920, May Gibbs and JO Kelly move
  9. Hodgson and Spain’s Lookout. 1930s Depression work relief style.
  10. Baden Rd. Originally part of Kurraba Rd, but subdivided in the 1930s by E.K. (later Sir Ernest) White. The Whites named the street after their only son, Baden, who was killed serving in the RAAF during WWII. White was founder of the Liberal Party in the 1940s. He bought much of Kurraba Point headland in 1928, living for a time at Kurraba House (now No. 2 Baden Rd). The Whites built a large two-storey residence, Baden House (5 Baden Rd) on the Point. Its wings radiated from a central circular room, facing up and down harbour and overlooking the pool, tennis courts, wharf, boatshed and slipway. Sir Ernest died in 1983 and Lady Pauline in 1984. Baden House was sold at auction in 1984 for $2.8m, sold again in 1986 for $7.5m and demolished to be replaced by the current units.
  11. Kurraba Point Reserve. Usually a quiet and pleasant waterfront spot, the evidence of the Point’s use as a quarry is obvious. Less obvious are remnants from its industrial past as a soap and oil factory, and later as ferry workshops. At the northern end of the Reserve, steps lead up past flats back to Kurraba Rd.
  12. Continue along Kurraba Rd to the intersection with Shellcove Rd and turn right.

  13. No. 29 Shellcove Rd: Keynsham (1921) probably designed by B.J. Waterhouse for Herbert G. Pratten (d 1979) who played cricket for NSW before WWI and had Badge No. 1 for the Sydney Cricket Ground.
  14. No. 31 Shellcove: Brent Knowle (1914) One of Waterhouse’s most famous designs. A Federation Arts and Crafts style, it appears to have begun as Wirain before passing to Herbert E. Pratten about 1920. Pratten was a member of the Australian Senate from 1908 until his death in 1928, as well as father to H.G. next door. Note the hoist to the loft above its former stables.
  15. No. 33 Ailsa (1908). An Arts and Crafts design ahead of its time, designed by Waterhouse for Captain Robert Craig. Its original Edwardian palm garden and driveway are intact but its waterfront land was subdivided in 1928.
  16. No 39 Gundimaine (c1903). A large rambling federation house with servants’ cottage, Gundimaine was a rental property designed for Elizabeth Craig, wife of Captain Robert Craig, by the local firm of Spain and Rowe. Gundimaine land was subdivided in 1919 and the house became flats until its 1980-82 renovation into three apartments and townhouse.
  17. A peek down the driveway past No 49 reveals the distinctive tapering cobblestone chimney of The Cobbles (1918-19). Built by Samuel George Thorp of Peddle and Thorp as his own residence, it is an important early Australian translation of the Californian Bungalow. Peddle and Thorp played a major role in bringing the Californian influence to Sydney.
  18. No. 55 (east side) Honda (1859). The oldest home in the area, Honda was built by Francis Henry Grundy, an English civil engineer and architect who lived here until 1864. The area was natural bush and its connection it Sydney was by sailing or rowing boat. The next owner, William Christopher Bennett, was an Irish naval engineer who became NSW Commissioner for Road and Bridges. He was responsible for the planning of Sydney’s water supply and sewerage systems. Honda was surrounded by kitchen gardens, orchards, paddocks and bushland, as well as occasional snakes, bushrangers and bushfires – the house was once saved from fire by sailors off the Cutty Sark. One of his daughters, Agnes Bennett, had a remarkable medical career, serving in WWI and afterwards pioneering a number of areas for women doctors. Honda became flats by the 1920s and experienced a controversial ‘refurbishment’ in 1989.
  19. At the top of Shellcove Rd follow Harriette St around to the left, crossing carefully at the Wycombe Rd intersection into and through a section of Harriette St, now a small park. Water is available here before you continue along Harriette Street.
  20. At the end of Harriette, turn left and down steps for a sudden expansive view over a former quarry site and towards the Harbour Bridge and city beyond. From here, go down more steps, cross Undercliff St and walk along Philips St to the junction with Ben Boyd Rd.

  21. It was to boarding-house rooms in Ben Boyd Rd that May Gibbs and two English women friends moved on her return to Australia in 1913. May established her studio at No. 4 Bridge Street in the city.
  22. 12 Phillips St: Federation style semi-detached houses, Douglas and Derry (the latter alongside Ben Boyd Rd). After Rothesay and then Runnymede in Kurraba Road, May and JO moved to the imposing Derry in 1921. The Bridge Street studio was let go and Derry served until the move to Nutcote in 1925. It was productive period, with two new books and the creation of the comic strip, Bib and Bub. From Derry, the Kellys and their Scotty dogs often set out on drives into the Blue Mountains and other much loved bushland around Sydney.

    Return along Phillips St and right into winding Undercliff St, passing the former quarry and the unexpected and delightful little cottages and terraces.

  23. At the corner of Undercliff and Aubin Sts, take a look at the Federation style semis, Clarence and Grafton. Their similarity to Derry/Douglas is no accident. James Doak, having built Clarence/Grafton for his two daughters in 1900, used the same design for Derry/Douglas four or five years later.

    Cross Aubin Street and go down the laneway to Kurraba Rd. Cross at the pedestrian crossing then turn right along Kurraba Rd and left down Hayes St.

  24. Hayes Street gets its name from Patrick Hayes, founder of the Neutral Bay Ferry Company and of a soap and oil factory on Kurraba Point in 1874. There is access to the beach at Neutral Bay on the eastern side of Hayes Street via a discreet passageway before you reach the Federation-style shops at the bottom of the hill. The Neutral Bay Wharf is also here, with regular ferries to Circular Quay.
  25. Continue back up Hayes Street and turn right into Wycombe Rd.

  26. At the intersection of Wycombe Rd and Wallaringa Ave, look across Wycombe Road to the colourful gables verandahs and dormers of Rothesay (now home units). In 1919, the newly-wed May and James Ossoli Kelly, returned to Neutral Bay, living here at Rothesay Private Hotel before seeking less expensive accommodation.
  27. Turn right into along Wallaringa Avenue alongside the sprawling Wallaringa Mansions. The Spain family bought a stone cottage here in 1863 and house and family grew until early this Wallaringa Mansions Guesthouse to Private Hotel to Boarding House and is now restored as strata residences.

    Continue along Wallaringa Avenue to No 5 and you are back at Nutcote, home of May Gibbs.

© Graham Spindler, 1991. All proceeds to Nutcote

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