Sydneysiders are getting historical about their harbour again, this time Goat Island.

Add a bit of knicker knotting over Paul Keating’s influence in framing the recommendations for the future use of the island, and it gets colourful.

The fact is Sydney ruthlessly expunged most of the “working harbour” aspects of its heritage, rendering it blandly safe for the café latteratti set and retail mall developers.

Scarcely a trace of rusting metal or crumbling warehouses or other reminders of more than a 150 years of sweaty proletarian labours on the harbour’s foreshores have survived.

The only notable, but minor, victory of late has been to retain the name The Hungry Mile on the site of the financially ill-timed Barangaroo development at The Rocks.

But Goat Island, most recently popular as the setting for the TV series Water Rats, is, like nearby Cockatoo Island, something that has defied the philistines.

And, damn, part of my childhood is on it. I lived in residential cottage No.4, significance “high”, according to the draft management plan.

My island home, and that of parents Sydney and Mary, sisters Susanna and Jean and brother Malcolm, is recommended for preservation and possible use for a coffee shop or small business lease.

From 1949 to early 1952 I woke in cottage No.4 to the sound of trains and trams crossing the Harbour Bridge, the smell of marine diesel and salt spray, the sight of flying boats spotted below the main deck arriving or departing from Rose Bay, and the coming and going of the great ocean liners.

As the only school age child in our island home, I went to Woolwich Primary by Maritime Services Board launch with the other island kids.

However, what is important is not the tenants, but the times. Those times have left some well-preserved traces of indigenous occupation lasting many thousands of years, and the period in which Goat Island was one of the focal points of a working harbour.

The Sydney I lived in while on Goat Island had no skyscrapers. It wasn’t a services city, built on debt and bullshit. It was a city that built things.

The golden fleece was consigned and shipped from its wool stores. Ships were built at Goat Island and around the harbour. Cars were made in the suburbs as part of a booming, but short-lived postwar manufacturing era. Wheat and coal was loaded at the nearby wharves. Goat Island was a lovely prop in the last act of Australia Felix in the wider history of the country. With hindsight, you could sit there and observe all the forces for postwar change physically transforming the city.

Of course, the city of the working harbour was going to pass. The scale and technology of maritime commerce moved beyond the scope of the natural harbour, and far beyond the planning intelligence of successive NSW governments, and the jet age replaced the liners. Change happens.

If Sydney is wise (which is the real worry in all of this), it will adopt this draft plan.

It is sensible. It will remove some structures of lesser merit to reveal more of a treasury of colonial architecture on the quarry side of Goat Island, and it will respect and illuminate the indigenous history of Memel as it was called.

And I may be able to sip a latte from the front bedroom of residential cottage No.4, and marvel at what has become of my beloved but not always well-managed harbour city.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey