Origins of Local Government in Woollahra

Local government in New South Wales began with a system of ‘district councils’ instituted following the establishment of representative government in 1842. This scheme however, proved unsustainable. The area now administered by Woollahra Council fell within the limits of the far-flung Sydney District Council, established in August 1843, defunct by 1858, and which appears to have had little impact on the local area. To all intents and purposes, the history of the local administration of this area begins with the provisions of the Municipalities Act of 1858.

With responsible government established in New South Wales by May 1856, the population began to look more concertedly towards its elected leaders for the provision of services – including those services which might be considered the most basic and urgent to public health, safety and well-being. The passage of the Municipalities Act two years later was a response to this demand, and a means by which the government encouraged its citizens to fund and manage their own civic affairs, within government imposed limits.

The Municipalities Act allowed for the constitution of rural or urban municipalities, a process activated by petitions such as the one reproduced above, signed by fifty or more householders of the subject district, provided that no counter-petition bearing a greater number of signatures emerged within three months of its publication. Under this provision of the 1858 legislation, municipal incorporation became permissive, or voluntary – an important distinction between this and earlier schemes, which had been hampered by local resistance. As a result of the petition to form the municipal district of Woollahra, the Municipality of Woollahra was proclaimed in April 1860.

Beyond its importance as an instrument in the civic history of this area, the petition is an important social document. The list of signatories on the Woollahra petition provides an instant profile of the area in the mid-nineteenth century, allowing for the fact that eligibility for inclusion rested on gender, age and status as a ‘householder’. The list of names is as revealing for those omitted as those included. Prime among these omissions are the names Cooper and Wentworth1 – the two families with the largest landholdings in the area. Perhaps ironically in the light of this, it was the name of Cooper’s private estate of “Woollahra”, on Point Piper, which was nominated by the petitioners as the name for the municipality.

Of the nine aldermen (councillors) elected in May 1860 to the first Woollahra administration, the names of five appear on the 1859 petition: John Valentine Gorman, Thomas Bowden, Joseph Trickett (whose surname is misspelled), Frederick Oatley, and Richard Holdsworth. The names of Samuel Thompson, David B Hughes, James P Edwards and George Thornton - the latter elected the first chairman (mayor) of the municipality in June 1860 - are not recorded. It is possible that Thompson, Hughes and Thornton did not reside in the area at the time of the petition, as their names are similarly absent from the 1858 issue of the biennial Sands Directory. However David B Hughes of Chatto & Hughes is listed in the 1858 directory as a resident of Waverley Road – an early name for a section of present day Oxford Street, Woollahra.

Among the 144 names listed are those of many prominent members of the colonial establishment, men successful in business such as Henry Mort, Robert and Frederick Tooth, Michael Murnin and William Fairfax; members of the judiciary such as John Dowling and politicians such as John Bayley Darvall and Edward Flood – the latter more closely associated with the district of Waverley than Woollahra, but a staunch advocate of local government and an alderman of the first city council. Flood gives his address on the petition as Botany Street, Sydney but was presumably enfranchised by holding property in the proposed municipal district of Woollahra. Another of the petitioners with a personal experience of local government was John Hosking, who had been the City Council’s first chairman in 1842.

Other identities who appear on the petition went on to give their names to features in the local area. Guilfoyle Street commemorates Michael Guilfoyle, who operated a celebrated exotic nursery in Double Bay, and Dorhauer Lane is a reminder of Heinrich Dorhauer, a well-known builder in the Queen Street area. Waltham Rush, Henry Pickering and Thomas Kilminster also bequeathed their names to streets in the suburb of Woollahra, while Alfred Toogood’s residency in Watsons Bay was briefly marked by Toogood’s Lane, later re-named Clovelly Street.

Also registering his enthusiasm for local government was the colourful James Stockbridge, whose unkempt property at John Street was destined to be the subject of the first ‘nuisance’ complaint attracted by the fledgling council in September 1860, and who went on to be a serial offender in this regard. Stockbridge however, also found a livelihood through council, successfully tendering to undertake night-soil removal for many years, and thus carrying out one of the most essential services to public health which local government could provide to the community in its care.

The list of names on the 1859 petition reveals the diversity of the population of the area proposed as the Municipality of Woollahra. It is significant that all these signatories, regardless of their individual circumstances, saw benefit in incorporation as a local government entity. No counter petition to the proposal was received, and the new municipal district was proclaimed six months later, in April 1860.