A Historical Walk Through Balmain

On a crisp, sunny day way last June, I set off on foot with the lovely Merrolee to do a walking tour of Balmain’s historical architecture. Balmain is full of old homes and buildings dating from the 1840s. On previous jaunts around town, I’d admired and wondered about the history of them, so was thrilled when Merrolee told me about the self-guided tours.

Balmain Historical Walk (2 of 27)Our journey began down by the wharf, with Bell’s Store which was built in 1888. It was originally a warehouse. That beautiful stepped gable was demolished by Fenwick’s tugboat company in order to provide a better view of the boating operations. It was restored in 2012 using old photographs as guides.

Balmain Historical Walk (1 of 27)The sandstone was likely quarried nearby. The arrangement of the blocks and the surface carving are examples of the style of the time. Mortar was made from burnt oyster shells from the harbour. I get a little thrill to see the marks made by hands from long ago, it makes the connection to that person a little more real.

Balmain Historical Walk (1 of 1)Just up the road a bit, is Waterman’s Cottage built in 1841 by stonemason John Cavill for McKenzie the Waterman who provided ferry service in and out of Balmain. Overland travel was still muddy and treacherous, so the ferry was an important service. Many of the older buildings in Balmain have these corner facing doors.

Balmain Historical Walk (3 of 27)Apparently, McKenzie meant to add a terrace here, but it was never finished.

Balmain Historical Walk (5 of 27)The Cahermore was one of the many original pubs built in Balmain.

Balmain Historical Walk (8 of 27)The Unity Hall was a hotel and a meeting place for a Friendly Society, Balmain Manchester Unity Independent Order of Oddfellows, an early form of insurance. It was also a drinking establishment.

Hotels in Australia are actually public houses, or pubs; places to eat and drink rather than bed down for the night, although in the early days, hotels were required to have at least two sleeping rooms suitable for accommodation.

This nomenclature was quite confusing to us in our early days in ‘Straya. And not just us apparently; one day we were having dinner at the East Village Hotel in Balmain, when a woman came strolling in pulling her suitcase behind her. She looked confused as well.

Balmain Historical Walk (12 of 27)
There was much more to see on the walk than just what was officially on the tour. We aren’t sure, but think this was what remains of the original dunny. Dunnies were similar to outhouses and provided sanitation until 1913 in Balmain. The dunny man would come along in the early hours or at night and collect the waste through the dunny door. This service could be had for 1 pound per annum.

Balmain Historical Walk (14 of 27)I had been fascinated with this house since our arrival in Balmain, and would pay to see the insides. I wish they did public open houses. It’s a private residence. Named Ewenton Mansion after one of its owners, it represents three separate phases of construction. First in 1854 Robert Blake, a former quartermaster turned civilian sheriff, built a single story house which he named Blake Vale. In 1856, Major Ewen Wallace Cameron bought it, named it after himself, and hired architect James MacDonald to add an entrance portico and the stone upper story. In 1872 the three story wing on the left was added to accommodate the growing family.

This is just a smattering of the interesting sights along the tour. One of my favorite things about living in Australia is the history that is close at hand in every direction. There are heaps of these types of self-guided walking tours as well as plenty of historical houses and gardens to visit like Vaucluse House , one of the Sydney Living Museums sites. I hope to visit more of these in the upcoming months!