Our History

The Dangar Island Historical Society is custodian of many historical records that give life to our history. Our aim is to provide access to them for all those interested in our chosen home. We have only skimmed the available materials here, and apologise for the many omissions.

Please visit the DIHS website page for information about events and membership: http://dangarislandhistoricalsociety.org

In this brief historical timeline of the island we match some of the developments of the Island to major world events. It is an interesting way to put our local history into perspective.

First people and custodians

Aboriginal people were custodians of the Island for at least 30,000 years. The Guringai people, also known as Eora, lived on the banks of the River from its entrance west to near the ridgeline adjacent to Mangrove Creek.

The pioneering years

The Island’s first recorded visit by Europeans was in 1788 by Captain (later Governor) Arthur Phillip when the Island was named Mullet Island due to the abundance of this fish. Phillip visited twice again in 1789 using the Island as a base for short explorations of the river.

These were turbulent times in the world. The first European settlers in Australia were arriving not entirely of their own choice. The pioneers in the US had just written the US constitution and elected George Washington as president in 1789. While Phillip was exploring the Hawkesbury from his base on the Island, back in Europe the French revolution started and Parisians stormed the Bastille.

There was trouble down the Hawkesbury too; by 1795 there was recognised open warfare with the Aborigines. An agreement in 1804 to stop hostilities was never really honoured. Across Australia the Aboriginal population was drastically reduced through massacres, introduced illnesses such as smallpox and starvation as access to land and food was denied. Australia’s first census in 1828 recorded the Aboriginal people by the number of blankets issued. Mullet Island people were recorded as receiving nine blankets for four males and five female aborigines but none for children. These were violent times. Back in Europe, the Napoleonic wars started in 1803, and continued right through the period – the Battle of Waterloo was in 1815.The slave trade was widespread and was the career of choice for those in search of massive wealth – Britain did not declare slavery illegal until 1807 and of course it was fomenting division in the US for many years following.

The Dangar years

Henry Dangar first showed interest in purchase of the island in 1863 but it took until 1864 for the sale to be finalized by his son – also called Henry. He paid 76 Pounds for the 76 acres. It looks a bargain now, but remember the isolation, lack of access, and the uncertain times. Internationally, the American Civil war raged from 1861 to 1865 with the loss of many of the new country’s young. Australia was also in uncertain times too. In 1864 Australian bushranger Ben Hall and his gang escaped from a shootout with police while attempting to rob the appropriately named Bang Bang Hotel in Koorawatha NSW.

Henry was playing a waiting game on what was now known as Dangar’s Island. As a well connected gent he knew that sooner or later the railway would have to bridge the Hawkesbury, and Dangar Island, as it was subsequently known, was a prime site for the construction works. Indeed the first plan was for two bridges – from Long Island to Dangar Island and then across the main channel of the river to the northern shore. However the increased cost and depth of 76m without finding a satisfactory foundation meant that the proposal was dropped. Sure enough in 1886 after 23 years of ownership he leased the land for three years to the Union Bridge Company of New York. The lease was substantial, so Henry, now 55 years old, had finally made a return on this investment.

There then followed the Island’s moment in history. For these three years it became the busiest construction site in the Southern hemisphere. Over 300 workers, many of them bridge builders from the US lived on the island with or without their families and completed what, for its time, were ground breaking engineering works. The lead engineer was Samuel Ryland, a very experienced 60 year-old bridge construction engineer from Chicago. Because of his age he was told to hire a younger partner in case he didn’t live to complete the works. Thirty year-old Edwin Morse was hired to oversee the project, while the senior Mr Ryland concentrated on the finances and running social functions to keep the workforce motivated.

Between them they sunk the deepest piles in the world at the time, and used the then revolutionary technique of pouring reinforced concrete. As well as being a hive of industry, with specially constructed rail spurs and pontoons on the island, there was a library and general store. There was an active social and entertainment program for the homesick engineers – maybe this is where our tradition of Island music started?

Romance must have blossomed amidst the construction hustle and bustle. At least one young bridge engineer, a Mr Schultze eventually married a girl from Brooklyn and stayed in the area.

The men were certainly missing interesting times back in New York. The same year as they started work on Dangar, Coca Cola was launched and the Statue of Liberty built. Maybe they entertained themselves with stories of a good murder from the Island library – the first Sherlock Holmes book was written in 1887 while the next year they could read the newspaper coverage of Jack the Ripper in London.

By 1889 the bridge was opened with much celebration and the workers returned home. Due to the efforts of the bridge builders the east coast rail route was now much quicker. The bridge seems to have been soundly built-it gave admirable service until 1927, when it required strengthening.

During the 1930s cracks appeared and it became necessary to replace the entire structure. Work started in 1940 and was not finished until 1946.

Henry Dangar, being a canny Cornishman by birth, had written into the agreement that the land had to be restored after the construction. So it was and a large wooden house built for Henry and his guests. There was also a separate building called the Pavilion, which still exists today, joined to the house by a covered garden known as the Fernery.

