How did Rocky Point Road come about?

Cooks River Dam circa 1871

Rocky Point prior to the building of the Cooks River Dam was difficult to access. One of the earliest mentions of the name is from The Australian, 30 January 1835, which reported: “Bushrangers are still at large about the Liverpool Road. They have been seen within the last two days by one or two persons in that neighbourhood, and are reported to be partially armed; the two men with two women in male attire, were last heard of as having taken up their quarters at a place called Rocky Point, down towards Georges River.”

That the Rocky Point area was on the wild side is indicated by the occasional illegal bare-knuckle prize-fight which took place, such as one in February 1843 for a purse of £200.[1] 

The NSW Government Gazette, 7 September 1839, p7 recorded Grant of Land no 597: “Trustees of Mrs Robert Cooper junior, formerly Miss Catherine Newell Rutter, one hundred acres, parish of Saint George at Rocky Point, Koggorah Bay, commencing at a marked tree north of Rocky Point; and bounded on the east by a line north 33 chains; on the north by a line west 43 chains to Townson’s or Koggorah[2] Bay; and on the west and south by that Bay and George’s River to the marked tree aforesaid.  Promised on the 25th August 1830 by Sir Ralph Darling, and possession authorised on 31st March 1831 as a marriage portion.”

Robert Cooper (1806-1848) was one of the twenty-five or more children of Robert ‘Black Bob’ Cooper (1776-1857), a wealthy emancipated convict who had extensive business interests, including a gin distillery and a brewery, and the first auctioneering business in the colony.  (The family home was Juniper Hall in Paddington, which still stands.) Cooper junior married Catherine Newell Rutter at St James’ Church, King Street, Sydney on 1 January 1830.  It is not known when he had a house built at Rocky Point, but it may have been earlier than 1840, when the dam was completed. He was subsequently referred to as Robert Cooper of Rocky Point. 

The history of Kogarah Municipality, River, Road and Rail p35-36 gives the following derivation of how Rocky Point Road came about[3]:

How that road came into being is an interesting story, a story that goes back at least to 1890[4], even if the events leading up to it have the ring of an embellished folk story.  It will be remembered that in the 1830s Robert and Catherine Cooper had settled on Catherine’s 100-acre wedding present at Rocky Point, on the tip of the Sans Souci peninsula.  For them the easiest way of getting to Sydney, once the Cooks River Dam was constructed, was to ride along the beach from Rocky Point to near the mouth of the Cooks River then strike inland through the swampland bordering the river, cross over by the dam then pick up the Newtown Road to Sydney.  This was the road taken, apparently infrequently, by Robert Cooper when he attended church at St Peters Church of England, the nearest church to the Coopers.  The Governor, Sir George Gipps, was a more frequent worshipper at St Peters and one Sunday morning after the service was over, so the story goes, he reproved Cooper for his irregular attendance at divine worship.  Personally I think Cooper deserved congratulations to have ridden the eight or nine miles and back again, even irregularly, rather than a reproof from the Governor.  Cooper explained to Gipps the difficulty he faced in attending due to the absence of a road, at which the Governor immediately authorised the cutting of a track from the dam to Cooper’s house at Rocky Point, so as to leave poor Cooper with no excuse.  The work was carried out by convicts during 1840 and those who later rode this narrow track that dodged large trees, detoured around rocky outcrops, and skirted swampland and sand, could be forgiven for not realising they were traversing what was to become one of the main thoroughfares of the district.  The road to Rocky Point, or Rocky Point Road, was more than double the length of the present road of that name.  In this history, when we use the term Rocky Point Road, we generally mean it in the original sense, of the road from Tempe to Rocky Point at Sans Souci.  Where it is used in its modern form the context should indicate this.  If the church attendance story is true, Cooper and Gipps had been responsible for laying down a road which for part of its way was to form the entire eastern boundary of the future Municipality of Kogarah.  It just goes to prove how effective attending church, or perhaps not attending church, can be.

