“We’ll fight ‘em to the finish !”
The Battle for Nannygoat Hill
Australia’s first campaign to save urban bushland
Copyright 2017 Justin Cahill
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
All rights reserved. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. This ebook may not be reproduced by any means in any form without the copyright holder’s written consent.
All inquiries to Justin Cahill at
PO Box 108, Lindfield, 2070
New South Wales, Australia
or e-mail to [email protected]
Cover: A still taken from the ABC TV This Day Tonight broadcast on 20 April 1967 showing reporter Frank Bennett (in a dark suite) and Earlwood locals assembled on Nannygoat Hill in protest against its proposed destruction.
“What’s past is prologue.”
– Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 1, scene 1
It is a scene little changed in the last fifty years. Nannygoat Hill juts out from the escarpment that binds the north side of Wolli Valley. A sandstone knoll edged by Hocking Avenue, Banks Road and Finlays Road in Earlwood, it slopes down towards Turrella Reserve – about 10 km south-west of Sydney’s central business district. It is the Valley’s highest point. Standing about 28 metres above sea level the Hill is no great peak, but it offers panoramic views as far as Botany Bay.
It is a storied place – and not one we can only read about in documents or books. This Hill bears its history in and about itself. It is a product of the cycles of massive Triassic floods which carried sandstone from what is now Antarctica to the Sydney Basin when it was part of the supercontinent, Gondwana. The result was layers of sandstone contorted by the floods and compressed by their growing weight – the ripples and folds these forces left in the rock are still there for geologists to read. Millions of years of erosion by the ancestral Wolli Creek carved out the Valley and left the Hill.
Eventually, it was covered with stands of eucalypt, red gum forest, banksia, casuarina and heath. When the First People came, they followed a path along the Creek. No-one is sure exactly who they were, mostly likely one of the Botany Bay people, such as the ‘Fire Clan’, the Gweagal, who lived on the southern shore of Botany Bay. People from the ‘Spear Clan, the ‘Kamegal’, who lived on the north side of the Bay, may have also passed through. They paused to eat near the base of the Hill, leaving a pile of shells, mostly cockles. When the Europeans came, they cleared much of the land for agriculture. But no-one wanted the rocky escarpment or its hill with their poor soils and it was left for the goats. It became infested with Prickly Pear – when I first moved to the Valley in 1988 some locals still called it ‘Prickly Pear Hill’.
The Chinese market gardeners at Turrella Reserve built rickety shacks from bits of timber and corrugated iron near the base of the Hill. Fragments of their ceramic bottles are still found occasionally exposed, as are shells from the midden, by heavy rain. David Scanlon, an office clerk from Arncliffe and the infamous ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’, was arrested near the foot of Nannygoat Hill on 30 April 1959. Scanlon had spent the past three years breaking into the homes of sleeping women and slashing their bed-clothes and sheets. As his psychosis deepened, he began to slash his victims’ flesh.
And so from time immemorial, Nannygoat Hill stood virtually untouched. Yellow-tailed Back Cockatoos came to gouge insects from its casuarinas and tear apart its banksia cones, as they still do today. It would become the learning-ground of Peter Rankin, an emerging herpetologist who lived with his family next to the Hill in Finlays Ave, where he studied the local snakes and lizards. Copper-tailed Skinks, an attractive lizard about 30 cm long with, as its name suggests, a tail of burnished copper, are found at the Hill’s summit.
In 1909, the Hill became part of a bird sanctuary. That year, the NSW Colonial Secretary declared that, under the Bird Protection Act 1901, “he whole of that portion of Cook’s River, and its tributaries, from the Cook’s River Dam Bridge, Tempe, to Botany Bay, together with the Crown lands fronting such streams” to be ‘set apart’ for the preservation of native birds. By a twist of fate Nannygoat Hill, and the rest of the Valley, were inadvertently saved from suburban development in 1948, when the Valley was designated as the future route of the ‘Southern Highway’ (ultimately built under the Valley as the M5 East Motorway).
Then, in 1967, this peaceful world faced a sudden end.
Brambles Industrial Services wanted to dynamite Nannygoat Hill and carry off its sandstone for its building projects. The Hill was to become road-fill. In its place, Brambles offered to build areas for ‘active recreation’. While Brambles never really spelt out exactly what that meant, it’s proposed to cover the area after it had been quarried with 4 inches of topsoil and grass – so it may have planned on turning it into a park.
To us, it is almost obscene that anyone would want to destroy an ancient and beautiful place that preserved the original landscape and sheltered its native plants and animals. But 1967 was a different world – although one still well within living memory. The previous year, the sun had set on Menzies’ time in the Lodge. Harold Holt, his affable deputy with a beaming smile, had been elected to the top job. That December, he would vanish in the surf off Cheviot Beach at Port Phillip Bay.
Since the War ended, it had been a time of progress with a capital ‘P’. Any development was good development and there was little thought for the natural environment. This was ‘the Lucky Country’, blessed with abundant natural resources and the men (this was still a man’s world) to use them.
But as the song said “the times, they were a-changin”. In the United States many now began to question consumer society, with its ‘cult of development’ and ‘myth of progress’, and its impact on the environment. Rachel Carson warned of the effects of DDT in her ground-breaking work Silent Spring, published in 1962.
For some, it was a new dawn in human consciousness. “In the summer of 1967” one American commentator recalled “when … the forces of repression had not yet moved in to create an atmosphere if tension and hatred, one could see the new community in the streets and shops of Berkeley, near the University of California. For just a few short months…there was a flowering of music, hippie clothes, hand-painted vehicles, and sheer joy to match nature itself. It seemed everywhere…”.
This mixture of hopes and fears also surfaced here. In 1965, Bruce Davidson questioned whether Australia’s progress was economically viable in his The Northern Myth. The Australian Conservation Foundation was formed that same year. There was also renewed appreciation of the natural world and the need for a sustainable environment. Vincent Serventy, who went on to become a leading conservationist, raised the alarm in his A Continent in Danger in 1966. It would be among the first of a series of books on the need to protect Australia’s unique natural environment.
Ordinary people got active. There would be a campaign in 1968 to save the Little Desert in Victoria from being opened for settlement, another in 1969 to save the Cooloola Sands in Queensland from being mined. In 1970 Prime Minister John Gorton would go to Queensland to talk the State’s vehemently pro-development premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, into not drilling for oil on the Great Barrier Reef.
Then came the battles to save New South Wales’ Colong Caves, Kelly’s Bush at Woolwich, Fraser Island and the Clutha-Bulli escarpment in 1971. The Total Environment Centre was established in 1972. The following year, the fight to save Tasmania’s Lake Pedder was lost. But there were also triumphs – the Green Bans led by Jack Mundy’s NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation to preserve Kelly’s Bush and The Rocks. The Wilderness Society would emerge from the Lake Pedder Action Committee and other groups in 1976.
Yet all these struggles lay in the future. Among the earliest campaigns the save the environment in Australia was the battle for Nannygoat Hill.
When Alderman Jim Beaman, Deputy Mayor of Canterbury, heard of Brambles proposal, he was worried. It was 6 March 1967. The gentlemen from Brambles had just met with the Mayor, Alderman Allan Mulder, the Chief Engineer, E N Wilson and himself that day to outline its proposal.
In return for the sandstone, the gentlemen from Brambles assured Council it would provide “…benefits for the constituents of the surrounding Municipality by way of development of an area for their amenities.” Any ugliness would be obscured by planting pig-face or decorative shrubbery. “We also feel” they continued “that while the existing outcrop may have its aesthetic appeal to the naturalist, the substitution by a grassed area would not be out of harmony with its surroundings.” And, they continued, the Hill stood in the road reservation for the proposed Southern Highway – so it was probably doomed anyway.
The matter was discussed in a meeting of Council closed to the public. While Brambles hoped to push its scheme through without little scrutiny, Beaman believed local ratepayers and residents were entitled to know what was happening.
On 9 March 1967, backed by Alderman Jim Eccles, Beaman asked Council to delay consideration of the proposal for six weeks. The question, Beaman argued “was one that should allow residents to express their opinions, and Aldermen should study it thoroughly”. This adjournment would give alderman time to hear the views of the community and inspect the site. Beaman also wanted the Council to deal with the proposal at a public meeting of the Council, not behind closed door. The Council agreed.
When residents heard of Brambles’ plans, they immediately swung into action to make their opposition known. Mr C Lyons formed a local residents’ protest committee. Firmly supported by the Earlwood Progress Association, they built a formidable case against the proposal.
The people living around Nannygoat Hill were mostly working class. They may not have heard of Rachel Carson or the Australian Conservation Foundation. Their objections were utilitarian. There would be damage to local roads, which could not bear heavy earth-moving vehicles. There would be traffic jams. Local children on the way to school would be at risk from heavy traffic. There would be “unbearable” noise, with its effects on mothers and babies, and dust. There were the dangers of blasting, with people and property at risk from flying debris. There was the loss of property values and of the natural windbreak from the prevailing southerly wind. It would also mean the loss of a noise buffer from the trains and the future southern highway. They were also worried it would become a place for dumping rubbish and stripping stolen cars. Worse, once the excavations were complete, they would be left with a dangerous cliff.
