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Sydney Harbour historical sites to receive $40m injection of federal cash

The four-year funding follows the release in June of an independent review of the trust, which was set up in 2001 to rehabilitate important defence sites around Sydney Harbour.

The NSW government has been critical of the level of co-ordination, with Planning Minister Rob Stokes calling for more federal spending to halt the deterioration of the structures.

North Head Sanctuary, with its World War II-era gun emplacements and barracks, was among the sites singled out for urgent attention.

Of the 94 buildings at North Head owned by the trust – about a quarter of all the trust’s buildings – half remain partly or entirely unrestored, the review found. The new funds will help restore and conserve the site’s gun emplacements, observations posts and tunnels.

Built in the 1930s, the site’s guns fired only once in anger, to send a warning across the bows of a Polish freighter that had sailed through the heads without authorisation.

Until now, the public has only been able to visit the maze of tunnels and chambers on volunteer-led tours held weekly during summer. COVID-19 restrictions have prevented recent open days, local staff said.

The tunnels in the North Fort contain a series of chambers including replicas of the shells the guns would have fired during World War II - had the need arisen.

The tunnels in the North Fort contain a series of chambers including replicas of the shells the guns would have fired during World War II – had the need arisen.Credit:James Brickwood

Other sites to benefit will be Cockatoo Island, where the large cranes will have urgent repairs and safety work done. The island’s industrial precinct will also get upgrades to its Turbine Hall.

The decontamination of 10 Terminal at Middle Head will also be stepped up, as will upgrades to Woolwich Dock, among other sites.

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President of the Headland Preservation Group Jill L’Estrange welcomed the extra support, including $4 million for 10 Terminal.

“10 Terminal is a site of major historical and military significance and it desperately requires restoration and adaptive re-use to become a world-class Indigenous, military and environmental interpretation centre,” she said.

Grace Karskens, a history professor at the University of NSW and author of The Colony: A history of early Sydney, said it was important that restoration work didn’t only retell the “men’s history” of guns and war. The area around North Head in particular was closely associated with Indigenous women when the Europeans arrived in Sydney Harbour in 1788.

“The women amazed the British sailors” with their canoeing skills, juggling children and even fires while out fishing on the harbour, Professor Karskens said. “Where are all the women’s sites?” she said. “It is so male-dominated and so white.”

Planning Minister Stokes said the federal funds would complement the $40 million the state government planned to spend on North Head this year alone.

“Sydney should be perceived as a city in a park, rather than a series of isolated and separately managed parks in a city,” he said. “We can best protect these assets by ensuring that the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust sites are considered in the context of the whole harbour.”

“The sites are used for largely the same purpose – public access, public recreation and conservation – and should be managed holistically,” he said.

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