The suburb of Willoughby, which has traditionally also covered North Willoughby and Willoughby East, is believed to have been named by Surveyor General Sir Thomas Mitchell after his former superior officer, Sir James Willoughby Gordon. It is bounded by Northbridge, Castlecrag and Middle Cove to the east, and Chatswood to the north and west, while Flat Rock Creek demarcates its southern boundary with Naremburn.
With the ‘land boom’ following the first gold rushes, William Lithgow subdivided 600 acres of land in the area and sold it at auction in 1854 under the name ‘The Township of North Willoughby’. There was little interest in the land, however, and the area retained a largely rural character with orchards, dairies and Chinese market gardens during the 19th century.
The first school was established by the Bush Missionary Society in June 1862 and it reopened at a new site on the corner of Penshurst Street and Mowbray Road in August 1863 as the North Sydney National Public School. It was the first public school on the North Shore and it continues today as the Willoughby Public School. Click here for further details.
Flat Rock Bridge
A large flat rock at the junction of the two creeks running east to Middle Harbour at Long Bay has played a central role in the settlement of the Willoughby area. Although the creek was flood prone, the rock provided a fjord across the creek for residents of the then rural settlement of Willoughby. Soon after the rock the creek plunged down steep falls into a rocky gorge. A track (later Flat Rock Road and now Willoughby Road) branched off the Lane Cove Road at today’s Crows Nest to cross the creek at the Flat Rock.
In flood, the Flat Rock crossing presented a danger to travellers. Eliza Davies, the first teacher at what would become Willoughby Public School in the early 1860s, later recalled her experience in trying to cross the Flat Rock in heavy rain:
We drove till we came to the great Flat Rock. This was just what its name indicated, honeycombed with great holes always full of water in dry weather. I could navigate them dry-shod, but it was always covered with water in the rainy season, and dangerous to cross, and over this my road lay; but now it was impassable, a river a quarter of a mile wide was rushing over it with mad fury, full of rapids, and concealing the holes with its muddy water.1
The driver feared that there was a danger in horses, carriage and all being swept away over the nearby falls. Eliza had no choice but to be driven back. The following day she took a long roundabout route west along the Lane Cove Road to get home.
It was originally intended that Flat Rock Road would then continue across another gully and creek (Sailors Bay Creek) to end up at the junction of the proposed High Street and Mowbray Road. Instead the early settlers found it easier to veer west and skirt the hillside down to Flat Rock Creek, still leaving a steep climb and another stream crossing known as ‘Little Flat Rock’ before finally conquering the hillside to reach the present junction of Penshurst Street and Mowbray Road. Thus, Penshurst Street became the main commercial thoroughfare of Willoughby and High Street remained largely a residential area.2
The first infrastructure project for the first North Willoughby Municipal Council in 1866 was the construction of a ‘bridge’ — in reality the initial structure was a crude barrage. It opened in 1869, but was swept away by a flood the following year. A replacement bridge was constructed, but when it too succumbed to a flood, a more substantial and higher bridge was constructed in 1886. It was further raised and strengthened for the Willoughby tramway in 1896 and this structure remains in place today carrying the commuters and heavy vehicles who use Willoughby Road on a daily basis. The creek below has long become a stormwater tunnel and the graceful arch of the bridge now serves as a walkway and cycleway connecting Artarmon with Tunks Park on Middle Harbour.
Russell, Eric, Willoughby a Centenary History, Chatswood, Council of the Municipality of Willoughby, 1966.
1 Eliza Davies, The Story of an Earnest Life: A Woman’s Adventure in Australia, Cincinnati, Central Book Crown, 1881.
2 Leslie Charles Forsyth, Flat Rock Road and Its Bridges, Sydney, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1986
Described as one of the finest buildings in the northern suburbs, the three-storey hotel had
commenced trading in May 1899. It was owned by the brewers Tooth & Company and had 40 wellfurnished rooms and, for its day, every modern convenience. Conveniently situated close to the local tanneries and the tram terminus from Milsons Point was adjacent to its doors, the hotel had a prosperous beer trade and there was no shortage of hotel guests.