But they were also incensed the local council was thinking of destroying a local bird sanctuary and their view. They were distinctly unimpressed with Brambles’ plan to cover the quarried out area with topsoil and grass, arguing that it the first heavy rains would wash it all down into Wolli Creek.
The EPA circulated a petition eventually signed by 198 residents and ratepayers from the vicinity of Nannygoat Hill. At least 4 people wrote to the Council in protest. They included Mr AC Hemmings of Willington Street, who “…claimed the project would result in devaluations and cause a nuisance to residents.” There were precisely 3 people in support of the proposal – Mr and Mrs AE Wilton of Arncliffe Road, Earlwood and Mr SR Dogger of Finlays Avenue. What Mr Dogger hoped to gain by living next to a quarry is not entirely clear.
On 2 April, a public meeting was held at the end of Finalys Ave. About 200 people attended – including all three aldermen from the South Ward, Beaman, Hale and Joanna Thompson, along with Aldermen Jim Scott and John Stewart. Beaman addressed those assembled, declaring that Council members wanted to hear the views of local residents. By the end of the meeting, they were left in no doubt where the voters stood.
As the Hill stood on the boundary between Rockdale and Canterbury Municipalities, Rockdale Council also took an interest in the matter. Rockdale Council flatly opposed Bramble’s plan. Alderman G J McInerney, one of Rockdale’ Labor aldermen, described the Hill as “…one of the finest open space reserves in the district. ‘To see this district scarred by the removal of rock would be tragic.’ ” Alderman B Wright, an Independent, could hardly believe his counterparts at Canterbury were considering the idea and urged them to object “in the strongest possible terms … as the Hill only ‘natural open space’ left in St George.”
Even the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader seemed against the plan and made a point of observing the Hill “…is one of the few natural beauty spots remaining in the district.”
The whole state soon heard about the battle to save Nanny Goat Hill. ABC TV took an interest in the matter and despatched is star reporter, Frank Bennett, to Earlwood. The station included a fascinating segment on the campaign in its flagship current affairs programme, This Day Tonight, broadcast on Thursday 20 April 1967 – the night Canterbury Council was to vote on the matter. By this time, Bennett declared, over 400 Earlwood residents and 1000 members of the Progress Association had come out against the proposal.
The clip is fascinating. One by one, a group of concerned locals helped each other up the track to the Hill’s summit to show Bennett their battleground and to be interviewed. The ladies, determined to project respectability, assembled in their sun dresses, pearls and Dame Edna Everadge-style glasses – with those wearing high heels needing a hand up the gritty track. There were no hats or gloves – Jean Shrimpton’s appearance at Derby Day in 1965 had seen to that.
“Some say the Hill is a hide out for hoodlums and criminals – where the Kingsgrove Slasher was caught” Bennett reported.“But the locals hotly deny this and prefer to talk about part of the film ‘Jedda’ being made here. The Hill is a rugged outcrop of sandstone and tick bush, 200,000 cubic yards altogether, which the developers apparently reckon can be wiped from the landscape in nine months of blasting, bulldozing and trucking. But the Earlwood protestors not only say that this is not only impossible but they’re also concerned about losing one of the few beauty spots on the broad face of Sydney’s Western suburbs.”
“As far as I’m concerned, whatever money they get” one local told Bennett “it won’t give me the view of the bush I get from my place.”
Another man said “everybody in this area does not want the Hill to go. Why should it go ?”
“We’re going to lose a scenic attraction here – one of the scenic attractions of the district and we’ll finish up with an eyesore…” another man said.
“I was reared on this myself” one mother holding her little son told Bennett “I used to climb up many times and I’d like my sons to play on it too.”
Some worried about the number of lorries, estimated at 100 a day, roaring down local streets and the danger they posed to children who ran around outside – as was common in those more innocent times. Others were concerned about the noise dust and damage from blasting. “We’ll be lucky if we’ve got one wall left standing” one lady told Bennett. Another lady was anxious about her husband, who’d work the night shift for 45 years. “What’s that going to do to his rest ?” she asked.
“I couldn’t bear to see it taken away” cried an elderly Scottish lady.
“What now – what if the Council decision tonight goes against you ?” Bennett asked. “What do you propose to do then ?”
“We’ll fight ‘em to the finish !” one man called out.
“I reckon if our councillors won’t do anything for us, we’ll have to elect some new ones” another declared.
