Bondi Beach is one of those iconic Australian locations – a place you take visiting relatives so they can stare in slack-jawed wonder at the best swimming spot outside of Wollongong. But before 1827, the entire foreshore, and a huge block of land stretching a kilometre back from the coastline, was private grazing land for William Roberts, who had been given the region’s first grant by Governor Bligh in 1809.
Enter Barnett Levey, Australia’s first Jewish free settler, one of the colony’s most ambitious men and a prototypical larrikin. Levey's brother, Solomon, married Roberts’ daughter Ann, and Barnett convinced the old man to sell him a block of land before building the first European home in the area: Waverley House. It was a two-storey cottage in the Georgian style, surrounded by bushland with no Icebergs, nippers or British tourists in sight (or, if there were, they were very ambitious ones).
Built on 60 acres of farmland, Waverley House was just one of Barnett’s big-picture schemes. He intended to live there with his family, growing vegetables that he’d sell for a third cheaper than the market rate. Instead, he never lived here, moving on to other ventures and leasing the place out to other people. Waverley House later became a Catholic orphanage, before being demolished early last century. You’ll recognise its name (taken from Barnett’s favourite novel, written by Sir Walter Scott) in the Bondi-neighbouring suburb*.
But that wasn’t the end of Barnett’s exploits in Sydney. He’s also responsible for building Australia’s first theatre (as an attachment to his pub), the warehouse-converted Royal Hotel on George St. Seating around 1000 people, the Theatre Royal opened its first season in 1833 with The Miller and his Men and The Irishman in London. (The first reviews weren’t kind.)
Back in Bondi, Secrets of our Cities host Greig Pickhaver (aka HG Nelson) discusses Barnett’s legacy with his distant relative Dan Webber. He also learns more about the history of Bondi, from the first Indigenous inhabitants to the Bondi tram through to today’s must-see swimming destination... where the water’s much cleaner than it was in the '80s.
Watch the Bondi episode of Secrets of our Cities on Tuesday at 7:30pm on SBS. Check out last week's exploration of Fitzroy at SBS On Demand: