Manly Heritage & History

"Their confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place".

So wrote Capt. Arthur Phillip about the indigenous people he found living in the area.

Acknowledgement of Country

Manly Council acknowledges that we are here today on the land of the Guringai people. The Guringai are the traditional owners of this land and are part of the oldest surviving continuous culture in the world.

Aboriginal heritage

At the time of European settlement the Manly area was the traditional home of the Guringai people. Initially, relations were good between the first colonists and the Guringai, but were soon soured . In 1789 a smallpox epidemic spread through the local Aboriginal tribes. By the 1830's, only a few Aborigines remained in the Manly area. Many Aboriginal sites have been recorded in the Manly area. The most common sites include shelter, midden sites, rock engravings, open midden sites, shelter cave art and open camp sites.

European Heritage

Manly was visited and named by Captain Arthur Phillip at the same time as Sydney, between 21st and 23rd January, 1788. Captain Arthur Phillip was impressed with the confident and manly behaviour of the Aboriginal people of the Cannalgal and Kayimai clans who waded out to his boat in North Harbour when he was exploring Port Jackson in January 1788. He gave the name Manly Cove to the place where they first met but its exact location is uncertain.

Manly remained isolated for many years. It was a long journey of 70 miles by road from Sydney - through Parramatta, Hunter's Hill, Lane Cove and Narrabeen. The other route involved crossing the water by punts at North Sydney and The Spit. There was a very small population which was able to eke out a living from fishing or farming when Henry Gilbert Smith, the founder of the village, arrived in 1853.

In June 1855, Henry Gilbert Smith wrote to his brother in England "the amusement I derive in making my improvements in Manly is, no doubt, the cause of my greater enjoyment, in fact I never feel a dull day while there. I should long ere this have been with you if it had not been for this hobby of mine, in thinking I am doing good in forming a village or watering place for the inhabitant of Sydney".

He purchased large tracts of land with the vision of Manly, with its splendid ocean beach and sheltered sandy coves, becoming 'the favourite resort of the Colonists'. He initiated a ferry service, built hotels and donated land for schools and churches. He also built a camera obscura, a maze and a stone kangaroo to attract visitors. He laid out a grand plan for Manly but changed this later to a more pragmatic design with smaller blocks of land.

Manly Council was incorporated as a local government body on 6th January 1877. Manly's development was slow but by 1880 it had become a thriving seaside resort.

By the seaside

During the 19th and early 20th century Manly was one of Australia's most popular seaside holiday resorts. Manly beach is said to be the place where the restriction on daylight sea bathing was first challenged in Australia. In October 1902 William Gocher, clad in a neck to knee costume, swam at midday after announcing his intention to do so.

After being ignored by authorities and being publicly critical of them, he swam again and was escorted from the water by the police, although no charges were laid.

In November 1903, Manly Council resolved to allow all-day bathing provided a neck to knee swimming costume was worn.

A year later a surf club was formed on the beach to safeguard the public. While there is debate about which club is the oldest, Manly Life Saving Club is certainly one of the world's first surf life saving clubs.

In 1934, George Robey, a resident and original Anzac founded the "Air Mindedness Development League" which was later renamed the Australian Air League at Manly. There has been a continuously running squadron in Manly since.

For more information about the history of Manly, click here.

For the whole story about this fascinating area, read the award-winning Seven Miles from Sydney: A History of Manly by Pauline Curby, published by Manly Council, 2001. It is available for sale and loan at Manly Library.