Local history, Local stories...The Bonnet

The Bonnet
The Northern Territory might have Uluru, Queensland the Great Barrier Reef, and Victoria the Twelve (or is it Eight?) Apostles, but the Sutherland Shire has The Bonnet!

The Bonnet is a large, irregular-shaped cave which has stood at its post atop a steep bank overlooking the Woronora River for millennia. In February 1868 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article attributing the cave’s ‘queer title’ (sometimes called ‘Old Woman’s Bonnet’ or ‘Sally’s Bonnet’) to its ‘resemblance when viewed from a distance to a gigantic but rather dingy sun-bonnet.’ Never-the-less, the overhanging rock provided excellent shelter and this, along with its beautiful and romantic position, meant that The Bonnet was well-known amongst travellers, explorers and fishermen for many years as an ideal camping spot. Indeed, the prevalence of middens found along the bay indicates that the area was well utilised by the local Indigenous population long before the British arrival of convicts and colonists.
The first recorded venture up what would later be called the Georges and Woronora Rivers was in 1789 when Captain (later Governor) John Hunter, led a party of marines in two longboats on a ten day excursion to explore Botany Bay.  On 30 September 1789, William Bradley, First Lieutenant of the First Fleet’s flagship, HMS Sirius, wrote in his journal ‘Captain Hunter returned from Botany Bay, having survey’d the Bay & taken an eye sketch of the branches.’ Bradley also records the exploration of several caves during this journey, but it is difficult to determine whether The Bonnet was one of those observed.

It was not until 1827, during the administration of Governor Darling, that Assistant Surveyor John Dixon, acting on the direction of Surveyor-General John Oxley, conducted a more comprehensive survey of the Georges and Woronora Rivers, although substantial development of the area did not come till much later. In the 1868 Sydney Morning Herald article, Jolly Under Difficulties, the author describes an adventure undertaken with seven others (including his 3 boys) in which they journeyed down these rivers aboard a sloop called the Rover’s Bride. ‘All the land on the southern side of the bay and Georges River to the Woronora, and on the eastern side of the latter river to its head, is the property of Mr Holt,' he wrote. 'Between Sans Souci and the mouth of the Woronora there are a few fishermen’s and shell-getters huts, but no residence of any pretension.' The travellers later encamped at The Bonnet and despite the torrential rain and unexpected visits from local fishermen in search of ‘eatables’ and a little ‘creature comfort’, were ‘snugly bonneted’ and found the cave ‘as dry as the staunchest house in Sydney’. Sixty years later, in 1928, another summer camp, this time organised by the St George District’s Young People’s Institute Union was held at The Bonnet ‘where a large party of girls spent a very happy time enjoying a programme’ which included ‘campfire concerts, rowing, swimming and vigaro’.

When Assistant Surveyor Dixon explored the area in 1827 he was also instructed to record the Aboriginal names of places and physical features and many, therefore, are still in use today. This includes ‘Woronora’ - although Dixon initially gave the tributary which now bares this name, ‘Wooloonara’. Bonnet Bay, however, takes its name (not surprisingly) from The Bonnet - but this was not the first choice.

In November 1967 the Sutherland Shire Council Minutes record that Councillor Skinner formally moved the motion ‘that the area of Parkes Development’s new subdivision at West Como be named Kirkby’ (after long-standing and respected Shire Clerk, David Kirkby MBE). The motion was carried and it was further resolved that the Council’s decision be referred to the Geographical Names Board. However, the following year when the GNB submitted its shortlist of proposed names from which Council could choose, Kirkby was not included.

Interestingly, along with ‘Bonnet Bay’, the Geographical Names Board also suggested four names taken from a list of Aboriginal words compiled by Captain John Hunter in the early days of the Colony and printed in E.M. Curr’s catchily titled 1886 work, The Australian race: its origin, languages, customs, place of landing in Australia and the routes by which it spread itself over the continent. Those four suggestions were: Narramee (meaning ‘a net’), Baragoola (‘flood tide’), Carraduin (‘a fishing line’) and Bangaray (‘the red kangaroo’). Sutherland Shire Council’s preference was for Bonnet Bay as this name was already widely in use. On 7 March 1969 the NSW Government Gazette reported that the small bay of the Woronora River about 1.5 km NW of Jannali was ‘this day assigned the name BONNET BAY’.

The land on which The Bonnet stands has been private property for many years and the cave, now all but engulfed by suburbia, is rather screened from view, and so this once prominent landmark, has become one of the Sutherland Shire’s hidden, though still significant, treasures.

For more historical photographs of the Sutherland Shire visit sutherlandshire.nsw.gov.au/history