"One of Sydney's historical & unique suburbs with a story to tell"

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From the 1830s until the 1850s Balmain developed as a suburb. The reliance on steamers, ferries and coastal vessels for both travel and trade resulted in the establishment of shipyards along the harbour foreshores.

Shipyards brought workers, who wished to live close to their place of work. As the population increased so did the demand for services - houses, shops, churches, schools, police, a hospital and local government. By the 1880s Balmain claimed to be the leading social suburb in Sydney. Numerous clubs were formed including rowing, swimming, bowling and cricket. Institutes such as the Balmain Literary Institute, the Balmain Working Men's Institute and Balmain School of Arts were also established.

The prosperity and security of Balmain continued to attract industry to the peninsula. However, by the late 1880s it was apparent that the suburb was overcrowded and badly organised. Factories were opened next door to houses and schools, streets had been created in the most inappropriate places and the suburb went into a decline. By the early 20th century the industrial activity had dropped, the old population was moving out of the suburb and a younger, poorer population was moving into the area. Balmain's affluent character was changing: by 1933, 38.1 per cent of Balmain workers were unemployed (the NSW average was 18.4 per cent).

1800 William Balmain, Principal Surgeon of NSW (and First Fleet surgeon) received a grant of 550 acres from the Governor of NSW for services rendered. Today the area is called Balmain.

1801 John Gilchrist purchased the 550 acres from William Balmain for five shillings. It appears that William Balmain sold the land as payment of a debt he owed John Gilchrist.

1810 Birchgrove House, overlooking Snails Bay, was built by John Birch. It is believed to be the first house on the peninsula.

1835 Waterview, the second house on the peninsula was built by this date. The builder is unknown, but it was occupied by Nicol Drysdale Stenhouse at one stage.

1836 John Gilchrist began to subdivide the 550 acres. He extended the 'Balmain Road', which branched off the Parramatta Road at Petersham, to the end of the peninsula. Today it is Darling Street. The subdivisions were initially sold for £56 an acre; as sales progressed the cost per acre increased. John Gilchrist made a profit of over £70 000.

Most of those who purchased the land were sailors and shipbuilders.

1839 Cockatoo Island established as a penal settlement.

1841 First church built was the Presbyterian Church in Darling Street.

1842 Henry Perdriau established a steam ferry service to the City of Sydney. The Balmain Ferry Fleet continued operating until 1882 when it was sold to the Balmain Steam Ferry Co.

1843 First post office opened in the local general store. Mail was carried by boat to and from Sydney.

1848 Foundation stone to St Augustine's Church laid.

1849 Inaugural Balmain Regatta, an annual social and sporting event that continued until 1914.

1854 Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and Thomas Rowntree built the first dry dock in Sydney Harbour. It was known as the Waterview Bay Dry Dock and was the largest in Australia until 1890.

1855 The Watch House, the first police station and lock up was built. The original was designed by Edmund Blacket and completed by William Kemp.

1856 Balmain School of Arts was established and operated in various places until 1863 when a building was specially designed by James McDonald.

John Booth, shipbuilder, rented sawmills at Johnstons Bay. He eventually purchased these sawmills which were named Booths Balmain Sawmill and were the largest in NSW.


"One of Sydney's historical & unique suburbs with a story to tell"


1859 Petition signed by residents requesting that the Borough of Balmain be incorporated.

1860 Borough of Balmain was incorporated and became a municipality, holding its first meeting in Captain Rowntree's shop on 3 April 1860. The first temporary offices were in rented rooms in Adolphus Street and then later in St Mary's Church, Balmain. The first chairman was Ralph Mansfield in 1860. The first mayor was John Booth in 1867. The mayors were leading local businessmen and industrialists of the day. Others included Henry Perdriau, Thomas Stephenson Rowntree, Joseph Mullens and George Elliott.

First school opened in temporary premises with 138 pupils. It was known as the Balmain National School.

The volunteer Balmain Rifles was formed to resist French colonial expansion.

1861 First letterbox on corner of Darling and Nicholson Streets.

1862 Site located for Balmain National School. The building was completed in 1863.

1863 The Working Men's Institute was established.

1865 Elliot Brothers Manufacturing Chemists & Druggists built a factory, Balmain Chemical Works, on the foreshore of Iron Cove.

1866 Balmain National School became a public school.

1867 First newspaper in Balmain called the Balmain Reporter.

1868 First burial in the Balmain Cemetery. The cemetery was located in Norton Street, Leichhardt.

1870 Cockatoo Island ceased functioning as a penal settlement. An industrial school for girls was established on the island and called 'Biloela', an Aboriginal word for cockatoo.

