As I parted with my $25, the lady was clearly smiling. Then again, she hadn’t stopped since she first spoke. I’d arrived at the Watch House, an original sandstone gem somewhere down Darling Street, on a rare day when it’s open. I was purchasing a book on Streets, Lanes and Places because I felt a need to write about Balmain.
The Watch House is indeed what you might think it is, or was. A place for those who’d transgressed the law to be housed and the necessity for such a place was due to the distance between major prisons, transport being even more of a problem in those days in the middle of the 19th century. From an original one storey sandstone affair it was extended upwards 30 years later, in 1881, and remained in that vogue until the 1920’s when it became the local policeman’s residence with the cells converted to children’s bedrooms. I can’t think of a better place to house them!
When touted for demolition in the 1960’s it was saved by a newly-formed vibrant group called the Balmain Association who, in league with the National Trust, found an historical use for it and, today, the history of the area, which includes the often overlooked names of Rozelle and Birchgrove, is alive and well in this building, the oldest of its kind still standing. Protests also saw the 1840’s Clontarf Cottage saved for public use after the council purchased it in the late 1980’s. If you investigate closely you can clearly discern the pick marks in many of the older sandstone buildings.
In a newspaper article someone opined not worrying about the Opera House etc., but to go to Balmain to see architecture and get a feel for Sydney. While I couldn’t wholly concur with that viewpoint, it does have some substance.
The workers’ houses with their exotic lacework will demand your eye, especially the ones that have been maintained with facades painted in modern bright colours that accent them even more. Then there are others with garden accompaniment which allow you to only see tantalizing glimpses behind the at-times delightful flora, particularly eucalypts, crepe myrtles and many colours of frangipani.
The dormer (from the Latin “to sleep”) windows on high feature in many of them and the keen eyed might also notice a couple of Scottish style ones that are cut below the eaves.
Every corner seemed to have had a store of some sort; two-storied with accommodation above and a business below, these days converted to housing alone. Another thing to admire is that modern architecture has blended in so well with the old. There’s real imagination in some of many quality works, especially with some of the elegant woodwork and fresh sandstone blocks.
There can be no doubt that it was a working class suburb when you see the number of hotels that once were. It seemed like every second block had a hotel and many remain today, though for others you have to know where you’re looking, like the Volunteer Hotel (today a private residence), that got its name from being associated with the Volunteer Fire Brigade. My personal favourite is the Riverview, once owned by the much loved Olympic star Dawn Fraser, where the food is something to savour. The oldest, still trading, is the Dry Dock Hotel, with its flaky paint and $15 lunch special on Sundays.
Even in 2121, the Exchange and Dick’s still trade opposite each other on Beattie Street. The Yalumba Wine Cellars building in Darling Street has a very historic eye-catching Citroen H Van parked outside, quite apart from the fact that this is the oldest wine outlet still selling liquor.
As you rock up, or should that be down, to Balmain East Wharf, it’s hard not to notice the adjacent gorgeous sandstone building, now a classy restaurant. Here were strong ties to my home town of Newcastle for this was once owned by Fenwick and Co. who were the biggest tug company in Sydney and Newcastle. Originally Bell’s Warehouse, it was later used as Fenwick’s store and has been wonderfully restored and the name retained.
The next ferry wharf around (Balmain), where you can pick up a free book or two off the donation pile, is in Mort Bay, named after Thomas Sutcliffe Mort who had a dry dock there. It sits at one end of the popular Mort Bay Park where you can sit on ideally placed benches and watch people walking dogs and the harbour traffic float by on a balmy day, as I was fortunate enough to do.
The almost obscured (from the land side) Birchgrove Wharf at the aptly named Long Nosed Point is further around still. A peninsula lined with private jetties, it’s a delightful spot just to wait for the ferry with expansive views around the harbour. For over 150 years there’s been ferry transport here and the backdrop of expansive late 19th century houses adds to the allure. The original allotment was purchased by the brother of a ferry owner which explains the alignment of the street heading down the wharf.
You can go down any thoroughfare and find historical architecture, transgress off to streets like Grafton and see unusual views of the harbour or discover obscure parks where picnicking seems like a wonderful thing to do beneath mature trees.
Balmain is also a noted Labor stronghold. The current opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, comes from here, as did Billy Hughes, Australia’s seventh prime minister and “Doc” Evatt. Most important of all though, is Tom Uren, who was so passionate about the electorate that there’s a walk named in his honour. A zig-zag effort that you really need the map for because it’s poorly signed. Other options are the Watch House walks that also give much information about what to see and have excellent maps. Whatever you choose, I’m surely you’ll find some pleasure in what’s available in this special suburb.