This seems to have been well patronized over the next 25 years and it seems that Dangar Island was a popular spot for weekends away for Henry and his Sydney socialite friends. They would arrive by boat from Sydney and enjoy the lavish accommodation and entertainment on offer. The Pavilion was used as a retiring area for the gentlemen to smoke their cigars, practice their billiards and other manly pastimes. Is this is a tradition that could be revived?

Visitors to the House would have been watching world events escalate to conflict. The Boer War from 1899 to 1902 changed the way wars were fought. The world then descended to the slaughter of the Great War in 1914. From an Australian population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted of which over 60,000 were killed and over 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. Over 2100 nurses served abroad and 423 worked in military hospitals in Australia. There is a Roll of Honour commemorating those from Brooklyn who served in World War One at the railway station.

In 1917, at one of the darkest points of the Great War, Henry Dangar died at the age of 86, and the land transferred to his son Reginald Neville Dangar. He sold it on in 1918 to property developers Lloyd Wild and John Stuart Crouch for 7500 Pounds.

They obtained Council approval to subdivide in 1921 and in 1922 the first two plots were sold, leading to the next stage in the evolution of the island.

The early weekender years

The early weekenders were an intrepid lot, with none of the facilities we take for granted today. The first passable roads from Sydney to Brooklyn opened in the late 20s. Until then, visitors arrived by train or boat. No lattés at the café for them, just shared eating and sitting spaces and verandahs with sleep-out areas.

The Dangar Family home was converted to a guesthouse in 1926. Regular guests included yachtsmen and fishermen. (It burnt down in February 1940).

Early transport was by Mr Jessop, the Dangar caretaker who started with Dangar 1,a 21 foot vessel.He regularly took folks off the island especially on Sunday afternoon and could be called at other times. The first proper ferry services started in 1928 with a Greek migrant, Mannie Kassimatis. When he arrived in 1924 there were five houses on the island and he worked at the guest house. He put all his savings into a rowing boat and then progressively larger boats as business grew. With the promise of regular transport, more people started to think about living on the island. By 1931 there were 34 houses in total. No more were to be built until after the Second World War.

These were tough times in the world. The Great depression started in 1930 and in Europe conditions unraveled. Hitler came to power in 1933. As storm clouds gathered over the world, Dangar was about to enter its next phase.

The war years

As World War 2 raged, Dangar had its second appearance on the world stage. With the perceived threat of Japanese invasion into Australia up the Hawkesbury, Dangar became a strategic location for its defence. Anti- submarine booms were erected, stretching from our South East corner to McKell Park and from the North east corner to Wobby Beach. Restrictions were placed on access across the river and on using small boats. By 1942 over 2100 small boats had been gathered in Berowra Creek to deny them to potential invaders: 1700 had been stored and 400 were still moored awaiting storage. Unfortunately three days of constant rain caused the river to flood and many of the moored boats were lost. The reaction of their owners is not recorded. Dangar Island became an isolated community, yet key to the defence of Australia.

Modern times

As the war ended, services and population growth started on the island. Electricity was connected in 1948 though mains water not until 1971 and weekly garbage collection in 1974.

Our local institutions emerged.

Post office facilities at the general store were recorded from 1948. The League was first formed in 1953. In 1957 the Bowling Club was born (coincidentally the same year as the launch of Sputnik 1 and the start of the Space Race). It operated on land owned by Norman French.

The Community hall didn’t come along until 1966 and in 1967 the Council acquired the adjacent land for recreation purposes.
In1975, Norman French died and in 1976 Hornsby Shire Council purchased three blocks of land from the Estate and leased the property back the Bowling club. Controversy occurred when the Bowling Club applied for more land to build a full sized bowling green, causing objections from some residents. This led to an Island plebiscite in 1979 on whether the land should be purchased by the Council and the whole 4 lots leased to the Bowling Club. The vote was yes and so started our proud tradition and “The best little club on the Hawkesbury”.

In 1977 the islanders revolted over ferry fares, which reached front page news in the Sydney Morning Herald as a “David and Goliath” struggle against the luxury 75 seater “Juno Head”. The Herald reported that 30 Islanders boycotted this luxury transport in favour of Terry Hodgson’s 78 year old so called battler, the Protex. The new ferry service prevailed and became known as “Terry’s Ferry”. Some five years later he upgraded the boat to one we would recognise as the boat today - our much loved “Sun”. Some things change, some things don’t.

We continue to grow with an eclectic mix of permanent residents and weekenders enjoying our unique environment within an hour of the CBD. It’s an interesting mental leap from the busy industrial site of the late 19th century to the few pioneering weekenders of the 1920s. Then the dark war years followed by evolution to the comparatively densely populated riverside settlement we have today.

The 2011 census shows Dangar is home to 267 residents including 50 children and our population rises to 400 with the full use of weekend and holiday homes.

Yet for all the changes, we remain a sleepy, traffic free, natural hideaway on the river, still recognizably Mullet Island if Governor Phillip was to pull up on Bradley’s Beach again today.