Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
mosman councilToggle submenu
Skip to main Content

A Brief History of Mosman

This brief history is extracted from records held in the Mosman Library Services Local Studies Collection which holds a wealth of information and resources on Mosman people, places and events.

1788 – 1892

Aborigines are known to have occupied the Australian continent for at least 40,000 years. The Borogegal tribe inhabited the Mosman area. The best known Aborigine in Mosman’s history was Bungaree. Bungaree (c1775-1830) grew up in the traditional Aboriginal environment which his people had enjoyed for many thousands of years. With the coming of the European settlement his life became dramatically different. By the time he was 20 most of his tribe had died of smallpox. By the time he was 26 he had joined British explorers on voyages to the far north and had circumnavigated Australia with Matthew Flinders.

He became leader of his tribe, was given land at Georges Head and enjoyed the patronage of Governor Macquarie. He greeted newcomers as their ships entered Sydney Harbour and became friends with the Russian explorers and acquainted with the French. During his whole life he lived in the traditional Aboriginal way. He hunted and fished and provided for his family. He was a well-known identity in Sydney and his activities were often reported in the newspapers of the day. His exploits and descriptions of his way of life were recorded in the formal records of the European leaders and in their diaries and published works. His image was painted many times and shown in London, Paris and Moscow. Throughout his life he retained the respect of the people of his own world and earned the respect of the newcomers from the European world. He was the first individual known to have been called an “Australian”.

HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet, was careened in 1789 at what is now known as Mosman Bay or Great Sirius Cove. The site chosen was described as a “… convenient retired cove on the north shore …”. Less than six months later the ship was wrecked in the rough waters off Norfolk Island. From as early as 1801 Mosman has been synonymous with Sydney’s maritime and defence installations, when a battery was constructed at George’s Head. In 1811-1813 Thomas O’Neil cultivated land at Balmoral and in c1823 Captain John Edwards settled in the area. Later Barney Kearns plied a ferryboat across Middle Harbour.

The late 1820s brought the whaling industry to Chowder Bay which was used as an anchorage for visiting American whalers. In 1831 Archibald Mosman and John Bell were allotted grants of land in Mosman Bay to establish a whaling station. Two years later it was completed and Mosman’s first grand home, The Nest, was built. The whaling industry flourished and Archibald Mosman sold the business at its height in 1838 and moved to Glen Innes. Thereafter, in the 1840s, whaling declined and for the next 10 years, Mosman Bay was used for overhauling ships.

Following this early grant others were taken up, although little settlement spread due to Mosman’s rugged terrain and inaccessibility. A foot track ran from North Sydney to Middle Head in the 1840s, but it was not until 1860 that the first proper road in Mosman was constructed. This was Avenue Road which ran from Mosman Bay to Mosman Junction. Military, Middle Head and Bradleys Head Roads were constructed 10 years later. A notable early resident was Oswald Bloxsome who built The Rangers in 1844, a mansion on 40 acres overlooking Mosman Bay.

Richard Hayes Harnett Senior was a major influence in Mosman, as was his son, Richard Harnett Junior. The elder Richard began by purchasing Archibald Mosman’s original 108 acres in 1859. Over the next 30 years he was responsible for the building of many roads, a horse drawn bus service and ferry services linking the city to Mosman. Pleasure grounds and picnic resorts sprang up around the foreshore to cater for the visitors who consequently flocked here.

In 1878 Harnett established a sandstone quarry at Mosman Bay, producing first class quality sandstone which was used in historic buildings throughout Australia. The 1880s and 1890s were a great boom era of achievements; Mosman Public School opened, the Congregational Church held its first service, postal and telegraph services began, the water supply commenced and an electric tram service was established in 1893.


In 1893, the 1,600 residents of Mosman became part of a new and separate municipality. The first Mayor elected was Richard Hayes Harnett Junior. The boundaries of Mosman set out in 1893 remain unaltered to this day.

At the turn of the century, Mosman prospered as building activity intensified. Rows of shops and magnificent federation style homes were built by the increasing population, attracted to the natural charm and vistas of the unique bushland and water surrounds. New residents created and maintained the social character of Mosman. It drew artists, writers, intellectuals, businessmen and professionals who strongly rejected proposals which may be likely to undermine the residential nature of their home. Council policies zealously maintained parks and reserves with constant effort to enhance the beauty of the natural landscape.

Electric light cables were extended to Mosman from 1915, Taronga Park Zoo opened in 1916, and a bridge replaced the steam punt at The Spit in 1925. The Amphitheatre, an open-air temple, was constructed at Balmoral in 1924 by The Order of the Star of the East, a branch of the Theosophist Society. it was demolished in 1951. During the Depression and the War years, development slowed in the private building sector, however, a number of public works, such as the Band Rotunda and Balmoral Promenade were constructed.

In the late 1950s public concern focused on the number and type of flat developments occurring, i.e. multi-storey blocks on prominent sites. Population rose in the 1960s so new flats were built to cope with housing shortages throughout Sydney. At the end of the 1960s, Council introduced controls and restrictions and by 1973 high-rise development was banned. Throughout the 1990s, Council continued to take up the challenge of blending urban conservation with aesthetic, progressive development whilst retaining those natural elements of the environment which have attracted people to Mosman’s shores for 200 years and more.

Celebrate Mosman – Then and Now

Take a look at the Celebrate Mosman – Then and Now video to see what Mosman was like from the very early days until now.

Celebrating Mosman

In June 2016, events were hosted to celebrate Mosman. Take a look at highlights from the events and memories shared of Mosman by attendees.