That this is no more than an ‘embellished folk story’ should be clear after a moment’s thought.  Why would the Governor or the Government authorise a road just so that one family could attend church more easily?  Come to that, did Governor Gipps ever attend church service at St Peters at Cooks River, let alone regularly?  It would have been well out of his way; he had only been in the colony since 1838; and he would have been more likely, if not duty-bound, to attend services under Bishop Broughton at St James’ Church. Were the Cooper family at all likely to be interested in what Governor Gipps thought of them?

‘Cooper of Rocky Point’ was embroiled in insolvency proceedings in early 1848, and died of apoplexy in July 1848 at his 1280-acre property near Lake George[5].  His widow Catherine married a family friend, Thomas Chapman, and continued to live at Rocky Point.

An alternative and far more plausible explanation for the construction of the road was recorded in the proceedings of a Supreme Court report from 1850, David Hannam v Thomas Chapman and William Cooper.[6]  Hannam was the owner of a sixty-acre farm to the south of the Cooks River Dam.  He had fenced in his farm in 1847.  In 1850, Chapman and Cooper[7], making their way to Sydney from Rocky Point, had broken down some of the fences, saying they were obstructions to the public right of way.  Hannam took them to court seeking damages for trespass.  Mr Foster, for the defendants, stated: “It became desirable years since on the part of the Government to sell certain Government waste lands in the vicinity of Cooks River Dam.  Partly with this object in view, the Cooks River Dam was built. It was also suggested by the Surveyor-General to the then Governor, Sir George Gipps, that the said land would sell more profitably if the Government roads were marked out… two surveyors [Messrs Gorman and Darke] were then appointed to mark out the road in question… this road runs on to a place called Rocky Point.”  It was clear that a road had been marked out, and it was shown by a witness who had worked for surveyor Darke that some of the trees on Hannam’s farm still showed the marks of the surveyor. But while the road may have proceeded through Hannam’s farm, the defence was unable to show that it had ever been proclaimed as a public road, so the verdict went to the plaintiff, who was granted damages of £1. The case illustrated the imprecision of the road south from Cooks River Dam as there were evidently various tracks in use as well as the marked one.  Which was more likely – that the Government created the road to bring in income or to permit one man to attend church?

Research by Beverley Earnshaw has shown that Robert Cooper jr took advantage of having a convict road gang in the vicinity.[8]  He diverted some of them to work on his property; Earnshaw gives their names: William Francis, John Farrell, William Mills and Michael Aggan or Egan, who was an Irish stonemason to trade.  Egan in particular may have had a hand in constructing Rocky Point House.  A periodical of the day, The Satirist (15 April 1843 p3) had a dig at Cooper jr: ‘Rocky Point Bob had better return the other five Government road workers and not keep them at farm work.  Cooks River folks don’t like this new mode of assignment of convicts.  Sir George must know of it, Bob.’  The authorities looked into it, hauled the convicts back to Hyde Park Barracks, and that was the end of the Rocky Point Road gang.

Hannam advertised in 1851 that any persons pulling down his fences would be prosecuted, which suggests that he continued to have problems.[9]  The upkeep of Rocky Point Road later became the responsibility of a road trust, made up of landholders in the district who were affected by the state of the road. 

An 1854 painting of Rocky Point House, attributed to Charles Henry Woolcott is held by the State Library of NSW. The house was purchased by Thomas Holt, who renamed it Sans Souci, which later became the name of the suburb.

[1] See The Omnibus and Sydney Spectator 18 March 1843 for an account of one such fight.

[2] This appears to be one of the earliest references to ‘Kogarah’.

[3] Fletcher, Jim (ed) River, Road and Rail: A History of Kogarah Municipality p35-36.

[4] The story ultimately derives from an article on the history of Kogarah in The Echo, 16 October 1890 (This periodical is not available on Trove).

[5] Sydney Morning Herald 12 July 1848, p2.

[6] Sydney Morning Herald 24 June 1850, p2.

[7] Thomas Chapman was Catherine Cooper’s second husband; William Cooper was Robert junior’s younger half-brother.

[8] Earnshaw, Beverley The Land Between Two Rivers, p10-15.

[9] Sydney Morning Herald 3 June 1851, p4.

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