Traditionally known as Car-rang-gel, the area holds special significance for the local Gayamagal People and was used by the koradgee (medicine men and women healers) to perform spiritual ceremonies and ritual. Their way of life is evidenced by rock engravings, rock art, campsites, burials, and middens.
In 1788, the first European settlers made contact with local Aboriginals at North Head, and in 1790, a misunderstanding saw Governor Arthur Phillip speared in the shoulder at a feast conducted over a beached whale. Three Aboriginal men in the area, called Arabanoo, Bennelong and Colbee, were captured by European settlers with the intention of using them as interpreters. These events are of national significance because of the influence they had over the relationships between Aboriginal People and the colonists.
Following European colonisation of North Head, the headland was used as a place to quarantine passengers arriving in the colony by ship.
In 1833, Richard Bourke, then the Governor of NSW, declared land within a quarter mile of Spring Cove a quarantine area. New buildings were added to the North Head Quarantine Station in the 1880s, and the Third Quarantine Cemetery was built in 1881 for victims of a smallpox epidemic.
The Third Quarantine Cemetery, together with the nearby Quarantine Station, is included on Australia’s National Heritage List as a significant example of the nation’s evolving quarantine practices. The Quarantine Station protected Australia from deadly epidemic diseases, while the cemetery is probably Australia’s largest, most well-preserved quarantine cemetery.
In 1901 and 1902, additional pavilions were erected to house victims of the plague: these were residents of Sydney, immigrants, travelers, and ships’ crews.
At Federation, the Quarantine Station became the responsibility of the Commonwealth Government, and the Seamen’s Isolation Hospital was established at the site in 1918. The Isolation Hospital accommodated sufferers of venereal disease and many flu victims. Today, the hospital houses the Australian Institute of Police Management.
More than 240 people were buried in the Third Quarantine Cemetery between 1881 and 1925.
By the time the cemetery closed in 1925, more than 240 people - including brave nurses like Annie Egan - had been interred there. These people had succumbed to ravages including influenza, the bubonic plague, smallpox and scarlet fever.
Egan was notable as a young nurse who contracted the Spanish Flu in late 1918 while caring for HMAT Medic personnel at the at the Third Quarantine Station. She died within a fortnight and was buried, with full military honours, at the Third Quarantine Cemetery. Her story is remembered because hospital authorities initially refused to let a priest administer the last rites (in line with quarantine practices of the day). There was national public outrage, and the decision was reversed.
During World War II, North Head was one of the most heavily fortified sites in Australian history, with large guns capable of firing on enemy ships with the help of anti-aircraft artillery and searchlights. Additionally, there was a large network of underground tunnels and a series of military installations.
Remnants of the coastal guns and other fortifications built prior to World War II can be explored today. They were the culmination of the ‘outer defence’ strategy for Port Jackson.
After World War II, the Army School of Artillery opened at North Head. Gunners lived and trained there from 1946 until 1998, when the school relocated to Puckapunyal in Victoria.
The former School of Artillery occupies the highest part of North Head and comprises the Army Barracks and the North Fort complex. The Barracks complex contains a collection of art deco buildings that include a parade ground, service areas and sheds, as well as a large area of remnant bushland.
At North Fort, the underground tunnels built during World War II have been preserved for visitors. Additionally, the public can pay homage to those who have served and supported the defence of Australia on the Memorial Walk. This paved pathway links five monuments that were erected to remember the major conflict periods in Australia’s history.
The Harbour Trust became the steward of North Head Sanctuary in the early 2000s, opening it to the public in 2007. In conjunction with other groups, the Harbour Trust works to propagate the growth of native plants and preserve the delicate ecosystem of the entire peninsula.
These efforts mean visitors can enjoy the sounds of native birds like Rainbow Lorikeets and Little Wattlebirds, as well potentially sight the Long-nosed Bandicoot, a once common species in Sydney that now only remains in certain areas.
North Head Sanctuary is home to a variety of businesses including a sculpture gallery, as well as health and well-being providers and a childcare centre and education provider. The island-like isolation and dramatic cliffs provide a spectacular backdrop to the rich and complex history of this incredible site.