The first licensee was James Smith who sold the goodwill to Joseph Knight Smith, with the licence transfer being formally approved on 1 May 1902. The Hotel Willoughby was a favourite meeting place for tannery workers who found the bars “well arranged and conducted”, while the patrons were regularly entertained by their host’s tales of his adventures in the Yukon and the Boer War. By 1918 Knight Smith had purchased five blocks of land in McMahon Street, some of which he left in a virgin state while others served as gardens to grow produce for the hotel’s kitchens.
The hotel flourished under Knight-Smith’s efficient management. In 1926 a local newspaper extolled “the brightness and glitter of the island bar, exquisite taste of the mural embellishments, the luxury of the lounges, the beauty of the adjoining conservatories and the evidence of refinement and culture in
the appointments of the guest rooms”.
Joseph Smith was very proud of his hotel. All maintenance was carried out promptly and he was to claim in July 1922 that when he took over the hotel:
I found later [that it] possessed a very shady reputation. During my occupancy, however, I quickly altered its status and I may truthfully say without egotism that today it is recognised as one of the most up-to-date residential hotels conducted on proper lines as a Hotel should be, and that I as the Licensee for over 21 years have kept it without a stigma to mar its reputation.
Joseph Smith retired from his interests in Willoughby in 1928, although the licence for the Hotel Willoughby was not transferred to George Augustus Bernor on 16 June 1931. It has seen frequent changes in management over the years and a change of name to ‘The Willoughby’. In 2012 new owners undertook extensive renovations which saw the refurbishment of the second floor function rooms to reflect their former glory under Joseph Knight Smith’s time as licensee.
Bridge View Hotel
Located at 580 Willoughby Road, the Bridge View Hotel opened on 24 September 1928. It had been constructed by Stanley Cork, who had applied for a liquor licence in 1926 for a proposed hotel he intended to build on land he owned at this site. From Council rate books, it appears that Cork was acting for Tooth & Company as it was listed as the owners of the land before the existing shops and dwelling were demolished. Among the petitioners supporting the application was Joseph Knight Smith, the owner of the Hotel Willoughby, who acknowledged that the suburb of Willoughby was expanding so rapidly that it could support a second hotel at this location.
A conditional license was granted for what would be named the Bridge View Hotel on 24 September 1927, with Elvy & Company commencing construction a few weeks later. When completed, the fine three-storey building contained three bars, a spacious dining room and 26 well-furnished guest rooms, each with hot and cold showers and plunge baths. The first licensees were Mr and Mrs FW Rose, formerly of the Bankstown Hotel.
There have been regular renovations to the hotel building over the years and it remains a popular social venue for the neighbourhood. Various sporting bodies, including the Willoughby Cricket Club, have made the hotel a regular meeting and fund-raising venue.
1 Leslie, Esther, and Michaelides, Jean, Willoughby: The suburb and its people, Chatswood, Willoughby Municipal Council, 1988, pp 142-145.
2 Sydney Morning Herald, Thursday 2 May 1902, p 3,’Licensing Court’.
3 Suburban Herald, 1926, quoted by Leslie & Michaerlides, 1988, as above.
4 Joseph Knight-Smith, letter to Tooth & Coy, 7 July 1922, quoted by Leslie & Michaerlides, 1988, as above.
5 Sydney Morning Herald, Wednesday 17 June, p 8, ‘Hotel Licences Transferred’.
6 Leslie & Michaerlides, 1988, as above, pp 145-146.
Industry and Commerce
While the rocky Flat Rock Gorge was a barrier to settlement, the soils derived from shale bedrock along the creek’s upper reaches, and especially those of Sailors Bay Creek running into Middle Harbour, proved to be suitable for agriculture. Thus orchards and market gardens provided the main livelihood of the early settlers. By the 1870s Chinese market gardeners had become prominent contributors to the economy of the district.
In 1869 James Forsyth established the pioneer North Shore tannery, Rosewall, on Sailors Bay Creek, while the Willoughby post office opened in 1871 ‘next to the public school’. George Leaf opened a general store in Penshurst Street by 1870 and the nonconformist Protestant Congregationalists in the area opened their first church in Penshurst Street in 1871.