“We want out Hill left here !” called out another. A lady agreed “We’ll sit down in a row to stop it going !”
Bennet also interviewed the Mayor, Alderman Mulder. His combed-back hair thick with brylcreem, Mulder looked vague and evasive. Explaining Brambles’ plans for the site’s future and his past encounters with the South Ward’s activist residents, he concluded “they are honestly, honestly frightened that this area will be desecrated, but I don’t think most of these have seen this [Bramble’s] proposal.”
That night, by 8pm, about 175 residents and ratepayers had crowded the public gallery, overflowing onto the floor of the chamber to watch the Council’s deliberations. For all the fear and loathing Bramble’s scheme had caused, the proceedings were “…brief [and] subdued.”
Beaman was determined to settle the matter once and for all. He successfully moved that Council receive the EPA’s petition. Seconded by Alderman Jim Hales, Beaman quickly went on to move that Brambles’ proposal be rejected on the grounds that it was not conclusive to good town planning in that particular area and that it would interfere with the natural amenities of the area. The motion passed unanimously – Nanny Goat Hill lived to fight another day.
The Valley would face other challenges. Only five months later, in September 1967, Elcom proposed building a high tension power line through the Valley – using those steel towers than look like giant aliens striding across the landscape. Fortunately, that proposal was also quashed. The Valley would see out the 1960s unscathed.
Incidentally, the controversy had a bit of a sequel. The proud and respectable residents of Earlwood – and Undercliffe – were very unhappy about having their district associated with the Kingsgrove Slasher. They took umbrage at the suggestions that Nannygoat Hill had a “notorious past” as it had been the Slasher’s haunt.
Mr Lyons, chairman of the resident’s protest group, vehemently denied this. “It was true that the Slasher was captured in the vicinity of the hill in 1959” Mr Lyons conceded “but police who maintained an observation post on the hill for several weeks before the Slasher’s capture had seen neither ‘hide nor hair’ of him in that time.”
On the geological history of Wolli Creek, see Patrick Conaghan’s ‘Reading Sandstone’ in George Morgan’s The Story of Stone in the Wolli Creek Valley, Wolli Creek Preservation Society, 1994, pp.31-40 and Woodford, J. ‘Rock doctor catches up with our prehistoric surf’, Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Apr 1994. For the height of Nannygoat Hill, see Graham Quint’s Canterbury Municipality Bushland Survey, National Trust of Australia (NSW), Nov 1983, p.4.
On Nanny Goat Hill generally, see Gifford and Eileen Eardley’s ‘The Environs of ‘Nanny Goat Hill’ at Earlwood’, St George Historical Society Bulletin, Mar 1974, pp. 274-278. On Nanny Goat Hill’s vegetation and its alternative name of ‘Prickly Pear Hill’, see Les Robinson’s Trees of Wolli Creek, Wolli Creek Preservation Society, 1987, p. 2. Also see Benson, D, Ondinea, D and Bear, V’s Missing Jigsaw Pieces: The Bushplants of the Cooks River Valley, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, p.33. The Hill still has some Prickly Pear – see National Trust of Australia NSW) Campsie Remnant and Nanny Goat Hill Bushland Management Report 2008-2009, prepared for Canterbury City Council.
On the Chinese market gardeners at Turrella Reserve, see Gifford Eardley’s The Early History: The Wolli Creek Valley, St George Historical Society, c.1965, p.11. On the ‘Kingsgrove Slasher’, see Brian Madden and Lesley Muir’s Earlwood’s Past, Canterbury Municipal Council, 1989, p.51 and Ngo, C. “Canterbury’s criminal highlighted in new exhibition featuring the Kingsgrove Slasher’, Daily Telegraph, 18 May 2016.
On the declaration of the Cooks River and its tributaries see NSW Government Gazette, no.122, 15 Sept 1909, p.5044. The Colonial Secretary’s declaration was made under s.11 of the Birds Protection Act 1901.
Under the County of Cumberland Scheme of 1948 (gazetted in 1952), the Wolli Valley was to form part of a network of ‘district open spaces’, which were intended to mitigate the impact of urban overdevelopment. Unfortunately, the Scheme’s concept of ‘open space’ did not involve protecting native vegetation. Instead, it was be cleared and replaced with sports fields and picnic areas. These amenities were, in turn, intended to provide a scenic backdrop to the motorway the government planned to build though the middle of the Valley – which was set aside as a road reservation for the purposes of the Scheme. Protected by its status as a future road, the Valley managed to escape suburban development.
