Tales of Flat Rock Creek: Rugged, Ruined and Reclaimed

Mayor Pat Reilly cuts the ribbon to officially open the exhibition on 2 April 2011.
Mayor Pat Reilly cuts the ribbon to officially open the exhibition on 2 April 2011.
Judy Peters photo.
Developed for the National Trust’s 2011 Heritage Festival theme, ‘Amazing Stories’, our current main exhibition explores the impact of urban development on the pristine natural environment of Flat Rock Creek through the eyes of Willoughby residents. The story is toiled through three primary themes: the Rugged Landscape to the 1930s, the Ruined valley resulting from the garbage tip that impacted on the downstream landscape, flora and fauna, and Reclamation, covering the rehabilitation of the land and the incinerator as public recreational facilities and a bushland walk. The Walter Burley Griffin-designed Willoughby Incinerator building and Edward Hallstrom’s Silent Knight refrigerator factory are also key themes in the story.

The exhibition was opened by Pat Reilly, Mayor of Willoughby City and the WDHS Patron, on 2 April 2011 and it will continue through this year. The story is told through a series of display panels, a banner, historic objects, a changing display of historic images and two DVDs of local residents telling their stories.


Part of the Rugged theme in the exhibition.
Part of the Rugged theme in the exhibition.
RF McKillop photo.
The rocky landscape of the North Shore was regarded as unattractive by early European settlers and the steep gully into which Flat Rock Creek flowed before reaching Middle Harbour was a barrier to accessing what is now the suburb of Willoughby. This theme covers the pre-contact lives of the Camaraigal people, early European settlement, the Naremburn Waterfall and the local flora in their pristine state, and the role of transport routes in shaping urban development. Tribute is paid to Eric Wilksch who researched the area in detail and documented its flora and fauna.


Visitors engage with the ‘Ruined’ section of the exhibition on 2 April 201
Visitors engage with the ‘Ruined’ section of the exhibition on 2 April 2011,
Judy Peters photo.
This theme explores the industries and activities that desecrated Flat Rock Gully from the 1920s and irreversibly changed its landscape. Numerous quarries blasted the sandstone for building and road works, and factories, such as the Hallstrom refrigerator works, discharged pollutants into the creek. The Willoughby Incinerator, housed in the elegant Griffin-designed building, promised an environmentally sound means of garbage disposal, but the debt incurred by council during the Depression and the austerity of the war years meant that the second furnace was never installed and maintenance was neglected. Increasingly, Willoughby Council reverted to disposing of its garbage and waste, together with that from neighbouring councils, in an open tip. Drainage works enclosed the creek in a concrete tunnel and up to 160 feet of garbage and landfill was dumped over it. The pristine gully had become a wasteland.

The rationale for, and the design and operation of the Willoughby Incinerator are featured here, together with Griffin’s original drawings for the building and photographs of its construction and early operations in 1934. To a large number of Willoughby’s children, the garbage tip was a regular playground and their recollections of their excursions are featured in the story.


Portion of the Reclaimed theme in the exhibition.
Portion of the Reclaimed theme in the exhibition.
RF McKillop photo
By the late 1960s, a shift in community attitudes to the environment and resident anger over the smoke and smells they experienced from the tip and the deteriorating incinerator brought pressure on council to close the incinerator and cease tipping waste in the gully. The incinerator was closed in 1967, but tipping continued until 1985.

There was strong sentiment to demolish the incinerator building, but it was saved through the efforts of architects and key individuals in the local community. Following renovation and adaptive reuse, it opened as the Incinerator Restaurant in 1980. An economic downturn resulted in closure of the restaurant in 1988 and the building was used as offices for a number of years. Willoughby Council resumed the lease on the building in 2005 and commenced a project to fully restore the building under heritage conservation standards for community use. It was formally reopened on 2 April 2011 as an art exhibition space and artists’ studios, while the top floor will be leased as a cafe.

In 1985, Willoughby Council commenced a bold plan to reclaim the tip for a modern sporting complex and develop a lineal park from Artarmon station to Middle Harbour as a Bicentennial Project. The first stage of the facility, named Bicentennial Reserve – Willoughby, was opened on 30 April 1988. A Leisure Centre followed and bushland regeneration work in the remaining open section of Flat Rock Creek to Tunks Park on Middle Harbour resulted in the opening of the Eric Wilksch Track in 1996.


The Willoughby District Historical Society was awarded the 2011 IMAGinE Award for the best exhibition and public engagement project by a volunteer-run museum or gallery in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory at a gala event at the Australian Museum in Sydney on Friday 30 September. The award was for its 2011 Heritage Festival exhibition Tales of Flat Rock Creek: Rugged, Ruined and Reclaimed which was officially opened by the Mayor Pat Reilly on 2 April 2011. The judges were impressed by the exhibition which explored the impact of urban development on a pristine natural environment since the European settlement through the eyes of Willoughby residents. The annual awards are sponsored by Museums & Galleries NSW, Museums Australia (NSW), Regional Public Galleries NSW and Museums Australia (ACT) and are open to museums and galleries from across NSW and the ACT.



A public appeal for stories relating to the area brought an enthusiastic response from former Willoughby residents across New South Wales and in south-east Queensland and their contributions have been incorporated into the displays. There is an extensive of wonderful historic photos from the museum’s David Warner Collection and the Willoughby City Library. The Aboriginal Heritage Office has assisted.