1871 Government Savings Banks of NSW opened an agency in the local post office. The bank was later known as the Commonwealth Bank.

1873 Gas mains extended to Balmain.

1875 The Bank of NSW opened its first branch on the corner of Darling Street and Curtis Road.

First Volunteer Company of Firefighters was formed.

1876 New Balmain school building completed beside present day Gladstone Park. The boys remained in the old building and the new building became the girls and infants department. The school became known as the Pigeon Ground School.

1880 Balmain Bowling Club was established.

1881 Balmain Council Chambers were built. Designed by James McDonald.

Balmain National School became known as Balmain Superior Public School.

1883 Shark-proof swimming pool was built at White Horse Point.

1884 Balmain Swimming Club was formed.

1885 Balmain Cottage Hospital was opened with four beds for the treatment of male patients.

1885-88 Combined police court and post office built. Designed by James Barnet.

Balmain was described as a working man's suburb.

1886 'Alderley House' in Booth Street was purchased for use as a hospital, as the Cottage Hospital was too small. This hospital became known as the Balmain and District Hospital.

1887 Victoria Jubilee Floating Dock was built at John Booth's sawmill to celebrate Queen Victoria's Jubilee.

Christian Brothers opened their first school in Thames Street with 150 students enrolling.

1887-88 Balmain Town Hall built. Designed by Edward H. Buchanan.

1888 Balmain Telephone Exchange opened.

1891 The Balmain workers founded the Labor Electoral League at a meeting in the Unity Hall. The League was later called the Political Labor League and then became the Australian Labor Party.

1892 First tram services from the city to Darling Street, Balmain.

1893 Tramline extended to Gladstone Park.

A telephone was installed at the Balmain Post Office for public use. A fee was charged.

1894 Permanent station was built in Darling Street for the Volunteer Company of Firefighters.

1895 William Hesketh Lever purchased a site on which to build his factory in order to produce soap and coconut oil. Home of Sunlight Soap.

Sydney Harbour Collieries Ltd was formed to mine the Bulli Coal Seam. Land on the corner of Birchgrove Road and Water Street, near Iron Cove, was purchased. The two shafts 'Birthday' and 'Jubilee' were sunken in 1897.

1901 Permanent firefighters replaced the Volunteer Company.

1902 First load of coal brought up from the
'Birthday' shaft.

1903 The tramline was extended to the Darling Street wharf.

1905 Glebe Island became part of the municipality (933 acres).

1908 The Balmain Rugby League Football Club held its inaugural meeting in Balmain Town Hall. The colours of striped black and gold were adopted. The pullover became known as 'tiger stripes', hence the nickname 'Tigers'. Birchgrove Oval became the club's homeground.

1909 Electric Light and Power Supply Corporation Ltd was established to supply electricity to Balmain. Electric street lighting was installed and public buildings also received lighting.

Garbage destructor built to replace the tip in Elkington Park.

1912 The last burial in Balmain Cemetery in May.

1913 Commonwealth Government acquired Cockatoo Island as a defence installation - ship repair and ship building continued.

1915 Reservoir built under Gladstone Park.

1917 Boys Department at Balmain Public School left the old building and moved into the Girls Department.

1925 First motor buses to Balmain.

1928 Council requested that all verandah posts on shops in the main thoroughfares be removed and replaced with cantilevered awnings.

1930 Main streets were resurfaced in asphalt and cement concrete.

1931 The Balmain Coal Mine was shut down.





1932-37 The Natural Gas and Oil Exploration Ltd tapped into the gas reserves in the Balmain Coal Mine and extracted gas supplies. Resumed operation in 1942-45 to extract gas.

1941 The Old Balmain (Leichhardt) Cemetery Act 1941, abolished the Balmain Cemetery. The Cemetery was converted into a park known as the Pioneer's Memorial Park.

1948 Balmain ceased being a municipality and was amalgamated with Leichhardt Municipality.

On 10 December 1948, the Balmain Council held its farewell ball, the proceeds of which went to the 'Miss Australia Quest' and The Red Cross Society.

1948 The last mayor was Richard M. O'Connor.

Planning Scheme Report stated that more than half the houses in Balmain were substandard.

1950s Migrant population began to move into the area.

1959 Morts Dock closed.

1960s Decrease in industry in Balmain.

1965 Balmain Association formed.

This history of Balmain was taken from the Local History Files at Leichhardt Library and the Sydney Inner West Virtual Library

415 Darling St, BALMAIN, NSW 2041

+61 2 9810-3700
+61 2 9810-1500