On the County of Cumberland Scheme, see the Planning Scheme for the County of Cumberland New South Wales, Report of the Cumberland County Council to the Hon. J.J.Cahill, MLA, Minister for Local Government 27th July 1948, Cumberland County Council, Sydney, 1948, pp.139-140. Also see the plan of the proposed ‘County Open Space’ opposite p. 142, the ‘Functional Plan’ opposite p.62 and the artist’s impression of the Wolli Creek Valley’s ultimate fate as a parkway between pp.150-151.
The name ‘lucky Country’ was coined by the social commentator Donald Horne in his The Lucky Country, published in 1964. Horne was being ironic – he believed Australia’s progress was due more to luck that the abilities of its politicians.
“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck” Horne concluded “It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” On Horne and his book, see Carl Reinecke’s ‘The Lucky Country Turns Fifty’ in Inside Story, Dec 2014.
For the benefit of younger readers, the song was Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A Changin’, released in 1964. The American commentator referred to was Charles Reich, see his The Greening of America, Allan Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1971, p.286 (first published by Random House Inc, New York in 1970). Also see Raymond Aron’s Progress and Disillusion: The Dialects of Modern Society, Penguin Books Ltd, Harmondsworth, 1972 (first published by Frederick A Praeger in the United States in 1968).
Other Australian books that drew attention to the threats to native species included AJ Marshall’s The Great Extermination, Panther Books, London, 1968 (first published by William Heinemann Ltd in 1966) and Costin, A and Firth, H (eds) Conservation, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1971.
For a short overview of the campaign to save Nannygoat Hill, See Morgan’s Story of Stone, pp.26-28. Contrary to some accounts, the sandstone was not destined for works to extend the runways at Sydney Airport.
On the emergence of the Australian environmental movement, see Donald Horne’s A Time of Hope: Australia 1966-1972, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Sydney, 1980, pp. 73 and 75-76. Also see Hutton, D and Connors, L, A History of the Australian Environment Movement, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, Dole, T, Green Power: the environment movement in Australia, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2000 and Ajani, J. The Forest Wars, Melbourne University Press, carlton, 2007.
On the campaign to save the Little Desert, see Libby Robin’s Defending the Little Desert: The Rise of Environmental Consciousness in Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1994. On Lake Pedder, see Natasha Simons’ ‘Lake Pedder: the beginning of a movement’, Green Left Weekly, 30 Sept 1992. On the campaign to save the Cooloola Sands, see Colin Sweett’s Lines in the Sand: A History of Mineral Sand Mining on Queensland’s Barrier Islands, History Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 2008 and Richardson, P. ‘So persuasive was Arthur Harrold’, Sunshine Coast Daily, 12 Apr 12. On the Colong Caves, see the website of Harvey Cohen at http://harveycohen.net/1971/.
On the Green Bans, see Jack Mundy’s Green Bans & Beyond, Angus and Robertson Publishers, Sydney, 1981. Also see the entry ‘Green Bans movement’ by Meredith and Verity Burgmann in the on-line Dictionary of Sydney, 2011.
On the Council’s meeting on 9 March 1967, see ‘Proposal for Nannygoat Hill’, Campsie News and Lakemba Advance, 15 Mar 1967 and ‘200,000 yards of Sandstone sought from Nanny Goat Hill’ Campsie News and Lakemba Advance, 22 Mar 1967. I am grateful to Martin Smith for copies of newspaper articles about the campaign to save Nannygoat Hill from the Campsie News and Lakemba Advance – the files of this local newspaper were subsequently lost in a fire.
Also see ‘Outcry at plan to open quarry’, St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 19 Apr 1967, p.19.
George Morgan notes Elizabeth Field of Banks Road led the campaign and that “Martin Smith … remembers as a young boy joining friends and neighbours on Turrella reserve for a protest meeting.” Story of Stone, pp.27-28. Another account has it that Harold May, Peter Ridsdale and Carl Lyons formed a committee to oppose Bramble’s scheme, with Beaman acting as their advisor.
Frank Bennett’s segment on Today Tonight, broadcast on 20 April 1967, is available on Youtube. On the outcome of the Council meeting, see ‘Convincing Guardianship of Nanny Goat Hill’, Campsie News and Lakemba Advance, 10 May 1967. Also see ‘Nannygoat Hill escapes bulldozers’, St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 26 Apr 1967, p.7.
Nannygoat Hill stands in the Wolli Valley, about 10km from Sydney’s central business district. One of the few surviving remnants of the City’s natural environment, it supports a wide range of native plants and animals and is a much-loved local ‘beauty spot’. In 1967, Brambles Industrial Services planned to quarry the Hill and use it as road fill. What followed was Australia’s earliest known campaign to save urban bushland.