Short History of Willoughby


The lower North Shore area, including today’s Willoughby area, was the home of the Camaraigal clan of the Guringai language nation. This group was distinguished by their numbers, the robust and muscular physique of the people and its authority over surrounding groups. Its superiority may have been due, in part, to the fact that they had the best fishing grounds and, as David Collins recorded, “had the exclusive and extraordinary privilege of extracting a tooth from the natives of other tribes inhabiting the sea-coast”.1

The arrival of Europeans was to have a devastating impact on the Aboriginal population of the Sydney area. By 1789, half of the population had been wiped out by smallpox and there were no First Australians communities in the Willoughby area following a traditional life style by 1830. Evidence of early family life in Willoughby comprises numerous middens, artwork in caves and photographs of rock carvings in the Northbridge area.

Today few if any Aboriginal people living on the North Shore can trace their ancestry back to the Camaraigal clan, although there are many Aboriginal people residing in the area who maintain close spiritual and cultural links in contemporary ways. The Aboriginal Heritage Office (AHO) in Northbridge was opened on 2006 as a joint initiative of the Lane Cove, North Sydney, Manly, Willoughby, Ku-ring-gai, Pittwater and Ryde Councils. The AHO has been active in recording the Aboriginal sites of the North Shore and documenting the history of the people. It hosts the Aboriginal Heritage Museum and Keeping Place which provides displays of indigenous history from pre-colonial times to the present day. The WDHS has a close association with the AHO, which provided artefacts and displays for our Tales of Flat Rock Creek exhibition.


Aboriginal Heritage Office website:


“It was high, rocky and barren, though it might add to the extent and beauty of the harbour, it did not promise to be of any benefit to the settlement”.1

From the beginning of British settlement, the lower North Shore was seen as Sydney’s frontier. Sydney Cove provided shelter and water. Across the harbour were the rocky outcrops of Middle Harbour and beyond. Early trips were made to explore the North Shore, but to those who recorded their findings such as David Collins, the area around Middle Harbour held out few prospects.

This view of the inhospitable North Shore remained for much of the 19th century. While a number of land grants were made on the lower North Shore in 1794, those who received them did not take up residence. Early European settlement on the North Shore was mainly peopled by timber getters and rural settlers, with the Lane Cove River for bringing timber logged on the North Shore to the settlement at Sydney Cove. In 1835 the colony was divided into counties, hundreds and 57 parishes. The Parish of Willoughby in the County of Cumberland was defined as the area north from Port Jackson between Middle Harbour in the east and the Lane Cove River to the west as far as a line from Middle Harbour that was to define the present Willoughby City boundary along today’s Boundary Street.

In May 1865 67 residents of the rural district of Willoughby sent a petition to Sir John Young, Governor of NSW, praying for the incorporation of the Municipality of Willoughby. This resulted in the Municipality of North Willoughby being formally proclaimed on 23 October 1865. It was the first local government to be incorporated on the North Shore. Its boundaries were those of the present Willoughby local government area (LGA) together with the River Ward, which became the separate Municipality of Lane Cove in 1895. The first council meetings were held in a ‘barely furnished slab hut’ located behind a cottage on the corner of Penshurst and Penkivil Streets.2

The Municipality of North Willoughby continued to be dominated by rural pursuits over the next 25 years due to lack of reliable transport to employment centres, although several tanneries and brickworks were established during the 1880s. The opening of the North Shore Railway on 1 January 1880 and the Willoughby Tramway (1886) were expected to bring rapid urban development to the area, but the severe economic depression of the 1890s meant a delayed response to these investments. In 1900 the population of Willoughby Municipality was 5100 and this increased to 13,280 by 1910 and 24,845 by 1915-16. Most of this increase was in the suburb of Chatswood, which outstripped the initial settlement area of Willoughby.

From the 1950s, successive Willoughby local government councils implemented the Chatswood District Centre Plan, a grand scheme to redevelop the business centre of the municipality as one of Sydney’s major retail and commercial centres. Intensive retail development was encouraged within the central business district to the east of the railway station, with commercial development west of the railway. From the 1990s high-rise residential development was also encouraged in the Chatswood CBD, which in turn has attracted an influx of residents from Asian countries. The municipality was proclaimed as the City of Willoughby in November 1996.


Today’s City of Willoughby comprises the suburbs of Artarmon, Castle Cove, Castlecrag, Chatswood, Chatswood West, Middle Harbour, Naremburn, North Willoughby, Northbridge, Willoughby and Willoughby East, as well as portions of the suburbs of Lane Cove North, Roseville and St Leonards. A map of Willoughby suburbs can be accessed here: and open the PDF file ‘Suburb Boundaries’.

Today Willoughby City has an estimated population of just over 70,000. By the 1996 Census, 30 per cent of Willoughby residents were born in countries with non-English speaking backgrounds. Of these, 8055 (9.9%) were born in China, Hong Kong, Korea or Taiwan, and a further 1255 (2.0%) were born in Japan. These proportions are significantly greater than those for the Sydney Statistical Division. Willoughby City celebrates this ethnic diversity, promoting itself as the ‘City of Diversity’.

1 David Collins, An Account of an English Colony in New South Wales, (London: 1798), Sydney, Reed, 1975.

2 Russell, Eric, Willoughby: A Centenary history of the Municipality from earliest times. Chatswood, Council of the Municipality of Willoughby, 1965, p. 21.