On the Edge of the Reef: Our Stories

My project involved working with Northern Beaches Council to assist in delivering a series of heritage and arts activation events across the Northern Beaches local area as part of a unique program entitled Our Stories: Yesterday | Today | Tomorrow. This program, the first of its kind for the Northern Beaches local area, was conceived and implemented primarily by Bethany Falzon, Arts & Cultural Development Officer at Northern Beaches Council, along with the rest of the Social Planning & Community Development team. Support and funding for Our Stories came through the NSW Government’s new Heritage Near Me program aimed at increasing community awareness of and engagement with the diverse heritage found across NSW.
Our Stories involved a series of events at three locations across the Northern Beaches local area. Specifically, I was working on the site at Fisherman’s Beach, Collaroy. Sheltered on the northern side of Long Reef headland, nestled on the foreshore behind the tidal rock platforms, sits a heritage-listed Fisherman’s Hut. The Hut is almost 150 years old and, together with a collection of now-rusted winches scattered over the grassy sand dune, the last physical reminder of a small (and illegal) fishing community that became synonymous with the area, hence the name Fisherman’s Beach. Our Stories sought to explore the unique cultural and natural history of this littorally prominent place, using art and community involvement as ways to engage with these special heritage stories. The underlying argument was one of creative heritage conservation. Whilst the Hut itself (along with the surrounding landscape and vegetation) is heritage-listed and as such afforded a certain amount of legislative protection in terms of physical alterations and/or additions to its construction, this does not necessarily entail a strictly preservationist view. Moreover, by creatively engaging with the history of the Hut, Fisherman’s Beach, and the Long Reef headland area more broadly through the medium of artistic interpretation, the story of Fisherman’s Hut becomes situated as one story of many in a rich tapestry of local history, including natural history and Aboriginal heritage stories.
When researching for the project, evidence was scant. As this fishing community was technically an illegal setup there was little in the way of formal, official documentation to consider, save for a few notes in older Warringah Council documents referring to the ‘squatters’ at Fisherman’s Beach. I spent many days trawling online databases and even a visit to the State Library of NSW. The little evidence I did find mostly consisted of photographs of Fisherman’s Beach featuring the huts and boats. A substantial body of evidence came from Tony Davis, current President of the Long Reef Fishermen’s Club, the current owner/occupiers of the Hut, in the form of a loose-leaf folder containing assorted historical items relating to the Hut, including un-archived photographs, newspaper clippings, original heritage data forms and correspondence with Club members. These items were digitally scanned and used in the historical and artistic interpretation of the site. Additional evidence came when local artists Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse conducted informal oral interviews and story-telling sessions with current members of the Fishermen’s Club. Aboriginal perspectives and stories were sourced from written and oral sources, including informal discussions with Karen Smith, Education Officer for the Northern Beaches branch of the Office of Aboriginal Heritage. Karen is from the Buruberongal clan of the Hawkesbury area and shared many stories about Aboriginal culture and heritage in the Long Reef area that helped to formulate the idea of a guided walking tour. Utilising these various sources, the project explored some complex themes including the overlap of art, history and community engagement in public forms of history and the idea of multiple historical stories existing within a single space.
The primary presentation of this public history project took the form of a community event held on 24th November 2018 at Fisherman’s Beach. This event featured a series of interpretive art installations by local artists Susan Milne and Greg Stonehouse exploring the history and heritage of the Fisherman’s Beach area and the fishing community in particular. This involved several days work prior cleaning out the hut and installing the artworks. I authored a short piece on the history and heritage of the Hut which was used as a temporary plaque mounted on the side of the Hut on the day of the event. The event also included two guided walking tours, one focusing on Aboriginal heritage stories and the other on the unique ecosystem of Long Reef headland and the tidal rock platform. Both were pre-registered tours, with 30-35 people partaking in each. In all, close to 100 people attended the event on the day either as registered participants or as ‘walk-ins’. Cursory feedback on the day was overwhelmingly positive, with many people confessing they had little knowledge of the unique cultural and natural history of this iconic Northern Beaches location – and many just admitting ‘I’ve always wondered what’s inside there’ when exploring the Hut itself. This community event helped to open up and shed light on the unique stories of Fisherman’s Beach and Long Reef.
The event having taken place, the Hut has since been returned to its former state. I spent a day finalising de-installation, moving items and general ‘stuff’ of the Fishermen’s Club back into the Hut. The ephemeral artworks are gone. The historical plaques have been removed. Now it is as if nothing ever happened at the Hut on Fisherman’s Beach. But of course that is just not true. Our Stories will linger.
History can be a lot like fishing. I know that now. You can spend an age doing nothing but looking, searching, trawling to find what you need, or what you think you need. It can be exhausting work, all the while asking those questions tinged with self-doubt and uncertainty: ‘what if I don’t catch anything? Should I just call it a day?’
In the end, it’s not really about whether or not you catch anything. As a historian working on this project, my job was never to write the definitive history of Fisherman’s Beach. No, my job as a historian wasn’t to catch a fish necessarily, but instead to ‘go fishing’, to see what I could find.
What I found on Fisherman’s Beach wasn’t at all what I expected. But I’m so glad I went fishing there.
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